M.2 SATA, M.2 NVME, SSD, HDD—if any of those abbreviations make your head spin faster than a hard drive platter, look no further. This article outlines the different storage options on the market today, highlighting the best use-cases for each and recommending the best product in every class.
Upgrading an older storage drive to an SSD is one of the surest (and cheapest) ways to give a boost to an older PC, but where should you begin? There are three main options on the market today: HDDs, SATA SSDs, and M.2 SSDs. Here’s a look at each.
The Hard Disk Drive (HDD)—Slower, But Cheaper
First introduced by IBM in the 1950s, the Hard Disk Drive (HDD) is the oldest storage technology currently on the market. An HDD utilizes a spinning magnetic platter to store and retrieve information. The benefits of using an HDD are larger capacities and affordability, but they take up more space, use more power, and are less durable than other storage options available. They’re also slower, with sustained transfer rates (also known as “throughputs”) of about 200 megabytes per second (MBps). Still, HDDs are the cheapest mass storage option.
The Solid-State Drive (SSD)—Faster, But Pricier
Unlike HDDs, Solid-State Drives (SSDs) have no moving parts, instead storing data on integrated circuits. The lack of moving parts also means SSDs can read and write data at faster speeds—around 550 MBps for the latest SATA 3 SSDs. In everyday experiences, this means files can be read from and written to an SSD faster than a typical HDD. In addition, SSDs store data differently, allowing simultaneous access to the data, which leads to faster boot and load times for operating systems or games. Thanks to the “solid-state” nature of SSDs, they’re also more durable and smaller at a 2.5-inch form factor. Because of their benefits over HDDs, SSDs are often more expensive.
It Gets More Complicated: M.2 SATA and M.2 NVMe Solid-State Drives
There are two types of drives that are relatively new to consumer storage: M.2 SATA and M.2 NVMe. Both use what’s called an M.2 form factor, which is a thin, card-like shape that fits into a slot directly on the motherboard. An M.2 SATA drive generally runs the same speeds as a regular SATA SSD, but it benefits from the M.2 connector, which plugs directly into the motherboard and skips the need for messy cables. This can make an M.2 SATA drive an attractive proposition for small-case builders looking for something with a balance of affordability, compactness, and speed.
The M.2 NVMe is the same form factor as an M.2 SATA but, it utilizes an architecture that allows much higher data transfer rates (3 gigabytes per second). This is because it uses the PCIe interface, which can transfer data more rapidly than regular SATA. Now, this doesn’t mean your games or OS will run all that much faster on an NVMe drive—just load faster: the higher speed is usually seen in read/write times (copying or transferring large files, for example) and not processing the files when you run an OS or game. Nonetheless, builders with high budgets who just want the best option currently available should be looking into M.2 NVMe options.
What storage is right for you?
Each storage option above has a best use-case scenario. Here’s when you should use an HDD, SSD, M.2 SATA and M.2 NVMe drive:
Use for archiving old files, storing immense amounts of data, and/or maintaining a RAID backup. Because HDDs are cheap but slow, today they’re best used for data backup and archiving. A RAID setup is a good way to use several HDDs to store important files in a redundant system in case of drive failures.
Use for your OS drive and/or gaming drive. An SSD can be the heart of a modern gaming PC from the low-end on up to the top of the midrange. At minimum, an OS -and-gaming drive should be 500GB. (Those just wanting to use an SSD as a boot drive can get away with a smaller drive.)
SSD (M.2 SATA)
Use for your OS drive or gaming drive in a small-form-factor PC. M.2 SATA drive is great for tight spaces, and the straight-to-the-motherboard connection cuts down on cable management—while turning its lost speed (from not being an NVMe drive) into cost savings.
Our pick: Crucial MX500 500GB 3D NAND SATA M.2
SSD (M.2 NVMe)
Use for a workstation drive, or for the boot/gaming drive of a high-end system. Ordinarily, the extremely high read/write speeds of an NVMe drive are really only going to useful if transferring large files such as video, audio, or images. But folks chasing the lowest load times conceivably possible, regardless of expense, may also see this as a viable option.
So there you have it: a quick overview of the prominent storage options available for the typical gaming build. If you’re still hungry for more info about the speeds of these parts and other pieces of hardware, also check out our article comparing the data transfer rates of many parts.
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