How do I upgrade to USB 3.0?

So you want to use the power and speed of USB 3.0 on your computer or laptop?

Upgrading isn’t that hard and even better it’s not that costly. Most cards are below $35 and are easy to install. There are several options to upgrade but before running out and buying a USB 3.0 PCI card you need to check a few things.



Most computers or laptops that are only a couple of years old are ideal candidates to be upgraded, although older computers may still be compatible.

Use the simple and easy guide to help you to change to USB 3.0 by using the menu on the side.

Can my desktop computer be upgraded to USB 3.0?

If you have a desktop computer it will contain what are known as expansion slots, these are used to upgrade your computer with new components.

The expansion slots vary in size and are called Peripheral Component Interfaces. PCI slots provide smaller transfer speeds and are more common in older computers.

Newer computers come equipped with PCI Express (PCIe) slots which allow very fast data transfers.

Depending on the size of your computers you may have 2 available slots or as much as over 4 slots on bigger desktop machines.



There are 2 ways to find out which slots you may have in your computer:

  • The computers manual (either the paper one that came with the pc or the online version)
  • By opening your computer’s case and checking the slots (see below)

Open your computer case and check your motherboard to see which slots are available:

Inserting a USB 3.0 card into one of these slots will upgrade your computer to USB 3.0.



There are variations in these slots, but all cards will fit into one of these slots. Older computers only support PCI cards but newer ones support PCIe cards.

Most cards are PCIe 1x cards and use one channel on the computers bus. This means that all ports on the card share one highway on the computers bus and share bandwith. So speeds reduce when more than one USB device is plugged in simultaneously.



If you are looking for dedicated bandwith, the startech 2 port PCIe card uses x2 lanes on the computers bus and is able to provide up to 5Gbps per USB 3.0 port. Excellent for transferring data between 2 devices simultaneously.

There is also a x4 lane version that offers 5Gbps at the same time for 4 ports – amazing performance, especially for servers.

PCI and PCI Express (PCIe) USB 3.0 cards

There are two types of expansion slots on computers, PCI and PCI Express (PCIe). Both slots accept USB 3.0 cards and can be used to add USB 3.0 ports.


PCI expansion slots

A USB 3.0 expansion card can be inserted into this PCI slot.

These are older slots that do not support the full 4800 Mb/s superspeed connection. They do however support up to 2000 Mb/s.

 

That’s still over 4 times the speed of USB 2.0! If your computer only has these slots you can still upgrade to USB 3.0.

 

These cards come with low height and full height brackets making them compatible with all size computers. The sata port means that even high power USB devices will work.

 

This 2 port card from StarTech features sata power, both brackets and is an economical way to add USB 3.0 to your computer.



PCI Express (also known as PCIe) expansion slots

PCIe slots support the full USB 3.0 speed.

These are the most common slots on newer motherboards manufactured in the last couple of years. These expansion slots come in different sizes; x1, x4, x8 and x16. The bigger sizes are intended for components like graphics cards because they require more data channels.

The good news is that the majority of USB 3.0 PCIe cards are of the x1 size, which means that it can slot into ALL PCIe slots, no matter the size. In other words a x1 card can fit into a x4, x8 and x16 expansion slot.

The USB 3.0 PCI-E Card Inateck featured in the video also comes in a 5 port version.

The Anker PCIe card is a best seller and adds USB 3.0 ports to your computer.

If you want maximum speed with multiple devices plugged in at the same time, this Startech PCI Express with dedicated bus channels is an excellent choice.


Check what version of PCIe slot your motherboard supports

The original PCIe version was v1.0 and this does not support the new USB 3.0 speeds. Therefore make sure your motherboard supports PCIe version 2.0 and above. You can find this out by checking the documentation online for your computer’s motherboard. Sometimes the version is written on the motherboard next to the expansion slot.

Other points to note:

Some new usb 3 pci cards require power from your computers power supply. See the different power cables you may need here.

Check here to see the different sized brackets for the form factor size of your computer.

 

Different size computers

The size of a desktop computer varies and generally come in two categories: towers and small form factors (SFF).



Tower computers have more empty space inside them to accommodate future upgrades, whereas SFF computers are designed to be compact and so have less free space inside.

In order to fit a USB 3.0 PCI card into your computer you need to make you you get the right size bracket.

The sizes are 12cm and 8cm.

For tower computers you will need a full or standard size bracket (also known as full or standard profile).

For small form factor computers you will need a low or half-height size bracket (also known as low or  half-height profile).


Full desktop tower or mid tower computers

If you have a full desktop tower or mid tower computer a standard profile bracket card will fit.

SFF computers

If you have a small form factor pc you will need to check that the card includes a low profile bracket to fit your smaller computer case.

Both these cards include full and low profile brackets and so can fit in both SFF and full desktop computers:
– USB 3.0 PCI Card
– USB 3.0 PCIe Card

The 2 sized brackets are interchangeable and are fitted in the same way.

Check you have a spare power cable

In order to get all devices to work correctly on your USB 3.0 card, it’s a good idea to plug in the optional power.

Molex or Floppy?

Computer power supplies normally have extra connectors in case you ever need to upgrade your computer.

In order to deliver enough power to a USB 3.0 PCI and PCIe card you will need to plug in a spare power connector from your computer power supply. Some USB 3.0 PCI and PCIe cards require a Molex power connector or a floppy power connector.


No spare power connector on your computer power supply?

A Molex power splitter plugs into one that is already in use and splits the connection into two.

No floppy power connector on your computer power supply?

You can use this convertor to change the Molex connector to a 4 pin floppy power connector.

Does your computer power supply only have sata power connectors?

You can use this converter to change the Sata connector to a Molex connector.

 

Upgrade your laptop using a USB 3.0 ExpressCard

Most older laptops have a way to add extra hardware functionality to them quite easily through expansion slots known as PCI ExpressCard. The laptop generally has a slot on the side where a usb 3.0 expresscard can be inserted into it.



What is a ExpressCard slot?

The ExpressCard slot replaced the old PCMCIA interface and first started appearing in laptops in about 2007.

The ExpressCard slot interfaces directly with the laptop’s PCIe lane on the motherboard which is capable of transferring speeds of up to 5 Gbps.

The PCIe lane on a laptop is connected to the system board bus which connects the hardware in your laptop together so that components can communicate as data is sent back and forth.

Data is sent simultaneously in both directions and at full duplex. This high speed data transfer between the laptop bus and the express card allows any card slotted into it, to effectively become part of your laptop.

The purpose of the expansion slot is to allow you to add extra hardware to your laptop by merely sliding a compatible card into it. It’s a simple way to add wireless functionality to an old laptop for example or even a graphics upgrade using a graphics express card.

The full speed of USB 3.0 is supported and a expresscard usb 3.0 can effortlessly be added to your laptop.


Does your laptop have a ExpressCard slot?

Find out if your laptop has a ExpressCard slot.

Check your laptop for an empty slot on either side; typically there is a plastic placeholder that needs to be removed (it is there to prevent damage to the laptop when the slot is empty). The push button next to the side of the slot extends out when pushed in.

The extended arm is pushed in again to release the plastic placeholder. The placeholder can now be removed. Ensure the arm is pushed in fully until it clicks into place before slotting in the new card.



There are 2 different versions of the ExpressCard interface and although both are compatible with USB 3.0, they run at different speeds.

  • ExpressCard 1.0 supports up to 2.5 Gbps
  • ExpressCard 2.0 supports up to the full USB 3.0 speed of 5 Gbps.

If you add usb 3.0 to laptop with ExpressCard version 1.0 you will still benefit from faster speeds. This is because your USB 3.0 devices will still be 5 times quicker than USB 2.0.

It is difficult to predict which laptops have which version of express card because of the numerous different laptop models out there. The best way to find out is to check the manufacturers website or the documentation that accompanied the laptop.


ExpressCard 34 USB 3.0 and ExpressCard 54 USB 3.0

Before deciding to upgrade your laptop to USB 3.0 the width of the slot should be checked to find out which card will fit. The size of expansion slot will depend on the dimensions of your laptop; Expresscard34 (34mm wide slot) and Expresscard54 (54mm wide slot).

The expansion slots may be different in width but they are the same length and both slots accept the same 26 pin connector to interface with the system board. The usb 3.0 expresscard 34 is a rectangular shaped card and the usb 3.0 expresscard 54 is a L shaped card.

Express cards have 2 different form factors.

 

The 34mm wide card can also be used in a 54mm slot with a special bracket and is usually included with the card.

Power Considerations

USB 3.0 devices that do not require an external power adapter are called bus powered devices. They get their power from the laptop’s system bus making them highly portable but can cause some problems with laptop express cards.

The power that a USB drive can get is limited by the power the express card can get from the system bus. Manufacturers have overcome this limitation of the ExpressCard design by adding DC power jacks to the expansion cards.

The max power output of USB 3.0 is 900mA and these optional jacks can be used to make sure there is enough power to devices; especially if 2 drives are plugged in.


Keeping your laptop mobile

Extra Power when needed.

Early expresscard 34 usb 3.0 adapters were quite bulky and stuck out of the side of the laptop.

These cards can still be purchased and are a good solution for those who do not intend moving their laptop around too much. They also have the option to add more power for drives that need it.

Newer cards both the 34mm and 54mm variety, come in a flush mount usb 3.0 option. These cards slot in neatly into the expansion slot and become part of your laptop.

The Startech 1 port Expresscard version includes extra power and is backed by a 3 year warranty.

If you are looking to increase the number of USB ports or upgrade to USB 3.0 on your laptop, these cards fit the bill without sacrificing your laptop’s mobility.


Why would you want to get a USB 3.0 ExpressCard for your laptop?

ExpressCards are a simple and easy way to upgrade to USB 3.0. They connect directly to your laptop’s system bus and become part of your laptop. You do not need to open anything in your laptop; you simply slot the card in.

These expresscard USB 3.0 adapters slot into 2 different size openings and are capable of transferring data at up to 5 Gbps (you can transfer 25GB worth of data in less than a minute for example).

So if you want the fastest way to transfer data, perform backups and more, a ExpressCard USB 3.0 is the way to see a huge difference in the time it takes to transfer the data.

There are a good selection of cards available but to avoid buying the wrong one, see our top pick for expresscard 54 usb 3.0  and our top pick for expresscard 34 usb 3.0 expansion cards.