The Fastest M.2 NVMe SSDs in April 2021
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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 2021 (April)
- 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 and NVMe-capable (and therefore much faster) M.2 slot, so this is the type of drive to look for.
The PCI Express 4.0 (or Gen4) interface offers twice the bandwidth compared to PCIe Gen3. But to take advantage of a Gen4-compatible SSD, you also need a motherboard and processor (CPU) combo that supports the interface. For now, that means a recent AMD platform, specifically an X570, B550, or TRX40 motherboard combined with a 3rd-gen or Ryzen or Threadripper CPU or better.
Intel’s 10th-gen Core CPUs, unfortunately, lack support for anything faster than PCIe Gen3. The 11th-generation Core desktop CPUs (Rocket Lake) are expected in the first half of 2021 and will finally bring PCIe 4.0 connectivity to Intel consumer platforms.
In other words, there is no need to invest in a more expensive Gen4 SSD unless you have a compatible PC or plan to upgrade in the near future. If you do own one of said platforms, the Western Digital SN850 is currently the fastest M.2 SSD overall. It is closely followed the Samsung 980 PRO, which is ahead in some areas. In the PCIe 3.0 generation, the Samsung 970 EVO Plus is still a great choice – not least because it’s significantly more affordable than the top PCIe 4.0 SSDs.
Last update on 2021-04-17 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
Both the SN850 and 980 PRO offer sequential read speeds of up to 7,000 MB/s as well as up to 1,000,000 IOPS (random 4K read/write). The SN850’s sequential write performance (1TB capacity) is rated as slightly faster 5,300MB/s versus the 980 PRO’s 5,000 MB/s. Nevertheless, the WD SN850 performs better in a majority of benchmarks, although the 980 PRO remains ahead in some. Of course, any difference in real-world use will not be on a noticeable level, so you really can’t go wrong with either of these performance leaders.
Runner-up: Samsung 980 PRO
Samsung’s 980 PRO was launched in October of 2020 and was the unequivocal market leader until WD launched the SN850. And to be fair, it still the best M.2 SSD in some benchmarks, so it remains a great choice for any high-end PCIe Gen4-capable system. At the time of writing (April 2021), you can often find it at a slight discount compared to the WD SN850, which makes it even more attractive. The 980 PRO and its proprietary Elpis controller easily outperform the first batch of Gen4 M.2 SSDs based on the Phison E16 controller, and it also seems to do well compared to the new Phison E18-based drives.
In spite of its name, the 980 PRO is more of a successor to the 970 EVO Plus than to the 970 PRO. Previously, the entire PRO lineup has been 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 as its competitors use. Outside very storage-intensive workloads this will make little difference. However, the endurance rating is lower than the 970 PRO (and also lower than the Phison-based Gen4 drives listed below but equal to the SN850).
Best Price/Performance (Gen4): 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 highly competitive compared to the flagship devices from WD and Samsung, though not quite on par.
New Arrival: Corsair MP600 Pro
Another drive based on the same E18 controller is the Corsair MP600 Pro that, at this writing (April 2021), just arrived. Reviews are currently rolling in, and unsurprisingly, its performance seems to be largely comparable to that of the Sabrent Rocket 4 Plus. Maxed out sequential transfer rates are the headline features of the MP600 Pro as well, but like the Rocket 4 Plus, it lags a bit behind the Samsung and WD flagships in most other benchmarks.
An advantage with the MP600 Pro over the Rocket 4 Plus is that Corsair’s drive includes a heat spreader. It’s even available in an extravagant ‘Hydro X’ version with a water-cooling block.
The PCIe 3.0 Leaders: Samsung 970 PRO and EVO Plus
No single drive will take home the crown as the fastest M.2. SSD in every benchmark or use case. 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 the performance/$ equation, the 970 PRO has always been a somewhat questionable choice, but for the most demanding users, the investment might be worth it.
Samsung’s 970 EVO Plus is a lot more affordable than the PRO but very close in terms of raw performance. Although it doesn’t use high-end MLC NAND, this drive is still among the very best in the PCIe Gen 3 category.
Other Gen4 Alternatives: The Phison E16 SSD 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 about the same performance of up to 5,000 MB/s (sequential read) and 4,400 MB/s (sequential write). Other than the Sabrent Rocket Gen4, some of the nearly identical drives include:
|Name||Max. sequential read/write (MB/s)||4K random read/write performance (IOPS)||Endurance rating (terabytes written)||Check Price|
|Sabrent Rocket Gen4 (1TB)||5000/4400||750K/750K||1800 TBW||Amazon
|Gigabyte Aorus Gen4 (1TB)||5000/4400||750K/700K||1800 TBW||Amazon
|Corsair MP600 Gen4 (1TB)||4950/4250||680K/600K||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
Performance is roughly the same with any of these drives, and all come with the advantage of excellent 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 X570 motherboards and higher-end B550 boards), this might be a useful addition.
If your system is not ready for PCIe Gen4, you can save quite a lot by opting for a Gen3 drive. 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, 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||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||1665 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
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. Also unfortunate is that the 800p is being discontinued by Intel and has no direct successor. 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 noticeable 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.
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, only one bit could be written to each cell, i.e. 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.