With the release of Intel’s Alder Lake CPUs, and the looming release of AMD’s 7000 Ryzen CPUs, PCIe 5.0 hardware is finally a reality. But what is PCIe 5.0, and should you rush out to buy a PCIe 5.0 motherboard?
What Is PCIe?
PCIe is shorthand for Peripheral Component Interconnect Express. PCIe is a standard that allows peripheral devices to attach to the motherboard and communicate with your central processing unit (CPU). The PCIe standard has been published by the PCI Special Interest Group (PCI-SIG) since 2003 with the announcement of the first PCIe standard.
The PCIe standard was originally developed to replace a number of older standards, like PCI, PCI-X, and APG. It needed to have great performance, and it needed to be versatile and compact. PCI-SIG has also chosen to make the PCIe standard as backward compatible as possible.
That means that you can reasonably expect a PCIe 2.0 device from 2008 to work with a motherboard that has PCIe 5.0 slots in it. That is great news if you have older peripherals that don’t have modern equivalents or still meet your needs. Whether or not drivers written for Windows XP or Vista will work on Windows 10 or 11 is another matter entirely.
What is PCIe Used For?
The PCIe interface is usually used to connect high-performance peripherals to your computer. The most common example is a graphics processing unit (GPU) since modern games, scientific, engineering, and machine learning applications involve crunching through enormous amounts of data.
GPUs aren’t the only thing you can plug into a PCIe connector: Network adapter cards, sound cards, M.2 PCIe adapters, USB expansion cards, SATA expansion cards, and countless other devices can all use the PCIe interface. If something plugs into the inside of your computer and it isn’t RAM or a hard drive, it almost definitely uses PCIe.
Obviously, not all of these devices are the same size, nor do they have the same bandwidth requirements. To account for that, there are multiple variants of the physical PCIe connector.
What are PCIe Lanes, and What Do x1, x4, x8, and x16 Mean?
You’ll hear the physical PCIe interfaces on your motherboard referred to as PCIe slots, connectors, or ports.
Those ports are usually sorted according to how many lanes are available, and the number of lanes determines the total bandwidth the port support. The PCIe 5.0 standard calls for transfer speeds of 8 gigabytes per second (GB/s) per lane.
Note: The total bandwidth of a lane is split between sending and receiving data. So a single lane with a bandwidth of 8 GB/s can send 4 GB/s and receive 4 GB/s simultaneously.
When you see something like “PCIe 5.0 x1” written on a product, it tells you that the product uses PCIe 5.0, and it has a single PCIe lane available. When you see “PCIe 5.0 x16” it tells you that there are 16 of total PCIe 5.0 lanes available, corresponding to a total bandwidth of 128 GB/s.
Typically, x1, x4, x8, and x16 PCIe ports are different sizes, with PCIe x16 being the largest and PCIe x1 being the smallest.
Hardware that plugs into those ports are sized accordingly. The most demanding peripherals, like GPUs, are designed to use a full x16 port, whereas things like sound cards typically use x1 or x4 ports.
It is pretty common to see x1, x4, and x16 PCIe ports on regular consumer motherboards. Typically a motherboard that has an x8 port will use a port that has the same physical size as an x16 connection, but the bandwidth will be limited to the speed of an x8 port. It is important to note that smaller PCIe connectors can always go into larger ports — if you have a network interface card that uses a PCIe x4 port, you can plug it into any PCIe x8 or PCIe x16 port.
Besides the regular PCIe ports, there is one noteworthy outlier: the M.2 slot. The M.2 port is the standard for high-speed NVMe solid-state drives (SSDs). M.2 isn’t physically compatible with standard PCIe ports, but it uses a PCIe x4 connection.
What Is Different About PCIe 5.0?
The single most important feature about PCIe 5.0 — and the one that everyone will care about — is speed. PCIe 5.0 is twice as fast PCIe 4.0.
|x1 Max Unidirectional Bandwidth||x16 Max Unidirectional Bandwidth||Maximum Bidirectional Bandwidth|
|PCIe 1.0||250 MB/s||4GB/s||8 GB/s|
|PCIe 2.0||500 MB/s||8 GB/s||16 GB/s|
|PCIe 3.0||1 GB/s||16 GB/s||32 GB/s|
|PCIe 4.0||2 GB/s||32 GB/s||64 GB/s|
|PCIe 5.0||4 GB/s||64 GB/s||128 GB/s|
High-speed M.2 NVMe drives utilize a PCIe x4 connection. That means NVMe drives that support PCIe 5.0 speeds have read and write speeds of close to 16 GB/s. For context, regular SATA SSDs top out at about 550 megabytes per second (MB/s). PCIe 5.0 NVMe drives — when they arrive — promise to be about 30x faster. Loading times will be a thing of the past.
Nearly everyone gets something from the latest iteration of the PCIe standard, but people and organizations dealing with “Big Data” will probably be the happiest beneficiaries. Data centers that run services like Facebook, Google, and other large services deal with unimaginable amounts of data, and they’ll be able to squeeze every last bit of performance out of PCIe 5.0 interfaces. Scientific and engineering applications will certainly benefit from the increased bandwidth too.
What Does PCIe 5.0 Mean For Consumers?
As of the time of writing, August 2022, not much.
There are precious few PCIe 5.0 devices available currently, and none of them are aimed at regular consumers or even enthusiasts. NVIDIA is expected to stick with PCIe 4.0 for its much-anticipated RTX 4000 series GPUs, and it isn’t clear that AMD’s Radeon RX 7000 series GPUs will implement a PCIe 5.0 interface either. There are no consumer solid-state drives that are designed with the PCIe 5.0 standard available. There are only a handful of enterprise options, like Samsung’s PM1743.
Going forward, that will definitely change — even if AMD’s Radeon RX 7000 series and NVIDIA’s RTX 4000 series GPUs don’t use PCIe 5.0, whatever succeeds them certainly will. Consumer solid-state drives that implement PCIe 5.0 have been spotted, so they’re probably not far off.
Does the impending availability of PCIe 5.0 devices mean you should rush out and buy a brand new Alder Lake, Raptor Lake, or Zen 4 CPU and corresponding motherboard just for PCIe 5.0 compatibility? That depends — if you’re willing to pay the premium to be an early adopter of PCIe 5.0 hardware and you can actually use it, then PCIe 5.0 will be a welcome jump in performance. If you’re due for an upgrade anyway, then there is definitely no harm in getting something with PCIe 5.0 included.
However, PCIe 5.0 devices probably won’t be the norm for a few more years, by which time both Intel and AMD will likely have released a new, faster generation of CPUs. If you’re not champing at the bit for the absolute latest and greatest—or don’t otherwise need an upgrade—you’re better off putting the money aside and waiting until there are more PCIe 5.0 devices on the market.
In the meantime, the PCIe 6.0 standard has already been defined. In the world of PC hardware, there’s always something newer and better on the horizon.