Solid State Drives have been around for a number of years now offering massively improved performance over traditional style hard drives.
Over the past couple of years though further improvements have been developed in the data storage area which have resulted in another leap forward in drive speeds, these are the M.2 solid state drives, and are what I’m going to introduce you to today.
A Brief History of Hard Drives
A computer’s hard drive is basically a device which has some way of permanently storing data, data being the 1’s and 0’s that computers work in.
If you create a document on a computer and save it, the machine needs a way of writing down the data file contents so that when you switch off the PC and then restart it at some later point, it can read the data file and show you your document again.
Back in the 1950’s scientists came up with a method of using magnetic spinning disks to record these 1’s and 0’s, a spindle moved across the spinning platter to read or write the stream of 1’s and 0’s as needed.
The technology improved, the magnetic platters were able to store larger amounts of data, and spin faster to offer improved read and write speeds but essentially that was it, up until the introduction of solid state drives.
What Is a Solid State Drive?
Instead of using magnets and disks a solid state drive (or SSD) uses microchips and electricity to store 1’s and 0’s.
No moving parts equalled a massive improvement on read and write speeds, basically they eliminated the need to sit and wait for the spindle in a traditional drive to physically locate a stream of data on a spinning disk platter.
The lack of moving parts also increased reliability somewhat as there is nothing really to break in an SSD.
To give you an idea of speed differences, a standard (traditional) hard drive would have a reading speed of between 50MB/s to 150MB/s whereas a SSD drive will typically read at 550MB/s up to 10 times faster.
SSD Impacts on Overall Computer Speeds
It is fine to read the above and see that an SSD can be 10 times faster than a normal drive but what does that really mean to you? What difference would it make to your PC?
Well, the answer is that it massively improves on the experience of working with a computer.
Any computer operation which needs to read data from a hard drive starts to work much faster.
When you switch on (or boot up) a PC what is actually happening is that the PC is reading a lot of data from your hard drive and putting it into the system RAM. Your operating system (typically Windows) has tens of thousands of files that make it up, if your PC can suddenly access and read these files 10 times quicker then things like booting up your computer can become massively faster.
It’s not just boot up speed which is improved. Any time you run a program the computer needs to read the program system files to work out how to display the program to you, again reading these files becomes much quicker which means your programs load much quicker.
It used to be that the biggest impact you could make on a PC’s performance was changing the CPU or increasing the RAM. With SSD’s a third option was added and I’d bet that out of the three, swapping to an SSD drive will make the single biggest improvement to your overall experience of using the PC.
So, if SSD’s are so great why doesn’t every computer use them?
SSD Storage Pricing
The downside to SSD’s are the cost of them, they are far more expensive than traditional hard drives in terms of cost per megabyte or gigabyte of storage.
For example, at the time of writing this (June 2017), a 240GB capacity SSD costs around £70 + VAT, for the same money I could buy a 3TB (3,000GB) traditional style hard drive.
The larger the capacity of the SSD the greater the price jumps, a 1TB (1,000GB) SSD will typically cost around £250 + VAT where as a 1TB traditional drive can be bought for around £40 + VAT.
Despite SSD’s being around for a while now, many people will look at the spec of a PC and think that one with a 1TB hard drive is better than one with a 240GB drive, if the 240GB is an SSD though then it will be far more responsive than the same system with the 1TB drive.
At Multiple Monitors we have not sold a PC without an SSD for over 3 years now.
SSD Drives Are Fast, M.2 Drives Are Faster
Getting back on topic, we now know what an SSD is, why it is faster, and why this makes a real difference to your computer, but what are M.2 SSD drives?
Essentially M.2 SSD drives operate in a similar fashion to normal SSD’s, they use electricity and microchips to store data, exactly how this is stored can be slightly different but in general terms it is similar.
The major difference is how they connect to your computer.
Normal SSD drives use a SATA hard drive interface meaning that any computer than can connect to a standard hard drive can be made to use an SSD drive, the interface is the same. The problem is that the interface tops out at a maximum speed of around 600MB/s.
600MB/s is massively quicker than any standard hard drive would ever reach but solid state storage methods end up being limited by this SATA speed limit which effectively limits the overall drive performance.
M.2 drives connect to a PC’s motherboard via a different data port which has a lot more bandwidth available, this removes the SATA bottleneck and allows for even faster read / write speeds.
Remember that a standard SSD will read at around 550MB/s and write at around 500MB/s, well a M.2 drive can read data at a massive 3,200MB/s and write at upwards of 1,500MB/s – yes that is a read time of almost 6 times quick than a normal SSD which itself is 10 times quicker than a standard hard drive.
Again, the one downside is the increased cost, you pay for this speed with higher drive pricing, you also need a compatible motherboard, luckily we use premium quality motherboards in all of our builds so this is not an issue for our computer builds.
To get your hands on a new system with a lightning fast M.2 SSD you can go for one of our Ultra or Extreme PC’s. These default to the standard SSD’s but the M.2 drives are available options for the Boot Drive on both machines.
I hope this helps explain the advantages of both SSD’s and M.2 drives over traditional hard drives, if you need anything else clarifying just let me know.
Written by Darren @ Multiple Monitors
Last Updated: July, 2017