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Moving to 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 simply no other component that will have a comparable effect on your user experience than an SSD.
But not all solid state drives are created equal. If you have an available M.2 slot on your motherboard (desktop or laptop), then this is most likely this type of SSD you want as a system drive. Preferably, it should also be compatible with PCI Express and 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 2019 (January)
- What drive is the best for gaming?
- Will it work in my desktop/laptop PC?
- How to choose the right capacity
What SSD speed boils down to is how fast you can move data from storage (non-volatile, slow) to DRAM (volatile, fast).
NVMe – short for non-volatile memory express – was created to make the most out of solid state drives in combination with the PCI Express interface. Its predecessor was and is AHCI (paired with SATA), which was originally intended for mechanical hard drives. The newer protocol includes lots of efficiency improvements when dealing with parallel transfers and the low-latency nature of SSDs.
If you want to learn more about NVMe, start by checking out this introduction by Intel. It’s aimed at Intel’s data center customers but is accessible to anyone who wants a quick overview of the NVMe advantages.
When shopping for a new SSD, it’s important to know that M.2 is just a form factor that says nothing of performance. Some M.2 SSDs operate over the SATA interface, making it no different from a 2.5″ drive in terms of performance. Other drives instead use PCI Express (PCIe), which is a considerably faster interface.
The short version is that if you want an M.2 SSD that is consistently fast during long-term, heavy use – and don’t mind paying a bit more – you should opt for one that uses MLC Flash (or 3D XPoint) memory chips. But if you don’t work with storage-heavy applications you will probably won’t notice the difference compared to a drive based on 3D TLC memory. TLC-based drives are more affordable but can be as fast as MLC-based SSDs in shorter bursts.
MLC, or Multi-level cell NAND, generally offer better endurance and overall performance than its triple-level cell counterpart. But for a vast majority of users, TLC endurance will be more than enough, and the difference in performance is barely noticeable.
Last update on 2019-11-19 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
Fastest PCIe 4.0 NVMe M.2 SSD: Gigabyte Aorus Gen4
If – and only if – you have a motherboard that supports PCI Express 4.0 (at this point only AMD X570 boards with Ryzen 3000-series CPUs), then here’s a suitable SSD. All current PCIe 4.0-capable SSDs are based on the same Phison PS5016-E16 controller and 3D TLC Toshiba BiCS4 memory. For this reason, they offer about the same performance.
Apparently, PCIe 4.0 SSDs run hot, so a model with a heatsink is recommended. When combined with the right motherboard, there is no question that you get amazing transfer rates of up to 5 TB/s. Again, this is only with a compatible motherboard/CPU combo – otherwise, these drives will max out at PCIe 3.0 speeds.
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 of 2019, is still the versatile Samsung 970 PRO – a drive that currently tops many performance charts in the M.2 PCI Express category.
It’s also considered one of the most reliable. Actually, Samsung’s performance and reliability track record in the SSD segment has been almost flawless for nearly a decade, so it’s a very comfortable recommendation.
The 970 PRO comes with Samsung’s proprietary controller and MLC chips, as well as an excellent endurance rating. Unfortunately, the 970 PRO is only available in two capacities: 512 GB and 1 TB, which limits your choices. It may also be a questionable choice when looking at the performance/$ equation because the cost per GB is above average.
Read more about the 970 PRO in our SSD database >>
Best Value: 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 full list). Nevertheless, Samsung’s 970 EVO Plus is cheaper than the PRO and very close in terms of raw performance. Although it uses less durable TLC 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 check out the affordable yet well-rounded MyDigitalSSD BPX Pro, which is normally a nice mix of value and performance. MyDigitalSSD might not be one of the big names in storage, but the company has successfully released a relatively wide range of SSDs based on well-known third-party components. This particular drive uses Toshiba 3D TLC NAND memory in combination with the recent Phison E12 controller. The result is a lot of fast storage for the money.
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)||Store link|
|2||Gigabyte Aorus Gen4 (500GB)||5000/2500||550K/400K||850 TBW||View on Amazon|
|1||Sabrent Rocket Gen4 (500GB)||5000/2500||N/A||N/A||View on Amazon|
|3||Corsair MP600 Gen4 (500GB)||4950/2500||550K/420K||850 TBW||View on Amazon|
|4||Samsung 970 PRO (512GB)||3500/2700||370K/500K||600 TBW||View on Amazon|
|5||Samsung 970 EVO PLUS (500GB)||3500/3200||480K/550K||300 TBW||View on Amazon|
|6||WD Black SN750 (500GB)||3470/2600||420K/380K||300 TBW||View on Amazon|
|7||Adata XPG SX8200 Pro (512GB)||3500/2300||390K/380K||320 TBW||View on Amazon|
|8||MyDigitalSSD BPX Pro (480 GB)||3400/2100||600K/600K*||800 TBW||View on Amazon|
|9||HP EX950 (512GB)||3500/2250||390K/370K||320 TBW||View on Amazon|
|10||Intel SSD 760p (512GB)||3230/1625||340K/275K||288 TBW||View on Amazon|
|11||OCZ RD400 (512GB)||2600/1600||190K/120K||296 TBW||View on Amazon|
|12||Intel Optane SSD 800P (118GB)||1450/640||250K/140K||365 TBW||View on 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 on upgrading.
High-End Alternative: Intel Optane 800p
The last drive on our list should also be considered a high-end option. Although its sequential performance might not sound like much, Intel’s Optane 800p will be 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 in a system drive. The reason why it’s hard to compare to 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 what is likely 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 mechanical HDD||Loading from 2.5" SATA SSD||Loading from 970 Pro (M.2 NVMe)||Decrease/Increase, (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 NVMe is still a key component in a high-end PC. But in most cases, you can not expect the sort of radical performance gains that you see when coming from a traditional hard drive.
For the listed drives to work in 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 via an adapter. But if you want to run your OS from the drive, your motherboard still must support booting from PCIe, which is not a guarantee with older motherboards.
Most recent, high-end ATX-size motherboards include at least one M.2 slot and will most likely be able to run a modern SSD at the full supported speed. With an older or entry-level 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 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. 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). So make sure to check before buying.
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.
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, backups, or your entire Steam library.
Using myself as an example, my main PC has a primary 256 GB SSD that contains the stuff I use on a regular basis. That includes the OS, all work-related apps and a couple of 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 (local and NAS). On the local SSD, what takes up most of the space right now are those two games, both of which take up a lot of space.
In other words, what capacity you need will be very personal. 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. If you’re an avid gamer, on the other hand, 512/500 GB is probably a minimum.
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 Mojave: 12.5GB
- Ubuntu 17.04: 25GB
- Manjaro 18 (Arch): 30GB
- Linux Mint 19.1 (Debian/Ubuntu): 20GB
- Elementary OS 5 (Debian/Ubuntu): 15GB
- Fedora 29: 10GB
- OpenSuse 42.3: 5GB
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.