SATA vs. NVMe: they’re both types of SSD, but what are the differences between them? Even more importantly, which type is best for your needs? While you probably already know SSDs are faster than traditional HDDs, the different types of drives don’t really explain the differences between interfaces when you’re trying to comparison shop. Breaking down the interfaces and form factors will help you make the right choice.
What Is SATA?
Serial ATA (SATA) was first introduced in 2000 to replace the much slower Parallel ATA technology, which used bulky cables that crowded other components. Originally, SATA was used for HDDs, but the technology was also sufficient to support the faster, more efficient SSDs. Usually, SATA SSDs max out around 600 MB/s. In comparison, HDDs typically max out around 120 MB/s.
Due to their lower cost, this is usually the standard for many SSDs, especially for general purpose computers versus high performance ones. The downside, outside of slower speeds, is SATA SSDs use two cables, which may cause clutter.
If you’re still not sure what SATA actually is, it’s an interface that allows your hard drive to communicate with the rest of your computer. It’s not the only interface option, which is why SSD decisions usually come down to SATA vs. NVMe.
What Is NVMe?
Just like SATA, Non-Volatile Memory Express (NVMe) is a type of technology for SSDs. However, NVMe is used exclusively for SSDs. It was introduced in 2011 as an alternative to SATA, which suffered from performance bottlenecks. The way NVMe boosts performance is by utilizing the PCIe bus versus the SATA bus, which increases the overall bandwidth potential, aka letting you do more at once.
As a comparison, SATA III transfers data at speeds up to 600 MB/s, while PCIe 4.0 provides as many as 32 lanes, equaling data transfer speeds upwards of 7,500 MB/s.
NVMe solves another performance issue of SATA as well: multi-tasking. You get 65,535 command queues, with each supporting 65,536 commands at a time. On the other hand, SATA has a single queue with 32 commands per queue. Obviously, this performance difference is leading to NVMe becoming far more common than it used to be.
When talking about PCIe, it’s also worth mentioning that this bus is also used for HDDs. NVMe is the newer standard and designed specifically for SSDs. However, PCIe’s other standard is the Advanced Host Controller Interface (AHCI). This standard is used for both HDDs and SSDs but is notably slower than NVMe.
What Is M.2?
As if SATA vs. NVMe wasn’t enough to process, you’ll also encounter M.2 when searching for the right SSD. All this refers to is the form factor – or size/shape of the drive. M.2, which used to be Next Generation Form Factor (NGFF), is a smaller form factor than the standard 2.5-inch drive typically found in laptops. Most often, you’ll find it in ultra slim and mini computers.
NVMe is mainly available in the M.2 form factor, with other form factors being rather rare. Since SATA is an older technology, SATA SSDs are available in both M.2 and 2.5 inch forms. Though not as popular as it once was, mini Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (mSATA) is a similar form factor to M.2. As you might expect, M.2 serves as a replacement for the older mSATA.
SATA vs. NVMe: The Main Differences
As a generalization, you can break down the main difference between SATA and NVMe as performance. Overall, NVMe is designed to be a powerhouse compared to SATA SSDs – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that SATA is bad. In fact, it’s still widely used for a variety of reasons. So before you make a final decision in the SATA vs. NVMe SSD comparison, let’s break down the main differences one by one.
If you’re a big multi-tasker or running resource-sucking apps, such as graphic editing or gaming, speed may be the only real deciding factor for you. There are several factors that determine the overall speed, such as the generation of the connector used.
- SATA SSD – 500 MB/s average, though different versions may be slightly slower or faster, with max speeds around 600 MB/s
- NVMe SSD with PCIe 3.0 – Up to 3,500 MB/s average
- NVMe SSD with PCIe 4.0 – Up to 7,500 MB/s average
While SATA SSD does look significantly slower than either NVMe, remember that the fastest HDDs top out at less than 200 MB/s, so you’ll have a noticeable performance improvement when upgrading from an HDD to a SATA SSD, especially for basic tasks like browsing, emails, and documents.
If speed isn’t a deciding factor, price is likely your highest priority. While SATA SSDs used to be the cheapest option, this isn’t always the case now. The price difference is becoming much more narrow in recent years. As a comparison, these are the average prices for a 1 TB SSD:
- SATA SSD – $100 to $150 (M.2 is sometimes slightly higher than 2.5 inch)
- NVMe PCIe 3.0 – $100 to $150
- NVMe PCIe 4.0 – $120 to $200
As you can see, there is no longer a huge difference. You’ll pay more for external SSDs, but all prices above are based on internal drives.
If you see “interface” listed with an SSD, all this refers to is the technology used to communicate with the computer. For SSDs, you’re able to choose between SATA SSDs and NVMe SSDs. You’ll find variations on these interfaces, such as the form factor and connector used.
While you’ll often see SATA vs. NVMe vs. M.2, that’s not a fair comparison. M.2 is just a form factor, not a main interface. Usually, the form factor depends on the device you’re using. Common form factors for SATA and NVMe SSDs include:
- SATA SSD – 2.5 inch and M.2
- NVMe – M.2, U.2, and PCIe card
The U.2 form factor is mainly used for enterprise storage and tends to last longer and cost more. The PCIe card form factor is an add-on card designed for systems that don’t yet support M.2.
If you want to dive deeper into some of the less common form factors, SNIA breaks it down extremely well.
For SATA vs. NVMe, you may find higher capacity drives with SATA, which are available in sizes up to 16 TB. The most common NVMe drives are 1-2 TB, though you’ll find some 4 TB and 8 TB models.
Which Is Best Overall?
NVMe PCIe 4.0 M.2 SSDs are the overall winner. These are faster, support major multitasking, and give you better performance for the money. Plus, they’re perfect for slimmer designs and don’t have the bulkier cables of SATA drives.
However, for the average user, you may save $50 to $100 by going with a SATA SSD. You’ll see a massive improvement if you’re switching from an HDD. This is also a good option for computers that don’t have an M.2 slot.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are SATA or NVMe SSDs prone to overheating?
Both can overheat. With SATA drives, the issue has more to do with the cables blocking the fan than anything else. Ensuring a good airflow is crucial no matter what type of hard drive you’re using.
On the other hand, NVMe SSDs do have an overheating issue thanks to their high performance. Depending on what you’re doing on your computer, a heatsink may be necessary to increase your SSD’s lifespan.
Can I use an SSD on any computer?
No. For SATA SSDs, your motherboard has to support SATA, which older computers may not support. For NVMe, your motherboard must support M.2. Another thing to consider is your operating system. Even if you have the latest hardware, an older OS is only capable of so much and may not be compatible with high performance SSDs.
Between SATA and NVMe, does one last longer than the other?
Usually, there’s no real difference. However, NVMe M.2 drives do tend to run hotter, which may affect the lifespan if you don’t have a cooling system in place.
Is SATA or NVMe best for external storage?
Both work well for external storage. However, the most common approach is to use an SSD as your internal drive for the performance and use a much cheaper HDD as your external drive. For example, a 1 TB external SSD ranges from $140 to $250. A 1 TB external HDD is $50 to $70 on average. This means you can get two to four times as much storage for the same price. An option would be to buy a couple of HDDs for backups and an SSD for your main hard drive.
Image credit: Pexels
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