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M.2 NVMe solid state drive

This page is all about the M.2 (pronounced m dot two) PCIe NVMe solid state drive (SSD) and how significant a development it is for working professionals. Why dedicate so much space in a photography website to the M.2 NVMe SSD? Photographers frequently deal with a high volume of large image files such as Raw files from a digital camera or processed .tif and .jpg files. A modern M.2 SSD will read and write these files much faster than a traditional hard disk drive (HDD). Additionally, photographers frequently use large software programs such as Adobe Photoshop. These programs, not to mention the operating system itself, load much faster from an M.2 SSD than any other drive. One eighty-megabyte Raw file from my Nikon Z7II’s flash memory card will transfer to an M.2 SSD folder in under one second, six times faster than to my HDD. Note that all data storage devices read much faster than they write. Also, one large file will write much faster than numerous smaller files. A modern HDD will transfer data to a SATA III SSD at 220MB/s but writing to the HDD is much slower.

From my own “real world” observation, opening a folder full of large .tif and .psd files from within Photoshop is also less time consuming. Consequently, I use one M.2 2TB NVMe drive as a Windows 11 boot drive and another for my “working” project folders. I then transfer finished projects to a 10TB Toshiba HDD for long term storage. I also use an M.2 SSD as a fast scratch disk, cache, or database for photographic post-production software. In sum, an M.2 may be a noteworthy asset for a more recent computer or a practical upgrade for an older computer. Upgrading a PC using an M.2 PCIe adapter card and an existing motherboard PCIe x4 or x8 slot is described in detail below.

It does take some time and patience to wade through all this information. This is not simple stuff. But with time and patience a photographer, who isn’t also a computer Geek, can upgrade to the latest and fastest in solid state storage technology and speed their workflow. This is not magic, improvements in PC performance are incremental. But when added together, incremental improvements in technology can be substantive.

Note that an M.2 SSD, attached either to an M.2 socket (Socket 3) on a motherboard or mounted on a PCIe adapter card, have near identical performance. So, a photographer may upgrade an older computer to use an M.2 SSD attached to a PCIe adapter card placed into a x4 PCIe slot (x8 will work also) inside their computer. Of course, the older the computer, the less effective a modern M.2 SSD drive will be. But it will most likely far exceed any HDD in terms of data transfer speed. M.2 was first supported in 2015 on Intel’s Haswell X99, Z97, and H97 (Intel CPU gen 4) motherboards. Typically, a BIOS update is not required to support a PCIe M.2 card. But if you wish to boot to a PCIe M.2 card located in a PCIe slot, you may need to enable CSM (Compatibility Support Module) in the BIOS. My book about building your own photographer’s computer is here… BOOK!

A somewhat lengthy synopsis of the M.2 “form factor” SSD is unavoidable given the complexity of the subject. Fundamentally, do not confuse an M.2 SATA SSD with an M.2 PCIe NVMe SSD. These look similar but the M.2 NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory Express – launched in July 2013) has one M key (notch) at its base while the SATA SSD has a B key or both B and M keys. A SATA SSD does not use NVMe software technology and is much slower. An M.2 form factor SATA SSD with B and M keys may fit into an M.2 socket but will not perform at NVMe speeds. Additionally, the system BIOS may not provide for this even if the fit can be arranged. In this text, “M.2 SSD” always refers to the M.2 PCIe NVMe SSD.

The M.2 NVMe SSD in the above illustration, with label removed, provides us an opportunity to examine the semiconductor “chips” attached. A superior NVMe SSD has a controller chip that holds firmware, a DRAM (or dRAM) memory chip, and one or more NAND flash memory chips. 3D NAND is an evolution that stacks writable memory locations one atop another. A Hynix 8th gen NAND sports over 300 layers. Hynix is the world’s second largest flash memory chip maker behind Samsung. NAND technology does the heavy lifting in both PCIe and SATA SSDs. The controller manages the onboard file system and is responsible for “wear leveling technology” or the distribution of data write events across memory cells. This extends the life of the drive. M.2 memory cells have a considerable but finite read/write lifespan. A firmware update may improve this function. I prefer NVMe SSDs with a supporting DRAM memory chip that manages “Data map tables” for the NAND chip. This aids NAND read/write speed and longevity. Of course, never, never remove an M.2 label, this will void your warranty. Additionally, the label is actually a “heat spreader” that migrates heat away from the controller chip, where hopefully, it will be further mitigated by a heatsink. Interestingly enough, flash memory chips like some warmth to function efficiently.

At the date of this edit (03/27/2023) the price of many M.2 SSDs seems to be trending downward, occasionally by somewhat surprising amounts. Yet, be cautious of two things, 1) I have seen some prices online that are vastly exaggerated perhaps to deceive the unwary. Shop around and read reviews such as those at tomshardware.com, 2) there are substandard, counterfeit M.2 SSDs in the retail market that are quite convincing. One way to test for a genuine M.2 SSD is to use the product’s software to run a “Performance Benchmark” and compare the results with the product’s official specifications listed in the manufacturer’s website. This is easy to do using the Western Digital Dashboard or Samsung Magician which also provide a firmware update option. My Samsung 980 PRO showed 6,906MB/s read / 5,171MB/s write the Samsung website shows 7,000MB/s read / 5,100MB/s write…close enough. The actual test results are in the image below.

If we look at a modern M.2 SSD, the labeling and product description may confound us (see illustration below). I own a Samsung 2TB 980 PRO NVMe PCIe 4.0 x4 M.2 Internal SSD. Obviously, “2TB” tells us this M.2 SSD has a two-terabyte data storage capacity. The Samsung “PRO” uses a fairly recent version of the NVMe protocol. The PRO NVMe is generation (gen) 1.3c, updated to enable PCIe linked SSDs to work more efficiently with the CPU. NVMe management interface technology optimizes data transfer speeds along the PCIe bus and data storage within an M.2 SSD. NVMe is also used with SSDs other than M.2, such as the physically larger U.2, but NVMe always uses the PCIe bus to transfer data. In this text, PCIe refers to PCIe accessible circuitry (PCIe bus) on the motherboard. PCIe is “bus interface” technology.

NVMe is a very sophisticated and evolving data storage interface and transfer protocol. But M.2 NVMe SSD descriptions infrequently reveal what NVMe gen is onboard. The latest is NVMe gen 2.0. Additionally, the NVMe attribute differentiates an M.2 NVMe SSD from an M.2 SATA SSD and a host of other small M.2 form factor devices. Computer Geeks may refer to the M.2 NVMe SSD as an NVMe or simply M2 and other Geeks will understand. The industry standard M.2 form factor is 22mm wide in various lengths. You can buy 2230, 2242, 2260, 2280, or 22110 but the 2280 seems to be the most common length sold. All non-volatile memory devices, typically “flash memory,” retain data if an associated device is powered off. This is why we use flash memory in our digital cameras.

The label’s “PCIe 4.0” text also informs us that this M.2 SSD is able to take full advantage of the data read/write speed of the recent PCIe gen 4. It is not too difficult to research any motherboard or PC to discover what PCIe gen is being used. You can attach an M.2 PCIe gen 5 to a PCIe gen 4 or gen 3 motherboard’s PCIe slot and no harm will come. M.2 NVMe is backward and forward compatible. But the speed of the M.2 SSD will be cut by one-half for each gen backward. Placing an M.2 PCIe gen 3 card in a PCIe 5 bus will not enhance the M.2’s data rate.

The M.2 SSD “x4” notation cautions us that this M.2 device requires 4 PCIe lanes, x4 as in an x4 PCIe slot or Socket 3, to function optimally. This is quite standard. PCIe lanes have two copper wires, one to send and the other to receive known as a “trace.” Your motherboard’s x4 PCIe slot will be perfect for the M.2. Look at it this way, a PCIe gen 5 motherboard’s x4 PCIe slot has a potential bandwidth of 16 gigabytes per second (16GB/s). That should be way beyond adequate. Anyway, more PCIe lanes only provide additional bandwidth for a device capable of using more lanes. Placing an M.2 SSD in an x8 PCIe slot will not provide additional usable bandwidth for this x4 device. On a motherboard, the term trace really means a printed circuit. A standard ATX (12″ x 9.6″) or EATX (extended, up to 12″ x 13″) motherboard only has so much space for components and printed circuits. Technology seems focused on making components faster and more functional while not increasing size.

PCIe gen 5 is twice as fast as gen 4, PCIe x8 lanes has twice the bandwidth of PCIe x4 lanes. That long, uppermost PCIe slot in your PC is an x16 (16 lane) powerhouse. This is why it is typically used for a large PCIe graphics card. PCIe data is bidirectional, data can travel in both directions along any PCIe lane. The lowest bandwidth PCIe slot we may see is x1, which is starting to disappear on some newer motherboards. USB-C is not faster than an x1 PCIe slot by a long shot but is adequate for many tasks that used a smaller PCIe card in the past. The great speed of PCIe is why we can use a PCIe adapter card to support a number of USB devices. The USB bus interfaces with the CPU through the PCH (Platform Control Hub or Chipset) and DMI (Direct Media Interface is an x8 lane “local bus” to the CPU – see illustration below). Note also that PCIe cards can populate any motherboard PCIe slot that they can fit into. A small x4 PCIe M.2 adapter card could be placed in a x16 “graphics card” PCIe slot. In most circumstances, that would seem to be a ridiculous waste of system resources…but it would work!

You may see “NAND,” “V-NAND,” or “3D NAND” listed in the description of either PCIe or SATA SSDs. Sometimes, it is printed on a NAND chip. NAND, or variants, is the actual flash memory storage chip (or chips) in an SSD and a flash memory cell layering methodology for maximizing NAND chip effectiveness. Lastly, you may see reference to SLC, MLC, QLC, and TLC. This represents different flash memory cell-level data storage strategies (SLC: one bit per cell, MLC: two bits, TLC: triple-layer cell, QLC: four bits). Most consumer NAND devices are trending toward TLC, which seems a fair compromise between durability, speed, write accuracy, and price. Each NAND SLC memory cell holds one bit (0 or 1) of data and may be configured into memory pages of 4096 bytes or a 4K page. One-terabyte (1TB) holds 8,000,000,000,000 bits of information. Such bits and bytes are registered by voltage within M.2 cells, 0 v to +0.8 v for 0, 2.4 v to 5 v for 1. An overheated M.2 may cause memory cells to leak electrons…jail break!

If you know all this stuff already but would like comprehensive insight into installing an M.2 SSD in PCIe card slot as an upgrade, read the following six paragraphs. I assume that the reader is quite comfortable around a PC motherboard and can find M.2 sockets or PCIe adapter card slots. If not, get a Geek friend to help! Of course, be mindful of static electricity when handling an M.2. If you don’t know all this stuff, read this entire webpage before buying an M.2 SSD.

Installing an M.2 NVMe SSD in a PCIe slot. First, Research and read reviews, then order parts. For my M.2 SSD, I selected the, quoting now, “Western Digital WD_BLACK SN770 M.2 2280 2TB PCIe Gen4 16GT/s, up to 4 Lanes Internal Solid State Drive (SSD) WDS200T3X0E” at about $119…a good deal (yet the WD BLACK SN850 NVMe is faster). For my PCIe adapter card I ordered the quite capable M.2 PCIe “GLOTRENDS M.2 PCIe NVMe 4.0/3.0 (PA09-HS10)” PCIe x4 slot adapter card from newegg.com for about $14. Lastly, I ordered a “WARSHIP PRO M.2 2280 SSD Heatsink, PCIE NVME or SATA M.2 2280 SSD Double-Sided Heat Sink, M.2 SSD Heatsink for PS5/PC, Support Samsung 990 980 Pro & WD Black SN770 SN850 Black.” I spent this $10, because I wanted to examine and tinker with different heat sinks. I like the WARSHIP PRO heatsink very much.

Notice that M.2 SSD product descriptions are rather long. This is because we must know exactly what we are ordering for everything to come together as anticipated. As with all such purchases, retain invoices and packaging in anticipation of possible return. Assembly and installation require no great dexterity or mechanical skill, but a slow studied approach is advised as one of the product illustrations I received was not entirely correct in terms of depicting M.2 M key orientation and M.2 socket placement. Nevertheless, read all instructions very carefully.

Second, assemble the M.2 and heatsink. There are a variety of heatsinks available and many M.2 PCIe cards come with an adequate if not award-winning heatsink. I believe the future will see more M.2 SSDs marketed with an optional and well-designed heatsink. The WARSHIP PRO heatsink has a metal case for the M.2 SSD that screwed together quite nicely. Use the two thermal pads provided to aid heat transfer to the heatsink. M.2’s label goes up. Be certain to position the M.2 so that the electrical socket contacts extend out the right side and the tiny attachment screw opening is properly positioned on the left side. This does take a discerning eye. There is some debate concerning the effectiveness of M.2 heatsinks. I believe they should be used but I am cautious that my M.2 does not short out against the metal heatsink. In this case, the heatsink’s two thermal pads insulated the M.2 very well from direct contact with the metal heatsink. An M.2 SSD can get quite hot during use and requires a well-engineered heatsink and adequate ventilation.

I use Crystaldiskinfo to examine all my drives. It shows my Western Digital M.2 SSD at 29 Celsius, 84.2 degrees Fahrenheit, quite acceptable. Between 0°C and 70°C (32°F and 158°F) is safe according to multiple online sources. Note that a heatsink’s silicone thermal pads lose some percentage of functionality over time, just like the thermal paste between your CPU and CPU cooler. Heat is the enemy of M.2 devices and many other electronic components. Memory cells in NAND chips degrade from both read/write cycles and heat (see: second law of thermodynamics). You may hear of “thermal throttling.” NVMe SSD will slow down the read/write process if overheated, similar to a CPU. But this would be unexpected given generous case ventilation and attentive component cooling.

Third, insert the M.2 SSD (with heatsink assembly) very carefully into its socket on the card having properly oriented the M key. The PCIe card anticipates that the M.2 may have a full heatsink and provides adequate clearance for this. Often, an M.2 SSD is inserted into its socket at about 30 degrees, as the socket tilts upward to receive the M.2. This is not true of every M.2 socket, some anticipate a vertically mounted SSD. It takes only modest force to seat the M.2 in its socket. Be certain to completely seat an M.2 SSD into the socket. The drive may even be screwed down at the far end yet not be completely seated. If you can see the copper contact strips on the M.2 drive, it MAY not be fully seated. If an M.2 SSD is not fully seated your operating system will not find it. If the M.2 is being used as your boot drive, and it is not fully seated, it will not be discoverable in or by the BIOS. The system may report that no boot drive is present. In this case, the PC will POST to BIOS only if the user pushes the Delete key or F12 (or as instructed in the motherboard’s manual) early in the boot process to enter the BIOS. But no drive will be listed in the boot sequence list in the BIOS. After being fully inserted into its socket, the M.2 should easily lay flat so that the tiny screw can be used to secure the M.2. Do not over tighten the screw, just snug it up quite rightly. All M.2 devices are powered at point of contact in a socket connected to the motherboard’s electrical power.

Fourth, Shut down the PC, turn off the power supply, and unplug it. You cannot “hot plug” an M.2 device or a PCIe card. Remove the correct PCIe slot cover before trying to insert the PCIe card. Put the slot cover screw in a safe place. DO NOT drop the PCIe slot cover or slot cover retention screw onto the motherboard. The board may get short with you. Even when unplugged, the motherboard is powered by an onboard battery. Be cautious. Do not over tighten this screw when later securing the PCIe card. Be mindful of the gap in the PCIe card’s electrical contacts and corresponding “post” in the PCIe slot. Correctly orient the card at 90 degrees (not 87 degrees) over the slot and press it firmly but reasonably into the slot. I use the aftermarket PCIe card’s slot cover to help guide it into the slot. If the card is at all crooked, something unspeakable just happened. Incidentally, I have never lost a component to static electricity, but I am careful to ground myself to my PC’s metal case every time I go poking around its innards. Using anti-static precautions is wise.

Fifth, Now we must perform some basic tasks for Windows to recognize and employ any PCIe attached M.2 drive. This also applies to new external drives connected by USB cable. Open Windows 11 Disk Management by typing “Disk Management” in the Windows “Search” bar located at the left side of the Task Bar. Once Disk Management’s graphical user interface loads (it may tale a while especially if you have a new uninitialized drive connected by USB), it should recognize the new SSD and the “Initialize Disk” menu box will open. GPT partitioning will be offered as the default. I always use GPT partitioning. So, everything is fine here, hit “OK.” If your operating system does not present this menu, click (or right click) inside the “Unallocated” space of the M.2 drive while being very, very careful not to select the wrong drive. An Initialize Disk option with GPT should appear. After the drive has been initialized it may or may not be “shaded” by a number of slanted lines. Right click in this “Unallocated” space then click “New Simple Volume.” The “Welcome to the New Simple Volume Wizard” box will appear. Click “Next.” The “Specify Volume Size” dialog box will appear. Select the entire drive for formatting unless you really want numerous partitions and know what you are doing. Click “Next.” under “Assign Drive Letter or Path,” I always select the default drive letter. Click “Next.” The “Format Partition” options menu will appear. Format the drive using NTFS, the Windows standard. “Quick Format” will be fine. Under “Volume Label,” name the drive something practical such as, M2 2023 Photos. Click “Next” review the information provided then click “Finish.” Wait for formatting to finish which should be fairly quick. Congratulations, you now have a “Healthy (Basic Data Partition).” You can later rename any drive when using Windows Explorer.

If you chose a Western Digital M.2, download Western Digital Dashboard software. This software will allow you to check that you have the latest firmware for your M.2 drive. Samsung drives use the Samsung Magician program. These software tools are not just marketing. They provide a means for updating the M.2’s firmware located in a “controller chip” inside the SSD. It is important that you use the latest firmware for your M.2 SSD. This may very well help extend the life of the drive. If you use an M.2 as a boot drive, you may have to restart (not reset but restart) your PC to overcome Windows going full blue screen on you after an M.2 firmware update. I had to restart several times, then everything was OK! This is the standard course of action if a blue screen appears. I once restarted a PC about ten times before Windows recovered from a flat EKG! By the way, exercise caution when updating any component firmware (the BIOS is motherboard firmware) any interruption, such as a power disconnect, may be problematic to say the least.

Lastly, Some users mount more than one M.2 SSD on a PCIe card designed for that purpose. This requires PCIe bifurcation as each M.2 SSD requires x4 PCIe lanes. Bifurcation may be available to be enabled on a motherboard or on the PCIe card. I see this as a CPU and/or motherboard native capability or PCIe card capability but I would rather buy one 4TB M.2 SSD than two 2TB M.2s and a dual socket M.2 PCIe card. There are bifurcation adapter cards (providing a switch between available M.2 SSDs) that can be used on motherboards not having a native bifurcation function.

Below is a more extensive description of the M.2 SSD and related technology. I suggest you read all of this before purchasing or installing an M.2 SSD.

The M.2 is a relatively slim, small form factor (typically 22mm x 80mm) data storage device. “It looks like a big stick of gum!” many people say (see diagram above). An M.2 SSD is much faster than a traditional hard drive. However, the speed of any data storage device is dependent upon quite a number of factors. One common factor is the “bus” or motherboard circuitry along which data must travel. For example, your CPU and DDR5 RAM memory use the front side bus (FSB) to transmit data at 1600 MB/s. A HDD is almost always connected to the motherboard SATA (Serial AT Attachment) bus, using a data cable plugged into a SATA data port on the lower right of the motherboard. The SATA bus is presently limited to one lane while PCIe has a potential of 32 lanes. Your M.2 SSD requires x4 lanes to run as designed. A SATA HDD is powered using a power cable from the PC’s main power supply. Some new motherboards provide eight SATA ports.

SATA was developed in the year 2000 primarily to provide better connectivity for HDDs along the SATA bus. SATA data storage devices, which presently includes both HDDs and SATA SSDs, communicate with the CPU along the SATA bus through the PCH. As with almost all personal computer technologies, SATA comes to us in generations or “gen” for short. Presently, SATA gen 3 (often written as SATA III) has a potential data transfer rate of 600 MB/s (6.0 Gb/s) if measured using a SATA SSD. Obviously, HDDs are limited by the mechanical factor of the spinning platters and writing data occurs at about 60MB/s. The motherboard’s chipset connects to the CPU along the DMI. Each Intel CPU gen has unique Input/output (IO) capabilities.

PCIe gen 1 (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express) replaced the antiquated PCI bus in 2003. The original PC PCI bus anticipated input/output cards, a sound card perhaps, certainly nothing as fast as onboard M.2 SSDs. The latest PCIe 5 or gen 5 (specifications announced in 2019) has a potential bandwidth of 128 GB/s (gigabytes per second) and a data transfer rate of 32 GT/s (gigatransfers per second). But maximum bandwidth will require 32 lanes. Of course, PCIe 5 is still twice as fast in an x8 slot as PCIe 4…potentially. “Potential” is like your 100-yard dash, likely somewhat faster in your dreams than in reality. And, for you PC dreamers, PCIe 6 is just over the horizon.

Let’s assume we are using a modern computer with an Intel Alder Lake (12th gen) or Raptor Lake (13th gen…I like the Intel i7-13700K) CPU (both use CPU socket LGA 1700). A respectable socket LGA 1700 motherboard will provide a PCIe 4.0 or 5.0 (PCIe gen 4 or 5) bus which connects to the CPU through an updated PCH and wide eight lane (x8) DMI. In a modern motherboard, almost all M.2 SSDs connect to the PCIe bus from sockets located under a heatsink or heatsinks attached to the board. Else from a PCIe adapter card placed into an available PCIe x4 slot on the left side of the motherboard. Of course, motherboards are quite variable, some feature more M.2 sockets with a direct PCIe bus to the CPU than others. On many boards, M.2 SSD data travels along the PCIe bus to the PCH/DMI link to communicate with the CPU. This is slower but not by much. The price of a motherboard increases along with design sophistication.

Note that PCIe bandwidth is distributed among PCIe adapter cards and M.2 SSDs in motherboard sockets. Bandwidth is a function of PCIe gen and available lanes. A motherboard may have two PCIe gen 4 slots each offering an x16 potential. But if two x16 graphics cards are used, they may both function at x8 bandwidth. But such cards don’t exceed x8 anyway so nothing is lost (not worth it anyway…just buy one superior graphics card). An x4 adapter card fitted to an older x2 slot will run at half speed. An x4 card fitted into an x8 slot still uses x4 bandwidth. Additionally, with some motherboards, when all available SATA ports are in use, one of two x4 PCIe slots may be disabled. But it is hard to imagine that at least one x4 slot will not be available. Significantly, an idle PCIe adapter card does not draw system resources except for minimal current. So merely inserting an M.2 NVMe 4TB x4 adapter card in a x4 slot does not consume bandwidth just sitting there waiting for you to get busy. A detailed study of a motherboard’s features is often needed as we begin to populate all SATA and PCIe bus potential with gadgets.

M.2 SSDs may be evaluated in part according to read/write speeds and the model’s associated PCIe gen, most likely, PCIe 3, 4, or 5. Each new PCIe gen doubles potential read/write speed. A particular brand and model M.2 SSD might be significantly slower than the competition but still function with no issues in a PCIe gen 5 motherboard bus. NVMe gen, onboard PCIe gen, number of available lanes, and data latency all determine the overall performance of an M.2 SSD in any one PC. An M.2 bandwidth of x4 PCIe lanes is optimal for most M.2 SSDs. (PCIe 5 has 16 lanes with a bandwidth potential of 128GB/s). Some M.2 SSDs have more latency than others. Latency is about read/write efficiency. It’s as if your M.2 is an IndyCar at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Your bandwidth is wide because you are in front of the pack. You have all lanes of the track to yourself! But when you pull into your team’s pit for a data request (fill up!) you discover the read/write crew is kicked back sucking down a few brewskies…high latency. In passing, one reason the NVMe protocol is so fast that it can access system RAM directly through the PCIe bus. The NVMe communication protocol can also interface directly with the CPU to allow very fast boot up times.

The courtroom was hushed. You could hear a kilobyte drop! The defense team summarized their argument. “Consequently your honor given the evidence presented we are safe to assume that an M.2 SSD, rated for use in a PCIe gen 5 bus, will be very fast!”

The response from the plaintiff at the right side of the courtroom came swiftly, “We object your honor, counsel misstates the evidence! Foremost, the fastest data transfer rates come from those M.2 SSDs with a direct x4 PCIe bus to the CPU and not all motherboards provide this feature. Second, many motherboard mounted x4 M.2 SSDs use a PCIe bus connected to the board’s chipset and may be slowed by bandwidth issues along the DMI even an x8 DMI. This is especially true if the PC user is multitasking, perhaps transferring a movie from one disk to another while writing to a USB attached Blu-ray disk. Lastly, real world data transfer rates may not be the same as test bench data transfer rates. My client only uses a word processor and emails cell phone photos to friends. Such files are so small we would be hard pressed to notice any difference between a spinning HDD or an M.2 SSD.”

The judge frowned, leaned forward, and spoke with confidence. “Buying the most recent M.2 is not too expensive, they are easy to install, and last a long time. In fact, M.2 PCIe will always be faster than a SATA SSD or mechanical hard drive. The speed of an M.2 SSD is especially noticeable when used to boot an operating system, edit movies, or copy or transfer numerous photographic files. Boot-up time savings alone justify an M.2 SSD. Judgement for the defense. Plaintiff will pay court costs!”

It is fair to say that using an M.2 gen 4 or 5 SSD as a boot disk for the operating system accelerates the time taken to fully load the operating system by a factor of six or more over SATA SSDs or SATA HDDs. Note, if you are preparing any disk to be an OS boot disk, see that it is the only disk connected to the system. This keeps things simple, error free, and prevents the OS from writing critical resources onto more than one drive.

In truth, “M.2” describes a component form factor (physical size and connection type) not a SSD. However, I bet the vast majority of M.2 devices produced are NVMe SSDs in the range of 1TB or less. M.2 (formerly Next Generation Form Factor NGFF) is a standard for small internally mounted add-in cards. An M.2 device could be used on a PCIe card to enable PCIe WIFI (E key), PCIe Ethernet (B & M keys) connection, or other uses. All M.2 devices come with one or two keys. The key is an attempt to persuade customers not to force the M.2 device into a socket upside-down or into a socket where it may not be welcome. An M.2 NVMe SSD has one M key. If the M.2 NVMe label side is “up,” the key will be on the lower right side (see illustration above). To completely differentiate an M.2 NVMe SSD from a SATA SSD or M.2 SATA or mSATA, or other SSD, we must specify “M.2 NVMe PCIe 4 (or 5) M key.” SATA SSDs are often much larger than M.2, at 2.5 inches wide, and are typically attached to the slower SATA bus rather than the faster PCIe bus but not always. However, a SATA HDDs fitted to a PCIe adapter card will not function at M.2 NVMe speed. There are a great variety of SSDs and more than a few M.2 format devices with an M key, B key, or both. To comprehend all of them challenges human sanity. In terms of price and performance, you can’t go wrong with an M.2 NVMe PCIe SSD. Simply double, double check that what you are purchasing is actually an M.2 NVMe PCIe gen (4 or 5) SSD that is a 2280 (22mm x 80mm) unless you have a reason for a different size (notebook perhaps). I suggest a 2TB for starters, budget permitting, else 1TB. An M.2 should last a very long time and be “fast” until Florida freezes over.

M.2 practical application in a modern Z690 motherboard. I chose to use one Samsung 980 M.2 Pro 2TB PCIe gen 4 SSD for my boot disk. I chose this particular M.2 because of very, very good reviews. On the Gigabyte Z690 Master motherboard, the uppermost M.2 socket (M2A_CPU) links an M.2 PCIe 4 NVMe SSD directly to the CPU not to the Z690 chipset. This allows data transfer along a dedicated x4 PCIe bus. By the way, we identify motherboards in part by the Intel chipset being used. A Z690 motherboard uses the Z690 chipset and either the Alder Lake CPU or Raptor Lake CPU. The CPU, CPU socket (LGA 1700), PCIe gen, and motherboard chipset (PCH) are all on the same team for any Intel particular CPU gen. Of course, this drives motherboard manufacturers nuts as motherboard schematics change every year or two. This is why the unemployment rate in Taiwan is 3.5%.

The Z690 chipset supports M.2 PCIe NVMe devices, SATA HDDs, or SATA SSDs. The Gigabyte Aorus Master motherboard has sockets for one M.2 PCIe 4 NVMe device to connect directly to the CPU along a x4 PCIe 4 bus and four M.2 PCIe 4 NVMe SSDs connected directly to the motherboard on a separate x4 PCIe 4 bus. Six SATA HDDs or SATA SSDs also connect to the Z690 chipset. But not all these devices can be connected at the same time. The Z690 chipset’s bandwidth is generous but limited. As an example, you may install six HDDs to the board’s SATA ports which transmit data at 6Gb/s. But if you then populate all M.2 PCIe sockets, two of the SATA sockets (2, 3) will not work.

Why did I pay more for a 2TB (two terabyte) M.2 SSD? After all, I intend only to load the operating system, a few dozen larger programs, and fifty image folders on this drive. A 1TB M.2 SSD would have been adequate if not optimal. In an M.2 SSD data is written in such a manner as not to overuse any one memory location. If an M.2 SSD is used for a process that very frequently writes and or reads data, the M.2’s longevity is diminished. Such is the nature of “Flash” memory. Consequently, an M.2 SSD should never be “defragmented” as they are intentionally fragmented by proper function to disperse the finite read/write potential. I am aware of certain anti-virus programs that have default settings which may defragment SSDs. I turn this off in the settings menu. Some programs repeatedly write to storage devices for no good reason. I neuter these whenever possible. Windows does a good job of managing SSDs with their TRIM function.

In theory, a 2TB M.2 SSD will last much longer than a 1TB SSD, that is, survive more write cycles. Tests have shown that it takes a long time for an M.2 SSD to wear out. Nevertheless, M.2 SSDs are sometimes rated according to a theoretical maximum limit of terabytes written or TBW. This “endurance metric” defines how many terabytes may be written to a drive before it must enter hospice. TBW is more than trivia. An M.2’s warranty may be written as: five years or maximum endurance (TBW) limit, whichever comes first. Seems fair enough really.

Gamers and power users seem to prefer the 2TB SSD. You can also obtain a 4TB or an 8TB with an outstanding record of satisfied five-star reviews and a price tag to match. But imagine, if you will, a motherboard with 5 x 8TB or 40TB of M.2 PCIe gen 5 onboard. With no HDDs or other SSDs. Such a system will easily fit in a medium size mid-tower case (see illustration below showing the location of five M.2 onboard sockets, a PCIe x4 M.2 adapter card would slip into the lowest PCIe x4 slot). But this is not the end, only the beginning. PCIe 4 or 5 cards for the x16 slot (graphics card) are being produced to accommodate four or more 8TB M.2 SSDs. Motherboards are being produced with three x16 slots instead of the typical assortment (x4, x8, x16) to facilitate such desires. So, PC data storage and PCIe versatility and speed never looked so good.

Some recent Z690 motherboards have heatsinks attached to the midsection of the motherboard that may be removed to install up to five M.2 SSDs. The top of an installed M.2 SSD embraces a heat transfer strip attached to the underside of the heatsink to cool the drive. This works well enough given adequate case ventilation (see illustration below). Peal the green strip from the heatsink atop the M.2 SSD before securing the heatsink. Phillips screws that attach the M.2 heatsink to the motherboard may be tiny or very small. I never tighten them much at all just a bit snug.

Having said all this, SATA HDDs still have an advantage in cost per amount of data stored over SSDs. So, you may choose speed or quantity or both. I recently bought a Toshiba® 10B HDD and it performs quite well. I use it mostly as a backup and storage disk for images and large digital audio workstation (DAWS) programs and files. Toshiba’s 10TB drive seems to be doing quite well statistically. HGST HDDs have a very low failure rate and I have one HGST drive that I have used intermittently since 2014. HGST® has a very good reputation. HDD MTBF (Mean Time Between Failure) studies are difficult due to the variables. Longevity of HDDs vs. SSDs is complex enough to still be in debate. Toshiba and Western Digital® 16TB drives seem to age very well. Perhaps bigger is better. If your hard drive lasts three years, odds are it will make seven or more. Unused hard drives can fail due to a degradation of lubricants. The odds of any one HDD failure annually are close to 1%. Seagate® reports that, “By operational design, the ambient temperature is 86°F. Temperatures above 122°F or below 41°F, decrease reliability.”

In all honesty, I wouldn’t kick a SATA SSD to the curb. They are slower than NVMe SSDs but last longer than HDDs. And competition between the NVMe Clan and the SATA Clan is a battle royal. Consumers gain from the quest for market share. But I doubt that SATA SSDs will ever populate motherboards the way NVMe has. As an external drive, a SATA SSD seems a tad more robust than the NVMe. I have a 4TB SATA SSD that is encased in a clever plastic case that holds all the USB connectivity hardware needed. Handy. However, you can achieve that same connectivity with a NVMe drive.

Factoids:

PCIe 1 bandwidth: 8GB/s, PCIe 2 bandwidth: 16 GB/s, PCIe 3 bandwidth: 32 GB/s. PCIe 4 bandwidth: 64GB/s, PCIe 5 bandwidth: 128GB/s, PCIe 6 bandwidth: 256 GB/s.

Links:

As SSD NAND memory chips evolve, increased speed generates additional heat in the SSD. See: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8538043/

Toms Hardware Review of the Samsung PRO: https://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/samsung-980-pro-m-2-nvme-ssd-review

Intel driver support for NVMe in older computers: Which NVMe* Driver Should I Use For My Intel® SSD?

Quote, www.tomshardware.com: “M.2 NVMe for Nikon 7II and others: https://www.tomshardware.com/news/nvme-ssd-dslr-cameras Canon EOS R3, R5, 1DX, C300 Mark III, and C500 Mark II. It also supports the Nikon Z9, Z7II, D500, and D850, as well as the Fujifilm X-H2S and Panasonic Lumix GH6. Nonetheless, the CP130 should work with any DSLR/MILC camera and camcorders as long as they have a CFexpress Type B slot.”

SSD software tools: https://semiconductor.samsung.com/consumer-storage/support/tools/

Illustrations and photographs by Ed Ruth Photographer and Graphic Artist in Bakersfield, California

Updated March 19, 2023

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Photography can be fun, profitable, creative, and technically superior at the same time. Contact me for a custom one-to-one camera class in Bakersfield, California. Please text me at: 661-303-9210 (preferred) or email me using: edruthusa@yahoo.com for an appointment. This article and illustrations are by Ed Ruth photographer and graphic artist in Bakersfield, California. This page took about 100 hours to produce. If you observe any errors or wish a camera class, please contact me Here.

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