The Fastest M.2 NVMe SSDs in September 2023
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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 PCI-Express M.2 slot on your motherboard, then this is where to install your system drive. The best M.2 drives also use the modern storage interface protocol NVMe.
What is NVMe and do I need it?
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 PCI-Express (PCIe) interface. It replaces AHCI (paired with SATA), which was originally designed for mechanical hard drives. The newer protocol includes many efficiency improvements to deal with parallel transfers and the low-latency nature of SSDs.
High-end NVMe SSDs are also slowly but steadily becoming even faster in gaming PCs thanks to GPU acceleration via Microsoft’s DirectStorage API. AMD and Nvidia are implementing this technology under the names Smart Access Storage and RTX IO, respectively. You can use this technology right now in Square’s Forspoken or Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart.
Fastest Gen5, Gen4 & Gen3 M.2 SSDs
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 limitations as 2.5″ drives. 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. Several versions of the PCIe interface are currently in use.
|Interface||Transfer Rate |
|Throughput x1||Throughput x4
|PCI Express 3.0||8 GT/s||0.985 GB/s||3.934 GB/s|
|PCI Express 4.0||16 GT/s||1.969 GB/s||7.877 GB/s|
|PCI Express 5.0||32 GT/s||3.938 GB/s||15.754 GB/s|
The latest and fastest iteration of the PCIe interface is 5.0 (Gen5), which became available with AMD’s B650 and X670 chipsets, as well as some Intel Z790 boards. There are relatively few Gen5 SSDs available at this point, but additional models will arrive throughout 2023.
So, while the fastest M.2 SSDs now use the PCIe 5.0 standard, Gen4 SSDs are still far more common. Gen4-capable systems start with Intel’s 11th/12th-gen Core platforms or AMD counterparts based on an X570, B550, or TRX40 motherboard or later.
Many users – and those with older Intel builds in particular – are still on PCIe Gen3. Although M.2 SSDs are backward-compatible, they will offer no performance benefit when running on an earlier version of the interface.
Last update on 2023-09-30 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
At the time of writing (August 2023), the Crucial T700 is the leading Gen5 SSD. Thanks to the latest Micron NAND, its sequential performance is as high as 12,400 MB/s. That puts it ahead of the current competitors using the same Phison E26 controller.
The Samsung 990 PRO is the fastest Gen4 SSD we have tested to date. It is however in close competition with the SK Hynix Platinum P41, Western Digital’s WD Black SN850X, Kingston’s Fury Renegade, and others.
As for the PCIe 3.0 generation, the Samsung 970 EVO Plus is still a leader, but the price difference compared to more future-proof PCIe Gen4 SSDs is now uncomfortably small.
1. Fastest NVMe M.2 SSD: Crucial T700
Crucial’s T700 is not the first or only SSD to use the Phison E26 controller, but it currently outperforms the competition thanks to the latest and fastest NAND memory chips from Micron (Crucial is a Micron subsidiary).
Other PCIe 5.0 SSDs such as the Aorus Gen5 10000 and Corsair MP700, all of which also use the Phison E26, can reach sequential read speeds of around 10,000 MB/s, but the Crucial T700 takes it a step further – all the way up to 12,400 MB/s.
What it shares with its competitors from the first batch of Gen5 SSDs, however, is that it requires efficient cooling to avoid overheating and throttling. If you don’t have a decent heat spreader on your motherboard, it is probably a good idea to opt for the T700 version with an included heatsink.
Gen5 SSDs can be expected to improve even further in terms of performance, efficiency, and not least pricing over the coming months and years. But for now, the Crucial T700 is the fastest consumer storage device you can get for a Gen5-capable PC.
2. Seagate FireCuda 540 (and other E26 Competitors)
The Seagate FireCuda 540 is one of the latest additions to the Gen5 space and it uses the same E26 controller as all of its current competitors. It is also equipped with the same 232-layer TLC NAND as all but the Crucial T700, meaning that it runs at 1,600 MT/s.
As a result, the 2 TB model tops out at 10,000 MB/s sequential read/write speeds, while the 1 TB capacity is a bit slower at 9,500 MB/s (read) and 8,500 MB/s (write).
What sets the FireCuda 540 apart from the competition is the Seagate firmware and, perhaps more importantly, a significantly higher endurance rating. The 2 TB model is backed by a 2,000 TBW (terabytes written) rating and half of that for the 1 TB FireCuda 540.
3. Best Gen4 NVMe M.2 SSD: Samsung 990 PRO
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, basically 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. The drive uses Samsung’s proprietary Pascal controller, 176-layer NAND, and an LPDDR4 DRAM cache to achieve these numbers.
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. The 1TB 990 PRO comes with a $169.99 MSRP, which is significantly above some of its closest high-end competitors.
4. 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 has been limited availability, as it’s still hard to find in the US and Europe.
5. 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 parallelism.
6. Kingston Fury Renegade
Kingston’s Fury Renegade is an improved version of the KC3000 but uses the same Phison E18 controller and 176-layer Micron TLC NAND that originally propelled Seagate’s FireCuda 530 to the top of the charts. It is slightly faster than the KC3000 model and also outpaces its Seagate counterpart in several benchmarks. This makes the Fury Renegade an attractive choice for any PCIe Gen4-compatible build, but it is worth keeping in mind that the difference from the KC3000 is marginal.
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.
7. Seagate FireCuda 530
Like the Kingston Fury Renegade and 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.
8. 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.
9. 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.
Shopping links (1TB): Amazon
10. 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.
Technically, 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.
11. 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. This drive has been comprehensively tried and tested over the years and comes with a flawless track record.
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 high-end 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.
7 of the Best PCIe Gen3 M.2 SSDs
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 few 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
Which is the Best M.2 SSD for Gaming?
In the standalone benchmark for Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringer, multiple scenes/levels are loaded, and the above are the total loading times for these levels. While the difference between budget and high-end SSDs is noticeable, it is quite crowded at the top. Any SSD will be much faster than any hard drive in games – even if it’s an external SSD in an enclosure.
UL’s 3DMark Storage benchmark is a mix of gaming workloads including level loading, saving, moving/installing, and recording games. It combines these into a total, resulting in a score and an average bandwidth.
Although it is now a bit dated, this comparison by HardwareUnboxed is also interesting:
Until recently it was safe to assume that a comparison of individual high-end M.2 PCIe SSDs would result in small differences in terms of gaming performance. The gap has however grown wider between Gen3 and high-end Gen4 or Gen5. Microsoft’s DirectStorage may widen it further as the API makes its way into more new releases.
Will it Work on my Laptop/Desktop PC?
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 can still 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 and usage examples:
- 2230 – WiFi cards, SSD in Steam Deck, and other compact devices
- 2242 – Some ultrabook-type laptop SSDs and WiFi cards
- 2260 – Small form-factor laptop SSDs (uncommon)
- 2280 – Most common form factor for NVMe SSDs in desktop PCs/laptops
- 22110 – Mainly enterprise SSDs
Most PCs including laptops can accommodate the common 2280 size (the format used by all of the drives listed above). 22110 drives will fit on many desktop motherboards but are extremely rare in the consumer market. The 2230 and 2242 form factors are more often used for WiFi cards than for SSDs. However, 2230 drives have seen an upswing in popularity as it’s the format used by 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 PC based on modern standard components, it will practically always have at least one M-key slot for a 2280 M.2 SSD. And if so, most of the popular M-key or B+M-key drives will work. But there may be rare exceptions, so it’s best to double-check.
Choosing the Right Capacity
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.