Digital Photography Review

NVMe vs. M.2 Drives: Which SSD Is Right for You?

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What

The drive you use in your computer matters, and nowadays there’s plenty of options to choose from. Especially for people looking to outfit their gaming PCs or laptops with increased performance at a lower cost, considering the best kind of drive for a computer means taking into account the advantages and disadvantages of solid-state drives (SSDs). But with a number of different types to choose from, the hunt for the SSD you need can be confusing at the outset. Given our love for digging into the differences between and performances of many different types of drives, we developed this “What’s the Diff” post to lay it all out for you.

SSDs have become a popular option because of their smaller size while having the capacity for increased data read and write speeds. In this post, we’ll cover:

  • What is a SSD?
  • What is a SATA SSD?
  • What is a M.2 SSD?
  • What is a NVMe SSD?
  • Which SSD is right for you?

A Brief Introduction to SSDs

SSDs are common drives that are now standard issue for most computers, as is the case across Apple’s line of Macs. Rather than using disks, motors, and read/write heads like hard disk drives (HDDs), SSDs use persistent flash memory to retain information. SSDs have become so common mainly because they hold an advantage over HDDs for performing at higher speeds and using less power. You can read more about the difference between SSDs and HDDs in this post.

SSDs—namely NVMe drives and M.2 drives—are also available at a range of form factors so they can be applied to a range of devices.

Taking a Look at SATA SSDs

A Serial AT Attachment (SATA) is now widely considered the storage standard for PCs. A SATA SSD is an SSD equipped with a SATA interface. SATA SSDs have the advantage of being faster than spinning disc HDDs, but their speed caps at 600 MB/s. Generally, SATA SSDs offer lower cost storage than M.2 or NVMe drives, so they tend to be a better option for anyone seeking a general purpose drive on a tighter budget.

One of the disadvantages of SATA drives is that they require two cables to function correctly, so they can clutter your setup and even affect airflow within a computer. However, not all SSD form factors use the same type of connection, so they differ in speed and the clutter around your setup.

Western Digital WD Blue 1TV 3D NAND SATA SSD Solid State Drive

What Are M.2 Drives?

M.2 is a new form factor for SSDs that plug directly into a computer’s motherboard without the need for any extra cables. M.2 SSDs are significantly smaller than traditional, 2.5 inch SSDs, so they have become popular in gaming setups because they take up less space.

Even at this smaller size, M.2 SSDs are able to hold as much data as other SSDs, ranging up to 8TB in storage size. But, while they can hold just as much data and are generally faster than other SSDs, they also come at a higher cost. As the old adage goes, you can only have two of the following things: cheap, fast, or good.

People who are looking to improve their gaming setup with an M.2 SSD will need to make sure their motherboard has a M.2 slot or two. If your computer has two or more slots, you can run the drives in RAID.

An M.2 SSD can be SATA-based, PCIe-based with NVMe support, or PCIe-based without NVMe support. This versatility means that an M.2 SSD with NVMe support offers up to five times more bandwidth than a SATA M.2 model, providing faster performance for file transfers, video or photo editing, transcoding, compression, and decompression.

Samsung V-NAND SSD 860 EVO SATA M.2

NVMe SSDs

Non-Volatile Memory Express (NVMe) drives were introduced in 2013 to attach to the PCI Express (PCIe) slot on a motherboard instead of using SATA bandwidth. NVMe drives can usually deliver a sustained read-write speed of 3.5 GB/s in contrast with SATA SSDs that limit at 600 MB/s. Since NVMe SSDs can reach higher speeds than SATA SSDs such as M.2 drives, it makes them ideal for gaming or high-resolution video editing.

Their high speeds come at a high cost, however: NVMe drives are some of the more expensive drives on the market.

KIOXIA EXCERIA NVMe SSD

Which SSD Is Best to Use?

There are a few factors to consider in choosing which drive is best for you. As you compare the different components of your build, consider your technical constraints, budget, capacity needs, and speed priority.

Technical Constraints

Check the capability of your system before choosing a drive, as some older devices don’t have the components needed for NVMe connections. Also, check that you have enough PCIe connections to support multiple PCIe devices. Not enough lanes, or only specific lanes, means you may have to choose a different drive or that only one of your lanes will be able to connect to the NVMe drive at full speed.

Budget

SSDs and SATA drives tend to be more affordable options compared with NVMe drives. However, you should consider the performance upgrade that an NVMe drive can offer—if you plan to be making a lot of large file transfers or want to have the highest speeds for gaming, then a higher priced NVMe SSD is worth the investment. For example, at the time of publication, a Western Digital 1TB SATA SSD retails for around $100, while a Western Digital 1TB NVMe drive starts at around $200.

Drive Capacity

SATA drives usually range from 500GB to 16TB in storage capacity. Most M.2 drives top out at 2TB, although some may be available at 4TB and 8TB models at much higher prices.

Drive Speed

When choosing the right drive for your setup, remember that SATA M.2 drives and 2.5 inch SSDs provide the same level of speed, so to gain a performance increase, you will have to opt for the NVMe-connected drives. While NVMe SSDs are going to be much faster than SATA drives, you may also need to upgrade your processor to keep up or you may experience worse performance. Finally, remember to check read and write speeds on a drive as some earlier generations of NVMe drives can have different speeds.

Choose the Right Drive for Your Setup

Before choosing a new drive, remember to back up all of your data. Backing up is essential as every drive will eventually fail and need to be replaced. The basis of a solid backup plan requires three copies of your data: one on your device, one backup saved locally, and one stored off-site. Storing a copy of your data in the cloud ensures that you’re able to retrieve it if any data loss occurs on your device.

Interested in learning more about other drive types or best ways to optimize your gaming setup? Let us know in the comments below.

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