NVMe PCIe vs. M.2 vs. SATA SSD – What are the Differences?

Solid-state drives (SSDs) are modern high-speed memory contrary to the traditional hard disk drives (HDDs). Everything, from the boot process to shut down speeds, system’s performance, and even the file transfer speed, are much faster with solid-state drives. However, there are many types and form factors of SSDs in the market and it can be an overwhelming experience understanding the differences between SSDs, hence our choice. In this article, we’ll clear any confusion you might have as we break down the major differences between NVMe PCIe vs. M.2 vs. SATA SDD.

What is NVMe SSD?

NVMe stands for Non-Volatile Memory Express, which is a communication protocol that was developed for SSDs to operate at higher read/write speeds than their flash memory is capable of. They have very low latency and super high performance. But first, let’s dive right into a brief evolution overview of NVMe SSDs for better understanding.

Essentially, all computers used the traditional hard drives (HDDs) that were connected to the motherboard with a SATA interface using the AHCi (Advanced Host Controller Interface) standard – which simply is a specification that determines how a hard drive and the computer should communicate with each other. Then, enters SSD, which was fast. So fast that the only limiting factor was the SATA connection with lower bandwidths. 

Being a bottleneck interface connection to SSDs, this prompted some companies to switch to PCIe interface connections that had more bandwidth of multiple gigabytes per second. And just like AHCi limited the SSD connection, the NVMe was also introduced; a new standard made specifically for PCIe SSDs in all form factors. But why is NVMe better for faster SSDs?

Remember that a standard determines the amount of data requests that a computer can send to a storage device at a time. The maximum queue depth of NVMe is 65535 queues at a time with each containing up to 65356 commands per queue – making it the best industry standard for these fast SSDs, unlike AHCi that has a maximum queue depth of one with up to 35 commands per queue. Continue reading on for an in-depth understanding of SSDs.

What is PCIe? Are PCIe and NVMe the same?

Earlier I mentioned PCIe is an interface connection between SSD and motherboard components. But what exactly is PCIe? PCIe is the short form for Peripheral Component Interconnect Express. It is a bus standard that enables high-speed serial communication between SSD and the motherboard. Currently, PCIe is the “primary standardized interface connection for motherboard components including memory, storage, and some expansion cards.”

There are different types of PCIe slots often denoted as x1, x2, x4, x8, and x16 – which represent the numbers of lanes on a PCIe slot or card. These lanes are paths through which data simultaneously travels in both directions, therefore the higher the number of lanes the higher the data transfer speeds. The latest PCIe specification is version 5.0 which has a 128GB/s data transfer speed. However, there are rumors PCIe 5.0 drives will hit the market in 2022 or before the end of this year.

So, is PCIe and NVMe the same? No. From our article, it is crystal clear that PCIe is a data transfer interface standard between a storage device and computer while NVMe is a communication interface and storage technology protocol. Both can work together to make the latest SSD generations an improvement over the previous SATA interface over the AHCi technology protocol.

What is SATA SSD?

Serial ATA, commonly abbreviated as SATA is a serial advanced technology attachment that was traditionally designed for HDD and optical drives. It was introduced in 2003 to replace the old parallel ATA (PATA) as a storage interface connection for computers.

There are three generations of SATA; SATA I, II, and III, and any computer with an M.2 slot will have a SATA III bus connection protocol, which has a maximum bandwidth of 600MB/s. This is pretty fast for any computer’s read and write speeds but it tends to bottleneck data transfer speeds of most modern SSDs which supersede SATA III connection as the latest high-bandwidth interface connection.

What is M.2? Are M.2 and NVMe the same?

M.2 is a small form factor for a solid-state drive as well as expansion cards: it is identical to RAM stick in size. M.2 may come in different forms and the name of the form tells you the size — for example, a 2260 M.2 is 22mm wide by 60mm in length. M.2 SSDs are often designed to maintain high-performance, higher speeds, and to ensure less bulk which is especially beneficial for thin devices such as tablets or Ultrabooks.

M.2: A form factor describes the size or physical configuration of a storage device.

M.2 conforms to various computer industry specifications and can support multiple applications and communication protocols such as Peripheral Component Interconnect Express (PCIe) or Serial ATA – they are not only limited to solid-state drives either. It also supports other protocols like USBs, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth cards that can fit in a computer’s motherboard M.2 slots to take advantage of PCI Express speeds.

Therefore, the question about M.2 and NVMe being the same is more like inquiring about the difference between an Apple and a MacBook. Remember that M.2 is a form factor for SSDs, therefore it is not the same as NVMe – which, as we’ve discussed, is a device interface specification for accessing a computer’s non-volatile memory and is usually connected via a PCI Express bus.

M.2 SSD may come in either SATA versions and NVMe versions which essentially describes which interface protocol they use to communicate with the motherboard components. For example, NVMe M.2 SSD uses the NVMe technology protocol, unlike SATA M.2 SSD which uses SATA protocol. We’ll discuss below how the two compare, so bear with me.

Which SSD is faster NVMe or M.2? Is NVMe much better than SATA?

Type of SSD Sequential Read SpeedSequential Write Speed
2.5″ SATA~550 MB/s ~520 MB/s
M.2 SATA ~550 MB/s ~520 MB/s
M.2 PCIe Gen 3.0 x4 NVMe~3500 MB/s ~3000 MB/s
M.2 PCIe Gen 4.0 x4 NVMe ~7000 MB/s ~5000 MB/s

There are different types of SSDs: SATA 2.5”, U.2, M.2 SATA, M.2 NVMe, and NVMe PCIe. We’ll focus on which of these two SSDs, NVMe or M.2 SSDs are faster. M.2 SATA SSDs, as the name suggests, uses the SATA III connection protocol that maxes out at 600MB/s, or at 300MB/s for SATA II, in which case, you’ll need to upgrade. In reality, if you were to have a fast SSD connected through SATA protocol, you will run an estimated maximum of 550/500 MB/s for both read/write speeds respectively.

On the other hand, for NVMe SSDs, we will expect it to deliver higher sequential read/write speeds; of up to 5000MB/s for PCIe version 4.0. Unlike M.2 SATA SSDs, NVMe SSDs communicate over PCI Express bus and thus is unlikely to restrict the data transfer speed of fast SSDs.

Note: Remember, SATA connection was traditionally designed for HDDs hence they are slower compared to NVMe which was specifically designed for SSDs. NVMe has now become the primary industry standard for both devices like desktop PCs, laptops, or even gaming consoles as well as servers at data centers. That pretty much makes NVMe SSDs way better than SATA SSDs, not only because of their industrial preference but also because of their high speeds and performance over SATA SSDs.

But, how do NVMe PCIe and M.2 NVMe SSDs compare, which is better? Both SSDs utilize the same connection protocol, that is PCIe, and similar interface technology, that is NVMe. The only difference between these two SSDs is their form factors and physical connector. M.2 NVMe is plugged into the motherboard through the M.2 connector slot while NVMe PCIe SSD is connected by the PCI Express bus, as we’ve discussed. Both SSDs are faster and popular, but M.2 drives are more popular due to their smaller RAM-like size and convenience – allowing for a cleaner, less cluttered PC interior with fewer cables.

Which is SSD is better for gaming?

When it comes to the best gaming SSD it is all about speed more than storage capacity. This is not to say storage doesn’t matter, but a good SSD will improve your system’s responsiveness and load time. Logically, if you want shorter boot times in games you’ll need the fastest storage drive, right? However, to cope up with the continually increasing gaming sizes, we recommend having 1TB drives, which means 512GB SSDs won’t cut it as smaller SSDs, although cheap, lose their performance with time.

But going back to the speed, games that are installed on SSDs load faster. However, the boot time will vary from game to game or across PCs. I mean, after you’ve seen big games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare load in seconds, you wouldn’t want to go back to the frustration of long boot times you may have faced previously.

Another issue you need to consider is the price. NVMe drives averagely cost twice as more the price of SATA SSDs. In our discussion, it’s clear that NVMe PCIe, M.2 NVMe drives have higher performance than SATA SSDs. However, note that games aren’t simply bottlenecked by the storage capacity. Therefore, you’ll be perfectly fine with SATA SSDs for gaming. NVMe SSDs, despite having amazing performances are only beneficial if you do something that utilizes their potential.

So which choice is the best for you? It all depends on understanding what your computational needs are. The read/write speeds of NVMe are beneficial but remember not to waste that extra money on NVMe if you can get the same benefit from cheaper SATA SSDs. We sincerely hope you enjoyed reading this. Leave a comment below to inform us if you’ve already made a decision on which one you’re going to get. Feel free to leave questions so we can guide you further.

Mark Warschauer is a tech content writer and blogger with an interest in emerging technologies. He spends most of his time listening to music, reading about new technologies, or writing about them on his blog. He also enjoys playing video games (mostly RPGs), traveling the world, watching movies, and reading books that explore life's big questions.

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