You know what they say: new year, new computer. Well, someone says that, probably. Just after Christmas, I sold my 1080 Ti for a 2070 Super, picked up an Acer Predator X27 monitor, and finished off the upgrade list by throwing in a NVMe SSD. The benefits of the first two items are pretty clear–I wanted ray-tracing and G-Sync. An NVMe drive, though, doesn’t change how you use your computer. It’s a different way to do the same things you do every day. With chip prices on the rise, though, I wanted to jump in and see if NVMe drives are worth the hype, and I was surprised by the results. There are benefits, but they’re not what you think.
NVMe “versus” M.2
The first two things to know ate that 1) not all M.2 drives are created equal, and 2) you can get some of the benefits we’ll go into below without some of the drawbacks.
Serial ATA (SATA), what most of us use now to connect drives to a PC, is both a connector and a bus interface. It’s the physical hookup between the drive and the PC, and the protocol used to send data between the two.
By contrast, M.2 is only a connector, which plugs into the PCIe bus interface. Non-Volatile Memory Express (NVMe) is a technology for storing data that is fast enough and low-enough latency to connect to the PCIe bus interface via the M.2 connector.
This gives you some options. You can get an M.2 drive that accesses the SATA bus instead of the PCIe bus, which is convenient but doesn’t max out the connection speed. Or, you can get NVMe drive that accesses the PCIe bus and gets all the speed and latency benefits that come with that.
The benefits of NVMe
When people talk about plugging an NVMe drive into their system, the primary benefits are latency and speed. NVMe drives have a latency of just a few microseconds, while SATA SSDs have latency in the 30-100 microsecond range. SATA-based SSDs top out around 550 MB/s, while NVMe drives can reach up to 3,500 MB/s on PCIe 3.0. When you look at it from that perspective, it sounds like a done deal NVMe is faster in every way. But a Ferrari can dust a Mustang on the track, and there are lots of reasons we don’t all have Ferraris.
Reasons to go NVMe
There are a few reasons to go with an NVMe-based drive, and some of them are really good. From a builder’s perspective, an M.2 drive is a clear win compared to an SSD using the SATA connector. M.2 drives are easy to install and hard to screw up. There’s no need to go rummaging for cables, then make sure that the cable is SATA3 vs. SATA2, or that it’ll fit into the tight spots in your case. Installing an M.2 drive into my case took about two minutes, and that’s not an exaggeration. It also looks more attractive and makes for a cleaner, leaner build.
But once you get past the build stage, the real-world benefits thin out. If you work with huge amounts of data, you might see a benefit. Users who need to run a huge number of virtual machines or who work with 4K and 8K video, for example, might see benefits to using NVMe in real-world applications. Enterprise users will see a big difference because M.2 NVMe drives have a queue-depth of 1 with room to run 32 commands in that queue. NVMe, meanwhile, has a queue depth of 64,000 with room for 64,000 commands in each queue. Again, that sounds like a huge difference, but most home users can’t take advantage of even a tiny fraction of that. Day-to-day OS use may be slightly snappier than on a SATA SSD. Also, your numbers in CrystalDiskMark and other drive benchmarking suites will be much bigger.
Reasons to wait on NVMe
Even though we’re only a few years into the technology, NVMe is still a hard sell when you look for benefits beyond a cleaner build and bigger benchmark numbers.
For gamers, there’s absolutely no value to NVMe. Even a game installed directly to NVMe sees little to no benefit. While games have no doubt ballooned far beyond what we could’ve guessed 10 or 20 years ago, a game is accessing very little data from a hard drive any given time. The stuff the game needs is mostly loaded into memory. You may see initial load times speed up by a few seconds, but it won’t be dramatic on a PC. The story may be different on a console, where games typically have less dedicated memory to work with. Modern games are also not yet optimized for an NVMe. An NVMe-optimized game may indeed see a big benefit, and that’s what we’re expecting from that next generation of consoles. But for most PC gamers, the heavy cost of an M.2 NVMe SSD far outweighs the benefits.
Similarly, most users will see few benefits in day-to-day use. Your computer will wake from hibernation more quickly. You may see a more fluid experience using your operating system. Overall, though, it will make very little difference.
My tests for NVMe vs SSD
When installing my NVMe drive, I ran a bunch of “real world” tests timing:
- how quickly Photoshop 2020 could load a 1.8GB PSD.
- how long WinDirStat took to read my C: on the SATA SSD and then cloned it to the M.2 NVMe SSD and did the same.
- the time to load into games like Control and the Witcher 3.
- the time to unzip large/complex ZIP files.
The most dramatic difference was with Photoshop 2020. That program took an average of 18 seconds to load on a fresh boot after Windows had fully loaded on the SATA SSD and took about 11 on the NVMe drive. But games saw much less difference, with Control dropping from 36 to 30 seconds to load to the initial menu screen, but no discernible benefit to the game itself. Witcher showed a similarly small improvement of just a few seconds for that initial load and no real-world benefit in-game.
WinDirStat seemed like it would be a great indicator since it has to read the entire contents of the drive. After I’d cloned my existing drive, I had two nearly identical real-world data sets I could use for side-by-side testing. But the time to read the drives varied wildly from the first read after reboot to the second and third read after reboot, and the change wasn’t reliable enough to conclusively say that the benefit is clear.
WinDirStat, even then, is a kind of edge-case real-world situation, since most people rarely scan their entire hard drives’ file tables on a regular basis.
The upshot of all of this is that you don’t have to worry about missing out on NVMe. I went in with the bias that NVMe drives are faster, along with the desire to prove my purchase a good one, but came out surprised. I have more hard-drive space, but won’t see much difference for speed.
Unless you’re doing really heavy work or want a cleaner build, it’s not really worth the money. An M.2 SATA or traditional SATA drive is going to be noticeably cheaper, but not noticeably slower in all but a few cases.
In five or ten years, when spinning drives are used for all but super-massive storage and solid-state technology rules the desktop and laptop world, we might see things like NVMe-optimized games, and then the different may start to matter more. For now, though, you might want to hold off. There’s no doubt that an NVMe drive is measurably faster, but the difference is much harder to discern with the naked eye.