NVMe is cheap: simply retrofit fast storage

M.2 NVMe storage beats SSDs and hard drives in terms of speed. In addition, it falls in price, 1 TByte is under 100 euros. TechStage shows how NVMe storage can be added to (almost) every PC.

NVMe storage sounds bulky, but it’s one of the fastest types of storage for PCs. The small bars reach speeds that SSDs or classic hard drives can only dream of. So far, the price has been an obstacle, but that is currently changing. The first NVMe storage devices with 1 TB capacity are now available for less than 100 euros. Perfect for upgrading your PC for the upcoming games.

In this guide, we explain the advantages of NVMe, show three variants of how to retrofit the fast memory and give tips on how to move Windows 10 without losing data. The article is part of our theme worlds on NVMe and gaming. There we not only published tests on individual M.2 NVMes such as the Adata XPG SX8200 Pro (test report), the Samsung 970 Evo Plus (test report) or the Corsair Force MP510 (test report). In the guide: HDD, SSD, NVMe, we also give tips on when which storage type is worthwhile.

A note: Actually, NVMe storage is also solid-state storage like SSDs. In order to distinguish the devices at a glance, however, we continue to use the term SSD for classic SSD data storage with SATA interface, we use NVMe for storage with M.2 connection.

Why should you move to a fast NVMe at all when classic SSDs or HDDs are even cheaper? The reason is the speed. The SSDs or HDDs are classically attached to a SATA interface. The fastest connections based on SATA III theoretically manage up to 600 Mbytes / s. M.2 NVMe memories, on the other hand, are attached to the PCIe bus and manage up to 3400 MB / s there. And not theoretically, but in our own benchmarks, the Adata XPG SX8200 Pro (test report) is even a little faster. There are two big buts. First, the NVMes perform best with sequential data, i.e. when a lot of data is easily accessible one behind the other. Nevertheless, the memories can also score points in a real environment. In our tests, they achieved around 2300 MB / s. In the same test, a classic SSD was 344.14 MB / s and an HDD was 109 MB / s. In other words, even slow NMVe storage devices are faster than the fastest SATA SSDs.

In the best possible test scenario, NVMe storage outclasses all other storage types. In reality, the values ​​are not that good, but the NVMe memories are still clearly ahead.

The second hook is the connection on the mainboard. Most NVMe storage is connected via PCIe as mentioned above. But there are also M.2 ports and NVMe storage that work with SATA. You have to be extremely careful here, because you lose the greatest advantage of the fast memory. If you are not sure, you should take a look at the technical data of your mainboard. SATA-based NVMes should be avoided, simply for the reason that they are now even more expensive than their fast PCIe variants.

For our test we use a WD Black SN750 for all three options (test report). We test the NVMe in every option with the Full system drive benchmark PCMark 10. This emulates popular applications and typical tasks to check the performance of the test object, it doesn’t just copy files back and forth. The result appears as a point value, and the test also shows the average throughput and the access time. Since neither the NVMe nor the actual hardware changes in the test, it is easy to see how the various options affect the performance. To give an assessment, the SSD in our system achieved 525 points and an HDD achieved 154 points. The NVMes are, so much is revealed in advance, well above.

Most mainboards now have the right slot, and this also applies to budget models. If you have an older mainboard, you should check your manual or take a look at the mainboard. The M.2 slot is flat, usually between the CPU and the PCI Express slot. Installation is very easy. The NVMe memory fits exactly in one direction into the slot, you can push it in and press it gently. Then you push it down and screw it to the designated nut. You shouldn’t use too much force here, it is enough if the memory is well seated.

Most current mainboards have an M.2 slot. Here it sits between the GPU and graphics card.

After the start, Windows 10 should recognize the new memory directly. If this is not the case, you should update the firmware of the mainboard or install or update the appropriate drivers for your own mainboard.

In our test, our NVMe achieved a solid result in PCMark 10 with 1387 points and 225.98 MB / s. As mentioned above, the SSD only achieved 614 points in the same test.

If you don’t have an M.2 connection on the mainboard or where there is only one SATA M.2 slot, you should get an adapter. It is necessary for this that an x4 PCIe slot must be free on the board. Specifically, this means: the very short 1x PCIe slots are not enough. You can put the adapter cards in a longer slot. This is a bit confusing, but PCIe is designed in such a way that it automatically recognizes the card and addresses it correctly in the system. The picture shows in which slot we operated the adapter in the test.

The PCIe slots on the mainboard. The slot marked in red is a x1 PCIe slot, which is too short for the adapter. The x8 slot marked in white is correct because it also accepts x4 cards.

For the practical test, we tried a Raidsonic adapter, the Icy Box IB-PCI208 costs less than 8 euros. For this, it was easy to attach the M.2 memory to the adapter. The installation was also simple, additional cables are not necessary. Windows recognized the memory again without any problems, we could access it directly. An additional driver was not necessary.

An NVMe in a PCIe adapter.

Then came the surprise in the benchmark: In the benchmark this solution achieved 1421 points, more than the integrated slot. The difference is not huge, but it gives an interesting conclusion. Apparently the adapter card has better cooling and the NVMe can play at its full speed a little longer, even with a comparatively cheap adapter.

The third option is to put the NVMe storage in an external housing and address it via USB. That sounds stupid at first, after all, USB 3.0 manages a maximum of theoretical 5 GBit / s, in practice between 200 and 415 MByte / s remain. It only gets fun when you can use USB 3.2 Gen 2×2. Behind this cryptic name there is a throughput of 20 GBit / s. Thunderbolt 3 connections are even faster, they manage up to 40 Gbit / s. This makes external NVMe storage interesting for everyone who works with a lot of large files, such as UHD videos or RAW photos.

A faster USB-C port can be retrofitted with such cards. It also requires at least one x4 PCIe slot and power via a 15-pin connector, such as that used by hard drives.

If you want to retrofit this connection, you will also find suitable adapter cards. Here, too, we tried a device. We retrofitted our test system with USB 3.2 Gen 2×2, and a Raidsonic IB-PCI1901-C32 is in our test system. This also requires at least one x4 PCIe connection, a larger one can also be used here. In addition, you have to insert a 15-pin power plug. Again, Windows 10 does not need any additional drivers, the new USB port was immediately available in the system.

Our test NVMe is in an Icybox IB-1916M-C32, because similar to Thunderbolt, all components, including the USB-C cable, have to fit together. The system achieved 1051 points in the test. This is significantly below the other options, but is still faster than an internal SSD. The throughput was 165.17 MByte / s. That is not bad, but it does not come close to the internal solutions either.

An NVMe in the USB adapter.

However, this is also the most expensive option to retrofit an NVMe. Because in addition to the case you need a fast USB-C card. We would recommend everyone to move their data frequently from a laptop to a desktop, for example when photos and videos are temporarily stored in the field on the laptop and then processed further on the PC. Because the advantage over other external hard drives is that there are no mechanical components that can break. And even if the connector or the board of the USB case is bent, there is still a good chance that the actual NVMe – and with it the data – has survived.

Probably the easiest way to get the system from the slow SSD to a fast NVMe is to reinstall it. However, this has some pitfalls, especially on older boards, the BIOS may have to be updated beforehand so that the system can recognize the memory.

If you want to move your existing system, you can choose between commercial programs and the free tool ct-WIMage of our colleagues at c’t. This saves all important information as an image in a container. You can then import this data onto the new hard disk using the normal Windows setup program. All you need is a USB medium with enough memory. The nice thing about this is that the old hard drive is not touched. If anything goes wrong, all data is still available. All further information, the downloads for ct-WIMage and frequently asked questions are in the heise article “c’t-WIMage”.

NVMe storage is fast and comparatively cheap. Yes, an SSD of the same size is still cheaper, but you are limited in terms of speed. Especially if you work a lot with big data or like big games Call of Duty or the coming one Cyberpunk 2077 plays, who will benefit from the faster memory in the medium term. Installation is simple and even older systems can be easily upgraded using adapters. We found it particularly exciting in our practical tests that even a comparatively inexpensive adapter in an x4 PCIe slot is even slightly faster than the integrated M.2 connection. This means that you can recommend this solution with a clear conscience.

So if you are planning to upgrade your PC in the near future, you should keep an eye on the prices for the NVMes. In the medium term, this can prevent the SATA connections from becoming a bottleneck in the system.

For more information on NVMe, we recommend our NVMe theme world or the guide: NVMe, SSD, HDD – who needs which storage?