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Should you get an M.2 PCIe NVMe SSD?

Four years ago, I bought a desktop PC. It took months of research, weeks to ship and a couple of hours to assemble. But, I was proud of it because it was a sweet-spot PC designed to eke out as much performance-per-ringgit as I could. And that was hard because obviously the minute I decided to drop money on a proper desktop computer, there was a sudden boom in Bitcoin mining.

Still, I think I managed to get just ahead of the curve and put together a respectable machine for mixed use with a plan to gradually upgrade it over the years. But, four years later, I made zero upgrades. Until one day, I basically ran out of storage.

Say what you will about my cable management, but I’m super happy with the a e s t h e t i c s.

Not just in my 450GB Kingston HyperX SATA SSD, but also in my 1TB mechanical drive. I thought to myself, fine it’s finally time for an upgrade. After a little bit of research, I remembered that 2016 Rory had the foresight to pick up a motherboard with support for an M.2 drive, so the choice seemed obvious.

But is it though? Is it worth investing in an M.2 drive considering all the other types of storage you can buy for your PC right now? Well, there was only one way to find out.

I called WD Malaysia and asked really nicely for one of their SN550 drives

OK, I didn’t actually call them. It was an email conversation, but I think “call” has a nicer ring to it in a subheading. In any case, Western Digital were cool enough to send me one of their brand new M.2 solid-state drives (SSD), the WD Blue SN550 NVMe SSD. 

I had my eye on this device simply because it looked like a great bang-for-buck device. The 1TB version I have here retails for just RM575 on their official store. For context, WD’s own 2.5” 1TB WD Blue SATA SSD is only about RM20 cheaper and it has less than half the read/write speeds of the M.2 drive. 

Of course, the WD Blue SN550 NVMe SSD isn’t like the perfect bang-for-buck drive. It has a couple of limitations which I will touch on later in this article, but what I want to focus on right now is the M.2 drive form-factor. Because, after spending a few weeks with an M.2 drive, I was mighty impressed.

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For starters, it’s so easy to install and use

In my original build, I never considered getting an M.2 drive, instead opting to leave it as a “nice to have” for future upgrades. The reason I picked up the MSI B150M Mortar Arctic was because I didn’t need any overclocking support, it had great features for the price and that sick white PCB. 

OK, it was mostly for that sick white PCB. 

Regardless, it did come with a handy-dandy M.2 slot so when I got my hands on the SN550, it was really just a matter of plug and play. OK, it was almost a matter of plug and play. 

Because of the way the board is designed, my M.2 slot is tucked under my graphics card so before I can stick it in, I have to remove my GPU. Once I did, the M.2 drive slid right in and a single screw secured it in place. Easy peasy. There was no need to pull cables from my power supply or look for SATA cables to connect it. 

This is the single screw you need. If it’s not screwed into your PCB, look for it in your MOBO box.

For those of you with a more modular power supply or custom cables this would probably not be a big deal, but for me it’s an inconvenience I can live without. As you can see, my HyperX 2.5” drive is installed upside down because I couldn’t get the right angle cable to fit around my power supply shroud. 

The screw is actually a 2-stage screw. Bottom part screws into the PCB. top screw holds your drive together. Be careful with how tightly you screw it in, you don’t wanna damage your M.2 drive.

Cumbersome, but these are not things you have to deal with if you get an M.2 drive. Once it’s installed, all you need to do is create a new volume using the Windows partition tool and the drive is good to go.

These drives are also way faster than conventional SATA drives

Can I just say that this drive also matches my Blue/White/Black colourscheme so well?

If you’re like me and have only experienced SATA speeds on your desktop PC, the PCIe NVMe speeds will blow your mind. Just look at the performance difference between the SN550 and my SATA SSD.

And these are speeds you can definitely feel when it comes to file transfers and accessing the stuff that’s stored on it. I was also expecting a big change in load times in video games, but unfortunately that was not the case. 

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I don’t know if it is because there’s a bottleneck somewhere else in my PC (I’m on an Intel Core i5-6500, a GTX1060 6GB with 16GB of RAM) but loading up and playing stuff like Anthem and Call of Duty Modern Warfare felt identical on my SATA SSD and the SN550 M.2 drive. There was, however, a noticeable difference between the M.2 drive and my 1TB mechanical HDD, but that’s obviously expected.

So, if you’re looking for pure gains in gaming, there are other components you should be focusing on instead. 

But, I think my favourite thing about the M.2 drive is its flexibility

Now, I have heard of people turning M.2 drives into external SSDs and basically massive pendrives, but I never thought it would be so simple. For some reason, I thought there was going to be some kind of special format or programme you had to run to get it to work properly, but no. It’s about as plug-and-play as it gets.

The steps are pretty much identical to setting up the drive in your desktop, only instead of a desktop computer, you just need to get an external M.2 SSD enclosure. I got this awesome metal one from UGreen and it works like a charm. Just stick it in, and stick the cable that comes with the drive into a corresponding USB port and you’re good to go. Of course, if you haven’t created a New Simple Volume, then you’ll have to do that first.

This is the M-key enclosure. It’s the one that supports NVMe drives.

Only thing you need to keep in mind is what key your drive is in (refers to the kind of “teeth” that your M.2 drive has, whether it’s a B-key, M-key or B+M-key) and how long the drive is. This UGreen enclosure, for example, takes drives that are 2230, 2242, 2260 and 2280 in size. This number denotes the measurements in millimeters, with the first two numbers representing width and the last two numbers representing length.

Drive is held there by a little rubber bit. Looks sketchy, but seems to do a good job at holding it in place.

Once you’ve got that sorted with your drive, you should also take note of the speed that the enclosure achieves. The one I have can achieve a max speed of 10Gbps, which translates to about 1,250MB/s.

Using the Thunderbolt 3 port on my Asus ExpertBook B9, I was only able to top out at about 1000MB/s read/write according to CrystalDiskMark.

Still, for an external drive, that’s more than good enough for me. I can comfortably edit videos off of the external drive, and even run programs no problem. What’s more, you can also unplug your M.2 drive directly from your motherboard and stick it into the enclosure to access the drive from another PC. Obviously, this would be more useful if your desktop has a more accessible M.2 slot, because in my case I had to take my entire GPU out which isn’t very practical.

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So, should you upgrade to an M.2 SSD?

Yeah, for sure. I think that when it comes to form-factor, price and accessibility, the M.2 SSD is in a crazy good spot. It boasts great performance, a simple setup process and it occupies barely any space in your setup. It’s also really flexible, so you can use old M.2 SSDs as external drives using a simple enclosure yet still experience solid speeds. What’s more, M.2 SSD prices are now so low that you can get them at almost the same price as a 2.5” SATA SSD.

Should you get the WD Blue SN550 NVMe SSD? That’s a little bit trickier.

I think that this drive definitely has good value for money, but it also falls short in a couple of places. Yes, it definitely performs better than its 2.5” counterparts, but its performance isn’t particularly great when you compare it with other M.2 NVMe SSDs. One example is the Adata XPG SX8200 Pro M.2 SSD which posts much better Sequential Read/Write numbers in my benchmarks but retails for about the same price. Both also come with 5-year warranties.

But, those are my thoughts, and I’m definitely not an SSD expert. I will, however, say that this whole journey was very enlightening to me as a PC enthusiast so I thought it was worth sharing with you.

What do you think about the WD Blue SN550 NVMe SSD? Or do you have any thoughts or experiences with M.2 drives in general? Let me know in the comments below.

Photography by Rory Lee with the Sony A6600.