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Real-Life Professor Farnsworth from Futurama! Everything you need to know about modern PCI Express and Thunderbolt’s bandwidth potential and limits when building your next PC.

We are in the future! It is time to continue our scintillating look at interfaces, and the bandwidth limitations thereof. This week, we cast our gazes on PCI Express and Thunderbolt. First, PCI Express: what exactly does it mean when you have a PCIe 2.

And does it make a difference whether your connection is x8 or x16? PCI Express is a little confusing. A PCIe connection consists of one or more data-transmission lanes, connected serially.

Each lane consists of two pairs of wires, one for receiving and one for transmitting. You can have one, four, eight, or sixteen lanes in a single consumer PCIe slot–denoted as x1, x4, x8, or x16. Each lane is an independent connection between the PCI controller and the expansion card, and bandwidth scales linearly, so an eight-lane connection will have twice the bandwidth of a four-lane connection.

This helps avoid bottlenecks between, say, the CPU and the graphics card. If you need more bandwidth, just use more lanes. There are several different physical connections, each of which can function electrically as a slot with a lower number of lanes and can accommodate a physically smaller card as well.

A physical PCIe x16 slot can accommodate a x1, x4, x8, or x16 card, and can run a x16 card at x16, x8, x4, or x1. A PCIe x4 slot can accommodate a x1 or x4 card but cannot fit a x16 card. And finally, there are several different versions of the PCIe interface, each with different bandwidth limitations, and many modern motherboards have PCIe slots of different physical sizes and also different PCIe generations.