A PCIe 4.0 M.2 SSD is the newer and faster sibling to the gum stick-sized SSD you probably have in your computer right now, and with new options from AMD, Intel, and Sony, we now have more reasons to upgrade.
PCIe 4.0 is roughly twice as fast as PCI 3.0. Many PCIe 3.0 SSDs top out at 3500 MB/s, while PCIe 4.0 can hit 5000 MB/s or higher. PCIe 4.0 can handle double the amount of bandwidth as PCIe 3.0—32 GB/s versus 16 GB/s—which can help decrease game loading times or reduce how long it takes to transfer files between drives. It’s one of the simplest upgrades you can do to give a speed bump to your PC, laptop, and soon your PS5.
AMD was the first to enable PCIe 4.0 support on its latest 500-series chipsets, so any of those latest motherboards support the faster storage devices. Intel will also support PCIe 4.0 with its next chipset, although not all of those 500-series motherboards are on sale just yet. (We’re still waiting for the release of Intel’s 11th-gen desktop processors.)
However, many 400-series motherboards are PCIe 4.0 compatible, but Intel users haven’t been able to take advantage of those; the company had issues getting its 400-series chipset to work with PCIe 4.0 on its 10th-gen desktop processors. But Intel was able to make it work with its upcoming desktop processor generation. And with Sony supposedly announcing this summer what PCIe 4.0 M.2 SSDs will work in the PS5's expandable storage slots, now might a good time to start shopping around for a new M.2 SSD.
The number of PCIe 4.0 SSDs on the market is still growing, although every major storage maker has released a few models by this point. I was able to get my hands on four SSDs to test for this face-off, although there are others out there from Seagate and Western Digital. There’s a lot to take in: speed, price, heatsink or no heatsink, and depending on where the M.2 slot is located on your motherboard, it may or may not fit properly, as was the case in our testing.
Here’s what I tested:
- Samsung 980 Pro 500 GB (up to 7000 MB/s read)
- Corsair MP600 500 GB (up to 4950 MB/s read) with heatsink
- XPG Gammix S70 2 TB (up to 7400 MB/s read) with heatsink
- Sabrent Rocket 1 TB (up to 5000 MB/s read)
All the above SSDs were tested on the following PC configuration: Asus ROG Crosshair VIII Hero motherboard, Ryzen 9 5950X CPU, Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 GPU, G.Skill Trident Z Royal DDR4-3600 DRAM, Seasonic Focus GX-1000 PSU; and a Corsair H150i Pro RGB 360mm AIO for cooling. A primary Samsung 970 Evo M.2 500 GB SSD (PCIe 3.o) was used for file transfer tests.
There are a few important benchmarks when it comes to measuring storage speed. The main ones are sequential read and write speed, or how fast a drive can parse information stored on itself and how fast a drive can save information to itself, respectively, in a certain order. There’s also random read and write speeds, or how fast an SSD can perform those tasks with information that is “out of order.”
Using CrystalDiskMark, I ran several different synthetic read and write speed tests. Not surprisingly, the SSDs with faster sequential read and write speeds came out on top, since sequential speeds are always faster. But the random speed tests is where it got interesting.
CrystalDiskMark has four different tests: two that measure sequential speeds and two that measure random speeds. The Q8T1 sequential read/write tests run eight tasks back to back, and the Q1T1 runs only one task. The Q32T1 random read/write test runs 32 tasks back to back, and the Q1T1 random read/write test runs only one. The sequential Q8T1 read tests the top speed of the SSDs, but it is also the least strenuous test; tasks in the queue take only a fraction of a second to start, so that’s why the sequential read/write Q8T1 speeds are always higher than the Q1T1—and why random read/write tests are always much lower.
If you look at the charts above, the XPG Gammix S70 is by far the fastest in sequential read/write speeds, topping out at its advertised 7400 MB/s. This PCIe 4.0 M.2 SSD is the fastest at performing tasks like transferring movie files or unzipping compressed files. However, if you’re not dealing with large files that have multiple tasks in the queue, then the Samsung 980 Pro comes out on top with a speed of 4183 MB/s. The XPG Gammix S70 falls to second place here with a top speed of 3349 MB/s.
The Corsair MP600 comes out on top during the Q32T1 random read/write test, with a 867 MB/s top read speed and 789 MB/s top write speed. But when there isn’t a queue of tasks lined up, the Samsung 980 Pro leads the pack again, with the Corsair MP600, XPG Gammix S70, and Sabrent Rocket virtually equal. However, the XPG Gammix S70 had the best random, single-task write speed while the Corsair MP600 had the slowest.
What we can take away from the CrystalDiskMark benchmarks alone is the Sabrent Rocket had the most consistent performance across all the tests, while the others fluctuated between being on top and being at near or at the bottom. Yes, the Sabrent Rocket doesn’t have the fastest sequential read/write speeds, but it had impressive random read/write speeds compared to the others.
There is one catch, and it’s the reason why I couldn’t include a chart for the sequential read Q1T1: The XPG Gammix S70 speed was so fast, and Sabrent Rocket’s speed during that test was so slow compared to the others that it screwed up the formatting of my chart, making it unreadable. The XPG had a speed of 5892 MB/s, and the Sabrent was 535 MB/s. If the Sabrent had a better, single-task sequential read, it would be the winner here, but I’ve got to give it to the XPG. When it wasn’t blowing past the competition, it was keeping pace with it.
Winner: XPG Gammix S70
The slower your storage, the longer it will take your computer to open, save, and transfer. A slower, PCIe 3.0 SSD can also affect how long it takes to load a save file from a game or load a cut scene. Benchmarks are nice, but in a practical setting things can change—or maybe the differences become so minute that they don’t even matter, and that’s sort of the case here.
For testing file transfer and load times, I looked at a few PCMark 10 results from the benchmark’s Express test, as well as manually timed how long it took to copy and move all the files for Battlefield V (90.5 GB) to each of the PCIe 4.0 SSDs, and how long it took to load Cyberpunk 2077 to the main menu and into a saved game.
Compared to the Samsung 970 Evo, these scores are miles ahead of my PCIe 3.0 main drive. On average, it took a little over two minutes to transfer 90.5 GB worth of game files from any of the PCIe 4.0 SSDs. But transferring the same files the other way around took under a minute for all of them. Between the PCIe 4.0 SSDs, there’s not a lot of differentiation in copying the files nor moving them completely.
It’s impossible to pick a winner from this metric alone, so I tested loading times in Cyberpunk 2077 next, specifically how long it took from pressing play to get to the main menu, and how long it took to load a saved game from the main menu. There isn’t much difference there either: 31 seconds for the first part, and nine seconds for the last for all the SSDs.
Of course, you can see the difference between all the SSDs again when you look at their overall scores in PCMark 10 (which isn’t even that much), but breaking down the overall scores into smaller categories shows little practical difference. According to the spreadsheet tests in PCMark 10, all the SSDs took between 1.1 and 1.2 seconds to open a document, for instance. That 0.1 second difference no one is going to notice when they are actually using Microsoft Excel. Opening a Chromium-based browser from a cold start: 0.5 seconds for all of them. Saving a document: 1.0 to 1.1 seconds. In everyday tasks, it doesn’t matter which one of these SSDs you use. They’re all winners.
Some SSD makers add heatsinks on their M.2 SSDs because they can help increase the longevity of the drive and increase the duration of sustained read and write performance. Two of the PCIe 4.0 M.2 SSDs we tested, the Corsair MP600 and XPG Gammix S70, came with an attached heatsink. While they did indeed help with thermals, they didn’t exactly fit into the M.2 slot on the motherboard quite right, not to mention their bulky tops can limit what slot you can fit your GPU into.
The Samsung 980 Pro and Sabrent Rocket, which do not have heatsinks, I was able to insert into the M.2 slot, press down so the notch on the other side was flush with the metal riser, and secure it with a screw. The Corsair MP600 and XPG Gammix S70 would not sit the same way. The notched side would sit just above the riser, but I would not be able to push it down without applying a good amount of force, so I only screwed it down part of the way. (Didn’t want to break anything!) Depending on the location of the M.2 drive, this might not be an issue, but I don’t like the idea of not fully securing my M.2 SSD to my motherboard.
The other issue is that some motherboards come with plastic plates that cover some areas of the motherboard. The Asus ROG Crosshair VIII Hero I used in my testing, for instance, has two plates that cover both the M.2 drives. Anyone can place a flat SSD under there and put the plate back over if they want. But the heatsinks on the Corsair MP600 and XPG Gammix S70, which are about an inch tall, prevent the plates from being put back on—not to mention because of the way they sit in the M.2 slot, they’re both taller than the PCIe x16 slots! That can also create an issue with placing your graphics card. The XPG was also a little too wide to fit into the bottom M.2 slot on my motherboard; part of the SSD goes between the two bottom PCIe x16 lanes, and the gap between the two is not big enough to accommodate the XPG.
My solution was to put the SSDs with a heatsink in the top M.2 slot, and put the GPU in the middle PCIe x16 slot. Anyone with a smaller motherboard, especially a mini-ITX with only one M.2 and one PCIe x16 slot, might be better off picking a non-heatsink SSD, which Corsair doesn’t offer in the PCIe 4.0 variety at this time. XPG does, but the read/write speeds are slower.
Winner: Samsung 980 Pro and Sabrent Rocket
For 1TB of storage space, all four of these M.2 SSDs are around $200, with the Corsair MP600 currently slightly cheaper at $186, and the Sabrent Rocket at $169. (The Rocket can be found on sale for $149.) One of XPG’s non-heatsink versions, the S50 Lite, is currently going for $139, but the top read speed is only 3900 MB/s. The regular S50 is more evenly matched with a top read speed of 5000 MB/s, but costs $222.
The Samsung 980 Pro has the greatest variety of storage capacity out of all the SSDs here: 250GB, 500GB, 1TB, and 2TB. The Corsair MP600 starts at 500GB and goes up to 2TB. The XPG Gammix S70 only comes in 1TB and 2TB, and the Sabrent Rocket starts at 500GB and goes up to 2TB.
Considering there is no practical difference in gaming loading times, saving documents, or transferring 90.5GB worth of files, you’re going to get the most out of the Sabrent Rocket—not just because of how cheap it is, but also because of how it handles sequential and random read/write tasks. You can add a heatsink to it for an extra $20 if you really want to.
Winner: Sabrent Rocket
The Sabrent Rocket swept nearly every category, so I’m going to have declare it the SSD to buy. When it came to real tasks, it didn’t matter that it was technically slower than the competition. Sure, it had a hiccup during the synthetic speed tests, but it’s currently the cheapest 1TB PCIe 4.0 M.2 SSD you can buy and it has an optional heatsink, unlike the others. Taking a look at how much faster a PCIe 4.0 SSD can transfer files compared to a last-gen SSD, and really any PCIe 4.0 SSD is worth it—but to me, the Sabrent Rocket offers the most bang for your buck.