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M.2 NVMe SSDs are all the rage these days but is M.2 worth it? We used to be content with SATA SSDs and even before that, we had to deal with the much slower, SATA HDDs. For many gamers, especially ones on a budget, switching to a M.2 SSD might not be as easy as it sounds.
First off, you need a motherboard that supports M.2. Most modern motherboards will have at least one M.2 slot, especially ones that are made for gamers. So no worries there, but if you are an old timer – older than 2012 – you might not have an M.2 slot in your motherboard. So if you are hoping to set up an M.2 storage drive or install a Wi-Fi/Bluetooth card (compare onboard WiFi vs WiFi card vs WiFi USB here) on your system you will have to get a new motherboard first.
But for storage you’ve already got a SATA bus and for expansion cards you’ve got PCIe slots. So what’s the big deal anyway, and why should you be concerned about M.2? In theory, M.2 PCIe SSDs are much faster than their SATA counterparts and they have a smaller form factor. This smaller form factor makes it perfect for laptops, notebooks and the new up-and-coming handheld PC gaming devices.
So to help you get a better idea on whether the M.2 interface is worth considering, we’re going to dig a bit deeper and get into more elaborate topics such as
So without further ado, let’s get into it.
When it comes to most modern SSDs, you might have come across names such as “M.2 NVMe SSD, M.2 SATA SSD and PCIe SSD.” All of these sound cool, but it all boils down to three basic properties that make up these storage devices: The Bus, the interface and the protocol.
Bus: The bus is a standard channel or pathway that is recognized by the CPU, RAM and the motherboard (along with all the input and output components that are connected to the motherboard). It is used to transfer information between these components. There are two types of bus standards, the SATA and the PCIe. So if you consider GPUs, they use the PCIe slot to transfer information between the CPU as fast as possible, we don’t use SATA for this because PCIe is much faster and they provide dedicated pathways to the CPU.
Protocol: When data arrives at the gates of the SSD (or HDD, we don’t discriminate) the protocol is what defines how this data is going to be directed into the storage. Like a traffic light, they make the rules on how much data is going to be transferred such as how much data is going to be on a single transmission queue, how many queues can be managed simultaneously and so on. For a SATA bus you have the old AHCI protocol but for the PCIe bus, you have the familiar NVMe, which is faster because it can handle 64 queues with each queve consisting of 64,000 instructions, making NVMe the more faster and reliable protocol.
Interface: Now this is where the M.2 slot comes in. Like the name implies, the “interface” defines the physical shape of the ports or in our case, the sockets in our storage drives. There are three interfaces right now: the M.2, SATA and PCIe. It might be a little confusing as we just mentioned SATA and PCIe being the bus standards.
Now this poses a good question, why did they invent M.2 if they could already use PCIe slots as the interface? To answer that we need to consider the form factor. Simply put, the M.2 interface is built in order to accommodate smaller form factors. So instead of using the PCIe lanes which take up more space, you can easily integrate the M.2 slot which can utilize the same PCIe bus but on a smaller interface.
Now I hope you understand the difference between a bus and an interface. If you do, then you’ll have already figured out that the speed does not depend on the interface. It primarily depends on the bus and the protocol. So if you have a SATA bus with the AHCI protocol, you’re always going to be limited to 600 MB/s. The SATA bus cannot utilize the NVMe protocol because it’s an entirely different architecture that’s built for the PCIe bus standard.
But if you are using the PCIe bus standard without the NVMe protocol, you could theoretically reach about 1500 MB/s. There’s also a 1000 MB/s limit but it all depends on the B&M Keys, which is a topic for another time.
So finally, if you are using the PCIe bus standard along with the NVMe protocol, your speeds could get higher than 2000 MB/s, and that’s just PCIe v2.0. As of right now, we’ve got the latest PCIe 4.0 where the maximum theoretical speed is around 7800 MB/s. That’s pretty fast.
If you want to see the difference between a PCIe 2.0 vs 3.0, read this article.
So, we’ve figured out that PCIe v4.0 with NVMe protocol can reach a theoretical maximum of 7.8 GB/s. That’s pretty cool and all, but at the end of the day, will that speed actually matter for gaming? Honestly, in loading up video games, M.2 SSDs are not that impressive. Depending on the video game, it could save you an extra second or two in loading times, but nothing major. There’s not a lot of disparity between SATA SSDs and M.2 NVMe SSDs than there is with the HDD and SSDs. SATA SSDs are still viable. If you are still using an HDD to load up your video games and OS, get an SSD ASAP!
However, M.2 NVMe SSDs have an advantage: the small form factor provided by M.2 is great for many laptops, notebooks and handheld devices. It will certainly take over SATA SSDs but not right now, especially for PC desktops.
Switching into an M.2 NVMe SSD from a SATA SSD can be a tough choice for gamers. Although these PCIe NVMe SSDs are faster, they are not fast enough, and in most video games you could barely tell the difference. The only benefit, in my opinion, is the smaller form factor.
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