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Hard drive 101 Hard drive SSD formats explained

All you need to know on latest Hard drive SSD formats in the market

Hard disk drives (HDDs) have been around for more than 60 years. It’s amazing to think that people still use the devices as the main storage to this day, but it will eventually change in the coming future. Now, SSDs are on the craze and it’s much faster, smaller and lighter than the standard HDD format.

While SSDs are convenient to use, that’s not the case when picking one. There are 3 regularly used terms when people discuss SSDs: SATA, M.2, and NVMe SSD. These jargons can make some folks who want to buy an SSD confused since the differences between them are not clear-cut.

With HDD, your choices are simply to look at the RPM (e.g. 5400 RPM or 7200 RPM) to decide which one is the faster one, and choose if you need a 3.5” or 2.5” dimension drive. Laptops are always 2.5”, desktops 3.5” and you can benefit from the faster speeds.

In that case, let’s discuss the difference between M.2 vs. SATA vs. NVMe SSDs and compare them with the good old HDDs.

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What is M.2?

To get everything in order, let’s start by making clear what M.2 is and how it differs. M.2 is the specification for expansion cards—in this case, SSDs that are inserted into the computer via the expansion slot. For M.2 SSDs, the slot needed can be found on the motherboard. M.2 is generally referred to as the form-factor of SSDs.

M.2 SSDs are designed to be high-performing storage devices despite being small in size. “High-performing” here refers to a mix between decent data capacity and faster transfer speed. The size of components is an important factor especially for ultra-thin notebooks or PCs with mini form-factor.

M.2 SSDs are the replacement to the mSATA (mini-SATA) SSDs, which are the older variant of SSDs you can sometimes still find on the market today, along with the 2.5 inches SSDs. With that said, mSATA SSDs are still an improvement to the long-standing HDDs.

Any SSDs can be easily around three times faster than even the most powerful commercial HDD. What M.2 SSD can offer, however, is on another level. More on this later.

What is SATA?

You are likely familiar with this term. Both HDD and SDD can be the SATA type, more specifically, SATA III. SATA refers to Serial ATA, which is a computer bus or communication system that can transfer data between components inside a computer and storage devices, i.e. SSD or HDD. Basically, SATA is simply a connection type and doesn’t tell us much about the storage device that uses it.

SATA is the successor of now old PATA (Parallel ATA), which is the predominant standard in the 90s and before, with plenty of ribbon cables. Naturally, since SATA brought faster speed, it ultimately replaced PATA and was once used by 99% PC in 2008. One of the notorious features of SATA is that the storage drives require both SATA data cable and SATA power cable to function.

SSD was so expensive for a really long time but the price and larger capacity creep has meant that SSD drives have been featured in new devices for sometime, and benefit from the lighter, faster benefits. However, as we all know, not only are they way cheaper than they used to be, SSDs are so fast these days. As mentioned before, any SSD has at least three times more performance to even the best consumer-grade HDD. Right now, 500MB/s-ish SSDs are the norm. With the maximum transfer speed of 600MB/s, SATA III connections for these SSDs are quick enough. However, what if the storage device is way faster than the SATA III can handle?

What is NVMe?

NVMe stands for Non-Volatile Memory Express. According to Wikipedia, “it is an open logical device interface used by non-volatile memory, such as SSD, that is attached to PCI Express bus”.

To put it simply, NVMe allows the PC’s hardware and software to fully use the full potential of modern SSDs, making the SSD effectively run as fast as the flash memory inside the device can handle. NVMe is a successor to the AHCI (Advanced Host Controller Interface). It’s the interface protocol defined by Intel for use with the slower SATA drives.

Using NVMe, SSDs can run beyond the speed limit of what can be achieved by any SATA SSDs. Remember what we discussed about the M.2 SSDs that can offer much more than what mSATA drives can?

That’s right, more modern M.2 SSDs use NVMe as the protocol to provide extra advantages, which include reduced latency and more maximum number of read/writes, in other words, more speed. While SATA III SSD has a maximum speed of 600 MB/s, you can find an M.2 drive that can achieve the speed of 5 GB/s on the market.

That’s not the maximum speed, mind you. We can expect that commercial NVME SSDs to be even more swift in the future.

The faster M.2 drives won’t use SATA III as the bus to communicate with other components, it’s simply not enough! Instead, they use PCI Express (PCIe) as the communication bus. PCIe bus offers much more bandwidth compared to SATA III. As of now, a single lane PCI Express 4.0 can support the rated speed of up to 2 GB/S.

Since M.2 SSDs use four lanes connectors, they can technically reach 8 GB/S. If they can’t—which is the case right now for most NVMe SSDs, the bottleneck here is now the SSD instead of the bus. That’s not the end of the line, though. The PCI Express 6.0 standard to be released around 2021, is expected to increase the bandwidth by four times to 8 GB/S per lane.

Another thing to note is that not all M.2s are NVMe. There are cheaper M.2s that still use SATA III. Thus, these SATA M.2 SSDs won’t be able to pass the 600MB/s limit. Although it performs just about the same as other types of SSDs, M.2 SATA SSD still offers some benefits such as smaller form factors and no cables needed.

M.2 SSD Connector
As well as the two types of M.2, you’ll find some differences in the connectors. You will need to make sure you buy the right type of M.2 SSD for the connection on your motherboard, just check if on an older systems.
Three configurations are available, where the position of the notch, the gap in the edge connector should be considered if you are upgrading older hardware. - M is the main connector in my view, but look up your motherboard or laptop to check.

B: The notch is six pins from the left.
M: The notch is five pins from the right.
B&M: Features two notches; first is six pins from the left, the second is five pins from the right.

Which One Should You Choose?

Before intending to buy, make sure your motherboard supports the connection bus the SSD requires. For instance, if you want to get an M.2 drive, make sure your motherboard has the slot for it. Check your board manufacturer website for more details. If not, you need to buy a 2.5 inch SSD instead, which is still an improvement over HDD.

The second thing to consider is price. For the same capacity, NVMe SSDs are generally more expensive compared to SATA SSDs, even though you may find both of them sold at almost the same price. If your motherboard supports the M.2 form factor as well as the correct version of PCI Express, it may be better to invest in an NVMe SSD instead of the SATA for a small amount $10-30/£20-£40 more and you will have more system or upgrade future proof.

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