Buy a new computer, or looking to upgrade? You may have come across a newer type of storage known as NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory Express).
NVMe SSDs deliver significant speed improvements over the SATA SSDs that have become commonplace is computers today. A “slow” NVMe may still be three times faster than the SATA SSD that came with your laptop. Reviews will tell you that even if one NVMe brand performs poorly compared to others, it’s still better than SATA.
But is this really true, and should you upgrade to NVMe?
1. Your SATA SSD Is Not Why Your PC Feels Slow
Does your current experience feel slow? Are your apps taking too long to load? Are you noticing lag? If so, while a new storage drive may improve the situation, it depends on what kind of drive you currently have.
If your machine is running off a spinning hard disk drive, or HDD, then you will want to replace it with an SSD for speed. The time it takes to spin up an HDD does have a noticeable impact on speed, and replacing one with a SATA SSD is an easy way to make an old PC feel new again.
But if you already have an SSD, your problem more likely resides with either having too little RAM, an outdated or aging CPU, or the lack of a dedicated graphics card.
In other words, a NVMe SSD may make a computer feel fast, but a SATA SSD is not likely to make a PC feel slow unless you transfer large files often and are tired of looking at a progress bar.
2. SATA Drives Are Cheaper
When most of us think of storage, we think of space, not speed. SATA drives won’t give you as much speed as their NVMe alternatives, but they will give you far more storage for your money.
If you’ve outgrown your current drive, SATA SSDs can give you a terabyte or two of storage for the price of a high-performance 250GB or 500GB NVMe drive, like those from Samsung.
That said, NVMe prices are dropping. If you opt for one of the slower NVMe options, such as the entry-level drives from Intel or Western Digital, then the savings are smaller (but so is the noticeable difference in speed).
At that point, you have to ask yourself if you rather have a high-end SATA SSD or a low-end NVMe SSD. There are factors to consider here other than speed, such as the next reason to consider SATA over NVMe.
3. SATA SSDs Use Less Power
NVMe drives can achieve drastically faster transfer speeds than NVMe drives, but they’re also drawing more power to do so. Some models have a similar impact on battery life as using a spinning hard drive.
You can see the same phenomenon when comparing PCIe SSDs vs SATA SSDs.
Storage drives generally aren’t the part of your computer that suck up the most power. But SATA SSD drives have reached a maturity point where they sip relatively little juice. Meanwhile, companies are experimenting wildly with NVMe drives. So while the format has the potential to use less energy, and some drives actually do, this isn’t yet the norm.
4. NVMe SSDs Are More Likely to Lose Your Data
This high performance and the resulting power usage has another consequence. NVMe SSDs can get hot, and this can lead to hardware failure and data loss.
Some NVMe drives run so hot that they’re recommended for desktop use, where you have the space for more airflow. Some units come with heat sinks.
Yet NVMe drives have started to appear in laptops and many people have installed them on their own without burning up all the tightly packed hardware. Ultimately, the likelihood of overheating depends on how hard you push your drive and how well you cool your machine.
If you’re a photographer or video editor who is constantly manipulating large volumes of data, or you’re a gamer pushing your machine to its limits for hours each day, you’re more at risk than someone primarily using their computer to type up documents. But even that doesn’t matter if your PC has poor ventilation.
You also want to pay close attention to which brand you buy.
5. SATA SSDs Work With More Hardware
SATA is not a type of hard drive. It’s the interface your hard drive uses to interface with your computer. The SATA standard was developed in the time of spinning hard disks.
When newer SSDs came along, manufacturers made them compatible with the same SATA port. This way you could replace your existing hard drive without needing an entirely new machine.
NVMe drives do not fit in SATA ports. They require m.2 ports instead.
Many newer desktop motherboards come with m.2 ports as an added option, and more than a few modern laptops have done away with SATA entirely. But if you have an older machine, you likely can’t use one of these hard drives without getting a new motherboard or replacing your laptop. Even when you do get a new PC, an SATA SSD is still a good way to turn your old machine into a faster home media server.
6. SSDs Have Reached a Point of Diminishing Returns
Storage drive speeds are already so fast that when many people who switch from a SATA SSD to a NVMe SSD don’t even notice the difference.
Installing an NVMe drive will likely make your computer boot up faster, but how often do you restart your computer, and would you notice if the process took ten seconds instead of 20? Some apps will load more quickly, but that’s only if the code is optimized to do so. And when apps already launch in a fraction of a second on a SATA SSD, there’s only so much time you can shave off.
Where NVMe SSDs can have the biggest impact is transferring large files. If you regularly import RAW photos or move video files around, reducing that time by ten or twenty minutes is nothing to sniff at. You may want to pay a premium to reduce those transfer times.
But even when it comes to gaming, which many of these drives are advertised for, you won’t likely notice a big difference unless developers have optimized software to take advantage of the faster drives.
Who Should Buy NVMe SSDs?
NVMe drives are not bad technology. Enhancements that reduce latency and speed up simultaneous data transfers show how storage drives are improving. But like the early days of SATA SSDs, there’s a degree of cost (and to a lesser extent, risk) that comes with making the transition this soon.
When you need to get maximum performance from your machine, NVMe SSDs are without a doubt the way to go. When every minute spent transferring data is a minute you can’t work for a client, it makes sense to reduce that time however you can.
Yet, like having 16GB or 32GB of RAM, most of us don’t need that kind of power. It’s tempting to have the highest spec’d machine money can buy, but there’s no need to be wasteful, especially when you’re picking out components to build your own PC. For the majority of people, a SATA SSD still serves just fine.
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