Types of M.2 Drives – And How They Differ from Other SSDs

types of m.2 drives

Types of M.2 Drives – And How They Differ from Other SSDs

Key Points

  • M.2 drives offer faster native transfer rates than traditional SSDs, providing better performance for resource-intensive computing and gaming.
  • M.2 drives come in two standard specifications: PCI-E, which has a higher transfer rate than SATA, and NVMe, which is even faster than PCI-E-based M.2 drives.
  • The primary advantage of M.2 drives over SATA SSDs is their speed and smaller form factor, allowing for more efficient data transfers and freeing up drive bays for other storage media.

Few can deny the speed and efficacy of the M.2 standard for SSDs. While the original batch of SSDs available to consumers was fast, the M.2 has faster native transfer rates. There is some confusion, though, about the different types of M.2 drives.

If you’re new to the world of computers, or you’re a seasoned pro with a gap in your knowledge, it is definitely worth exploring your options.

So, with this in mind, let’s take a closer and more in-depth look at the M.2 drive. The different types will be analyzed. We’ll also provide an overview of the advantages of the M.2 standard over other SSDs on the market today. Who knows, maybe one of these drive types will be the center of your next build.

M.2 Drive Overview

The M.2 specification was originally launched in 2012 by Intel. It serves as the basis for a more expansive interface system. Not only can an M.2 interface pass standard SATA signals, but it can also work with PCI-E and USB signals.

This makes it a fairly flexible specification, meaning it could be used for discrete graphic accelerators and other peripherals. For the laptops of today, it means more expansion and customization.

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However, the primary use of the M.2 standard seems to be based on storage. Solid-state drives are nothing new in the world of computing. That said, the M.2 specification has allowed for the format to flourish. Chances are you’re looking at M.2 drives if you’re in the market for a new PC.

What makes the M.2 specification noteworthy is the plethora of socket sizes available. This allows for a good amount of flexibility, depending on the intended device.

M.2 Drive Types

M.2 drives come in two standard specifications. One is the more common PCI-E slot, most commonly used for peripherals like graphical accelerators and the like.

PCI-E has a higher transfer rate than SATA, which is capped at a standard 550 MB/s. As such, if you have a modern M.2 drive with a PCI-E slot, your performance can be outstanding when in use.

The other primary type of M.2 drive is the NVMe. NVMe stands for Non-Volatile Memory Express, and it is even faster than a PCI-E-based M.2 drive. NVMe drives are higher performance by design. But, there are certain caveats that come with that.

As with any storage media on the market, not all devices are equal. For the purposes of this guide, the drives covered will be more generalized. This is more suitable than detailed specifications.

How Do They Differ?

PCI-E M.2 drives directly interface through the aforementioned PCI-E slots. PCI-E allows for faster data transfers. They have higher throughput compared to traditional SATA interfaces. This is the more affordable option if you are choosing to go for an M.2 drive.

The socket sizes largely do not change for the PCI-E variant of the M.2 specification. If you’re just looking for additional storage, you could easily repurpose spare PCI-E slots into compatible drive bays to accommodate more SSDs. Every PC desktop on the market has a PCI-E slot, making this something of a universal upgrade.

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NVMe drives don’t use a universal connector type like SATA, USB, or PCI-E. Instead, NVMe support is decided by the hardware manufacturer. For desktops, this can come in the form of specialized drive bays built directly onto the motherboard.

Laptops may have support for the specification as well. As you can imagine, there is a higher cost to using an NVMe drive. You will have to have a compatible main board and you’ll be paying more on average for the drives themselves.

Does One Have an Inherent Advantage?

PCI-E M.2 drives use a universal standard found on PCs of all sorts of price points. More modern laptops will have support for M.2 drives and will use a dedicated PCI-E slot accessible to the user. PCI-E does have limits to its bandwidth, especially at lower standards like x4 or x8.

That said, it is still faster than a comparable SATA SSD. You’ll find most PCI-E M.2 drives boot operating systems in seconds. Specific applications are likely to open instantly.

However, the PCI-E M.2 is not the high-speed one. The NVMe specification is a monster when it comes to data throughput. Not relying on a universal interface means the NVMe can be addressed in a similar manner to RAM. As such, you might be opening your operating system even faster.

Which One Is Better for Me?

If you’re looking to swap to an M.2 drive, you’ll need to consider what you have present on your device first. If you’ve got a compatible laptop or desktop with an NVMe slot, you might as well opt for the NVMe drive. Laptops will usually come with this just included by default from the manufacturer.

As for the rest, you need to ask yourself what you value more when upgrading your SSD. If cost-efficiency and universal adapters are more your thing, then a PCI-E-based M.2 drive is a safe bet. It won’t be as fast, but it is already magnitudes faster than a comparable SATA drive in the same price range.

Desktop users will need a compatible motherboard to take full advantage of NVMe. If you have an older computer or are using a less expensive motherboard, this might not be an option.

If you do have a compatible motherboard, there is little reason to stick with a PCI-E M.2 drive. You get a PCI-E slot free for other peripherals and can still get great transfer speeds.

M.2 Drives vs SATA SSDs

As previously mentioned, SATA SSDs have an inherent limitation. Transfer speeds for the SATA specification are capped at 500 MB/s. Now, coming from a mechanical drive, this is much faster for transferring data and performing tasks.

That said, it pales in comparison to the transfer rates when looking at an M.2 drive. The advantage of switching to the newer specification is entirely speed and form factor related. A SATA SSD takes up a 2.5-inch drive bay.

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When looking at even the largest of the M.2 PCI-E drives, you’ll notice they are a good deal smaller and leave your drive bays free for other storage media. Ideally, you would be running important applications and the operating system off the M.2 drive.

The slowest PCI-E M.2 drive is still going to have transfer rates in the GB/s range, which is exponentially higher when moving data around or accessing applications. Likewise, the NVMe drive is even faster with transfer rates in the 1,000s of GB/s on average. If you value performance, you might as well opt for an M.2 drive over a comparable SATA drive.

Closing Thoughts

M.2 drives are the next step forward for storage media on desktops and laptops alike. Now, if you’re already using an SSD with the SATA specification, you should be perfectly fine. For most users just looking to use their computer for office-related tasks, there isn’t a huge need to upgrade.

If you’re involved in resource-intensive computing or gaming, then an M.2 drive might be worth a look. The slightly higher cost pales in comparison to the high-performance throughput you’ll get from the device.

Before swapping over, however, you’ll want to make sure your device is compatible with the specification itself. If you’re running an older laptop or desktop, you might not have the option of using the NVMe drive, for example.

Summary Table

PCI-E M.2 DriveHigher transfer rate than SATA, universal standard, more affordableSlower than NVMe, limited bandwidth
NVMe M.2 DriveExtremely fast data throughput, addressed like RAMHigher cost, requires compatible hardware

Frequently Asked Questions

Is the M.2 specification better than SATA?

It isn’t inherently better than SATA but can supplant it entirely if need be. Just as computing has moved from serial connectors, it might eventually move to the M.2 standard for other peripherals when the manufacturing process catches up.

Are M.2 SSDs large?

Not really, they’re about the same size as a stick of RAM on the larger end. Smaller sockets are comparable to something like an SD card.

Is gaming better with a M.2 drive?

If you have capable hardware it should be a night and day difference in terms of performance. You might actually see bottlenecks arise with other components in your PC, however.

Do Macs support M.2?

There isn’t a logical reason why a Mac would lack compatibility. That said, modern Macs are using a proprietary chipset with its own storage considerations. Apple has taken to integrating storage as a chip directly on the motherboard itself.

How can I tell if my motherboard is compatible with NVMe?

You’ll need to check any documentation from your motherboard’s manufacturer to determine if it is NVMe-compatible.

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