It seems like the big takeover from HDD to SSD has finally happened; by finally, I mean slowly but surely, and by takeover, I mean the market percentage is starting to lean in the SSD’s favor, naturally.
Anyway. What I’m trying to say is, I like SSD’s. We all do. That’s why we’ve decided to compile a list of the best types of M.2 SSD’s currently available in today’s market.
However, this isn’t your usual column which outlines a ‘best of series’ and nothing else. In this article, we’re going to educate you on; areas to consider when buying an SSD, what M.2 actually means, how to choose which SSD is the right one for YOU, and everything in-between that we feel is relevant to M.2 solid-state drives.
So, whether you’re looking to buy that monster 2TB SSD for your gaming build, or a cheap and cheerful 250GB drive to get your desktop booting up quicker, this article is going to cover everything you need to know about M.2 SSD’s and hopefully, which one is the best option for you.
Our Top Picks
Best M.2 SSD For Gaming: First Look
What Is M.2?
Before we do that though, let’s get some of the basic information surrounding M.2 out of the way.
M.2 is basically a form factor. A size and shape that all M.2 branded hardware components must adhere to. This being said, not all M.2 are the same. The market seems to have agreed on a width of 22mm for the most part; however, the length varies considerably in comparison. The most common lengths used in M.2 are 60mm or 80mm, they can stretch right up to 120mm though.
It’s handy to know which size you’re buying because some motherboards (and laptops) can only accommodate certain sizes. So, how do I tell?
The easiest way to explain it is through an example, let’s take the Samsung 970 Evo:
Samsung SSD 970 EVO 2TB – NVMe PCIe M.2 2280 SSD
A lot of people will probably stop reading at 2TB. I know I have down the years. However, this is where you find out the size, bus-interface & everything else related to compatibility. We’re going to stick with the size; for now, however, everything else will be explained as you keep reading.
So, after ‘M.2’ in the product name, you will see a series of numbers, ‘2280’ in this scenario. Well, that is the sizing of the module. The 22 refers to the width, 22mm, and the 80 refers to the length, 80mm. If the length was 60mm, the number would read ‘2260’ and so on.
Before we get stuck on M.2 specifications though, I feel we should touch upon the origins of the M.2 form factor…
The first movement towards what we now know as M.2 was the release of mini-SATA or mSATA for short. This was for all intents and purposes a stripped back, naked SSD with the casing removed. SATA SSD’s as we know them, a 2.5inch drives which connect to your motherboard via the SATA connection cable. However, mSATA strips away the shell to reveal the 1×2 inch rectangular circuit board which would inevitably slot directly into your motherboard.
This being said, as the name suggests, mSATA still utilizes the serial ATA bus regardless. The interface, however, has been changed to an edge connector on the PCB, unlike your usual SATA cabling. In addition, the mSATA drive draws all of its power directly via the slot it’s connected to.
The issue with mSATA was that it had all the limitations of the SATA connection still, meaning the only real advantage over other SSD’s was a space saving one. Even at mSATA’s peak, developers were working on a replacement to provide higher speeds and great capacity drives. It was known as NGFF (Next-Generation Form Factor) and would be renamed in the future to what we currently know as M.2
How Do M.2 SSD’s differ
So, you’re in the market for an M.2 SSD and you have a general understanding of how they work, however, when you look at different products to buy, you still have queries on which ones are best and why.
In this section, we’re going to explain how SSD’s differ and ultimately, how the differences affect you.
As we mentioned above, not all M.2 SSD’s are equal; they vary in many ways but most noticeable is probably the size. When we talk about size, we reference two areas, storage capacity and physical size (mainly length).
Learning what storage capacity your SSD has is crucial because you need to know it serves the purpose of what you use it for. Knowing the length is equally, if not more, important because some motherboards simply AREN’T compatible with certain sizes M.2 SSD’s.
First, let’s go over physical Size:
|M.2 Product Size Code||Physical Size|
|2230||22mm x 30mm|
|2242||22mm x 42mm|
|2260||22mm x 60mm|
|2280||22mm x 80mm|
|22110||22mm x 110mm|
As you can see from the chart above, M.2 SSD’s come in a variety of sizes. Now, knowing which sizes are compatible with your motherboard should be a relatively simple task that requires reading the user manual. You can also contact the motherboard manufacturer directly as well if that makes life a little easier.
As with any other hardware component, size usually has a direct correlation with price. You might have seen 2TB of HDD for under $100, however, due to nature and technology used within SSD’s, you’d be lucky to find good quality drives for under $250.
Things get a little more technical from here but I’ll try and keep it as simple as possible. The bus-interface is, for lack of a better simile, the path that the data takes when travelling to and from the M.2 drive.
There are a number of different interfaces used with M.2 and they make all the difference when it comes to how fast your SSD will be in real-world situations.
Most of the earlier M.2 drives made use of the SATA connection, meaning they were handcuffed by the limitations of what that PCB could offer. They were the exact same drives as the SATA SSD’s only stripped back to the bare circuit board.
However, in the quest for greater read/write speeds, developers would have to make use of the PCIe lanes your motherboard has to offer. The PCI Express-bus M.2 SSD’s which were to follow had significant performance gains over the earlier SATA SSD’s and the original mSATA drives respectively.
The first PCIe SSD’s had to make use of the PCIe Gen 2.0 x2 interface that did have increased performance over SATA, but only marginally. That was all about to change with PCIe Gen 3.0 x4 though. Most of the M.2 drives which you will find in today’s market will be PCIe Gen 3.0 x4 compatible and when paired with what’s known as NVME (Non-volatile Memory Express), performance is bolstered even further.
All this being said, with the new Ryzen chips which are due to release July 7th, we will be seeing the latest PCIe Gen 4.0 SSD’s released as well.
How To Find The Best M.2
Now that you understand exactly what an M.2 SSD is, how do you find the best one for your needs? It’s really quite simple, you need to ask yourself what kind of performance and requirements you need, then find the SSD that is most suited to your requirements. The following is a short list of questions which I would recommend asking yourself before looking to buy an SSD:
- Is the SSD going to be used, solely, for my OS?
- Am I going to be using my SSD for games, music and other entertainment purposes?
- Do I need the quickest SSD I can afford, or is am I looking for the sweet spot between price/performance/size?
- Does my motherboard support M.2 OS launch?
- How much do you want to spend?
Asking yourself these simple questions will save you a lot of time when it comes to selecting the SSD which is right for you. For example, If you have $150 to spend, and you want to use your M.2 for your O/S and some primary games, you probably want to find a 500GB SSD with NVME.
If you have $500 to spend and you want your SSD to house your OS, all your media files and games, and be as quick as possible. I’d recommend opting for a 2TB SSD with NVME & rapid read/write times.
Our 5 Best M.2 Solid State Drives
Some of the quickest SSD you can buy
Huge 1TB of capacity
Very quiet and efficient Storage
If you’re looking for the absolute best of the best when it comes to performance, then look no further than the Samsung 970 Evo series.
The 970 range from Samsung is their flagship SSD and is lightning quick. It currently boasts some of the fastest sequential read/write speeds available in today’s market. You also get the confidence that comes with buying from a reputable brand such as Samsung as well.
The only issue is the price. If you have the budget though, the Samsung 970 Evo is surely the choice for you.
Extremely good value for money
Not the most trusted brand
Varying performance under different hardware setups
ADATA was sitting quietly under the radar for quite some time, however, that’s no longer the case. The company known for budget hardware offerings has released some of the best SSD storage money can buy, with excellent read/write speeds which rival Samsung’s Pro series and a, relatively, affordable price tag to boot.
The ADATA SX8200 gets our all-round spot because that’s exactly what it offers, all-round performance at a good price.
6x faster than their fastest SATA
Well trusted brand
Can be considered expensive
Western Digital are no strangers to hard drives and it’s absolutely no surprise to see them feature in this best-of-guide with a superb SSD offering. As you will know, Western Digital has released some of the best, most affordable hard drives now for as long as I can remember. So it was only natural for them to delve into the solid state drive world.
The SN750 is our value pick as we feel is offers fantastic value for money and decent performance at the same time. Read and write speeds are good and it comes in a variety of sizes at affordable price points.
As well as that, Western Digital is an excellent brand that offers great service if something were to go wrong with your hardware.
A great choice if you’re looking to maximize value.
Good Sequential Read/Write Speeds
On The Expensive Side
When we think of Intel we usually think of their incredible range of CPU’s, however, that isn’t what we’re celebrating here. Intel has released a range of SSD’s known as the Intel Optane series which come in a number of different variants. However, the 905 is surely the star of the show.
The read/write speeds of the M.2 Optane are impressive but nothing to write home about, mind the pun. However, they do offer an AIC PCIe version of this module which literally smashes everything in this list out of the park.
Overall, the M.2 version of this SSD is very efficient and offers good performance, however, if you want to maximize performance, maybe check the AIC module out.
Superb Price/Performance Value
Not The Quickest But Still A Huge Improvement From SATA
Comes In A Variety Of Sizes
Not The Fastest
This is ADATA’s second entry into this list of the 5 best M.2 SSD’s and it was hard to keep it out. Even though it doesn’t have the best performance level’s we’ve seen, what it does offer is absolutely fantastic value for money.
You will not find an SSD as cheap as this which offers similar performance levels. ADATA are masters of budget hardware offerings and this is another to add to their already long list of affordable offerings.
And that just about wraps things up. We’ve given you our list of what we believe are the best M.2 SSD’s currently available in today’s market. We decided not to go for all-out performance for every recommendation, instead, we have selected the best SSD’s that fit a specific field; Top Performer, Best all-rounder and so on.
We feel splitting the list like this gives every type of user a viable M.2 SSD to choose from, whether it be an expensive 2TB mega SSD or a budget 250GB solution respectively.
Not only that, but we’ve also given you the information required to go out and do your own research in the event that our list doesn’t quite live up to your expectations.
This being said, what was your preferred SSD choice? I personally really like the ADATA SX8200 as it offers excellent performance and a cheap price tag. Why don’t you let us know in the comments section below what you decided to go for!