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intel 660p m.2 ssd

Computer enthusiasts of all stripes and skill levels are likely familiar with common hard drive form factors like the big and bulky 3.5” mechanical hard disk drive (or HDD) and the slimmer and smaller 2.5” solid state drive (SSD). If you know about HDDs and SSDs, you likely also know about the SATA (or Serial AT Attachment) computer bus interface that’s typically used to connect drives to the computer’s motherboard. And though these remain the most common form factors and connection options, M.2 and NVMe drives are becoming more popular in modern PC builds.

Now, to be clear, M.2 and NVMe aren’t interchangeable terms, but they are closely linked. In this explainer, we’ll break down exactly what M.2 and NVMe are, where they differ, and how they can ultimately benefit your next PC build.

The M.2 Form Factor

corsair mp600 gen4 pcie ssd m2 nvmeThe M.2 form factor (formerly known as the Next Generation Form Factor, or NGFF) is a more modern type of internally mounted expansion card that replaces the previous mSATA (Mini-SATA) standard. Unlike standard HDDs and SSDs, M.2 drives aren’t connected to a motherboard via a cable, they’re instead plugged directly into the motherboard using a dedicated M.2 connector slot.

Depending on its type and functionality, an M.2 drive can make use of either the standard SATA interface or the faster PCIe (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express) interface, but in both cases it plugs directly into the motherboard. Since they fold down and lie flush with the motherboard once they’re connected rather than jutting out like a graphics card or RAM chip (or a traditional HDD or SSD), M.2 drives allow for a cleaner, less cluttered PC interior with fewer cables to manage.

Certain desktop PC peripherals like wi-fi cards can come in the M.2 form factor, but the most common use for M.2 is SSD data storage, basically functioning as an alternative to the existing 2.5” storage drives that are mounted in a separate bay and then connected to the motherboard via a SATA cable. It’s important to note that M.2 SSDs which utilize the SATA interface aren’t really faster than standard 2.5” drives, they just take up less space and look cleaner. If you want faster speeds, you’ll have to make sure your M.2 drive is utilizing the NVMe interface protocol.

The NVMe Interface Protocol

intel-ssd-nvme-pcie-m.2-11NVMe stands for Non-Volatile Memory Express, and it refers to the way in which data is moved, rather than the shape of the drive itself. The main way in which it differs from the existing SATA standard is that it draws on your motherboard’s PCIe interface to obtain noticeably faster data transfer speeds than what SATA is capable of. Depending on your NVMe drive’s manufacturer, you can see speeds as much as five or six times faster than a SATA-based equivalent.

There are some NVMe drives that are designed to fit into a standard PCIe motherboard slot much like a graphics card, but most NVMe drives use the M.2 form factor. Also, given their faster speeds, NVMe drives typically cost more than their standard 2.5” SSD equivalents, similar to how SSDs usually cost more than mechanical HDDs for the same amount of storage space.

xpg m2 ssdIf you’re planning on going with an M.2 drive while building or upgrading your gaming PC, it’s important to note whether you’re getting a SATA-based drive or an NVMe-based drive. Your motherboard might not have the appropriate M.2 slots for both types (SATA and NVMe M.2 drives are often keyed slightly differently), and even if it does, you don’t want to waste money on a pricier NVMe drive if the motherboard you’ve chosen can only access data using the SATA protocol (not every motherboard allows for PCIe data transfers).

Speaking of price, it’s also worth mentioning that the speed boost granted through the NVMe protocol mainly only applies to sequential data reads and writes rather than random reads and writes. What this means is that you’ll really only see a noticeable boost in speed if you’re using your PC for specific heavy-lifting tasks like editing 4K video footage or regularly transferring large amounts of data from one drive to another. Random reads and writes on an NVMe drive are technically a bit faster than what you’ll get on a SATA drive, but if all you’re using your PC for is gaming and/or everyday tasks, you really don’t have to spring for a more expensive NVMe M.2 drive.

Finding The Right M.2 Drive For Your Budget

Once you understand your needs, you can start browsing M.2 SATA drives and M.2 NVMe drives. Again, if gaming and standard computer use are your only concerns, you should be fine going with an M.2 SATA drive. If, however, you want to squeeze every last ounce of computing speed out of your rig or you plan on doing anything that requires fast sequential read and write speeds, it’s worth going for an NVMe drive.

M.2 and NVMe drives are becoming more popular – and cheaper – all the time, and as of 2020 they’re on the verge of becoming the standard recommendation for new PC builds. While you can save a little bit of money by going with a traditional HDD or SSD, the difference isn’t very much – and for many builders it will be worth spending a little bit more to have the latest tech and cut down on in-case clutter.

Nate Hohl

Author Nate Hohl

Nate Hohl has been a gamer ever since he was old enough to hold a SNES controller and his love of both gaming and writing made game journalism a natural fit. He enjoys tackling current issues within the gaming industry as well as probing the minds of his readers in order to engage and inform them. In addition to gaming and writing, he is also an avid reader, a bit of a history buff, and a die-hard martial arts enthusiast.

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Join the discussion 10 Comments

  • Andrew says:

    M.2 NVMe drives are life changing. Sure there is that really tiny screw to deal with for mounting, but otherwise you are getting more speed, a sleeker look, no cabling to clean up, and if you get the drive just for the OS / software the price is easy to justify in making the switch. It is all I use now for new builds. I even bought an M.2 to SATA adapter for cloning and backup purposes when needed.

  • Ian says:

    Nate, I’m wondering if you could comment on M.2 NVMe drives vs RAM drives. I play No Man’s Sky and just today a user posted on the improvements they got using Steam’s Dimmdrive. They created a 23GB drive from the 32GB of RAM installed. I guess Dimmdrive allows the entire game to be loaded. I don’t know what video card they were using. Does a RAM not suffer from the random read/write slow down?

  • Raymond Leiter says:

    When this kind of stuff appears in an article — it serves only confuse: “M.2 and NVMe drives”.
    It’s as though someone was contrasting these two terms — its somewhat like contrasting apples and oranges — it can be done, but to what purpose?
    My thought is this: an M.2 drive can have either an “XX” interface or an “NVMe” interface. What might the “XX” be? Perhaps SATA.
    So is it correct to say an M.2 drive can be EITHER SATA or NVMe, however, ALL NVMe drives are M.2? Has anyone ever heard of an NVMe drive that was NOT M.2?
    I wish folks would use terminology with more concern for accuracy.

    • Mackle says:

      In response to Raymond Leiter, yes I have seen NVMe drives that are not m.2 factor, but instead look more like regular SSDs in a caddy.

      Things such as the more recent Sun/Oracle X-series servers can have hot pluggable 2.5” form factor NVMe drives fitted in the front bays of the server.

    • Tee El says:

      Great point!! And further more be it an M.2 drive that uses SATA or NVMe interface (protoco), it’s better be an SSD drive… All gobbledygook!! Just sayn’ 🙂

  • Solarflares says:

    It is May 1st 2020.
    I have two NVMe Samsung 500Gb Evo plus 970’s running on an Asus Z170e motherboard , with an i7 6700 , and 32Gb of 2133Mhz RAM.
    System drive is on chipset lanes , and the other is on an Asus PCI-e x4 card on the CPU lanes.
    I have the SATA interface switched off. As is the USB3.1 at present.
    The overall look is very clean , with very minimal cabling – and the water-cooled NZXT case runs really cool. CPU idle is 25c , and the case fans are only clocking around 900rpm.
    The M2’s sit at around 36c , and rise to 51c when the data-stream is at the maximum 3.488/3,250 – sustained read/write. The random figures are equally stunning.
    Neither the case now the Corsair 650w power-supply get even warm. They remain cool as you like. The M2’s return to idle temps very quickly , with no add-on heat-sinks or dedicated fans. Motherboard temp is 31c nominal.
    I currently have an Asus GTX1060 6Gb video-card installed , and the system is used mainly for music-production , and up to date gaming. It does both really well , and I feel no need to upgrade the Gen6 CPU or the motherboard and RAM.
    Obviously , one could go for the latest CPU/Motherboard/RAM/Graphics-card if you wanted fast 4K video-performance on gaming. But for me – running Cubase 10.5 with masses of headroom , and 1440 21/9 modern-gaming at 60fps Freesync – is simply enough , with a total outlay of under £1,000 – including monitor.
    I would thoroughly recommend the upgrade to NVMe drives for anyone. Incredible speeds , without resorting to RAID or expensive external arrays.
    The option of adding an inexpensive Asus Thunderbolt3 PCI-e x4 card is there – which would allow the GTX1060 to interface through that , to my 1440 21/9 Samsung Thunderbolt monitor – and even daisy-chaining mass-storage USB-C data devices using the 2nd USB-C socket on the monitor – at 40Gb/s.
    The NZXT tower was bought used for £450 , originally with 3 Samsung 850 EVO SSD SATA drives. Stripping these out , and going with the NVMe’s and x4 card has cost me £250 – and I sold the SSD’s for £150 on eBay. The monitor was £400 – slightly used and un-boxed.
    The result is a really stable and fast system – the 2133Mhz RAM aiding that stability- with no over-clocking. Good , usable gaming frame-rates at 1440 on any modern game – and extremely low-latency on audio , with an external MOTU Firewire soundcard.

    Yes , the 850 Evo’s would have performed well on that motherboard. But for streaming audio-samples , and fast caching if needed – the NVMe’s for me were a necessity. After looking into expensive external-drive solutions , the simplicity of what I have now – is a revelation. Especially when compared to the masses of cables , hubs , peripherals and external power-supplies – required to do the same job.

    As I said before though – this is 2020. The internal NVMe’s have given me a system which is slick , minimal , cool-running , and supremely stable and efficient – without the hassle.

  • I have an ‘old’ HP Elitedesk 800 i7-4790 3.6ghz with a PCI x4 NVMe 256gb card, but I will probably have to ‘find’ a NON-HP bios update before I @can install x64 Win10Pro onto it and use it as a BOOT drive? HELP

    Jeff

    JRSTRONG@aol.com

  • Tee El says:

    Would you say SSD drives using NVMe [Interface] protocol maybe better suitable for Rigs doing Cryptocurrency mining as speed is their concern?? Just sayn’…

  • Debs says:

    How can I know if or not my motherland supports pcie data transfer?

  • Shaun Murphy says:

    Thanks for explaining the difference between M.2 and SSDs! Also, this is even important for the people who work on server drives today.

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