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SSD vs M.2 – Which One Do You Need?


I have all three storage types in my PC, two HDDs, one SATA SSD, and one M.2 SSD. For all of these, I had to do extensive research to weigh out what was worth it, and as an owner, now I have more data.

The M.2 NVMe SSD is a much faster variation of the SATA SSD that has been used for many years. An M.2 can go up to 4GB/s in data transfer, whereas a SATA SSD will cap out at 600MB/s.

Now let’s get into more of the several differences that make these two types of SSDs different.

SSD Vs. M.2

They Are BOTH SSDs

Before we go any further, there is an important detail you need to know, and that is that both of these are just different types of SSDs.

The technically correct term for what you are looking for is SATA SSD Vs. NVMe PCIe M.2 SSD, but they both use the SSD technology.

M.2 SSDs have the M.2 form factor and take advantage of NVMe technology, the superior, faster successor to SATA.

NVMe stands for Non-Volatile Memory Express. This is a much faster way to process memory protocols but requires faster connections such as PCIe.

That’s why NVMe technology is only currently on M.2 SSDs plugged directly into a PCIe slot on the motherboard.

NVMe technology allows for 64 thousand command queues, and of that, there can be 64 thousand commands in each queue!

Former technology used on HDDs only allows one command queue and 32 commands in each queue. It’s no wonder why NVMe SSDs are so much faster!

NVMe allows storage drives using this technology to queue many more tasks and complete many more tasks at a time, making it significantly faster overall.

Form Factor

The first impression anyone gets from seeing these two side-by-side is the shocking size difference between the two.

When SSDs first came onto the consumer market, people were shocked at how much smaller they were than the previous primary storage tech known as the HDD.

SSDs could be so much smaller because they didn’t have to use any moving parts or large disks to function.

HDDs always had moving parts within them, the two primary parts being the stack of disks and the read/write head.

Although I don’t want to get into the detailed breakdown of how HDDs work, it’s a very complicated process that requires constant movement of the disks.

You can watch the detailed coverage of how HDDs work here:

SSDs use a powerful microchip to store data on small flash memory cells and several more layers to transfer data to and from these small cells while only taking up a tiny space inside the SSD enclosure.

For the best-detailed breakdown of SSDs and how they work, here is a fantastic video:

Thanks to this cutting-edge technology that uses tiny parts to store files at super-fast rates, SSDs could become much smaller.

Then, we have M.2 SSDs. These are still SSDs, but they have an even smaller form factor and use the PCIe bus.

This not only allows the M.2s to be plugged directly into the motherboards M.2 slot avoiding the need for SATA cables, but it provides significantly faster transfer speeds.

Most M.2 SSDs have a form factor of 22x80mm. Meaning they are 22 millimeters wide by 80 millimeters long, about the size of a finger.

Although these are super impressive for being this small, the real reason everyone buys M.2s is because of their incredible speed.

Is M.2 The Fastest Storage Drive?

M.2 SSDs that use the PCI-e 3.0 tech or greater will be the fast consumer-facing storage drives on the market.

Using my benchmarks to demonstrate the speed difference, here is the speed difference between my HDD, SSD, and NVMe M.2 SSD.

NVMe PCI-e 3.0 M.2 SSDSATA SSDHDD 1HDD 2
Sequential Read (MB/s)3533556117158
Sequential Write (MB/s)3305330116180
Random Read (IOPS)34667972753166244
Random Write (IOPS)30566467626244244

The benchmark results for my storage drives.

The metric missing from this is how much storage is being taken upon each of them, and it varies significantly per storage drive.

The regular SSD is only 500GB, the M.2 is 2TB, and both the HDDs are 4TB Western Digital Blues.

Let’s explain what exactly each of these means so you can better understand why M.2 SSDs are faster and what they are faster at.

First, the most basic of these terms is the read and write functions. These are simply when your storage is opening a file and when it is making changes to a file, typically measured in a megabyte speed.

Megabytes are a unit of storage that consists of 1,000,000 bytes or 8,000,000 bits. Since there are so many bits in a single byte, it is more common to use megabytes and gigabytes.

Gigabytes are a larger measurement of bytes, and one gigabyte consists of 1000 megabytes.

These terms are used to represent storage and how much data you can store on a storage drive. When MB/s is used, it is used to describe many megabytes of data that can be read or written in a single second.

However, the incredible thing is that M.2 SSDs can reach up to 4GB/s, which leads to sequential read and write times that feel immediate.

IOPS is the measurement for random read and write, which stands for Input/Output Operations Per Second.

IOPS is used in the Samsung Magician software I used. However, in other popular programs like Crystal Disk Method, they will use other random measurements such as 4KiB.

Now that you know more of the terminology, the M.2 is much faster at every task by a substantial amount, and it only cost me $30 more than a SATA SSD!

Moving files on my M.2 is nearly instant. Transferring files to and from a SATA SSD is pretty quick, but on an M.2, it was seconds.

Either way, it will be much faster than if you were to try the same process on an HDD.

Are M.2 SSDs Better Than SATA SSDs For Gaming?

For gamers, you will get slightly faster loading times using an M.2 SSD instead of a SATA SSD.

At the moment, the performance difference isn’t huge, and you are only going to experience a 2-3 second difference on average.

However, coming from an HDD, you can have a loading time difference of up to 60 seconds.

I would highly recommend that you make your boot drive for your PC a SATA SSD or an M.2 SSD because you can get much faster boot-up times.

M.2s will boot Windows 10 much faster than a SATA SSD as well. M.2 SSDs provide boot times so quick it makes getting into my bios a challenge.

Even though there isn’t a vast difference between the two in performance, I think the speed M.2 has in other tasks still makes it worth getting over a SATA if you are making a new PC.

Load times in multiplayer games are generally the same since that relies more on a good internet connection, and the game will wait for all players to load in.

Call Of Duty Cold War is an excellent example of this. I can load the game reasonably quickly on my M.2, but I’m still waiting for all the other players to load in so the game can start.

Therefore, it would be a waste to put a sizeable multiplayer game on an SSD if you are looking for faster matching times.

With games like Warzone and Modern Warfare collectively taking up 200GB, you would likely have to buy a larger M.2 to put multiple games on the M.2, which costs much more than an HDD.

Finally, addressing the topic of gaining FPS in big battle royale games by putting the game on an M.2 SSD or any SSD.

I haven’t seen any noticeable performance boost by doing this. In some benchmarking videos, there may be a maximum of 5 FPS boost in the FPS by doing this, but primarily FPS will rely on other parts.

It’s also hard to say whether or not the FPS boost seen in some videos is really because of using an SSD or if the difference is merely a result of slight variations in the testing method.

Wrapping up this section, M.2s are great for gamers upgrading from an HDD to an M.2, but if you already have an SSD, it won’t make a massive difference for gaming specifically.

Warning To Future M.2 Buyers

There are some tricky vital factors that may be the difference between your M.2 SSD being multiple times faster than a SATA and the same speed.

I’m referring to the SATA M.2s being sold that have the form factor of an M.2 but don’t take advantage of the PCI-e technology that makes it fast.

SATA is the old way of doing data transfer that maxes out at 600 MB/s, which is a good speed. However, if you are looking for 4GB/s rates, you will only find that on PCI-e M.2s.

The only benefit SATA M.2s will have is that you can plug them directly into the motherboard, and you won’t have to use the two cables you would traditionally plug into a SATA SSD.

I see this most often on cheaper M.2 SSDs. If something is suspiciously cheap, look for SATA in the title of the product or specs, which means it is the slower kind you don’t want to use.

There are even faster M.2 NVMe PCIe SSDs, though, and typically they take advantage of the PCIe technology only available on specific motherboards and use only with certain CPUs.

At the moment, Intel desktop CPUs do not support PCI-e 4.0, so if you want to use this cutting-edge technology, you are going to need to be using an AMD CPU.

Gen 4 PCIe M.2s can achieve speeds that are potentially 1 or 2 GB faster than that of the current PCIe 3.0 M.2s being used by most people.

When actually in use, the difference in performance isn’t very noticeable, but it is essential to note since you may come across it in your buying journey.

If An M.2 Doesn’t Get Plugged In Using SATA Cables Will It Not Use SATA Ports?

M.2 SSDs are still going to take advantage of SATA ports even though they use PCI-e and don’t require SATA cables to function.

M.2 SSDs should take up 2 of your SATA slots, which will be pre-selected by your motherboard.

You can find out which SATA slots will be used by looking at your motherboard manual and finding the M.2 slot documentation.

If you have a motherboard with 2 M.2 slots, then each M.2 slot will take up different SATA slots.

For example, M.2 slot one will take up the SATA 1 & 2 ports, and M.2 slot two will take up the SATA 5 & 6 ports. My motherboard has dual slots, and this is information I read when installing my M.2.

If you have any storage drives plugged into those slots, be sure to move those to other SATA slots before installing the M.2 and turning your computer on.

Do M.2 SSDs Overheat More Than SATA SSDs?

In my experience, M.2 SSDs have more problems with overheating than SATA SSDs since M.2s typically lack a built-in heatsink.

The technology that SSDs use is relatively small and only takes up a fraction of the shell that SATA SSDs feature.

However, the shell acts as a heatsink to dissipate the heat, which makes sure the SSD doesn’t overheat and lead to any further issues.

I can’t guarantee that SATA SSDs won’t overheat, but I can say that in my three years of using my current SATA SSD and measuring temps adamantly, I haven’t noticed any overheating.

Since M.2 SSDs usually don’t have this, they can be more likely to overheat and crash or lead to issues while using it during intensive games.

This isn’t a problematic issue, and in most cases, it can be avoided either ahead of time or fixed before it becomes a problem.

First, many motherboards these days have built-in heatsinks with thermal pads attached to the surface’s bottom to dissipate the heat.

Usually, this looks like a cover for the M.2 slot and will have to be removed to install your M.2 then put back on after installing the M.2.

I won’t get into the precise installation process for motherboard M.2 heatsinks as they will differ from board to board. I would recommend that you refer to your motherboard manual, though.

Next, if your motherboard doesn’t have a built-in heatsink for your M.2, don’t worry because many aftermarket heatsinks can be purchased for M.2 SSDs!

I have used one of these before, and it helped solve some of the instability issues caused by an M.2 overheating.

You can also just get a thermal pad and put it on top of your M.2, but I would recommend going for the full heatsink as that is what worked for me.

One of our favorites is the Thermalright M.2 heatsink cooler because it has a stylish look and cooling performance to match.

It also has a reasonable height that isn’t too intrusive on other parts, such as the GPU that might have some overhang on the M.2 slot.

You can see more details about this product and see its current pricing here (link to Amazon).

Are M.2 SSDs Better Than SATA SSDs For Video Editing?

After collecting data from numerous benchmarking videos, I have concluded that NVMe M.2 SSDs are better than SATA SSDs, but only by a little.

Things like rendering and export times aren’t going to get better by any large amount and typically only help in a matter of seconds.

A lackluster GPU or CPU is more likely to hold you back in the case of video editing. However, if you are using an HDD currently, that could be the bottleneck.

HDDs are very easy for video editors to max out since they don’t have a very high data transfer speed.

You can be sure of this by opening up your task manager and navigating to the performance tab.

If you notice that the HDD is running at 100%, then your bottleneck is the storage. If you see your CPU or GPU is running at 100%, that is likely the bottleneck.

However, all you need at the moment to get excellent performance for video editing is a SATA SSD, and an NVMe isn’t going to make a huge impact for now.

Which One Is Easier To Install?

Both M.2 and SATA SSDs are reasonably easy to install.

Technically, I would say that SATA SSDs are slightly easier to install simply because fewer steps are taken.

Also, installing an M.2 can feel odd at first since you click the M.2 into place at an angle, then push it down and screw it into place.

While SATA SSDs only requires you to plug in two cables and screw the drive into the storage tray.

However, M.2s are still pretty easy and quick to install, and putting mine in took less than an hour to do.

It might take longer if you are installing an aftermarket heatsink, so I would say SATA SSDs have a slight edge on installation.

Which One Has The Better Price?

SATA SSDs will be the cheaper product, but they tend to be by a tiny amount these days.

At the 1TB storage option, you are only looking at paying around $30 more to get the NVMe, which, even though it provides slight advantages in most places, is worth it.

Personally, the most significant change I saw was in boot times. Going from SSD to M.2, I did get noticeably faster boot times, which is worth the $30 for me.

Should You Upgrade From A SATA SSD To A M.2 SSD?

If you have a SATA SSD already, you don’t need to upgrade to an M.2 SSD. If you want to because you have the extra money and are looking for a slight performance boost, feel free.

However, if you have had your SSD for a while now and wonder how much better your experience can be with an NVMe, the truth is that it isn’t much different or faster.

M.2 SSDs have a very cool form factor that allows you to move your storage from a rack to a convenient small slot directly into your motherboard, which is an elegant design.

It also has significantly faster sequential read and writes speeds that you can feel the difference in when transferring files.

Boot times also feel much faster than the SATA SSD thanks to the much higher IOPS that allow the random process of booting up to go much quicker.

You also get a bonus of removing the need for two cables in the back of your case, which is always appreciated as a PC builder.

With all that being said, for me, it was worth the upgrade to an M.2 because I got to swap my boot drives, and I added 500 GB of SSD storage to my cold storage.

However, you aren’t picking up too much extra speed in anything other than file transfer and boot drives.

In games, I haven’t noticed much better load times in my measurements. It has only been a few seconds better than SATA SSDs.

Also, in video editing, I have had around the same performance, but that could also be attributed to the CPU bottleneck I currently have.

Wrap Up

M.2 SSDs are smaller, faster, and certainly better looking than the SATA SSDs that have come before it. However, you shouldn’t expect a performance leap similar to going from HDD to SSD.

Instead, expect some nice improvements in areas such as file transfer and boot times, with the added benefit of a few cables out of your case.

If you are building a new PC right now and are on a budget, I would recommend getting a SATA SSD and spending the money you save on another part.

M.2 SSDs aren’t all that more expensive these days, but since you aren’t getting a considerable performance difference if you are on a budget, it isn’t an essential thing to splurge on.

If you already have an SSD, only upgrade if you have the extra cash to do so, and you are okay with a minor upgrade to performance for the money you will spend.

Tom

I've been a PC gamer and builder for around 3 years now but my love for gaming spans many years all the way back to the Nintendo 64! Getting into PC gaming there was a lot of information that was hard to understand so I made it my mission to make PC gaming easy!

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