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Hi there Internet!
Dan here, with the newest, freshest copy of the NexiPC BLOG. The topic this week are the types of connection formats, form factors, and other important terminology about drives as this is a topic that I have run into a few times over the past couple weeks. While figuring out the type of drive you want is important (again I highly recommend SSD’s), once you have made this decision the choices do not stop there. Do you want an M.2 or a 2.5” drive? Should it be PCIe or SATA? Do you need/can you use an NVME drive, or a striped RAID 0 setup? These are all important questions and can make a significant difference to your computer. And while it is not important to learn and remember this information unless you are planning to use it regularly, it is always good to have an idea of what is going on. So let’s talk about it.
As always, I want to say that we are not going to have a super technical discussion about this topic. My goal is to give you a broad overview of this topic and the terms related to it, so you can go forward with more confidence in your understanding of this topic and you can use this knowledge to ensure that your computers are what are best for your needs. If you want to pursue a deeper dive on any of these topics though, there is a wealth of information on the internet available that will go into every level of complexity on this subject. You can learn as much or as little as you want very easily online just by searching for the terminology you will notice attached to these devices. With this said, I will mention several times in this discussion a new or newer technology having nearly replaced the previous one, and this is par for the course in this industry. What I am writing here may well be obsolete information in a year, or five years, or we could stick with this technology for over a decade. So it is always best to look at current sources of information for these types of topics.
So with all of the caveats out of the way (lol), let’s go ahead and start off with the form factor of drives as this is the most outwardly noticeable attribute of any drive. The form factor of a drive is a term used to describe what a drive would actually look like if you held it in your hand. This as with most areas of this topic is something that can get very technical as there are a lot of things that come into play with what goes into each form factor, but to try and make it less complicated the form factor is basically the physical size of the drive. How big is it if you hold it in your hand? There are four primary form factors (sizes) that we use today with standard computers, they are: 3.5 inch, 2.5 inch, M.2, and PCIe AIC. Like I said it gets complicated. Those first two are obviously numbers and make sense when you say the word size, the next two are not numbers at all and clearly do not belong in a size discussion. So let me briefly explain. The first two numbers refer to the width of the box they stuff the hard drive parts into for many different hard drives. 3.5 inch drives are only used (at least in my experience) for HDD (Hard Disk Drive) types of drives, while the 2.5 inch size is what they put some SSD’s (Solid State Drives) into, or HDD’s for laptops.
M.2 drives on the other hand are always SSD’s, and they do not come in a box at all. An M.2 drive if you hold it in your hand is about the same width as a bottle cap, and the standard size you are likely to encounter regularly is about 3 inches long. There are several different variant lengths of M.2 drives though so you might well encounter one that is longer or shorter. They are also about the thickness of a couple sticks of gum put together though so they are not big devices, and rather than plugging in with a cable they mount directly to a special connector on the motherboard. And lastly PCIe AIC (Peripheral Component Interconnect express - Add In Card) drives are also always SSD’s (well almost always), and they are typically fairly big devices when compared to 2.5” drives and M.2 drives. This one is the most complicated of the bunch because a wide number of different things could be called a PCIe SSD, as PCIe refers to the connection type, but what we are referring to here is the PCIe AIC form factor for drives which does (a little) point to a specific device. We won’t talk about this one more though as it is complicated, and they are only used in desktop systems (again mostly). Just know if you are looking for a PCIe AIC SSD specifically look for NVMe version as this will ensure it is fast.
So which of these do you want? Well, as always, it depends. If you have a desktop computer you will like be adding a 3.5” drive to the system for larger storage capacity at some point, but if money is not an issue why not just go all SSD’s? M.2’s are very very fast, but is it worth spending more for a system that can accommodate these types of drives? Well without getting into any of the other issues, you should aim for an M.2 if it is something that is possible as they are fast. If this is not an option, the 2.5” SSD will always be faster than an HDD, but it will also always (for now) be more expensive. So for best results always aim to the SSD form factors, for best value per dollar the 3.5” or 2.5” HDD’s are where you will win with this.
So that is what the drives actually look like, but how do you plug them in? And is there a best way to do this? This is actually a place where we will be able to make an absolute judgement more easily, so I will be able to give you an idea of what to look for, rather than having to explain everything. There are two standard connection formats for drives, SATA and PCIe. SATA is an older standard, but it is still used fairly frequently as it is basically just the drive connector. It worked well so there was little use in changing it. Until we started making systems fast enough that the connection itself started causing the process to slow down. This is when PCIe drives started hitting the markets. Because of the way that PCIe lanes are attached to the motherboard they are much faster than a SATA lane, and are able to move much more data at much higher speeds. As such, this again is kind of the easy one, if you have a choice choose PCIe drives. They will always be faster than a comparable SATA drive.
So to finish, let's talk about a couple of things you may well have heard about with drives that do not neatly fit into their own category with this topic. The first I would like to mention is NVMe. This has become a bit of a buzz word lately, and the odds are good that if you pay any attention to technology you have heard this term. NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory express) is a new category (for lack of a better term) that drives can fall into. It is not the connection, though this does come into play with NVMe, and it is not a form factor, though this too does have some applicability to this technology. NVMe instead is I guess a new technology standard, and it is very very very fast. (I have already used very very, so we had to go to three very’s.) The way it works, very basically, is that it stores the information in a slightly different way than other drives do, and it uses the PCIe lanes to talk to other systems but does so in a more efficient way. This one really is very complicated so I wont go into it any further, but suffice it to say that NVMe is super super fast and if it is an option, it is the right option.
I was going to talk about RAID 0 and some of the other ways you can combine your drives as well, but this is a fairly deep topic already and that would just add more complexity, so we will save that for another chapter of the BLOG. This should give you a better understanding of how drives work though, and how to get the best one for your needs. If you have any other questions please write us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to talk with you and help you figure out what the best system for you is. The topic for the BLOG next week will be gaming systems vs normal computers: what are the differences and similarities.
Till next time folks, have fun. I will talk to you then.