With the rise in popularity of solid state drives (SSDs) for personal computing and data center applications, many wonder if SSDs are truly a one-size-fits-all solution. In examining the key aspects of SSD technology and use cases, it becomes clear that there are pros and cons to using SSDs, and that different SSD types, interfaces and form factors may be better suited for certain applications than others.
What is an SSD?
A solid state drive (SSD) is a data storage device that uses integrated circuit assemblies and flash memory to store data persistently. Unlike a traditional hard disk drive (HDD), an SSD has no moving mechanical components. Data is stored on flash memory chips that retain memory even without power. Some key advantages of SSDs over HDDs are:
- Faster read/write speeds – SSDs can access data almost instantly while HDDs require time for the disk to spin and the read head to move into position.
- Lower latency and access times – SSDs can access data in microseconds rather than milliseconds for HDDs.
- Higher reliability – With no moving parts, SSDs are less prone to mechanical failure.
- Lower power consumption – SSDs consume less power than HDDs which need to spin the disk.
- Compact size – 2.5 inch SSDs are smaller than 3.5 inch HDDs, and M.2 SSDs are smaller still.
- Noiseless operation – SSDs make no noise compared to the spinning platters in HDDs.
However, there are some downsides to SSDs as well:
- Higher cost per gigabyte – SSDs are more expensive than HDDs in terms of cost per GB.
- Maximum capacity – Consumer SSD unit capacities top out at around 8TB currently, while HDDs reach up to 20TB.
- Lifespan – SSDs can wear out after a number of write cycles, while HDDs are not limited in the same manner.
Types of SSDs
There are several types and form factors of SSDs available that are tailored to different use cases:
SATA or Serial ATA SSDs use the standard SATA interfaces found in most desktop PCs and laptops. They come in a 2.5 inch form factor and connect via a SATA cable to the motherboard. These are the most common type of SSD for basic upgrades from HDDs in consumer devices. They offer mid-range speeds of around 550MB/s sequential reads and 500MB/s writes.
M.2 SSDs use PCIe and NVMe interfaces for much faster speeds compared to SATA SSDs. They come in a compact M.2 form factor as small as 22mm x 30mm. M.2 slots are found in newer desktops and laptops, and may support PCIe, NVMe or even the older SATA interfaces. High performance M.2 NVMe SSDs can reach over 3,000MB/s sequential reads and writes.
PCIe Add-in Card SSD
These SSDs add fast solid state storage to desktop PCs via PCIe slots and usually come in half-height half-length add-in card form factors. They provide even higher speeds than M.2 drives with up to 6,000MB/s via a direct PCIe x16 connection without going through the chipset. However, they require an open PCIe slot which limits compatibility.
U.2 or formerly SFF-8639 SSDs use the NVMe protocol over PCIe for high speeds similar to M.2 drives, but come in a larger 2.5 inch form factor. This allows for higher capacities than M.2 drives. A U.2 connector and PCIe slot is required on the motherboard to use these drives.
|SSD Type||Interface||Form Factor||Sequential Read Speed||Sequential Write Speed|
|SATA SSD||SATA||2.5 inch||Up to 550MB/s||Up to 500MB/s|
|M.2 SATA SSD||SATA||M.2||Up to 550MB/s||Up to 500MB/s|
|M.2 NVMe SSD||PCIe NVMe||M.2||Up to 3,500MB/s||Up to 3,000MB/s|
|PCIe Add-in Card SSD||PCIe||Add-in Card||Up to 6,000MB/s||Up to 6,000MB/s|
|U.2 SSD||PCIe NVMe||2.5 inch||Up to 3,500MB/s||Up to 3,000MB/s|
The interfaces that connect the SSD to the computer are a major factor influencing performance and compatibility:
Serial ATA or SATA has been the standard hard drive interface for many years. SATA SSDs can replacement upgrade HDDs in desktop PCs and laptops without compatibility issues. However, SATA is limited to a maximum theoretical bandwidth of 600MB/s which bottleneck high speed SSDs.
PCI Express or PCIe is a high speed interface used for add-in cards and components like graphics cards. PCIe SSDs connect directly to PCIe lanes from the processor for much higher speeds. However, they require an open PCIe slot which limits compatibility to desktop PCs.
NVMe or Non-Volatile Memory Express is a protocol optimized for fast SSDs accessing the PCIe interface. NVMe SSDs over PCIe can reach incredible speeds, but require NVMe support on the motherboard. Most modern desktops and laptops support NVMe.
SSD Form Factors
SSDs come in various physical form factors optimized for different types of devices:
The common 2.5 inch SSD form factor used for SATA SSDs and some U.2 SSDs allows them to easily replace 2.5 inch HDDs in laptops and desktops. They can reach 1TB+ capacities. However, the larger size limits use in small devices.
The M.2 form factor is much smaller than 2.5 inches and ideal for thin laptops, tablets and small devices. However, M.2 drives are limited to around 2TB capacity currently. There are multiple sizes of M.2 cards as well.
Add-in card SSDs come in standard PCIe expansion card form factors like half-height half-length for installation into desktop PC PCIe slots. They offer the highest performance but are the largest form factor.
|Form Factor||Size||Max Capacity||Use Cases|
|2.5 inch||100 x 70 mm||8TB||Desktops, laptops|
|M.2||22 x 30 mm to 22 x 110 mm||2TB||Laptops, tablets, small devices|
|Add-in Card||121 x 170 mm (half-height half-length)||8TB||High performance desktops|
SSD Use Cases
Given their differences, certain SSD types are better suited for some applications than others:
Consumer Desktops and Laptops
2.5 inch SATA SSDs up to 1TB are ideal for consumers upgrading desktop or laptop HDDs. They offer good speeds and storage for the price. M.2 SATA or PCIe/NVMe SSDs are also great options.
A PCIe or high capacity M.2 NVMe SSD up to 2TB provides fast load times for games and the OS. SATA SSDs work as well for general storage.
Small Portable Devices
M.2 SATA SSDs with smaller capacities like 128-512GB are suitable for lightweight laptops, tablets and ultrabooks where size and power matter most.
High Performance Workstations
U.2 or PCIe add-in card NVMe SSDs with large capacities provide incredible speeds for intensive workstation applications.
2.5 inch enterprise SATA or SAS SSDs are common for data centers since they offer good capacity and performance at scale for virtual machines and databases.
In summary, SSDs are not universally one-size-fits-all. Factors like interface, form factor and use case determine what SSD types are optimal:
- SATA SSDs are the standard for basic consumer PC and laptop upgrades
- M.2 NVMe SSDs offer portability and speed for newer notebooks
- PCIe add-in card SSDs provide top speed for high performance desktops
- Enterprise SATA SSDs scale well for data center needs
While the performance, reliability and compact size of SSDs are desirable, their higher cost means HDDs still have a place for bulk storage needs. For most everyday users, SATA and M.2 form factor SSDs up to 1-2TB hit a sweet spot of affordability and performance. PCIe and U.2 SSDs push the limits of speed but require specific system support. Matching the right SSD type with your interface, form factor and capacity requirements avoids issues and ensures you find an optimal SSD solution.