For those of you who prefer to build their own PCs, sometimes you begin to wonder what you can do with the slots and ports you don’t always take advantage of. For example, we commonly run across questions involving the PCIe 1x slot on a motherboard and what it can be used for. Those longer 8x and 16x slots are mostly dedicated to your video card (or cards), but not everyone knows what they can accomplish with that shorter 1x slot. So I will run you through some of the more popular uses of that slot so that you can make the most of it.
I’ll start off with a bonus tip by pointing out that 1x cards can be used in any PCIe slot, including those 8x and 16x slots. So if all you have left is one of the longer slots, all of the below can still be accomplished using one of those slots as well. You would simply take up the portion of the slot in relation to the smaller slot. You can see this in the following video where Youtuber R3DLIN3S demonstrates how 1x and 4x card achieve this–so you can get an idea of what I am talking about.
For now though, we are going to focus on those smaller slots and some of the many ways you to make use of them while enhancing your rig with new upgrades.
Port Expansion Cards
One of the most common uses of the 1x slots are for port expansion cards where users are looking to increase the number of specific ports on their PC. Generally, this will include USB (all versions), SATA for expanding on the number of internal drives you have doing and Firewire for those still looking to make use of that connection for specialty storage devices and video tools (ie, cameras).
For example, let’s say you built your PC a few years back and the fastest USB you have is 3.0. Now you are beginning to see all of these devices pop up that take advantage of the new USB 3.1 and you want to be able to start taking advantage of these. Faster data transfer rates, quicker charging and so forth. Chances are, your motherboard won’t have a USB 3.1 header (pins) connection to directly add ports with (only the newer most recent boards are beginning to sport them). Instead, you would find a PCIe 1x card that works best for your function and budget and slap it in there. Now you have USB 3.1 and can start drooling over those new speeds.
If your board only comes with 4 SATA ports and you have 3 hard drives and two optical drives (ie, DVD burner and a Blu-ray player), you can find a PCIe 1x card to expand on those SATA ports with so you can add that extra hard drive as well as a few other things maybe (depending on the card you buy). Some of these cards also include an eSATA port on the outside for external SATA devices.
It isn’t too common anymore where you would need to expand on the sound card that is integrated into your motherboard since most of the boards today and nearly anything in the recent past include everything you need up to 7.1 digital connectivity using analog connection and/or optical SPDIF.
However, some enthusiasts prefer to have a separate source either because it might prove to be cleaner than their integrated chipset, offer strong amplification or simply sound better in general due to enhanced surround features or even a built-in DAC. Say you have a normal Realtek integrated chipset on your board and it sounds really great. However, you notice that you can only get surround when you have a surround source. It may not be able to take a stereo signal and process it into an enhanced surround delivery. In this care, you would want a dedicated sound card to pull this off with and you would look for something from a company like Soundblaster. It doesn’t have to be PCIe as you can also go USB 3.0 to an external unit somewhere, but what if you want it as a card built-in and want to fill one of those 1x slots? So you could search for the PCIe 1x sound card that fits you best and jump on enhancing your sound.
Some people however tend to flock towards external docks to keep the connections closer or separate from the back of the PC since it could also include things like MIDI connections and volume controls and so much more. This may lead you back to something like USB 3.0 or equivalent but some of the PCIe cards also include the option of tethering an external dock to the back of the card as well.
These dedicated cards usually feature all sorts of things such as the various formats of Dolby and DTS sound, DSP features, multiple input and output opportunities (both analog and digital), stronger processing using faster more reliable (and cleaner) chipsets and so forth.
Modems, Network Cards (wired and wireless)
Another common use for that 1x slot is to expand on your network or phone capabilities by adding these ports through this method. If your motherboard doesn’t have an RJ11 jack with a built-in modem (which most of today’s motherboards won’t) and you need one badly, you can do so with PCIe. Given, most people could care less about a phone jack on their PC anymore–however, some may still be looking to use their PC as a fax machine since people still use this method for communication for some reason.
So let’s take a look at your motherboard’s ethernet. What if it doesn’t have ethernet integrated into the back of the board? Today, this is quite unlikely, but maybe the integrated ethernet adapter it shotty and doesn’t perform to your expectations. Maybe you prefer to have an ethernet card by Bigfoot Networks or simply anything but the one built into your board. Or, you want to add WiFi to your system because running a physical cable to it just isn’t convenient for you. Then you could look for a PCIe network or WiFi card for your system and add it via one of those slots. A lot of the ethernet cards are quite affordable running less than $40, while a lot of the WiFi cards can run similar to a little more if you are looking for killer performance. For the higher performance options, you may expect to spend anywhere between $50-$150 depending on how serious you are.
You can always throw a TV Tuner card in there so you can watch live TV on your PC. Especially good if you have a multi-monitor setup or want to use your PC as a feature rich DVR. This is definitely a specialized want vs a need in most cases, but sometimes this is a valuable option for users.
Let’s take that TV Tuner option one more level with a complete video capture card! Expand past just TV and consider any video source such as a camera or other external device like the DVD player connected to your TV. Maybe you want to convert all of your old family VHS tapes (remember those?) to digital files? With a video capture card, you can pull all of this off with. Certain cards come with different features, with almost all of them offering your basic analog RCA connections in one form or another.
With the newer models, you now have HDMI as well. In some cases you can even buy adapters to adapt HDMI to just about anything you want. Typically, either you can find a card or an adapter to accomplish what you need to capture, let it be digital or analog, RCA, HDMI, SDI, DisplayPort, SVGA and so forth.
Of course, you could always opt to use a video card in one of those smaller slots. However, you can expect very little performance compared to an 8x or 16x slot–32x is also starting to make its debut into the world. Some motherboards may only offer the 1x flavor of PCIe, in which case it may be your best bet. PCIe 1x is faster than regular PCI but it won’t compare to anything 8x and higher. Unless it is just a test system running in the corner for basic input needs, you would be better off upgrading to a new board or tower vs using 1x for your main video output card.
So there you have it! Some of the many uses of a PCIe 1x slot on your motherboard. You may find yourself jumping at the opportunity to fill them up or simply ignoring them and moving on. It depends on the level of user you are. Most people find themselves leaning on them for expanded ports as mentioned. Different needs for different people.
How about you? What do you use (or foresee yourself using) those PCIe slots for? Feel free to share your own setups or plans below. We would love to hear from you. Happy building!