Peripheral component interconnect express (PCIe) 4.0 was announced in 2017, but products that support this standard officially hit the shelves this year. As with many technology upgrades, you may be wondering, “Do I need PCIe 4.0?” Considering that both the transfer rate and bandwidth doubled between PCIe 3.0 and PCIe 4.0, you’ll probably want to give the new standard a look, especially since we’re finally seeing PCIe 4.0 support from chip vendors.

What is PCIe?

At its most basic, PCIe is an interface that lets you connect high speed components, such as add-on chips, memory, graphics cards and storage, to your motherboard. They are available in five different types of cards that fit into the motherboard: x1, x2, x4, x8 and x16.

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These designations indicate that the cards have a corresponding number of slots that function as lanes for data to travel to and from the peripheral. One side of the lane sends data, and the other side receives it. If your PCIe interface is a PCIe 4.0 x8, that means it can handle PCIe 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 and 4.0 devices with up to eight different lanes. You’ll be able to do more with less in this case, since a PCIe 4.0 x8 slot can handle almost exactly what a PCIe 3.0 x16 slot can currently.

Another nice aspect of PCIe devices is that they’re backward and downward compatible, so a PCIe 2.0 x2 will still work with a PCIe 4.0 x8 interface. Likewise, you can put a PCIe 4.0 device into a PCIe 3.0 slot and it will work — albeit at PCIe 3.0 speeds.

What’s the difference between PCIe 3.0 and PCIe 4.0?

The biggest change between PCIe 3.0 and PCIe 4.0 is the data transfer rate, or throughput. PCIe 3.0’s throughput is 1GB per second per lane for an overall data transfer rate or bandwidth of up to 32 GB/s total. PCIe 4.0 doubles the 3.0 throughput rate per lane, giving users a transfer rate of up to 64 GB/s.

Why does this matter? The faster the throughput, the better performance you’ll see from peripherals such as solid state drives (SSDs). A recent PC Gamer story heaped the highest praise on the standard, saying, “If you want the absolute fastest drives available, then PCIe 4.0 SSDs are the way to go. They’re quicker than any PCIe 3.0 drive and will make large file transfers for such things as video editing lightning fast.”

If you’re looking to use a lot of cloud-based resources or are doing input/output-intensive work with local applications, you’re going to have better performance with PCIe 4.0 than you would with a 3.0 interface.

Do I need PCIe 4.0?

SSDs that utilize a PCIe 4.0 interface will load applications and games more quickly, and if your operating system is installed on one, you’ll see boot rates go up, too. The Samsung 980 PRO SSD, which features PCIe 4.0, is the preferred storage device of MAINGEAR, which manufactures custom gaming rigs that require fast load times to support high-graphic games with as little latency as possible.

Speed aside, PCIe 4.0 consumes less energy, which means the devices run cooler. This translates into a quieter device, too. In addition, PCIe 4.0 is perfect for the data-intensive workloads of today. Investing in the new standard can also help you lay the groundwork for the future, since we’re really only at the beginning of 4.0 development.

It wasn’t until recently that vendors started developing and releasing drives and peripherals that take advantage of the PCIe 4.0 standard. However, with the emergence of more products that tap the new standard, making the choice between the decade-old PCIe 3.0 standard and 4.0 is almost a no-brainer.

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Karen Bannan

Karen J. Bannan is a veteran business, health, lifestyle and technology journalist with a wide range of publishing experience. Her tech and business work has appeared in Forbes, BusinessWeek Online, Adweek, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, MyBusiness Magazine, Government Computer News, Workforce Management, CFO, AdWeek, Crain's New York and Crain's BtoB.

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