Solid-state drives (SSDs) are the latest and greatest regarding data storage, and for good reason. They offer superior reliability and transfer speeds to their predecessor, the hard disk drive. However, when upgrading your PC’s storage, you must consider whether the SSD and computer compatibility are sound. Let’s examine how you can ensure compatibility between these devices.
With What Does an SSD Interface?
The first thing to understand is which PC components your SSD is interfacing with. The primary part that your solid-state drive needs to be compatible with is the motherboard. The motherboard is the device that facilitates communication between all the parts of the computer. If these parts can’t work together, your device won’t be able to read from and write to the storage you’ve installed.
Solid-state drives can interface with your motherboard through many different types of connections. The four types of SSDs on the market right now are SATA, mSATA, M.2, and PCIe connectors. There are ups and downsides to each interface. Let’s examine those in detail.
Serial ATA (SATA) SSD: What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages?
Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (SATA) is the industry-standard bus used to connect a computer’s host adapter to a large-scale storage device such as an HDD, SSD, or optical drive. It uses serial signaling technology to transfer data as a sequence of bits. “SATA” can refer to the cable, connector, or drive.
SATA drives come in three sizes: 5.25-inch, 3.5-inch, and 2.5-inch. You won’t see many 5.25-inch drive bays in the modern day as they were typically reserved for optical drives. 3.25-inch chassis are the most common desktop storage housing, while laptops use 2.5-inch ones.
SATA SSDs are cheaper than other types. The technology isn’t as new, and the engineering has been molded over the decades to be more efficient. So, manufacturers can sell them at a lower price and still make a nice profit.
However, their overall transfer speeds are lower than some newer SSD types. This differential comes from the current hardware limitations of the SATA standard. However, even with these restrictions in mind, SATA solid-state drives still offer a significant performance boost over a hard disk drive.
How to Know if a SATA SSD Is Compatible with Your Desktop or Laptop PC
SATA SSDs require two things to be compatible with a desktop or laptop PC. The first thing they need is an available SATA connector on your motherboard. If you have a desktop PC with a proprietary motherboard, you can free up a SATA connector by removing the current hard disk drive. People who bought their own name-brand motherboards usually have six or more SATA connectors.
If you’re using all of your SATA connectors, you’ll need to unplug a hard drive that’s currently hooked up to the motherboard. If you already have a free connector, you can add the SSD to the list of hard drives if you want.
Laptop users will have more trouble finding a free connector since the form factor of laptops doesn’t beget an excess of open connectors. You’ll likely need to unplug your current hard drive to install an SSD when using a laptop computer.
SATA SSDs also need an open chassis to house the drive. If you have a drive bay of the wrong size, you can’t just leave the device loose in the case. Doing so could damage it and lead to an early failure. So, you’ll need to ensure that you have housing where you can put the drive while it’s connected to your computer.
With SATA drives, you can use an external housing frame. However, this is an added expense to the upgrade, and some users may need a place to put an external hard drive chassis. In this case, you must work with your internal drive bays. You can remove drives to free up bays for your upgraded storage.
Mini-Serial ATA (mSATA) SSD: What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages?
Mini-Serial ATA or mSATA SSDs are essentially the same as SATA SSDs, but they’re much smaller. This size factor means a few things. One, they don’t need as much housing space. Two, there’s less space for physical components within the SSD.
mSATA drives don’t need as much space, and they use a PCIe connector. So, you can easily fit them into smaller spaces, and they don’t need a chassis. However, the smaller form factor means the manufacturer can’t fit as much inside the drive’s physical form. So, they tend to have a smaller capacity than a standard SSD due to the physical constraints on the internal components.
Indeed, mSATA SSDs are limited to a total capacity of one terabyte, while standard SATA storage can go to 4 terabytes and higher. This capacity restriction means that mSATA SSDs can’t hold as much data and may be unideal for people who want to store a lot of information.
However, aside from the total capacity and physical connector, mSATA drives are essentially the same as SATA ones.
How to Know if an mSATA SSD Is Compatible with Your Desktop or Laptop Computer
An mSATA SSD requires a mini-PCIe slot to function. While the data transfer uses the SATA standard, the connection to the motherboard uses mini-PCIe form factors. Thus, your mobo will need a mini-PCIe slot to connect an mSATA solid-state drive to the computer.
Typically, laptops only come equipped with one mini-PCIe slot. That connector is usually for the Wi-Fi adapter, meaning you can’t really take it out without losing a significant function in your laptop. So, an mSATA SSD might be unworkable, even for the people the drives were designed for.
Additionally, mSATA has been widely replaced by the M.2 form factor. You will typically not see motherboards enabled for both mSATA and M.2. So, it’s essential to check whether your motherboard can actually support mSATA as it’s no longer a ubiquitous technology.
Step 1: Open System Information
To determine whether your computer’s PCIe slots are mSATA-enabled, you’ll need to check the technical specifications in your motherboard’s manual. You can find your motherboard information by typing “System” into your taskbar search and hitting Enter.
Step 2: Find Motherboard Model
Doing this will bring up the system information for your computer, including CPU and baseboard information. As you can see, my laptop has a proprietary SAMSUNG baseboard. Search the Baseboard Product information to find the available connectors on your computer’s motherboard and whether they’re enabled for mSATA.
Step 3: Find the Motherboard Specifications
Finding the motherboard specifications may be harder than it looks. For instance, my motherboard’s specifications are not printed online. The manufacturer specs simply refer to the slot as an “SSD” slot, which is actually meaningless.
You can go into the Hardware and Component Resources tabs to look at the information there. However, if you bought a pre-built computer with a proprietary motherboard, there’s always the chance that you have an expansion slot that is not shown and also different from the one that is shown.
In these situations, your only recourse is to physically open the computer and look at the slot(s) with your eyes to figure out what they are. This process is different for every computer. So, we can’t guide you on that.
M.2 SSD: What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages?
Formerly known as the Next Generation Form Factor (NGFF,) M.2 is a connector enabling high-power data transfer for energy-constrained devices, such as tablets and laptop computers. They have a smaller form factor than mSATA expansion cards. So, typically, these drives will replace mSATA entirely if your motherboard has them.
The M.2 connector uses the mini-PCIe form factor and can only interface with mPCIe slots enabled for M.2 cards. You will typically not see motherboards enabled for both mSATA and M.2. If your motherboard is M.2-ready, you should assume it cannot use mSATA cards and vice versa.
M.2 drives can be single or double-sided, and we typically express their sizes with a four or five-digit number. The first two numbers represent the card’s width, while the last two or three represent its length. Longer drives can fit more NAND chips and provide greater storage capacity.
Size is a significant advantage for M.2 chips. They’re smaller than mSATA drives, making them ideal for form factors that need to save space, like tablets, game consoles, and laptop computers. They also offer a significant performance boost over mSATA.
However, they’re costly and may be cost-prohibitive for many users when upgrading their devices to SSD storage. Additionally, while their maximum capacity is higher than mSATA at two terabytes, it’s still significantly smaller than SATA. Considering they’re almost twice as expensive as an equivalent SATA drive, it might feel a bit like highway robbery to spend twice as much on something that’s got half the maximum capacity.
Additionally, due to the small form factor and limited capacity, M.2 drives are typically not recommended for enterprise-level storage systems. They’re typically only used for small form factor mobile devices. If you want to replace a drive in a large-scale system like a desktop computer or enterprise RAID server, you’ll want to use a SATA or PCIe SSD.
How to Know if an M.2 SSD Is Compatible with Your Desktop or Laptop Computer
You can determine if your motherboard is M.2-compatible by viewing the manufacturer’s specifications. You probably didn’t save the manufacturer’s guide, and if you bought a pre-built computer, it probably didn’t come with it anyway.
You’ll use the same steps you would have used to find the baseboard model we outlined under mSATA. Then, search the information to find the technical specifications online.
It’s essential to remember that mSATA and M.2 compatibility are mutually exclusive. If a motherboard is mSATA-ready, it is not M.2-enabled and can’t use these drives, and vice versa.
PCIe SSD: What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages?
PCIe SSDs are solid-state storage drives that use the computer’s available PCIe slots to interface with the motherboard instead of the traditional SATA connectors. Most of these drives require a PCIe 4.0 interface. However, they’re backward-compatible if you’re okay with bottlenecking the data transfer speed down to whatever version of PCIe your motherboard has installed.
These SSDs are essentially just M.2 drives soldered to a PCIe connector, allowing them to utilize the PCIe standard rather than the M.2 one. They connect to standard PCIe slots, making them backward-compatible with previous PCIe standards. However, you’ll get the best performance if your motherboard has at least PCIe 3.0 slots, and the ideal connection is PCIe 4.0.
One of the most significant advantages of using a PCIe SSD over a SATA one is the ability to utilize the Non-Volatile Memory Express (NVMe) protocol. In 2008, a society of IT companies created the NVMe protocol to better suit the data transfer speeds and specifications necessary for ample non-volatile memory storage using PCIe slots.
We designed the SATA and SCSI protocols for older hardware, including tape-based memory. Thus, they have constraints from the needs and restraints of older hardware types. NVMe allows for better parallelism and higher data transfer speeds by better utilizing an SSD’s flash memory hardware.
Additionally, since most motherboards still retain their SATA compatibility, they can use the AHCI protocol when necessary. This factor allows them to pull double duty and support both SATA and PCIe memory.
How to Know if a PCIe SSD Is Compatible with Your Desktop or Laptop Computer
Determining PCIe SSD and computer compatibility is similar to figuring out whether your computer is compatible with an M.2 SSD. You’ll need to read your motherboard’s specifications to see what generation PCIe slots you have and whether they support NVMe.
To find that information, follow the same steps outlined under “How to Know If an mSATA SSD Is Compatible with Your Desktop or Laptop Computer” to get your motherboard model. Then, search for the technical specifications for it online.
Should I Upgrade from an HDD to an SSD?
HDD vs. SSD is on everyone’s mind right now. If you can afford the upgrade, you should consider upgrading your hard disk drive to a solid-state drive when possible. SSDs offer superior stability and data transfer speeds compared to HDDs.
Regardless of what connector you use to interface with your new SSD, you’ll experience a performance boost if your computer currently has an HDD.
You can even use HDDs in conjunction with SSDs. This can improve your computer’s operating stability while utilizing your old hardware to get the most storage possible. You won’t experience any stability issues or bottlenecks while running both hard disk and solid-state drives simultaneously. So, unlike some other components that have issues running multiple form factors at once, you can keep your old hard drives and only move the most crucial data over to your SSD.
The best practice when using HDDs and SSDs in one machine is to put the operating system (OS) on the solid-state drive and use the hard disk for simple file storage. Solid-state storage supports higher data transfer speeds than hard disk and is less susceptible to corruption, making it ideal for handling OS tasks.
When to Use Solid-State Storage
Since these tasks will have a better user experience if the computer completes them faster and needs to retain file integrity, SSDs are an ideal storage type for the files. Solid-state storage is more stable, faster, and more resistant to file corruption. So, you’re less likely to experience issues with your operating system — the backbone of your computer’s operation — and it will run faster.
SSDs are also ideal for game file storage. Since games need to access and load data stored in non-volatile memory quickly, solid-state storage improves game experiences. Typically, moving your game data to solid-state drives will reduce loading screen time and improve game file integrity.
Are Solid-State Drives Better than Hard Disk Drives?
SSDs have fewer moving parts than HDDs. Ultimately, with fewer components in motion, fewer things can break. However, to understand why solid-state drives offer superior reliability and file integrity over hard-disk drives, you must understand how both devices store data.
Hard disk drives use a spinning disk with a thin magnetic coating. As the disk moves, the “head” writes ones and zeroes into the magnetic coating as areas of North and South magnetic poles. To read the data back, it returns the HDD to the same spot it wrote the ones and zeroes and reads those back as binary code representing the data.
Solid-state drives store data in electronic cells. Information is stored in sequential “blocks.” To rewrite a block, the whole block must be cleared and rewritten. Thus, SSDs have no moving physical components necessary for reading and writing memory.
SSDs and HDDs have roughly the same lifespan of about five years. SSDs wear down because deleting and rewriting their cells causes wear and tear damage to the electronics. However, most have “wear leveling,” which evenly distributes the data writing over all the drive’s blocks to improve the overall lifespan. HDDs have constant wear and tear damage occurring because moving a component causes slight damage.
However, despite having a similar lifespan, HDDs continue to excel over SSDs in long-term storage. Solid-state storage can experience data leaks as early as one year in use. They also become vastly less reliable the closer they are to their maximum terabytes written (TBW).
Since SSDs have no moving parts, they also use less energy. This power draw reduction is not usually significant enough to make a difference on a single drive in a large computer. However, multi-drive computers may see some performance increases from switching to solid-state storage.
Data Transfer Protocols and Speeds
Despite using less power and having fewer moving parts, SSDs also have higher data transfer speeds and access to NVMe, while hard disk drives are limited to Serial ATA. SATA standard is no longer cutting-edge, and NVMe is a far superior protocol for data transfer.
However, it’s worth noting that SSDs are almost double the price of most HDDs. Since solid-state storage is becoming more common, the engineering of the manufacturing process is getting better, and prices are going down. However, you’ll still see the most trusted brands selling SSDs for around $120 per terabyte. Conversely, HDDs are around $60 per terabyte of storage.
Maximum Storage Capacity
Additionally, consumer models have wildly different maximum storage capacities. Most regular people will see SSDs max out around eight terabytes of storage. However, HDDs can ship with upwards of 20 terabytes of storage on consumer models.
However, SSD technology is constantly evolving and advancing, especially as it’s getting more ubiquitous. SAMSUNG and Toshiba introduced a solid-state drive with 30-odd terabytes of space in 2018. Later, Nimbus Data released 100TB SSDs that use the SATA interface.
What SSD Form Factor Is Best for Me?
Since SSDs have four possible form factors, you may be wondering which one is best to use on your computer. The easiest way to determine which solid-state drive type you should purchase will be how much storage you need, how much space you have in your case, and what connectors you have available.
If you need a lot of storage, SATA SSDs will be your best choice. While their data transfer speeds are lower, they have access to form factors that allow for more data storage. Small-sized solid-state drives physically have fewer cells. After all, there’s less physical space to put stuff in. If you want to upgrade a large-scale storage space, SATA SSDs will suit your needs well.
If you need a super small SSD for a tablet, game console, or laptop computer, M.2 will be your go-to connector. However, you should ensure that your device is M.2-compatible. Older machines may have mSATA connections instead of the newer M.2 ones.
If you need the highest speeds, PCIe has access to the NVMe protocol. This protocol allows for the best data transfer speeds on the market. However, you’ll need an appropriate PCIe slot, or the connector will bottleneck your SSD.
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