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M.2 SATA vs. NVMe SSDs: Which Do You Need?

Two of the most popular types of SSDs today are M.2 SATA and NVMe SSDs. Here’s what you need to know about each, so you can decide on the right option for you.
October 21, 2020

In this Article:

What is M.2?

The newest and most desirable form factor for solid-state drives is called M.2.

What is NVMe?

Short for Non-volatile Memory Express, NVMe is a new technology utilized by some M.2 drives.

SATA vs. NVMe

The main differences between NVMe and SATA are speed and cable clutter.

Things to Consider

Like with all technology, there are certain things that a box or specifications will not tell you. When deciding between M.2 SATA and NVMe SSDs, consider these tips.
 

M.2 SATA vs NVMe Cheat Sheet

By learning a few fundamental distinctions between M.2 SATA and NVMe SSDs, you will be miles ahead of the general public when purchasing a storage device.

Computer storage is getting larger in size and smaller in form factor every day. No longer do massive spinning disc hard drives clog up cases or make laptops uncomfortably huge. Solid-state drives (SSDs) have drastically reduced their size while exponentially increasing the speed at which data can be written and read. Still, there are distinctions between solid-state drives that are worth knowing and will help maximize your machine's efficiency. Two of the most popular types of SSDs today are M.2 SATA and NVMe SSDs. Here’s what you need to know about each, so you can decide on the right option for you.

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What is M.2?

The newest and most desirable form factor for solid-state drives is called M.2. These drives are about the size of a stick of gum and can hold just as much data as their 2.5" SSD counterparts. M.2 drives plug directly into the motherboard without the need for any extra cables, which makes them ideal for PC builds concerned with cable management or overall size. While all M.2 drives plug directly into the motherboard, there is a significant difference between sockets that determine the speed at which M.2 devices can function. There are a few ways to determine what type a M.2 drive is, but that will be covered later.

It is important to remember that M.2 is considered only a form factor. M.2 drives are found in all kinds of devices, so it is essential to learn as much as you can about a drive before purchase. Without any other specifications, it is not enough information to tell you how the SSD will perform. The specification that informs you of how fast a storage device will function is the bus type. This is how the socket the device is connected to transfers data, and it will tell you what kind of performance to expect from your SSD.

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What is NVMe?

Short for Non-volatile Memory Express, NVMe is a new technology utilized by some M.2 drives. This blazing-fast new bus type uses the PCIe data transfer lanes on the motherboard, similar to modern graphics cards. By using the PCIe connection, M.2 drives can reach speeds of over 4,000MB/s read and write.

It is important to remember that NVMe itself is not a connection type but rather a protocol that utilizes a pre-existing PCIe connection. For the sake of abbreviation and simplicity, you may often hear NVMe protocols referred to as connections. The small size and fast speed of NVMe drives have been a massive leap in storage technology, rapidly becoming a standard on modern devices. With each new generation of NVMe SSDs, storage size is increasing along with transfer speeds. Newer motherboards even support multiple NVMe devices, almost eliminating cable clutter entirely.

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SATA vs. NVMe

For decades now, computer storage devices have been connected using SATA cables. These types of drives need two cables to function correctly, one to transfer data to the motherboard and the other to get power from the PSU. In the past, the need for multiple drives of this type led to cable clutter in PC cases, that at its worst point could even have an effect on airflow within the computer. SATA solid-state drives are still in use today and are an excellent and affordable way to store data. The one major problem with SATA SSDs, however, is the speed of SATA connections. A solid-state drive will always be faster than a spinning disc HDD. However, only SSDs that utilize NVMe technology will ever be able to pass the stiff transfer speed caps of SATA devices.

The main differences between NVMe and SATA are speed and cable clutter. When purchasing an M.2 form factor device, you must be careful—because while they can look virtually identical, some M.2 drives may still use a SATA connection, just without the need for cables. It is essential to remember that SATA M.2 and 2.5" SSDs operate at the same speeds. You will only see a performance increase if the drive is using an NVMe connection. SATA M.2 is still incredibly useful and miles faster than any mechanical hard drive. 

Things to Consider

Like with all technology, there are certain things that a box or specifications will not tell you. When deciding between M.2 SATA and NVMe SSDs, consider these tips:

  • System Support – Relatively new technology, some older devices do not have the necessary components to utilize NVMe connections fully. Triple check that your current motherboard supports NVMe before making an SSD purchase.
  • Quick Start-Up - The easiest way to increase system performance is to install the operating system on an SSD. You will see the greatest increase in start-up times with an NVMe device. However, even the smallest SSD will significantly outperform any mechanical hard drive.
  • Prioritize Storage - A common way for NVMe devices to be used is in combination with another SATA SSD. This is an excellent option for increasing performance without spending too much money. Operating systems and resource-intensive programs can be installed on the NVMe drive. At the same time, backups or smaller apps can still be quickly accessed on a larger yet more affordable SATA SSD.
  • Gaming Advantage - A significant benefit of using an M.2 NVMe for gaming is that it will reduce load times in games exponentially. Not only that, but games installed on NVMe devices will have vastly better performance overall. This is thanks to the rapid speed at which NVMe drives can transfer data. NVMe drives give players the highest chance of success for competitive gaming and make gameplay feel as smooth and responsive as possible.
  • Generations Matter - Even with NVMe connections, some distinctions can be made between different M.2 devices. Certain generations of NVMe SSD can have different speeds. For this reason, it is good to double-check read and write speeds on a drive. Sometimes earlier generations of NVMe drives can be much cheaper without being significantly slower.
  • Shared Connections - On some motherboards, there are not enough PCIe connections to support multiple PCIe devices. This means that potentially you could have to choose between a graphics card or NVMe hard drive. Other times, there may be enough PCIe lanes, but only a specific connection will be able to use NVMe devices at their full speeds.

 

M.2 SATA vs NVMe Cheat Sheet

There are many numbers and acronyms to remember when purchasing an SSD. It is no wonder that consumers sometimes get confused. By learning a few fundamental distinctions between M.2 SATA and NVMe SSDs, however, you will be miles ahead of the general public when purchasing a storage device:

  • M.2 - This is a form factor only and does not tell you any other information about the device.
  • NVMe - This is a connection type for storage devices and does tell you how fast the drive can operate.
  • SATA - Like NVMe, SATA is a connection type, but it is older and slower. Keep in mind that M.2 drives can still use SATA connections just without the need for cables. Be careful not to confuse these devices with their newer and faster NVMe lookalikes.
  • SSDs - Solid-state drives are always faster than spinning disc hard drives. No matter what SSD you upgrade to, you will see an extraordinary leap in performance if you are replacing an HDD. This means that an M.2 SATA drive could still give you a hefty performance upgrade while allowing you to save money compared to an NVMe drive.
  • Shape Check - The fastest way to tell if an M.2 drive is SATA or NVMe is by looking at where the drive connects to the motherboard. For SATA M.2 SSDs, there are two divots in the strip of connectors at the card's base. For NVMe SSDs, there is only one divot on the side where the drive is plugged into the motherboard.

Get the Best SSD for Your Needs

As time goes on, storage solutions get cheaper and smaller in physical size. These advancements have led to some incredibly sleek machines capable of speeds never thought possible by traditional hard drives. Solid-state drives, specifically M.2 NVMe devices, are taking computers to speeds never before seen.

While NVMe drives may require specific motherboards to use, SATA SSDs can be used by most systems and still offer a significant performance increase. The speed difference between M.2 SATA and M.2 NVMe may not be as massive as the jump from HDD to SDD. However, for specific tasks such as competitive gaming, NVMe storage is a must. When looking into upgrading your system storage, remember to consider important factors like if your motherboard can support a specific drive and how much data you want to be able to store on the device. The good thing is that no matter what SSD you purchase, it can be useful somehow, and you can always add more storage to your PC later.

Have you decided between an M.2 SATA and NVMe SSD? Find the best of both at CDW!

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