Is now the right time to get an NVMe M.2 drive? We test NVMe vs SSD

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.

Conclusions

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.

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Jonathan
Jonathan
1 month ago

M.2 Sata is not necesseraly cheaper when you look at some NVMe option. For example, on newegg Canada, a Western Digital Blue 1tb SSD is 169$ while a Western Digital Blue SN550 1tb NVMe m.2 is 174$. Yes it isn’t the “fastest” NVMe on the market, but at 2,400 mb/s reading speed it is no slush and at that price it is probably the best NVMe value on the market, even compared to other SSD from similar brand. So yeah, maybe 2 years ago the first NVMe were more expensive, but we are reaching parity in terms of price and… Read more »

Chris
Chris
5 months ago

I’m a little sad at the language being used here. SSD is an umbrella term that technically, and commonly refer to primary NAND storage, whether it’s a 2.5″ drive, an M.2 drive, or embedded directly onto a mainboard. Also, “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.” I know you messed up that paragraph, but it’s going to be super confusing for the target audience of this sort of article. If I was a leyman… Read more »

reckless76
reckless76
5 months ago

I just can’t get past the 1080ti to 2070 super “upgrade”. That’s a lot of money for a side-grade at best. Specific games may get better performance, but others will get worse. You already had g-sync, and for ray tracing you’ve only got a few more months till the next batch of cards that are expected to have much better ray tracing performance. I’d have kept the 1080ti.

Hans Van Nuffel
Hans Van Nuffel
5 months ago
Reply to  reckless76

My thoughts exactly. A recent techspot comparision revealed that the 1080ti is still about 3% faster than the newer 2070S. I’m still glad I picked up mine for 500€ back when the new gen was announced.

designerfx
designerfx
5 months ago

typo:

NVMe “versus” M.2
The first two things to know ate

Joe
Joe
5 months ago

Could author explain what he meant by SATA3 vs. SATA2 cable?

plonk420
plonk420
5 months ago

for me with a big honkin’ cpu cooler (Scythe Ninja 4), it was a pain to install the NVMe for no discernible gaming improvement over SATA SSD. obviously had to take the GPU out. whereas SATA SSD would have been just a cable, two connections + power, and good to go. don’t even bother screwing it down to any bay or anything 😀

Evgueni Baida
Evgueni Baida
5 months ago

This is not the first time I’ve heard that high speed NVME is good for 4k video. Why? So you can load big projects faster or what?

derFunkenstein
derFunkenstein
5 months ago
Reply to  Evgueni Baida

I think it’s mostly about scrubbing through uncompressed video formats where the low access latency and high bandwidth come in handy.

RyanJ
RyanJ
5 months ago
Reply to  derFunkenstein

Good thought. However, nobody works with uncompressed 4K…

Hans Van Nuffel
Hans Van Nuffel
5 months ago
Reply to  RyanJ

No, but in editing many layers of 4K can really start adding up to the load, especially if you haven’t rendered any of it. I never edit on non NVME’s anymore, just for the peak access time when scrolling through the footage.

derFunkenstein
derFunkenstein
5 months ago
Reply to  RyanJ

I’m mostly thinking about professional video studios where they’re working with absolutely huge files. For example: https://www.adobe.com/devnet/cinemadng/cinemadng-file-format.html

DPete27
DPete27
5 months ago

Price needs to be discussed. Primarily that price parity has basically been reached compared to SATA drives. When you can buy an XPG SX8200 Pro 512GB for $60…there’s really no reason to buy the same capacity SATA based drive.

Now, if we’re talking about “upgrading”:
Do you need more capacity than your current SATA SSD provides? – Might as well switch to NVMe.
If not, do you have somewhere else you can use your current SATA SSD? – Might as well switch.

Adnan Baloch
Adnan Baloch
5 months ago

It’s kinda funny but at least the author will learn something from the comments section and hopefully do better next time. But still funny that he is being schooled by his readers 😀 That’s a lotta humble pie…

Waco
Waco
5 months ago

I wish I could say something good about this article.

LEO D RODRIGUEZ
LEO D RODRIGUEZ
5 months ago

i like the faster fluid computer operations, especially the hundreds of background task users don’t monitor…faster virus protection is important

barich
barich
5 months ago

An NVMe drive is an SSD too. Saying “NVMe vs SSD” is like saying “Fuji apples vs apples.” It doesn’t make any sense.

JustAnEngineer
JustAnEngineer
5 months ago
Reply to  barich

Saying “NVMe vs. SSD” is more like saying “apple vs. pie”. A few more logical comparisons might be…
SSD vs. HDD – gaming PC drives can be either type.
M.2 vs. 2½” – SSDs can come in either form factor.
SATA vs. PCIe – M.2 SSDs can come with either interface.
M.2 B vs. M.2 M vs. M.2 B+M – M.2 SSDs can come with either connector.
AHCI vs. NVMe – PCIe M.2 SSDs can come in either flavor.

The lost cat
The lost cat
5 months ago

NVMe also uses less CPU from testing I’ve seen around, so it’s a nice boost even if you don’t need the speed.

It probably isn’t a huge difference for consumer usage, but it’s still cool.

jihadjoe
jihadjoe
5 months ago
Reply to  The lost cat

I mean sure it uses less CPU, but we have so much computing power it’s likely irrelevant.

I remember when dedicated RAID controllers were considered mandatory just for the benefit of offloading the job of RAID management from the CPU, but these days soft-RAID is used everywhere.

If the CPU is good enough for RAID, then it’s certainly good enough for JBOD SATA.

The lost cat
The lost cat
5 months ago
Reply to  jihadjoe

Not into wasting hardware just because I can, I guess. Whatever works

Alex
Alex
5 months ago

What a useless article. NVMe speed increase does matter even for people who play games, which the author clearly does not do enough since the author uses a couple of conventional games for a test. Here is an actual example: I play FFXIV, which is online game that uses A LOT of data loading and unloading. Travel to different zone or city using Aetheryte crystal? There is a level load. And you do a lot of this when questing or crafting and very frequently since you can teleport to every city with Aetheryte crystal from any location of the game… Read more »

Gaming Girl
Gaming Girl
3 days ago
Reply to  Alex

NVMe vs SSD is negligible (2 secs max) difference in loading times. However, if you do a lot of loading it does add up. Remarkable improvement over HDDs.

Mohammed Ganai
Mohammed Ganai
5 months ago

Pure cable based SATA drives are called 2.5″s, referring to their size.

m.2 SATAs provide the compact form factor and the cheaper price of both for people who don’t need the faster speeds of NVMe.

GTVic
GTVic
5 months ago

The article is confusing in a few places. NVMe is good while M.2 NVMe is bad??? But wasn’t M.2 just a connector?

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.

“Or, you can get NVMe” should be written as “Or, you can get an M.2 NVMe”. Otherwise the reader is doing double takes trying to figure out the terminology.

Michael Todd
Michael Todd
5 months ago
Reply to  GTVic

I think this is what he meant:

Enterprise users will see a big difference because M.2 SATA 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

Michael Todd
Michael Todd
5 months ago
Reply to  Michael Todd

Also, I think he should note that 64k is the MAX queue depth defined by the NVMe spec. The actual queue depth depends on the device.

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