The Fastest M.2 NVMe SSDs in January 2023
Gaming PC Builder is reader-supported. When using links on our site to make a purchase, we may earn an affiliate commission.
Faster storage will speed up most of your PC activities to some extent – from booting up your OS to loading apps and games. But not all SSDs are created equal. If you have a spare PCI Express (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 Gen4 & Gen3 M.2 SSDs
- Best M.2 NVMe SSDs 2023
- What drive is best for gaming?
- Will it work in my desktop/laptop PC?
- How to choose the right capacity
The performance of any storage device boils down to 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 PCIe interface. It replaces AHCI (paired with SATA), which 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.
Later in 2023, we can also expect high-end NVMe SSDs to become faster in gaming PCs, thanks to GPU acceleration using Microsoft’s DirectStorage API. AMD and Nvidia are implementing this technology under the names Smart Access Storage and RTX IO, respectively, which are both worth keeping an eye on.
When shopping for a new SSD, it is important to remember that M.2 is just a form factor that says nothing of the drive’s performance. Some M.2 SSDs use the 20-year-old SATA interface and have the same performance limitations as any 2.5″ drive. If you have a somewhat modern motherboard, however, it most likely comes with a PCIe/NVMe-capable M.2 slot, so this is the type of SSD to look for.
You also have to account for multiple generations of the PCIe interface itself. PCIe 5.0 (Gen5)-capable motherboards are now available starting with Intel’s and AMD’s latest platforms, but there are still no SSDs that utilize this latest version of the interface.
For now, the fastest M.2 SSDs use the PCIe 4.0 (Gen4) standard. Gen4-capable systems are also somewhat recent and start with Intel’s 11th/12th-gen Core platforms or an AMD counterpart based on a Ryzen/Threadripper 3000/5000 CPU and an X570, B550, or TRX40 motherboard or later.
Many users – and those with older Intel builds in particular – are still on PCIe Gen3. There is no need to invest in a more expensive Gen4 SSD for use in a Gen3 system. Although Gen4 drives are backward-compatible, they will offer no performance benefit in this scenario.
Last update on 2023-01-29 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
The newly launched Samsung 990 PRO is one of the fastest Gen4 SSDs overall at the start of 2023. It is closely followed by the SK Hynix Platinum P41, Western Digital’s WD Black SN850X, and Kingston’s KC3000 (as well as other SSDs based on the same controller/memory chip combo).
As for the PCIe 3.0 generation, the Samsung 970 EVO Plus is still an excellent choice, but the price difference is now uncomfortably small compared to the best PCIe Gen4 SSDs.
Samsung was an undisputed leader in the SSD space for years, but more recently, the Korean electronics giant has often been unable to stay ahead of the competition. The 990 PRO is a return to form, with Samsung now retaking the lead in many key benchmarks that reflect real-world usage scenarios.
This is perhaps not readily apparent when just looking at the sequential transfer rates, where the Samsung 990 PRO, much like the competition, more or less maxes out the PCIe Gen4 bandwidth. It does excel in the random performance area, however, at up to 1.4M/1.55M IOPS read/write. To achieve these numbers, the drive uses Samsung’s proprietary Pascal controller, 176-layer NAND, and an LPDDR4 DRAM cache.
Warranty and endurance ratings remain the same as the 980 PRO predecessor, at five years or 600TBW (1TB) / 1,200 TBW (2 TB). Unfortunately, the Samsung 990 PRO is not just one of the fastest SSDs on the market, but also among the most expensive at this time. The 1TB 990 PRO comes with a $169.99 MSRP, which is significantly above some of its closest high-end competitors.
2. SK Hynix Platinum P41
SK Hynix is the world’s second-largest memory chip manufacturer (after Samsung). It is however only recently that the company has started to sell consumer products under its own brand name. This should not be taken lightly by the competition, as the Platinum P41 is clearly one of the best M.2 SSDs to date.
Released in May 2022, the SK Hynix Platinum P41 is an entirely in-house design based on the manufacturer’s own 176-layer TLC NAND chips and uses a proprietary controller dubbed Aries. It also includes an SK Hynix LPDDR4 DRAM cache. Sequential performance is up to 7,000/6,500 MB/s (read/write) and random performance is up to 1.4M/1.3M IOPS. More importantly, it performs exceptionally well in real-world-oriented benchmarks such as 3DMark and PCM10.
The only downside is that the Platinum P41 so far is limited availability, as it’s still hard to find in the US and Europe.
3. Western Digital WD Black SN850X
Launched in 2020, the original WD Black SN850 was and still is one of the fastest M.2 SSDs on the consumer market. Now, two years later, the drive has been updated with higher-density 112-layer BiCS 5 NAND memory chips. Improvements are mainly seen in random read/write performance, which has gone from 1M/720K IOPS to 1.2M/1.1M IOPS in the 2 TB capacity.
This appears to be more than enough to propel the SN850X to the top of the charts in real-world benchmarks such as PC Mark 10 and 3DMark’s SSD gaming test. As is the case with most of the leading SSDs, the 2TB and 4TB capacities are the strongest in the lineup due to the advantages of increased parallelism.
4. Kingston KC3000
The Kingston KC3000 uses the same Phison E18 controller and 176-layer Micron TLC NAND that recently propelled Seagate’s FireCuda 530 to the top of the charts. However, the KC3000 model manages to outperform the FireCuda in several benchmarks. This makes it an attractive choice for any PCIe Gen4-compatible build that does not compromise on storage performance.
The main disadvantage compared to the FireCuda 530 is that the latter comes with a significantly higher endurance rating (1,275 TBW versus the KC3000’s 800 TBW in the 1 TB capacities). Another detail worth noting is that, much like the FireCuda 530, you have to opt for the 2TB or 4TB models to get the best possible performance.
5. Seagate FireCuda 530
Like the Kingston KC3000, the Seagate FireCuda 530 is equipped with the same winning combination of a Phison E18 controller and Micron’s latest 176-layer Flash chips. In its 2TB and 4TB capacities, the drive reaches its maximum 6,900 MB/s sequential write throughput (compared to 6,000 MB/s for the 1TB model). What makes the FireCuda 530 particularly attractive in the high-end SSD space is the drive’s endurance ratings. Even the 500GB capacity offers higher endurance than its 1TB Samsung and WD competitors at 640 TBW.
6. Corsair MP600 Pro XT
As a third “2nd-generation Phison E18” option, Corsair’s MP600 Pro XT is based on the same hardware as the aforementioned competitors and offers roughly the same performance. Also much like its competitors, you also have to opt for the 2GB or 4TB capacities to get the best possible performance. The endurance ratings are a bit lower than both the KC3000 and the FireCuda 530, at 700 TBW (1TB), 1,400 TBW (2TB), and 3,000 TBW (4TB). On the plus side, the MP600 Pro XT comes with a large heat spreader that should help reduce throttling during intensive workloads.
7. Adata Legend 960
What sets the Adata Legend 960 apart from most of its high-end competitors is that it uses the somewhat less common SM2264 controller from Silicon Motion. However, much like the aforementioned Phison-based SSDs, it uses the same popular 176-layer Micron B47R NAND. This hardware combo is often fast enough to propel it to the top 10 of several performance charts. This is particularly true for the 2TB capacity, which offers higher sequential and random performance compared to its 1TB sibling.
Check prices (1TB): Amazon
8. Samsung 980 PRO
Samsung’s 980 PRO launched in late 2020 and was a market leader before the WD SN850 arrived. And to be fair – even after the arrival of the 2nd-gen Phison E18 SSDs, it is still the best M.2 SSD in some benchmarks. In other words, it remains a solid choice for any PCIe Gen4-capable system. At times, you can find it at a slight discount compared to the competition, which makes it even more attractive.
Notably, the 980 PRO is more of a successor to the 970 EVO Plus than to the 970 PRO. Previously, the PRO lineup has been exclusively based on higher-end MLC (multi-level cell) NAND memory chips. With the 980 PRO, Samsung has opted for the same cost-effective TLC chips that all of its competitors use. The newer Samsung 980 (non-PRO), on the other hand, is a DRAMless budget M.2 SSD that competes in the Gen3 category.
9. Crucial P5 Plus
The Crucial P5 Plus, released in the middle of 2021, is a high-end Gen4 drive positioned as a marginally slower but also more affordable alternative to the market leaders. It uses a proprietary controller and sequential reads and writes are rated at up to 6,600 MB/s and 5,000 MB/sec, respectively. Random reads and writes are also a bit more modest than the fastest M.2 SSDs at 630/700K IOPS but this seems to be more than sufficient to earn a price/performance mention.
Check prices (1TB): Newegg
10. Sabrent Rocket 4 Plus
Outside of storage behemoths like Western Digital and Samsung – who develop and produce SSDs from the ground up in their own fabs –, Sabrent is one of the most interesting manufacturers. Although the company is a comparatively recent addition to the storage industry, it has consistently managed to be first on the market with a variety of attractive products, be it high-capacity M.2 drives, early PCIe Gen4 drives, or affordable QLC-based models.
This is also the case with the Rocket 4 Plus, which takes advantage of the new Phison E18 controller. On the whole, it looks like this drive is a strong competitor to the flagship devices from WD and Samsung, though not quite on par in most cases.
Best Gen3 M.2 SSDs: Samsung 970 PRO and EVO Plus
No single drive will take home the crown as the fastest M.2. SSD in every single use case or benchmark. However, one of the best general performers in the PCIe 3.0 segment is still the MLC-based Samsung 970 PRO. Samsung’s performance and reliability track record in the SSD segment has been almost flawless for 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). When looking at price versus performance, the 970 PRO has always been a somewhat questionable choice, but it might be a sensible investment for the most demanding users. Unfortunately, there are no large capacities available.
Samsung’s 970 EVO Plus is a lot more affordable than the PRO but very close in terms of actual performance. Although it doesn’t use high-end MLC NAND, this drive is still among the best in the PCIe Gen 3 category.
Additional Gen4 Options: The Phison E16 Lineup
Right until Samsung launched the 980 PRO, all PCIe 4.0-capable SSDs for consumers were based on the same Phison PS5016-E16 controller and 3D TLC NAND combo. What this means is that all of these drives offer roughly the same performance of up to 5,000 MB/s (sequential read) and 4,400 MB/s (sequential write). Some of the nearly identical drives are:
|Name||Max. sequential read/write (MB/s)||4K random read/write performance (IOPS)||Endurance rating (terabytes written)||Check Price|
|Gigabyte Aorus Gen4 (1TB)||5000/4400||750K/700K||1800 TBW||Amazon
|Sabrent Rocket Gen4 "Non-Plus" (1TB)||5000/4400||750K/750K||1800 TBW||Amazon
|Patriot Viper VP4100 (1TB)||5000/4400||800K/800K||1800 TBW||Amazon
|Seagate Firecuda 520 (1TB)||5000/4400||760K/700K||1800 TBW||Amazon
|XPG Gammix S50 (1TB)||5000/4400||750K/750K||1800 TBW||Amazon
|Corsair MP600 Gen4 (1TB)||4950/4250||680K/600K||1800 TBW||Amazon
Overall performance is about the same with any of these drives, and all come with the advantage of superb endurance ratings compared to the competition. They are also known to run relatively hot, so unless you have a motherboard with an included heat spreader (often supplied with Z590 and X570 motherboards), this might be a useful addition. Although the E16 drives are no longer in the lead, they are now strong alternatives in the affordable M.2 NVMe category for anyone looking for Gen4 performance on a budget.
If your system is not PCIe Gen4 ready, you can save quite a lot by opting for a Gen3 drive, without losing much real-world performance. The following list includes some of the best-performing M.2 SSDs from the past couple of years. They are ordered by sequential performance first and random second. Because of 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||Samsung 970 PRO (1TB)||3500/2700||500K/500K||1200 TBW||Amazon
|2||Samsung 970 EVO PLUS (1TB)||3500/3300||600K/550K||600 TBW||Amazon
|3||Adata XPG SX8200 Pro (1TB)||3500/3000||390K/380K||640 TBW||Amazon
|4||PNY XLR8 CS3030 (1TB)||3500/3000||N/A||360 TBW||Amazon
|5||HP EX950 (1TB)||3500/2900||410K/370K||650 TBW||Amazon
|6||Corsair Force MP510 (960 GB)||3480/3000||280K/700K||720 TBW||Amazon
|7||WD Black SN750 (1TB)||3430/3000||515K/560K||600 TBW||Amazon
|8||Intel SSD 760p (1TB)||3230/1625||340K/275K||576 TBW||Amazon
|9||Intel Optane SSD 800P (118GB)||1450/640||250K/140K||365 TBW||Amazon
Here’s another test from the web, comparing an M.2 PCIe Gen3 SSD (970 Pro) versus an older 2.5″ SATA SSD (plus a mechanical hard drive) when loading a range of games:
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
In other words, until recently it has been 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. This situaiton is however about to change, as Microsoft’s DirectStorage API makes its way into high-end gaming PCs. In short (and among other things), this means that data from your fast NVMe SSD is sent to the graphics card for decompression, which will significantly reduce loading times.
For the aforementioned drives to work with your computer, you will need an M.2 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.
On the other hand, all recent, high-end ATX-size motherboards 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, but most will support the common 2280 size (the format used by most of the drives listed above). 22110 drives are however very rare. Equally rare is the 2230 form factor used by some small devices including the Steam Deck.
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.
It really is a bit confusing, but fortunately, M.2 2280 is the most common standard by far, so it’s harder than it looks 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, or 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.
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 11: 64 GB minimum requirement
- 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 well over 100 gigabytes, i.e. a lot more demanding in terms of storage space.
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 mechanical hard drives for general storage. However, when looking at the price/performance ratio (performance is usually improved in larger capacities), 1–2 TB is a reasonable price point with few compromises.
MLC Vs. TLC Vs. QLC NAND
In any SSD context, you will inevitably run into the MLC, TLC, and QLC abbreviations. What these signify is the number of bits that can be written to each cell in NAND (Not-AND) memory chips. In the early days, just one bit could be written to each cell, hence the name single-level cell, or SLC. Solid state drives using SLC memory were (and now only in very rare cases, are) extremely durable but also prohibitively expensive.
Consumer SSDs became common once density increased to two bits per cell, also known as multi-level cell or MLC. Most high-end drives today use the even denser triple-level cell, or TLC, memory type, whereas some budget SSDs use quad-level cell or QLC NAND.
The downsides to increased densities are – all other things being equal – worse performance and durability. Adding additional bits per cell adds to the complexity and cells will be worn down in fewer write/erase cycles.
Nevertheless, today’s TLC-based drives are far faster than older MLC drives thanks to some highly innovative use of buffering and caching technology, whereby data is first written in SLC mode and then to the slower TLC memory. The durability problems have also mostly been solved using, among other things, spare capacity (overprovisioning) to spread out the wear over time. On the whole, today’s TLC-based SSDs are not only much faster but also durable enough to outlast most other PC parts for the average user.