A desktop computer can be a pricey investment, but it offers several benefits when compared to a laptop. Perhaps the most important benefit is that you can continue to upgrade it over time. So instead of buying a new laptop every three or four years, your desktop rig can last a decade or more. Normally, when you think of upgrading your desktop, you think of a new graphics card or CPU. But adding more USB ports is also a viable option. This is particularly true for gamers, who need more and better peripherals. It’s also true if you’re rocking an older rig that doesn’t have any USB Type-C ports.
So, what options are there? Today, we’ll be reviewing three of the best USB 3.1 and USB Type-C PCIe expansion cards. First up is the StarTech.com USB 3.1 PCIe Card. This card sports three USB Type-A ports, with a Type-C port as an added bonus. Next, we’ll examine the Sonnet Allegro USB-C 4-Port PCIe. As its name implies, this card provides four USB Type-C ports for maximum data capacity and power delivery. Finally, we’ll review the Ableconn PU31-2C-2. This card has a narrow form factor, and still provides two USB Type-C ports.
Factors to Consider When Choosing a PCIe USB Card
PCIe cards are not all created equal. Depending on your needs, you’re going to have to consider several factors before you click that “buy” button. Before we go any further, let’s talk for a minute about what you should be looking for.
PCIe is short for PCI-Express, which is the standard expansion slot in modern PCs. In addition to USB cards, you also use PCIe slots for graphics cards and sound cards. So when you install a USB PCIe card, you’re limiting your ability to add other upgrades. Depending on your motherboard and computing needs, this may or may not be a problem.
On a typical gaming rig, you should have two or three PCIe slots. If you have two slots, adding a USB card will only be possible if you’re using a single-slot GPU. If you have three slots, you can still use a dual-slot GPU alongside your USB card. Since most modern graphics cards use a single slot, this shouldn’t be an issue for most people. But if you’re using a souped-up graphics card like the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Ti, you may run into trouble. On the other hand, for a simple workstation PC, you’re going to be just fine.
The size of card you can use is going to depend on the size of your computer case. Most modern desktops use a full-sized ATX motherboard and case. If that’s what you’re using, you can get away with any sized PCIe card. On the other hand, if you’re using a Micro ATX or Mini ITX case, a wider card isn’t going to fit. You won’t have any clearance between the card and your motherboard. The good news is that some USB PCIe cards are designed for smaller cases. A good rule of thumb is to look for a low-profile mounting bracket. If one is included with the kit, you’re good to go in a smaller case.
Number and Type of Ports
PCIe slots have a limited amount of bandwidth. This means you’re limited to a maximum of four USB ports on a single card. That said, some cards offer fewer ports in order to achieve a slimmer form factor. Consider what types of device you need to connect. Then, choose the combination of USB Type-C and Type-A cards that are suitable for those devices.
All of your PC’s components require a certain amount of electrical power. Moreover, not all PC power supplies provide the same amount of wattage. If you’re already close to that limit, adding USB ports might push you over the line. In years past, this wasn’t a major problem, since earlier USB standards only provided 5 or 10 watts. USB 3.0, 3.1, and Type-C, on the other hand, can provide up to 100 watts. So even a two-port USB card could draw up to 200 watts. If your power supply supplies 350 watts, and your existing build draws 300 watts, you won’t have enough power. Thankfully, there are plenty of free tools like this one to help you work things out. In the worst case scenario, you can pick up a new power supply for relatively cheap. Keep in mind that this is unusual. Most USB 3.1 ports provide only 15 watts, unless they use quick charge technology.
Similarly, you’ll want to look at the power requirements of any peripherals you’re going to connect. The reason for this is that PCIe slots are limited to a total of 300 watts of power. So if you buy a card with four ports, you won’t be able to draw 100 watts from all four of them. Then again, the odds that all four of your peripherals require 100 watts are low. But if you’re planning on running an array of external hard drives, you might have issues.
Thunderbolt is a bit of a twitchy protocol. On the one hand, it offers a lot of features that you don’t get from basic USB. On the other hand, there are different versions with different features. We could write a whole article getting into the nitty-gritty details. For now, suffice it to say that you need to make sure your USB card supports the features you need.
For most people, the appearance of your PCIe USB card is a non-issue. It’s an internal component that you’ll only ever see when you’re cleaning your PC. But if your gaming PC has a see-through case, you don’t want some ugly card cluttering up your rig. That said, don’t choose your PCIe USB card based on appearance alone. At most, a card’s appearance should be a tie-breaker.
StarTech.com USB 3.1 PCIe Card
The StarTech.com USB 3.1 PCIe Card sports four USB ports. The first three ports are USB 3.1, while the fourth is a USB Type-C. Each port is capable of providing 10Gbps of bandwidth. However, your actual bandwidth is going to depend on how many devices you have connected. Each pair of USB ports actually shares 10Gbps of bandwidth, so your theoretical maximum is 20Gbps, not 40Gbps. That said, this shouldn’t be an issue for most builds. Your mouse and keyboard will barely put a dent in this bandwidth, nor will most peripherals. This is only going to be a limitation if you’re reading and writing a lot of data from external hard drives.
The StarTech.com PCIe card has a slick, black surface that looks good in a see-through case. It also sports a large heatsink, which ensures that it will stay cool under any conditions. Along with the card, you get StarTech.com’s 2-year warranty. If you have any issues, you can get your money back or get a replacement.
The StarTech.com USB 3.1 PCIe Card supports additional SATA power. This means that you can potentially draw up to 400 total watts. If you’re trying to use the USB ports for power, this is a great added value. That said, this feature is only supported by the latest and greatest PCIe 4.0 and 5.0 formats. Unless your motherboard is a relatively new model, you won’t be able to take advantage of this feature.
This card has a wide form factor, so it requires a full-sized case. For most people, this shouldn’t present any obstacles. But if you’re using a Micro ATX or Mini ITX case, you’ll need to choose a different card. For everyone else, you’re looking at a well-manufactured card that comes at a reasonable price.
Sonnet Allegro USB-C 4-Port PCIe
The Sonnet Allegro USB-C 4-Port PCIe is just what it sounds like. It’s a PCIe card that contains four USB Type-C ports. On the one hand, you won’t be able to use any USB Type-A peripherals with this card. On the other hand, you’ll get more USB Type-C ports than you know what to do with. Each port supports up to 10Gbps of data transfer, so bandwidth is not going to be an issue.
Power delivery and wattage is also not a concern. With 7.5 watts of power per port, you can run almost any external hard drive. That said, your smartphone won’t charge as quickly as it would from a more powerful port. Moreover, the power supply features independent power regulation for each port. There’s also an overcurrent fuse on each port. The fuses can be reset simply by restarting your computer. The card comes with Sonnet’s 2-year manufacturer’s warranty, so factory defects are not a concern.
One unique feature of the Sonnet Allegro USB-C 4-Port PCIe card is that it’s compatible with Mac machines. If you’re one of those brave souls who wants to upgrade their Mac, you may have just found your soulmate. It’s compatible with MacOS 10.10.5, as well as 10.12.6 and later, but not with 10.11. That said, it’s a full-sized card. If your machine has a smaller case, it’s not going to fit.
In addition, this card is ideal for running hard drive arrays. It’s compatible with Sonnet’s Thunderbolt 2 and Thunderbolt 3 to PCIe card expansion systems. In other words, if you’re out of PCIe slots, you can use the expansion system to connect via Thunderbolt. For most builds, this is not an ideal solution, since you’re looking at yet another piece of hardware. On the other hand, if you need to connect a lot of external drives, it will get the job done.
The Ableconn PU31-2C-2 is a bit different from the last two cards we looked at. It sports only two ports, both of which are USB Type-C. Each port allows for 10Gbps of data transfer, which is right in line with modern standards. The power delivery is 15 watts per port, which is sufficient for most purposes. One thing we like about this card is the appearance. It’s a bright crimson that really catches the eye. If you have a see-through case, the Ableconn card is definitely worth a second look.
The card itself is compatible with any type of PCIe slot. It can be plugged into an x4, x8, or x16 slot without any issues. It’s also compatible with MacOS and Linux machines. Keep in mind, though, that depending on your OS version, a driver download may be required. Regardless, you’re covered by a one-year manufacturer’s warranty in the event that something goes wrong.
The Ableconn PU31-2C-2 has a narrow form factor. This makes it compatible with any size of PC case, large or small. To make installation as easy as possible, a low profile PCIe bracket is included with the kit. In addition, this card is RoHS-compliant. This means that it’s legal for sale and use in the EU, as well as the US and Canada.
As you can see, all of these cards are worth a second look. But which one is the best is going to depend on exactly what your needs are. To begin with, the StarTech.com USB 3.1 PCIe Card is ideal if you need maximum power delivery. On the downside, if you need a lot of bandwidth, you’re going to be disappointed. But if you have a lot of USB Type-A peripherals, it’s a great choice.
For maximum rates of data transfer, the Sonnet Allegro USB-C 4-Port PCIe is your best choice. You can connect four USB Type-C devices, all of them with 10Gbps of data transfer. You can also use it with Mac machines, or with one of Sonnet’s Thunderbolt adapters. Finally, there’s the Ableconn PU31-2C-2. This choice offers only two ports, but both offer 10Gbps of data transfer. Moreover, it’s small enough to fit in a Micro ATX or Mini ITX case, so you can use it in your mini PC.