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M.2 vs. NVMe: A Complete Comparison for PC Builders

As solid state drives (SSDs) become faster and computer components continue getting smaller, two popular SSD technologies—M.2 and NVMe—promise improved performance and efficiency. But what exactly is the difference between M.2 and NVMe?

When configuring or upgrading a PC, this question invariably comes up. Let‘s clear up the confusion once and for all.

M.2 Overview: A Compact SSD Form Factor

M.2, pronounced "M dot two," refers to the physical shape and interface of a type of SSD. M.2 drives are rectangular cards that plug directly into the motherboard without any cables.

M.2 drive next to a 2.5 inch SATA SSD

Photo by John Petalcurin on Unsplash

The compact shape allows M.2 drives to work well in small form factor systems where space is limited. Instead of traditional mounting brackets, they screw directly to the motherboard or an adapter card.

Common M.2 sizes include:

  • 2230 – 22mm wide x 30mm long
  • 2242 – 22mm x 42mm
  • 2260 – 22mm x 60mm
  • 2280 – 22mm x 80mm (most common)

The connection from an M.2 drive to the rest of the system can use various interfaces, including SATA and NVMe, which we’ll explore next.

Understanding NVMe Protocol

NVMe stands for Non-Volatile Memory Express. Rather than referring to a physical form factor, NVMe is a communication protocol developed specially for SSDs.

The protocol allows systems to access data on an SSD drive over the PCI Express (PCIe) interface. This direct connection provides higher bandwidth and lower latency compared to older protocols like AHCI/SATA.

With extremely fast PCIe data transfer speeds, the NVMe protocol eliminates storage bottlenecks. This allows computer components like processors and high-speed memory to stretch their performance limits.

NVMe also supports parallel command processing and reduced latency. Your applications can access data faster and move larger amounts of it around with far less waiting compared to SATA SSDs.

Bottom line—the NVMe protocol unlocks faster SSD performance so everything on your PC feels snappier.

M.2 vs NVMe Speed Comparison

Now we can differentiate between M.2 and NVMe—one refers to the physical size and connector, the other refers to how data moves across the interface.

Many M.2 drives take advantage of the NVMe protocol to reach blazing speeds, but not all do. There are also M.2 drives that still use the SATA protocol and have similar performance to 2.5" SATA SSDs.

Here’s how the maximum speeds generally stack up:

SSD Type Max Seq. Read Speed Max Seq. Write Speed
2.5” SATA SSD 540 MB/s 520 MB/s
M.2 SATA SSD 540 MB/s 520 MB/s
M.2 PCIe NVMe SSD 3500+ MB/s 3000+ MB/s

As you can see, M.2 NVMe blows the others away. Not even the fastest SATA SSDs can come close.

Of course, quoted maximum speeds refer to peak theoretical performance that you won’t always achieve in the real world. But NVMe’s significant lead shows why it’s become the enthusiast’s choice for lightning fast storage.

Comparing M.2 and NVMe SSD Costs

Faster SSD technology usually costs more—at least when first released. The price premium reflects improved performance and the fact that cutting-edge tech adoption happens in stages. Early adopters pay extra.

However, costs ultimately decline over the technology lifecycle. For example, the earliest M.2 drives were pretty expensive when introduced, but now affordable M.2 SATA SSDs fill online stores.

For NVMe, sticker shock faded as more competitors entered the market. The technology matured further with second and third generation PCIe 4.0 solutions pushing speeds even higher.

Here’s a general current cost comparison if shopping for a 1 TB SSD:

Type Average Cost (1 TB)
2.5” SATA SSD $85
M.2 SATA SSD $90
M.2 PCIe 3.0 NVMe SSD $110
M.2 PCIe 4.0 NVMe SSD $150

Of course, costs fluctuate all the time. But NVMe does demand a moderate price premium—one that many consider worthwhile for the performance gained.

256 GB and 500 GB NVMe drives narrow the price gap if you don’t need a full terabyte. When configured with heatsinks or ruggedized enclosures, high-capacity NVMe SSDs sell for $200 to $250+.

Comparing Compatibility: M.2 vs. NVMe

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

Before purchasing an M.2 or NVMe SSD, you first need to consider compatibility with your PC‘s motherboard and operating system.

Let‘s compare some key compatibility factors:


  • Requires M.2 slot on motherboard
  • Comes in various lengths (e.g. 2280) that must match slot
  • Can use PCIe or SATA interfaces


  • Requires M.2 or other PCIe slot on motherboard
  • Needs NVMe drivers installed
  • Optimal with UEFI boot firmware

If you have an M.2 slot on your motherboard, an M.2 SSD should work fine. But support for PCIe and NVMe can vary across motherboard models—especially older ones. Always check manual specs to confirm compatibility.

For operating systems, Windows 8, 10, 11 and Linux all include native NVMe drivers today. So getting an NVMe SSD up and running is fairly painless on modern desktop platforms.

Use Cases and Performance Gains

So when does opting for the speed of an M.2 NVMe SSD pay dividends over a SATA SSD?

Performance-Hungry Applications

For general web browsing, basic office workloads, and lighter computing tasks, an M.2 SATA or 2.5" SATA SSD performs admirably. But applications that frequently access large files demand faster storage.

Top NVMe use cases include:

  • Gaming PCs – Faster level loads and texture streaming
  • Video editing rigs – Smooth high bitrate 4K+ playback
  • Music production – Lower latency processing of instruments and effects
  • Software development – Quicker compilation times
  • Data analysis – Rapid number crunching and analytics operations

Of course many other NVMe advantages exist across desktop, mobile, and server environments—too many to list. But whenever applications routinely queue up storage operations, NVMe is worth it.

Let’s quantify some ballpark real-world performance differences.

Task SATA SSD Time NVMe SSD Time % Faster w/ NVMe
Windows Boot 15 seconds 10 seconds 33%
Game Level Load 45 seconds 20 seconds 56%
Large File Transfer 2 minutes 80 seconds 33%
Video Export 5 minutes 3.5 minutes 30%

As the major speed bottlenecks shift from storage to other components like the CPU, expect NVMe performance gains to become less pronounced. But for now, NVMe continues delivering huge speed boosts for production PCs.

Key Takeaways: M.2 and NVMe

To recap the M.2 and NVMe storage technologies:

  • M.2 – Refers to the small physical card edge connector dimensions and form factor popular for SSDs
  • NVMe – A communication protocol designed for SSDs that enables much faster data transfer speeds compared to SATA
  • M.2 can utilize either SATA or PCIe/NVMe interfaces
  • NVMe SSDs deliver over 5x the sequential read/write performance of SATA
  • For the best combination of speed and form factor, choose an M.2 PCIe NVMe SSD
  • NVMe excels for applications needing fast access to large files like games and HD video
  • Ensure hardware and OS compatibility before purchasing an NVMe or M.2 drive

With defects in mechanical hard drives and improvements in flash memory chips, SSDs dominate modern storage. M.2 and NVMe push solid state performance even further—enabling computers to boot, load, and transfer data faster than ever.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need an M.2 slot on my motherboard for an NVMe SSD?

Most NVMe SSDs use the M.2 form factor. But some NVMe drives come as add-in cards that occupy a PCIe slot. Unless you purchase an NVMe add-in card, an M.2 slot is required on your motherboard.

Is NVMe backward compatible?

Yes, NVMe is backward compatible. NVMe SSDs work with PCIe 3.0 and PCI 2.0 at respective maximum speeds allowed by those interfaces. Of course, NVMe SSDs installed in older PCIe slots can‘t reach their full rated speeds enabled by PCIe 4.0/5.0.

Should I upgrade from SATA SSD to NVMe?

If your computing workloads are held back by storage performance, upgrading from SATA to NVMe can help significantly. Particularly for tasks involving frequent or sequential disk access, NVMe provides a worthwhile boost. For general web browsing and office work, NVMe provides less noticeable gains.

What is the best M.2 NVMe SSD?

Top NVMe SSD contenders in early 2023 include:

  • Samsung 980 Pro
  • WD Black SN850 and SN850X
  • Seagate FireCuda 530
  • Crucial P3 Plus
  • Adata XPG Gammix S70 Blade

New models arrive all the time. So check benchmarks and reviews to determine the best M.2 NVMe SSD for your specific performance needs and budget.