Knowing the number of PCIe lanes your GPU uses always comes in handy. With fewer lanes, your graphics card will show significant bottlenecks in performance, while you risk wasting money if you opt for more lanes than you need. Ultimately, the amount of PCIe lanes your graphics card requires depends on the type of work you want to do with it and the brand of GPU you use.
A GPU requires 16 lanes for best results, especially when it runs the most graphically demanding programs. Most graphics cards of recent PCIe generations can perform optimally with at least 8 PCIe lanes for gaming and rendering applications. Occasionally, graphics cards can work on 4 PCIe lanes, but with a significant performance drop.
Before diving into the number of PCIe lanes a GPU uses, we will summarize the Peripheral Component Interconnect Express (PCIe) lanes and differentiate between PCIe lanes and PCIe slots. Then, we will explain the PCIe generations available and their corresponding bandwidth.
What Are PCIe Lanes?
The Peripheral Component Interconnect Express (PCIe) lanes are the highway through which a PCIe device, such as the graphics card, Solid-State drive, or Wi-Fi network card, is connected to the motherboard of a computer. A PCIe lane contains two pairs of copper wires; one for sending data from the expansion cards to the CPU and the other for receiving data.
In simple terms, you can compare the PCIe lanes to the multi-lane road networks, where the busiest areas require the most lanes to handle the volume of cars plying that route. The graphics card is the most demanding PCIe device and usually requires the highest number of lanes available to run graphically intensive games.
While a weaker expansion card like the Wi-Fi network card can use just one lane, graphics cards demand a lot of data and usually work best on 16 lanes.
Differentiating Between PCIe Slots and PCIe Lanes
You’ve probably heard of the x1, x2, x4, x8, and x16 PCIe configurations. These are the PCIe slot configurations, representing the physical size of the PCIe connector on the motherboard.
The number of PCIe lanes available usually determines the speed of any slot. The number of available lanes is written in similar configurations to the slot (1, 2, 4, 8, 16).
Most people confuse the slot configuration terms to represent the number of lanes, believing that an x16 PCIe slot must have 16 lanes. This is not always the case. The slot size doesn’t always correspond to the lane count. You can come across an x16 slot that only has 8 lanes.
How Many PCIe Lanes Does a GPU Require?
Due to the large amounts of graphical data that modern games and graphically-intensive programs require, the graphics card needs the largest bandwidth and the fastest data transfer rates out of all the expansion cards available.
And since an increase in the number of lanes represents an increase in the bandwidth, your GPU should occupy the slot on the motherboard with the highest number of lanes. Programs and applications like machine learning, video editing, modern games, etc., demand much graphical processing.
Because of this, the graphics card should be connected to the PCIe x16 slot with the highest number of lanes (16) and bandwidth. This does not mean your graphics card cannot work optimally in a PCIe x8 slot with 8 lanes. The bandwidth supplied in an 8-lane PCIe is often enough to process even the most demanding tasks, especially if the PCIe generation is recent.
But for older generations, the 8-lane PCIe might not be sufficient for the most demanding programs, but it can still work well with a reduced workload. You can also connect your graphics card to the 4-lane PCIe x4 slot, but you will witness a significant drop in performance.
In summary, the minimum recommended amount of PCIe lanes for most GPUs to operate at their best performance while running games and graphically-intensive programs is 8. However, the bandwidth of PCIe connectors increases linearly with the number of PCIe lanes. Therefore, connect your graphics card to the slot with 16 lanes for the best results.
PCIe Generations and Their Bandwidth
There are five generations of PCI Express: PCIe 1.0, PCIe 2.0, PCIe 3.0, PCIe 4.0, and PCIe 5.0. The trend has shown that the bandwidth doubles with each generation. PCIe 1.0 has a bandwidth of 8 GB per second (GB/s) and a data transfer rate of 2.5 gigatransfer per second (GT/s), operating at a frequency of 2.5 GHz.
The second generation PCIe doubled the previous bandwidth with a value of 16 GB/s and a transfer rate of 5.0 GT/s operating at a frequency of 5 GHz. PCIe 3.0 has a bandwidth of 32 GB/s and a transfer rate of 8 GT/s operating at a frequency of 8 GHz. PCIe 4.0 was launched in 2017 with a bandwidth of 64 GB/s and a transfer rate of 16 GT/s operating at a frequency of 16 GHz.
The PCIe 5.0 standard, officially debuted in May 2019, brought 128 GB/s of throughput and a transfer rate of 32 GT/s operating at a frequency of 32 GHz.
Most PCIe generations are backward compatible, meaning the latest devices can work with previous-generation PCIe devices. However, your PCIe card will only run at the lowest generation available. This means that while you insert a PCIe 4.0 card in a PCIe 5.0 slot, you will only get a PCIe 4.0 performance.
To avoid performance bottlenecks, connect your graphics card to the slot with 16 lanes. It’s better to have something and not need it than to need something and not have it.