How to Upgrade Your Computer to USB 3.0

Whether you’re sporting an older computer without a single USB 3.0 port or you’d like to expand and improve the roster of USB 3.0 ports on your newer computer, we’re here to help. Read on as we outline how to pack in all the USB goodness you crave with back, front, and case ports.

Why Do I Want To Do This?

If you already have a USB 3.0 port or two on your computer, you can pretty much skip this section: you already know how great USB 3.0 is and you’re here for more. If you’re thinking about upgrading an older computer to support USB 3.0 you might not realize just how many improvements USB 3.0 offers over USB 2.0.

The most obvious benefit is the increase in speed. The maximum theoretical speed of USB 3.0 is ten times faster than USB 2.0. Even when USB 3.0 connections don’t hit the theoretical limit they are still staggeringly faster than USB 2.0 connections. During the disk cloning process we employed in our article How to Upgrade Your Existing Hard Drive in Under an Hour, for example, we were able to clone a 120GB SSD over a USB 3.0 connection in a mere 15 minutes but the same clone process over a USB 2.0 connection took around an hour. Same hardware, same disk size, different USB ports and standards.

In addition to significantly increasing the speed, the USB 3.0 standard introduced better bandwidth management (USB 3.0 devices and connections use two omnidirectional paths instead of the one-way communication available with USB 2.0), better power management, improved bus utilization (which translates to faster at-ready times when new devices are added to the host computer), among other minor but welcome improvements.

Note: This tutorial will cover the upgrade process for desktop computers. This tutorial will not cover the upgrade process for laptop computers as laptops are difficult to upgrade to USB 3.0. While there are, in fact, USB 3.0 expansion cards for laptops with expansion card slots, those cards perform poorly, consume large amounts of power, and are generally not worth the hassle.

If you have a laptop that has a USB 3.0 port or two and you wish to expand upon that we would encourage you to check out The HTG Guide to Purchasing the Perfect USB Hub for Your Needs. The external powered USB 3.0 hubs found therein are an excellent way to expand the port capacity of a USB 3.0 capable laptop.

What Do I Need?

Normally we have a cut and dry list of the hardware you need for a given tutorial. This tutorial is slightly different in that there are several ways you can go about upgrading computers both old and new to support USB 3.0. Rather than list off every potential combination of hardware add-ons and their permutations, we’re going to highlight two very common upgrade paths.

For the purposes of this guide we upgraded two computers with several different USB 3.0 related upgrades to showcase the different upgrade paths you can take. Depending on your needs you can mix and match the hardware we used in the two machines to achieve your desired outcome.

The first computer has a dated motherboard (purchased in mid-2006) that has neither USB 3.0 ports on the back port panel nor USB 3.0 pin headers on the board itself. The second computer has a modern motherboard (purchased in late 2013) that features both USB 3.0 ports on the back port panel as well as USB 3.0 pin headers on the motherboard to support USB 3.0 ports on the front of the case and/or via expansion bay hubs.

Here are the hardware components we used in the process of upgrading both computers.

The first two pieces of hardware are expansion cards that must be inserted into an open PCI-E slot in your computer to function. The third item in the list is a bay expansion that allows you to turn an unused 5.25″ drive bay into a USB hub and media card reader.

There are two important considerations when purchasing a USB 3.0 expansion card. Let’s take a moment to look at the hardware specifics to ensure you pick the right card for your needs.

First, you always want to purchase a card that includes a power connector of some sort (some cards have an older molex 4-pin power jack and typically come with a molex-to-SATA adapter and some have a SATA power adapter onboard). You should never purchase a USB 3.0 expansion card that lacks a power adapter as the PCI expansion slot cannot supply enough power to meet the demands of a fully loaded USB 3.0 card. In the photograph below you can see the molex power port, the 4-pin/milky white port on the right, on the HooToo-PC002.

Second, if you need to connect the USB 3.0 ports on your case or on any sort of bay expansion (like the Rosewill model listed here) you will either need a free header on your motherboard or you will need a USB card with a 19-pin header that can accept an internal USB 3.0 male cable. Again, referencing the above photo, you can see the header in blue on the left hand side.

Now let’s take a look at the actual process to highlight when you would want to use each piece of hardware by walking you through the upgrade process for the two computers.

Upgrading an Older Computer

The first computer we’re upgrading is an old machine that’s still going strong. We recently transplanted the motherboard from it’s original case (a media center PC case) into a new mid-tower case. The new case sports a USB 3.0 port built right into the front port panel but, alas, the circa-2006 motherboard doesn’t support USB 3.0 and has no 19-pin header for the case cable to plug into.

That should come as no surprise as the motherboard precedes the first USB 3.0 compliant motherboards by roughly four years. The board, as you’d expect, also lacks any rear USB 3.0 ports (and doesn’t have very many USB 2.0 ports for that matter) which makes it a perfect candidate for a USB expansion card with a 19-pin header. If you have a computer with an older motherboard but a newer case with USB 3.0 ports, an expansion card with a header port, like the HooToo HT-PC002, is a must if you ever want to get that case port up and running.

Card in hand it’s time to crack open the case and get to work. The photograph above shows the empty PCI-E slot we’ll use for the new card. Installing a new PCI card is one of the easiest computer upgrade tasks this side of plugging in a new stick of RAM, but you still need to handle everything carefully. Make sure to follow basic electrostatic safety guidelines like wearing rubber soled shoes on a non-conductive surface (wool socks and a shag rug is a bad idea), keep the computer case plugged into a grounded outlet (but turned off) so that you can use the case itself as a grounded discharge point for any charge on your body, and leave the card in the electrostatic shipping bag until you’ve grounded yourself and you’re ready to install it.

Installation is a breeze. Remove the slot guard from the case (the perforated piece of metal that protects the opening when a card is not inserted; seen white and at left in the image above). Gently insert the expansion card and secure the metal bracket to the case with the same screw that previously held in the slot guard. Plug in the power cable and the internal USB 3.0 male cable. The resulting configuration should look like this.

Close the case and boot up the computer. USB expansion cards with pin headers on them almost always require additional drivers to interface with the motherboard. Load the drivers from the included CD or download them from the manufacturer’s website to complete the installation process.

Your older motherboard now sports USB 3.0 ports on the back and interfaces with any USB 3.0 ports on the case via the header on the USB card.

Expanding a Newer Computer

In the previous section we added USB 3.0 functionality to a computer that had no capacity for USB 3.0. In this section we’re expanding the USB 3.0 capabilities of a computer that already has USB 3.0 support. The motherboard in our second computer is a late 2013 gaming-oriented motherboard that has both USB 3.0 ports on the back and a USB 3.0 header on the board.

The upgrade path on this particular machine is focused on adding even more USB 3.0 ports to the back as well as expanding the functionality of the case by replacing an old USB 2.0 hub/card reader (seen in the photo above) with a front drive bay with a new USB 3.0 reader.

Just like in the previous section you’ll need to open the case, locate an empty PCI-E slot, and, of course, obey the same rules for protecting your computer from electrostatic discharge. As the PCI-E slot and the process for insertion is identical, you may reference the photos in the previous section.

Unlike the previous card, however, the HooToo HT-PC001 does not have an onboard pin header for an internal USB 3.0 cable; you’ll only be required to hook up a single cable, the molex power cable, to the card.

Instead we’ll plug the USB cable from the Rosewill hub directly into the motherboard, as seen in the photo above. In addition to plugging in the USB 3.0 cable, the Rosewill hub also has USB 2.0 ports and an eSATA port. The cable for the eSATA port can be plugged into a regular SATA port on your motherboard (if you have a port to spare) and allows you to hook up HDD docks and some external hard drives directly to your hub for SATA-speed transfers. The USB 2.0 cable simply needs to be inserted into a USB 2.0 header on your motherboard; USB 2.0 ports are 9-pin ports that look like the smaller sibling of the 19-pin port we just plugged the USB 3.0 cable into.

Once all the appropriate ports have been hooked up, it’s time to put the case back together and admire our handy work.

The old dying USB 2.0 hub is gone, the new one is installed, and we have an extra 4 ports on the back of the machine. Not a bad return on less than ten minutes worth of time and under $50 in parts.

Unlike the previous upgrade where we installed a new USB 3.0 host, this time around we simply added more USB 3.0 functionality to a machine that already had it; no driver installation needed.

That’s all there is to it! The hardest part of the entire USB 3.0 upgrade process is simply taking the time to figure out what hardware you need. You’ll spend more time checking the specs on your motherboard and selecting the appropriate hardware than you will actually installing the expansion card and/or USB 3.0 hub in your machine.

Jason Fitzpatrick is a warranty-voiding DIYer who spends his days cracking opening cases and wrestling with code so you don't have to. If it can be modded, optimized, repurposed, or torn apart for fun he's interested (and probably already at the workbench taking it apart). You can follow him on if you'd like.