Hardware

What Is M.2 Form Factor Drives?

Mobility is becoming paramount nowadays. How convenient it is to carry your work anywhere, anytime, especially during this time, beyond 2020, where most of our work is already done in the comforts of our homes. With this, portable computers serve a huge advantage in propelling components with smaller form factors. Smaller form factor storage drives like the M.2 form factor SSDs are especially beneficial to ultrabooks, netbooks, and other portable systems. Not only are they used in smaller form factor computers, but even larger systems also make use of M.2 drives for faster transfer rates and more space inside the system. But what exactly is an M.2 SSD, and what are its advantages over other SSDs?

M.2 Form Factor

Would you believe that in the 1950s, a 4MB of computer storage was as big as your refrigerator? That’s probably hard to believe after getting used to modern storage devices which can be smaller than the palm of your hands. Storage drives gradually shrunk in size, increased in capacity, and improved in speed. You’re probably familiar with 3.5” HDDs, 2.5” SSDs, and the SATA connector that they both use to connect to the motherboard. There also was the business-card-sized mSATA (Mini-SATA) SSD, which followed the SATA III standard. Today, the smallest form factor among all SSDs is the M.2.

M.2, formerly known as Next Generation Form Factor (NGFF), is a form factor for internally mounted expansion cards that replaced mSATA standard due to its incompatibilities and some other limitations. M.2 modules do not require any cable for connectivity; it was designed with the PCI Express physical card layout and connectors and can be plugged-in directly into the motherboard with a dedicated M.2 connector slot. It is mainly utilized for M.2 SSDs, but it also supports protocols such as USB, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and other cards that use the M.2 specification, such as graphics cards. While mSATA was exclusively using the SATA protocol, M.2 supports both the SATA and the PCIe interface. In addition, there are also M.2 drives that use the NVMe technology and can be inserted into PCIe slots with NVMe support. M.2 NVMe SSDs are the latest and the fastest M.2 SSDs with five to six times the SATA M.2 SSDs. To sum it up, M.2 drives can be mounted on the SATA interface, PCIe without NVMe support, and PCIe with NVMe support.

Physically, M.2 drives are just as big as a stick of gum, but they also differ in size. You can tell an SSD’s size from the four to the five-digit number printed on its PCB. The first two digits are the drive’s width, and the digits after that are the drive’s length. A 2280 SSD, for example, has a width of 22mm and a length of 80mm. Longer SSDs, like the 22110, have more NAND chips than shorter ones.

Depending on the storage capacity, M.2 drives can either be single-sided or double-sided. Single-sided M.2 SSDs have lower capacities and are normally used in smaller form factor computers where space is limited, as in ultrabooks. Double-sided M.2 SSDs are bulky and take up more space than single-sided cards, and are used where greater storage capacities are necessary.

Keys and Sockets

Purchasing M.2 modules are not as simple as purchasing any expansion card or RAM. Depending on functionality, the M.2 modules are assigned different keys. M.2 SSDs are typically assigned the B, M, and B+M keys. The module keys, which also act as connectors, are usually differentiated by the notches at the end of the M.2 module. When purchasing an M.2 SSD, first check your motherboard documentation to ensure that it would fit in the M.2 socket of the motherboard. It’s also important to note that the M.2 modules are neither hot-swappable nor hot-pluggable. Forcing an M.2 module into an incompatible slot can damage both the module and the slot.

Pros and Cons

M.2 SSDs are one of the most flexible, versatile, and reliable storage drives of today. The minuscule storage drive offers some advantages over the other types of SSD.

Small Form Factor. The most notable advantage of this storage drive is the size. Because it’s smaller than any other type of SSD, there is more room for other components in the system, not to mention better airflow within. Their small size also makes them more lightweight and more portable than any other type of SSDs.

Speed. Another advantage of the M.2 SSD is the size. M.2 NVMe SSD’s speed can be as fast as 15GB/s if using the PCIe x 4 slots. Although SATA M.2 SSD is slower than other M.2 SSDs, it is still considerably faster than the SATA HDDs.

Capacity. An M.2 SSD can store up to 2TB of data which is more than enough for ultrabooks and other small form factor computers.

Reliability. Because M.2 SSDs are flash-based, they’re expected to last longer and are less susceptible to physical damage.

Although the M.2 SSD is better than other SSDs in many aspects, it still has drawbacks.

Compatibility. Since M.2 SSDs have specific module keys, certain motherboards will only be compatible with certain types of M.2 SSDs. A motherboard with only M.2 B sockets, for example, can only accept M.2 B cards. Similarly, not all M.2 slots support NVMe. Older motherboards usually support PCIe using AHCI protocol for SSD. Having said this, you need some familiarity with your computer’s hardware to make sure that you acquire the correct M.2 SSD for your motherboard’s M.2 socket.

Price. Consumers who don’t need the performance of M.2 SSDs would normally settle for cheaper types of SSDs because M.2 SSDs generally have higher price tags. It is reported that you will pay up to four times as much per gigabyte for an M.2 SSD compared to other SSDs.

The Drive of the Future

Mobility and portability are becoming a trend, and M.2 SSDs are the most suitable SSDs for compact gadgets and small form factor computers. PCIe, M.2, and NVMe are by far the innovations that M.2 SSDs have already adopted, and this type of drive is expected to dominate the market in the future. M.2 SSDs already exhibit a lot of potential compared to other types of SSDs, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement, especially in hardware compatibility. M.2 SSD is a promising storage device, and there is still a lot to expect from it in the coming years as technology keeps advancing.

About the author

Glynis Navarrete

A freelance blogger who loves to write about anything related to technology. Born and raised in the Philippines and worked in Singapore for eight years as Technical Support for a wide range of IT equipment. Took a dive into the world of freelancing and now enjoying doing what I’m passionate about while not losing touch with technology.