NVMe vs M.2 vs SATA: Which is the best for your SSD?

NVMe vs M.2 vs SATA: Which is the best for your SSD?

Everyone knows that SSDs are faster than HDDs, but did you know that not all SSDs are made equal? In this article, we’re going to pit NVMe vs M.2 vs SATA in a three-way comparison battle to help you choose the right one for you. We’re going to explain what sets them apart, how each performs at their maximum specs (currently), and even take a brief look into the future to assess what’s coming next.

First, though, let’s explain the basics.

What are these?

NVMe vs M.2 vs SATA

What even are these? What sets apart an NVMe drive from an M.2 drive? M.2 NVMe drives exist– is there even a difference!? Why bother buying an M.2 SSD when a SATA SSD is usually cheaper?

It’s time to answer all of these questions.

What is a SATA SSD?

NVMe vs M.2 vs SATA

A SATA SSD is an SSD with a SATA interface. SATA, or Serial AT Attachment, refers to the storage standard that’s been used by PCs for nearly the past twenty years. 

SATA HDDs and SSDs come in either 3.5-inch or 2.5-inch enclosures, respectively. HDDs can come in both (with a speed sacrifice for a smaller form factor), but SSDs are generally only shipped in 2.5 enclosures and are often even smaller on the inside.

SATA has evolved quite a bit since its initial release in 2000, but even the best SATA SSDs’ transfer rate caps out at around 600 MB/s in pure speed capabilities on the latest SATA 3 motherboards. (SATA HDDs, if you’re curious, cap out at around 110 MB/s.)

This speed is far faster than anything an old-school, mechanical HDD is capable of, so a SATA SSD is still a worthwhile upgrade over a SATA HDD. Compared to the others on this list, it’ll be the most noticeable leap in quality of life– but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s talk about the others, too.

What is M.2?

NVMe vs M.2 vs SATA

M.2 is the successor to the original mSATA standard (hence the “2”), and it greatly decreases the size of a given drive. M.2 drives only come as SSDs, since the format is far too small for a mechanical arrangement.

M.2 SSDs are most often seen in laptops, but many desktops are using the technology, too. Thanks to the minuscule size of an M.2 drive, using M.2 SSDs is quite the viable replacement to a SATA drive array, especially in small form factor PC builds. 

Your typical M.2 SSD uses the motherboard’s pre-existing SATA bandwidth for its drive. This means it has the same speed limit as a SATA SSD would, it’s just smaller and doesn’t require running any extra cables.

However, some M.2 SSDs also come in the NVMe format. Not every M.2 SSD is NVMe, but every modern NVMe SSD is M.2.

What is NVMe?

NVMe vs M.2 vs SATA

NVMe stands for Non-Volatile Memory Express. If the “Express” seems familiar to you, there’s a reason for that: NVMe expansions happen to use PCI Express bandwidth, as opposed to SATA bandwidth. That means the peak speed of an NVMe SSD is much, much higher than an SSD powered by SATA bandwidth, whether it’s 2.5-inch or M.2.

Let’s dig deeper into these differences, shall we?

How do they compare?

If you paid close attention to the previous section, you may already have an idea where this is going.

SATA M.2 vs SATA 2.5-Inch/Standard

A SATA SSD’s max potential throughput is 600 MB/s, but in most real-world scenarios this actually ends up being just about 500 MB/s… maybe 550 MB/s if you’re lucky. This is roughly half a gigabyte per second– certainly not bad, by any means, but far from the maximum capabilities of solid-state storage.

If an M.2 SSD is using SATA bandwidth, the same speed limitations still apply… but the drive tends to be much smaller although they cost about the same. Even using SATA bandwidth, an M.2 SSD will almost always be the better choice as long as your system supports both options.

If an M.2 SSD is using PCI Express bandwidth (via NVMe), then there’s no competition at all. Let’s talk about that scenario.

NVMe vs M.2 vs SATA

M.2 NVMe vs M.2 SATA

An M.2 NVMe and an M.2 SATA drive will look pretty much identical on the surface level: super-thin and about as long as your thumb. Modern NVMe drives are made to utilize PCI Express Gen 3 bandwidth, though, and this far exceeds SATA bandwidth in terms of speed.

Your SATA SSD– M.2 or not– will cap out below 600 MB/s.

Your NVMe SSD, meanwhile, can achieve speeds as high as 3.5 GB/s. That’s multiple times faster than even the best SATA SSD and it leaves traditional HDD technology in the dust as little more than a distant memory (unless you need bulk storage in which case your bank account might pull HDDs back into your perspective).

And that’s not even all, either…

What about PCI Express Gen 4?

PCI Express Gen 4 is around the corner with NVMe SSDs to match!

At the time of writing, this will only be for AMD’s X570 chipset… but Intel is sure to follow suit within a year or less. PCI Express Gen 4 has allowed companies, like Corsair, to release products like the MP600, which boasts a devastating speed of up to 4.9 GB/s. This isn’t even the peak, either, since PCI Express Gen 4 leaves room for even more improvements– up to twice as fast as Gen 3, in theory!

It’s no contest at all: NVMe has won the speed race. But does that mean it’s right for you?

Picking the right one for you

NVMe vs M.2 vs SATA

While we’ve hyped up NVMe SSDs quite a lot, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily the right picks for everyone. Allow us to explain.

Which is better for general use?

For general use, the best pick is a SATA SSD. M.2 or 2.5-inch, it doesn’t really matter. Using an SSD at all is a dramatic leap in quality of life from using any mechanical hard drive, but you don’t get leaps on the same scale when you bump up to M.2 and NVMe. There are a few different reasons for this, but we’ll hyper-simplify it to make it easier to understand.

Let’s say that your PC takes 25 seconds to boot from a hard drive. You replace that hard drive with a SATA SSD, and now your PC can boot in 10 seconds. Further replacing that SATA SSD with an NVMe SSD may cut that boot time down even further– to 5 seconds, even!

…but that’s not nearly as big a difference in real-world use, is it? Either way is pretty darn fast. Once you get to your desktop and start launching apps, you’re unlikely to notice a difference… especially if the rest of your system can’t keep up. More on that in a bit.

Which is better for professional use?

For professional use, you want either an NVMe SSD or PCI Express SSD. At least if your job requires access to fast storage and frequent large file transfers, where all this extra speed will actually come in handy. If it doesn’t, you can probably pass.

Which is better for gaming?

Last but not least…gaming.

Surely an NVMe SSD is the best for gaming, right?

Well, yes, but

It won’t make the difference you think it will. This is where our old friend bottlenecking comes into the equation.

While NVMe SSDs are far faster than any SATA drive, the rest of the system needs to keep up, too. The bulk of this burden will fall upon your processor, but even with a powerful processor like the i7-8700K, the difference is minimal in real-world gaming scenarios. If your processor is weaker than that, you may even experience worse performance.

Don’t get us wrong: you should still get an SSD, but unless you’re a true pro gamer or have the highest-end system at your fingertips… NVMe isn’t a super-necessary upgrade over a SATA hard drive. If you find an NVMe SSD at a good price, you should still go for it– and if you make a lot of large file transfers, then you may have legitimate incentive to buy it.

Otherwise, though, a SATA SSD will be best for most consumers, gamers and casual users alike.

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Christopher Harper is an up-and-coming tech writer with nearly a decade of experience (starting when he was 15!) and a genuine love for PC hardware, as well as tech and gaming at large. When he isn’t writing, he works on fiction, YouTube videos, and competitive gaming.

Independent, transparent, rigorous and authentic, our reviews are the most thorough and honest in PC gaming. Learn about our review process.

12 thoughts on “NVMe vs M.2 vs SATA: Which is the best for your SSD?”

  1. Thanks for the balanced info.

    Your writing is clear and informative.

    The last PC I put together was about eight years ago… I recently started to research components and so much has changed… there’s so much to catch up on!

    Reply
  2. Excellent article/ I generally don’t bother with comments (I generally lurk) 😀

    But this was crisp, succinct, and easy to read. Seems like you understood the topic well and that’s why you could be so crisp about it.

    Thanks for the info!

    Reply
  3. i to was jon mayhew haven’t built a pc in 7 years before that built 4 to 5 a week for custom jobs did this for almost 15 years but honestly i burned out so went back to a 9 to 5 job and wow a lot has changed i have a lot of catching up to do and your article’s are a true help

    Reply
  4. Good article!
    My current two computers, a desktop and a laptop, were both prepackaged store bought, heh. Both are dual core processors. The laptop, at the time, was mid-high range as I bought it for gaming only.. Well ok, just to play WoW, hehe. My younger brother, in his late twenties and married, kept telling me how great the game was, had me watch him play for hours, and yeah, it looked cool, but I was like, “who the hell in their right mind would pay a monthly subscription to play a damned game?!?”
    He said, ‘I really want you to play with me, x look, I’ll buy you a three month card, just see if you like it!’
    Well needless to say I got addicted to the game! It worked ok on my desktop, but couldn’t handle the high settings, and I wanted to be able to play wherever I went too, so bought a nice Overkill laptop, hehehe!
    Big, heavy, 17″ HP with every conceivable port or dohickie that you could think of! Personally I’d rather have a bulky laptop with a monster battery, mechanical he option, DVD burner (play movies, we have tons to take on trips) , card readers, etc. Heck, I’d prefer a 19 inch laptop! I don’t know how people enjoy playing on these 13 and 14″ things, heck, 15 seems small to me now! (I miss my 20/20 vision!)

    The desktop has seen different video cards, sound cards, video security capture cards, network and others over the years.

    My first computer was a Texas Instruments TI 99/4A with 16k of memory and a cassette tape drive to save files to! Woohoo!!
    My second was a lot more fun, a a Commodore 64, with, of course, 64k of ram! I told my parents I could use it for “school”. Heh. That was a game playing machine!!
    After that I dinked with my mom’s Apple II (she never used it) and this thing I’ll just call a mini mainframe, it was the length of a walk in a small bedroom and about the depth and height of a office desk. Can’t remember what it was now. My uncle for it when the company her worked for went out of business.

    When I moved out of the house and was of to college I bought my first Ibm compatible XT computer, 512k of ram and dual 5-1/4 floppy drives! It has a green screen monitor! After a while it had to go because it was a Conpaq computer and everything was basically proprietary. My next XT was some generic, but had a TEN MEG MFM HARD DRIVE!!!! There was NO NO WAY I could ever fill that thing up!!! Hehehe!!

    My next was a 286 computer, I remember the thing had memory chips that actually had wires that plugged into the board, not a card edge!
    Then a 386sx16 (mhz). I think. Later a 386dx40 (hope I’m not confusing my 486 numbers!) I remember a 486 66, that was awesome! I couldn’t afford Intel chips so it was AMD and Cyrix! Cyrix was the poor geek’s chip! (That was me!) This was in the early 90’s and I was living in a low rent, kinda sketchy neighborhood, and the one bedroom apartment was $195 a month, all bills paid!! Couldn’t beat that with a stick!! It would have been perfect if I hadn’t been a naive country boy and took in a sad case acquaintance of an ex college roommate that I didn’t really like that much, because he didn’t have a place to stay, lol. Oh the jacked up stories I could tell!!

    I ran a dial-up BBS (bulletin board) on the 386s and 486s for years, first running DOS, then Windows 3.1, then 3.11 for workgroups. (Don’t believe them when they tell you it can m multitask! Hehe) and finally a friend got me running IBM OS/2 WARP. Best operating system ever! Never crashed, locked up, or had to reboot! Multitasked like a dream!! It was like going from driving a Ford pinto to a Porsche!
    All of those I built myself. Back in the days when you had to set dip switches on everything, lol. Plug and play? What the hell was that?! Lol!

    So here we are and I have to relearn everything about the inside of a computer again! Hell, you even have to get special monitors to keep up with the graphics card! Lol. Funky cables, solid state stuff, all kinds of card slot standards. Hell, I got a headache just figuring out all the damned confusing USB junk! 2, 3, 3. di different versions of that, thunderbolt. Why I cant get thunderbolt on certain amd systems, ugh!
    Education sucks!! Hehe.
    And now figuring out sad stuff. Whew!
    My one finger taping and swiping on this tablet is getting tired! If you stuck to the end of my trip through memory lane, I hope it brought back a few of your memories! 🙂

    Reply
    • My computer history is similar to yours, only my adventure started off with an Atari 400, that had a GAWD AWFUL membrane keyboard! OMG I HATED THAT COMPUTER BECAUSE OF IT!

      I miss OS/2. Worked at the OS/2 Order Center for a while back in the 90s. Leave it to IBM to totally mismarket / mismanage a product, to let an inferior product take over the world. I worry for RH Linux, now that IBM owns them!

      Reply
    • Thanks for sharing the memories, I appreciate reading different PoVs and while I may be tech savvy enough now, I know that the next thing I know will be that everything changed and I didn’t keep up for focusing on other stuff in life. But I’ll be darned excited in catching up with all the new stuff even though everything I will learn will be outdated by the time I’m done catching up probably, lol.

      Reply
  5. Great article! You may want to add that NvMe has 1 slot/tab in its connector; while SATA (or NGFF) uses 2 solts/tabs!

    Reply
  6. Hey Mike WTF are you talking about and WTF does all this rambling have to do with the discussion in this thread?!

    Reply
  7. You have made my decision making a lot more easier. And Many thanks for that.
    I was searching a replacement laptop for general usage and now I can save money.

    Reply

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