Trying to go back to using the mechanical hard drives of old is an impossible task for many people. Once you feel the snappiness of your PC when booting off of an SSD, you find it hard to wait a minute whilst your PC gets started up. Now we don’t even need to wait 10 seconds.
Key to this speed is that there are no moving parts, there is no need to spin up a hard disk so that it can find the correct data. Because of this SSDs have only become smaller as time has gone on.
What’s the difference between M.2 and normal Hard Drives?
SSDs are usually found in a 2.5-inch size, whilst mechanical hard drives are 3.5 inches in size. Since the prevalence of M.2 SSDs, you can now get over 1TB of ultra-fast storage at a size only slightly larger than your average stick of gum. There are two sizes of M.2 SSDs, one that is 22mm x 60mm, and a larger one that is 22mm x 80mm. This larger one is the size that is most commonly used, especially for gaming centric hardware.
M.2 SDDs when used in PCIe slots can hit transfer speeds of up to 4GB per second, compared to a regular SATA SSD that will do around 600MB per second.
What allows these M.2 SSDs to really shine is the ability to take advantage of NVMe or Non-volatile Memory express. NVMe has a lot of advantages over similar interface. It allows for lower latency, increased IOPS, and lower power consumption.
The only current issue surrounding M.2 SSDs are the price. A good quality 500GB SATA SSD will set you back around $150. When looking for a 500GB M.2 NVMe SSD you can be looking at paying over $250.
SSDs have always given less price per GB than standard mechanical hard drives, but the prices are slowly coming down. M.2 NVMe drives will have to go through a similar process, once the tech has matured, expect to see prices reach more mainstream levels. As it currently stands, NVMe SSDs are still relatively enthusiast.
NVMe Vs. AHCI
Not every M.2 SSD is fast, you will find many cheap ones on Amazon but the difference between these is the huge performance gain that NVMe will bring to your M.2 SSD. The ones without NVMe work over AHCI, which means it is essentially using your standard SATA port.
You will find a lot of these cheaper M.2 SSDs perform somewhat similar to your bog-standard 2.5” SSD, making the extra you pay somewhat of a waste. This is because NVMe SSDs do not first have to go through a SATA controller as AHCI drives do, this is what increases the latency for SATA devices.
How do I know my motherboard supports M.2?
Almost every gaming-tier motherboard nowadays comes with at least one M.2 slot, this goes for both Intel and AMD.
The placement of the M.2 slot depends on your motherboard manufacturer; the standard practise nowadays is to put M.2 slots in between PCIe slots. Though some manufacturers decide to put the M.2 slot on the back of the board, so make sure to have a thorough look. There are also motherboards that have you connect the SSD vertically, though this isn’t ideal.
The M.2 Slot is a tiny set of contacts usually housed in plastic. All you have to do is place it in and screw it down.
If your motherboard doesn’t have a slot for M.2 drives this isn’t a problem.
As long as you have a spare PCIe 4x slot, you can by a number of different M.2 adaptors and they function just as well as though they were in a slot built into the board. This is because the built in M.2 adaptors use PCIe lanes to transfer data, so putting one in a PCIe slot allows it to use the same method to transfer data.
You can get PCIe M.2 adaptors that support a wide array of M.2 SSDs, the most common is a single NVMe drive, but you can get ones that support several NVMe and AHCI drives at once.
It is important that if you buy an NVMe SSD that your motherboard supports booting from such drives. It if it doesn’t you won’t be able to get the most from your SSD. You could in theory use an NVMe SSD in a PCIe adaptor on a machine that is fifteen years old and it work but if the motherboard doesn’t support NVMe booting, it’ll be relegated to a storage drive.
Though using an NVMe SSD in this way isn’t the most cost effective, as older components will bottleneck the performance of your NVMe drive.
Is U.2 the same as M.2?
U.2 works in a similar way to M.2 but it hasn’t been widely adapted as M.2 has won the war on fast storage. U.2 is often available on ASRock and ASUS boards.
U.2 Uses 4 PCIe lanes just like M.2 but it comes with a bulky connector that is something like two SATA connectors in one. This makes M.2 just a little easier to implement into motherboards.
M.2 is most definitely the way to go for fast storage, it will have years of support to come, unlike U.2 which is essentially already dead apart from in enterprise environments.
M.2 SSDs and cooling
M.2 SSDs have a tendency to overheat, this is due to there being no cooling for them. The majority of M.2 SSDs are just exposed PCBs, so there are no heatsinks to be seen. With the common placement being between hot GPUs, this heats up M.2 SSDS even more.
When an M.2 SSD thermal throttles you will no longer be getting the most out of your investment. This is why many motherboard manufacturers are now implementing a heatsink that can be used for M.2 SSDs. Also, many people are offering aftermarket coolers that will help cool down your M.2 SSD.
If you think you aren’t getting the most out of your M.2 SSD, try looking into getting a heatsink for it.
RAID for M.2 SSDs
For those that want the absolute best performance from their M.2 SSDs RAID is the way to go, but it comes with some caveats.
To gain blazing fast speeds with two M.2 SSDs you have to use RAID 0. RAID 0 is fast because it stripes memory between two drives meaning that each can look for a different bit of data at a time. The problem with this is that if one drive fails, you will lose all of your data. This is because the data is stored on both drives with no redundancy.
Make sure that if you use as RAID 0 for your M.2 SSDs that you have a regular backup process in place or you stand to lose all of your data.
Now that you know all about M.2 SSDs, it is time to list some of the best M.2 SSDs money can buy.
Best M2 SSDs – Our Recommendations
1. Samsung 960 Pro – 512GB
In the traditional SSD space, Samsung has become known as one of the best SSD manufacturers around. They are up there with names such as SanDisk and Intel. This is no different when it comes to NVMe SSDs, in fact they are the ones that are the pioneers of the high capacity NVMe SSD.
The price is expensive at $300 but the performance cannot be matched. As far as pricing goes for NVMe SSDs it is actually in line with the competition. Whilst the most affordable is 512GB, sizes go up to 2TB if you are willing to spend in excess of a grand.
The 512GB Samsung 960 Pro can achieve read speeds of 3500MB/s, and write at a whopping 2100MB/s. That is a lot faster than any standard SSD is going to achieve. In terms of read and write IOPS it does 330k for both. The high capacity versions can do 440k read IOPS and 360k IOPS.
This iteration of the Pro M.2 SSD features a five ARM cores compared to the 950 Pro which had just three. This is due to the new Polaris controller that Samsung has been developing.
The 960 Pro can downclock its cores as well to make sure that it doesn’t thermal throttle. It also uses their new V-NAND which produces a more efficient die process.
It is all of these little touches that push the 960 Pro ahead of the competition. For the absolute hands-down best NVMe SSD, the Samsung 960 Pro is the only choice.
2. Samsung 960 EVO – 500GB
The 960 EVO is the step down from the fantastic 960 Pro M.2 NVMe SSDs that Samsung offer. It offers a much more affordable NVMe SSD with much of the same performance.
The 960 EVO comes in two other sizes, 250GB and 1TB. The 1TB costs $444 which is still quite expensive but when compared to the 960 Pro, which is great price compared to the $600 price tag of the 1TB Pro.
The 250GB EVO is just $117, definitely a good choice for those that want a decent NVMe SSD without the need for a large amount of space.
The 960 EVO performs almost as well as the 960 Pro. With read speeds of 3200MB/s, and write speeds of 1900MB/s. The 960 EVO can also manage 380k IOPS for read and 360k for write.
For the money the 960 EVO is a very good option, if you aren’t needing the absolute best performance, the 960 EVO will still impress but for a fraction of the price.
3. Intel 600p – 512GB
Intel entered the conventual SSD market a little later than the big players but they created solid SSDs, that were perhaps a little expensive for what they were.
They are relatively early into the M.2 SSD game and the Intel 600p is a fantastic budget M.2 SSD that is sure to impress.
There are 128GB and 256GB versions of this drive but they do not take advantage of NVMe so make sure to go with the 512GB version or you’ll just get a drive that performs about on par with your standard SATA SSD.
For the 512GB versions you will be looking at 1775MB/s for read and 560MB/s for write, this isn’t the fastest speeds you can find for an NVMe drive, and the 960 EVO seems like a better price proposition at this point but the 600p can often go on sales for way under $150.
The Intel 600P thrives most on lighter operations, as such the 600p does a great job for gamers. If you are someone that is just looking to run games off of your M.2 SSD, then the 600p is a good choice if you can find it for below $150.
4. Western Digital Black NVMe – 512GB
Western Digital has long been known for their mechanical drives but they took a little too long to get into the SSD market, and when they did the results weren’t so amazing.
Their first NVMe SSDs are pretty good for the money though. At just $79 you get 2050MB/s for read speeds and 800MB/s for write speed. Whilst the write speed isn’t fantastic, the read speeds are great for the price. It has a rating of 170k for read IOPS and 135k write IOPS.
The WD Black is great for sequential writes so if your workload includes a lot of that then the WD Black is not a half-bad choice.
Western Digital has made a good first effort into M.2 drives but they just require a little fine-tuning to be up there with the best.
The pure value and performance of the Samsung NVMe M.2 SSDs make them hard to look past, but if you can find the budget options at a cheaper price, you will likely find they will give more performance than you can possibly use.