The Fastest M.2 NVMe SSDs in September 2020
Gaming PC Builder is reader-supported. When using links on our site to make a purchase, we may earn an affiliate commission.
Faster storage can shave seconds off most of your PC activities – from booting up your OS to loading apps and games. If you are currently booting from a hard drive, there is no other upgrade that will have such a noticeable effect on your user experience as a solid state drive (SSD).
But not all SSDs are created equal. If you have an available PCIe M.2 slot on your motherboard (desktop or laptop), then this is where to install your system drive. The best m.2 drives also use the modern storage interface protocol NVMe.
Table of Contents
- What is NVMe and do I need it?
- Fastest VS best value M.2 SSD
- Best M.2 NVMe SSDs 2020 (September)
- What drive is best for gaming?
- Will it work in my desktop/laptop PC?
- How to choose the right capacity
What SSD performance boils down to is how quickly it lets you move data from storage (non-volatile, slower) to DRAM (volatile, faster).
The NVMe protocol – short for non-volatile memory express – was created to make the most out of solid state drives in combination with the PCI Express (PCIe) interface. Its predecessor AHCI (paired with SATA) was originally intended for mechanical hard drives. The newer protocol includes many efficiency improvements to deal with parallel transfers and the low-latency nature of SSDs. If you are new to NVMe and want a primer on the concept, start with this introduction by Intel.
When shopping for a new SSD, it’s important to remember that M.2 is just a form factor that says nothing of performance. Some M.2 SSDs operate over the SATA interface and have the same performance limitations as a 2.5″ drive. If you have a relatively modern motherboard, it most likely has a PCIe/NVMe-capable (and therefore much faster) M.2 slot, so this is the type of drive to look for.
If you want an M.2 SSD that is consistently fast in all areas – and don’t mind paying more – you can opt for a drive that uses MLC (multi-level cell) Flash memory chips, such as the Samsung 970 PRO. But if you don’t work with storage-heavy applications, you will not notice the difference compared to a drive based on more affordable 3D TLC (triple-level cell) memory. Today’s TLC-based drives can be as fast as MLC-based SSDs in most relevant areas thanks to some amazingly innovative use of caching technology.
As of now, the vast majority of the leading M.2 SSDs in both the PCIe 3/Gen3 and the PCIe 4/Gen4 categories use TLC memory. So for a fair comparison, we will stick to this memory type in our top picks of each:
Last update on 2020-09-29 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
Fastest PCIe 4.0 NVMe M.2 SSD: Sabrent Rocket Gen4
If and only if you have a motherboard that supports PCI Express 4.0 (or plan to upgrade soon), then this is a suitable SSD. At this point, only AMD X570 motherboards equipped with a Ryzen 3000-series CPU (or 3rd-gen Threadripper) support the interface in the consumer space. As of the mid-2020, all PCIe 4.0-capable SSDs including the Rocket Gen4 are based on the same Phison PS5016-E16 controller and 3D TLC NAND combo, resulting in roughly the same performance. The other, nearly identical drives (among a few others) are:
- Gigabyte Aorus Gen4
- Corsair Force MP600
- Patriot Viper VP4100
- Seagate Firecuda 520
- Adata XPG Gammix S50
PCIe 4.0 SSDs are known to run quite hot compared to their PCIe 3.0 counterparts, so unless you have a motherboard with an included heat spreader (often supplied with X570 boards), this might be a useful addition to a Gen4 SSD. The Corsair MP600 is available with or without a heat spreader, as is the Sabrent Rocket Gen4, while the Seagate Firecuda 520 ships without one. Some drives, such as the XPG Gammix S50, are only available with a heat spreader. Bear in mind that these heatsinks add to the devices’ dimensions and will usually not fit in a laptop.
When combined with the right motherboard, you will get exceptional sequential transfer rates of up to 5 GB/s with any of the above Gen4 drives. Again, this is only with a compatible motherboard/CPU combo – otherwise, these drives will max out at PCIe 3.0 speeds, or about 3,500 MB/s.
Note: If you are planning to buy a Gen4 M.2 SSD in the second half of 2020, you should also be aware of the Samsung 980 series, which will launch at some point before the end of this year. According to an accidentally published product page, the Samsung 980 PRO will outperform the current range of Phison-based SSDs with a sizeable margin – reaching speeds of up to 7,000 MB/s (sequential read). If the leaked product page is correct, this drive will use TLC NAND and come in 250 GB, 500 GB, and 1 TB capacities at launch (no exact date has been announced).
Best PCIe 3.0 NVMe M.2 SSD: Samsung 970 PRO
No single drive will take home the crown as the fastest M.2. SSD in every benchmark or practical use case. However, our choice as the best general performer in the PCIe 3.0 segment in the second quarter of 2020 is the MLC-based Samsung 970 PRO – a drive that still tops many performance charts in the M.2 PCI Express category.
It’s also considered one of the most reliable. Samsung’s performance and reliability track record in the SSD segment has been almost flawless for nearly a decade, so this drive is a very comfortable recommendation.
The 970 PRO comes with Samsung’s proprietary controller and MLC chips, as well as an excellent endurance rating of 1,200 TBW (1TB) or 600 TBW (512GB). Unfortunately, the 970 PRO is only available in two capacities: 512 GB and 1 TB, which limits your choices. It may also be a somewhat questionable choice when looking at the performance/$ equation, since the cost per GB is well above average.
Read more about the 970 PRO in our SSD database >>
Best Value/Performance (PCIe 3.0): Samsung 970 EVO Plus
This will ultimately depend on today’s prices for the best M.2 SSDs on the market (scroll down for a more comprehensive list). Nevertheless, Samsung’s 970 EVO Plus is much more affordable than the PRO but very close in terms of raw performance. Although it doesn’t use premium MLC NAND, this drive is among the very best – and will likely remain so until we see more competition in the PCIe 4.0 segment.
Read more about the 970 EVO Plus in our SSD database >>
On the same note, also consider the more affordable yet well-rounded PCIe 3.0 Sabrent Rocket which offers an attractive mix of value and performance. This drive comes with a Phison E12 controller and Toshiba TLC NAND – a high-end combo that puts it nearly on par with the 970 EVO but at a significantly lower cost.
There are alternatives to all of the above of course. Some of which could be better options if the price is right, so don’t stop reading just yet. In the following list we’ve put together some of the best-performing, recently released drives. They are ordered by sequential performance first, random second. Because of the drives’ different controllers and memory types, these numbers are only an indication of actual performance.
|#||Name||Max. sequential read/write (MB/s)||4K random read/write performance (IOPS)||Endurance rating (terabytes written)||Check Price|
|1||Sabrent Rocket Gen4 (1TB)||5000/4400||750K/750K||1800 TBW||Amazon
|2||Gigabyte Aorus Gen4 (1TB)||5000/4400||750K/700K||1800 TBW||Amazon
|3||Corsair MP600 Gen4 (1TB)||4950/4250||680K/600K||1800 TBW||Amazon
|4||Samsung 970 PRO (1TB)||3500/2700||500K/500K||1200 TBW||Amazon
|5||Samsung 970 EVO PLUS (1TB)||3500/3300||600K/550K||600 TBW||Amazon
|6||Adata XPG SX8200 Pro (1TB)||3500/3000||390K/380K||640 TBW||Amazon
|7||PNY XLR8 CS3030 (1TB)||3500/3000||N/A||1665 TBW||Amazon
|8||HP EX950 (1TB)||3500/2900||410K/370K||650 TBW||Amazon
|9||Corsair Force MP510 (960 GB)||3480/3000||280K/700K||720 TBW||Amazon
|10||WD Black SN750 (1TB)||3430/3000||515K/560K||600 TBW||Amazon
|11||Intel SSD 760p (1TB)||3230/1625||340K/275K||576 TBW||Amazon
|12||Intel Optane SSD 800P (118GB)||1450/640||250K/140K||365 TBW||Amazon
Remember that the Gen4 SSDs on top of the list requires a PCI Express 4.0-capable motherboard (X570 chipset) to run at full speed. In other words: don’t pay extra for a Gen4 SSD unless you own a suitable motherboard or plan to upgrade soon.
High-End Alternative: Intel Optane 800p
The last drive on our list is also a high-end option. Although its sequential performance might not sound like much, Intel’s Optane 800p is faster than all other M.2 SSDs in certain areas. Its extremely low latency makes random performance at low queue depths particularly good, which is an advantage for a system drive. The reason why it’s hard to compare it with other SSDs is that it uses Intel’s proprietary 3D XPoint memory instead of ‘normal’ NAND Flash.
Unfortunately, it also comes with a much higher cost/GB than competing drives and is only available in two tiny capacities – 58 GB and 118 GB. Read more about it here, or head straight to AnandTech for the most detailed review online.
All storage-intensive tasks that move lots of files around will be affected by an SSDs capability. However, a faster SSD will not necessarily shorten loading times in games by large amounts. Here’s an interesting test from the web, comparing an M.2 PCIe SSD (970 Pro) versus an older 2.5″ SATA SSD (plus a mechanical hard drive) when loading various games:
Here’s a summary of the data:
|Game||Loading from |
2.5" SATA SSD
970 Pro (PCIe/NVMe)
(NVMe Vs SATA)
|Deus Ex: Mankind Divided||71s||27s||21s||-22%|
|Far Cry 5||25s||10s||11s||+10%|
|Path of Exile||23s||3s||3s||+0%|
|World of Warcraft||36s||7s||6s||-14%|
|Skyrim Special Edition||20s||9s||12s||+33%|
Source: YouTube user Alexandr iuneWind
With these results in mind, it is probably safe to assume that a comparison of individual high-end M.2 PCIe SSDs will result in small differences as far as gaming is concerned. The usual price/performance calculation will serve you well. Of course, all seconds saved add up to minutes and hours in the long run, so a fast M.2 NVMe SSD is still a key component in a high-end PC. But in most cases, you should not expect the sort of radical performance gains that you see when coming from a traditional hard drive.
For the listed drives to work with your computer, it must have the proper slot and support for PCIe/NVMe. But there may be exceptions: Even without an M.2 slot on your (desktop) motherboard, you may still be able to use one in a full-size PCIe x4 slot using an adapter. But if you want to run your OS from the drive, your motherboard must still support booting from PCIe, which is no guarantee with older motherboards.
All recent, high-end ATX-size motherboards, on the other hand, include at least one M.2 slot and will be able to run a modern SSD at PCIe 3.0 speeds at a minimum. With an older board, you might not be so lucky. In any event, it’s always best to check the manual before buying a new drive.
Keying and Sizes
M.2 SSDs (and other M.2 cards) come in different sizes and some motherboards – particularly in laptops – will only hold a drive up to a certain size. They also have different sets of notches (keying) that will prevent you from installing it the wrong way.
M.2 Keying and Size
Three different key types or ‘notch styles’ may be used by M.2 SSDs: B, M or B&M. The socket can be either B or M, but not both.
High-end SSDs, as well as recent motherboards, will have to use an M-key slot, as this is the only type that provides four lanes of bandwidth, or 20 Gbit/s, also known as PCIe x4. B-key supports ‘only’ PCIe x2, or 10 Gbit/s.
On many motherboards, the connector itself or the PCB next to it will be labeled with the keying. Otherwise, check the specs or the manual. Likewise, M.2 card length might be stamped on the board, looking something like this:
High-capacity drives have additional memory chips mounted on the card and may require more space in some cases. The M.2 standard allows for cards of five different lengths, with the number format meaning width-length in millimeters. All sizes are the same width, so the two most common, 2280 and 2242, are 80mm and 42mm long, respectively (and so on). All sizes:
Not all motherboards – and much less all laptops – can accommodate the longest cards and some might not even support the common 2280 size (the format used by most of the drives listed above). 22110 drives are however very rare.
Also, don’t confuse M.2 and mSATA, which is another, older standard. These slots may look similar on the motherboard, but they’re not compatible. M.2 SSDs may also use the SATA interface, but that doesn’t mean it’s an mSATA drive.
Yes, it really is a bit confusing, but fortunately, M.2 2280 is the most common standard by far, so it’s actually hard to get it wrong. But just to be safe:
Checklist Before Buying an M.2 SSD
- Check the drive’s interface and M.2 keying, e.g. B+M-key/M-key (all PCIe x4 SSDs are M-key).
- Make sure it matches the slot on your motherboard or in your laptop. You can usually find this information on the specs page.
- Also ensure that the length of the drive is supported, e.g. 2280 or 2242 (numbers in bold are millimeters).
To sum things up about keying and interfaces: it might sound complicated, but really isn’t. If you are building a high-end PC based on a Z170, Z270, B350/B450, X370/X470 chipset, it will likely have an M-key slot. And if so, most of the popular M-key or B+M-key drives will work. But there are a few exceptions, so it’s best to double-check.
You can hardly ever have too much storage space, but all of it doesn’t have to be super fast. There is no reason to use an expensive, high-end SSD to store family photos or your Steam library backups.
Speaking for myself, a primary 1 TB SSD is enough to hold the stuff I use on a regular basis. That includes the OS, all work-related apps, and a few games – basically what I want quick access to on a regular basis. The rest is mostly distributed on some affordable terabytes of hard drive space.
What capacity you need is always a personal question. If you just want a really fast computer for work (and who doesn’t?), you can probably get by with as little as 128 GB and use hard drives for the rest. However, when looking at the price/performance ratio (performance is usually improved in larger capacities), 240 or 256 GB drives offer a much more attractive entry-level price point. If you want to install any larger number of games, 1 TB should be considered a minimum size.
Most importantly, you want to boot from your fastest drive. That means it must be able to store the OS and all of its associated files (such as caches and swap). And it’s not that much:
- Windows 10 (64-bit): 20GB
- MacOs Catalina: 12.5GB
- Ubuntu 20.04: 25GB
- Manjaro 18/19: 30GB
- Linux Mint 20: 20GB
- Elementary OS 5 (Debian/Ubuntu): 15GB
- Fedora 30 Workstation: 10GB
- OpenSuse Tumbleweed: 40GB
Those numbers may or may not be a minimum requirement, but also add – at the very least – the amount of RAM in your system to be on the safe side (to make room for the swap file). Office apps are usually not that demanding either, with MS Office taking up about 4 GB of space on your SSD. Games tend to use a lot more but can range in size from a few hundred megabytes to dozens of gigabytes, so there is no simple answer. On the other hand, loading games from a slower device (but preferably still an SSD) is still a viable option, as seen above.