What is NVMe SSD technology?
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The benefits of NVMe
NVMe technology provides superior storage, superior speed and superior compatibility. Since NVMe utilises PCIe sockets, it transfers 25x more data than the SATA equivalent. Along with more data, NVMe’s commands are 2x faster than that of AHCI drivers. In addition, NVMe input/output operations per second (IOPS) exceeds 1 million and is up to 900% faster compared to AHCI drives. NVMe also communicates directly with the system CPU, giving it incredible speeds due to its compatibility. NVMe drives work with all major operating systems regardless of form factor.
NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory Express) is a communications interface and driver that takes advantage of the increased bandwidth PCIe has to offer. It’s designed to increase performance and efficiency while making a broad range of enterprise and client systems interoperable. NVMe was designed for SSDs and communicates between the storage interface and the system’s CPU using high-speed PCIe sockets without the limitations of form factor.
The NVMe protocol utilises parallel, low-latency data paths to the underlying media, like high-performance processor architectures. This offers significantly higher performance and lower latencies compared to SAS and SATA protocols. NVMe can support multiple I/O queues, up to 64K with each queue having 64K entries. This allows input/output tasks to transfer more data faster than older storage models using legacy drivers such as AHCI (Advanced Host Controller Interface). Since NVMe is designed specifically for SSDs, it will eventually become the new industry standard.
SSD storage: Then and now
Data buses transfer data within a system. When NAND-based SSDs first came out, it was clear to the industry that a new bus and protocol were necessary.
- • The first SSDs were relatively slow, which made it convenient to use the existing SATA storage infrastructure. Even though the SATA bus has evolved to 16Gbps, nearly all commercial implementations of the SATA bus remain 6Gbps.
- • PCIe 3.0’s total throughput is 16Gbps while PCIe 4.0 has double the throughput of PCIe 3.0. It offers up to 16 lanes and can transfer data at up to 32,000MB/s while SATA III transfers only up to 600MB/s.
The decision to leverage an existing higher-bandwidth bus technology replaced SATA protocols with PCIe technology. PCIe storage came before NVMe by a few years but, since previous solutions were bottlenecked by older data transfer protocols such as SATA and AHCI, it couldn’t be used to its full potential until recent years. NVMe was the solution for the bottlenecks and removes limitations by offering low-latency commands and 64K queues. The multiple queues allow faster data transfers because data is written to SSDs in a scattered fashion using chips and blocks rather than being written on spinning disks like hard drives.
Communication drivers: AHCI vs NVMe
Communication drivers are used by operating systems to communicate data with storage devices. NVMe drivers are faster than AHCI drivers, which are commonly found in SATA interfaces.
- NVMe is designed specifically for SSDs with flash technology, making it faster than AHCI drivers that were designed for common hard drives with spinning disk technology.
- While NVMe has 64K command queues and can send 64K commands per queue, AHCI has only one command queue and can send only thirty-two commands per queue.
- With AHCI drivers, commands utilise high CPU cycles with a latency of 6 microseconds while NVMe driver commands utilise low CPU cycles with a latency of 2.8 microseconds.
The NVMe driver communicates directly with the system CPU but the AHCI must communicate with the SATA controller. The AHCI has IOPS (Input/Output Operations Per Second) of up to 100K while the NVMe has IOPS of over 1 million. IOPS (Input/Output Operations Per Second, pronounced i-ops) is a common performance measurement used to benchmark computer storage devices.
NVMe SSD form factors
NVMe SSDs come in a variety of form factors, with specific versions required depending on the use case or application.
- Personal/Client products use BGA and M.2 form factors.
- Data centre/Server applications use M.2, U.2, U.3 and EDSFF form factors.
The EDSFF (Enterprise and Data Centre SSD Form Factor) is being developed to offer a dynamic range of form factors and standards that share the same protocol (NVMe), the same interface (PCIe) and use their own edge connector (SFF-TA-1002), pinout and functions (SFF-TA-1009).
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WD Black SN770 1TB SSD review
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(Image: © Future)
Western Digitals takes a knife to the memory of its entry-level PCIe 4.0, but still manages to produce a speedy SSD that comes in at a very tempting price.
- Solid performance
- In-house controller and flash
- Five-year warranty
- Relatively small SLC cache…
- …slow when you go over it
- Can get toasty
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We’ve seen some incredible NVMe SSD drives released lately, from the breakneck speed of the Kingston Renegade through to the affordable Crucial P5 Plus. The latest drive to enter the market emerges from the same camp as our favourite PCIe 4.0 SSD, the WD_Black SN850, but as the name suggests, it isn’t gunning for the top spot. No, the new WD_Black SN770 is intended to be a bit more of a value proposition compared to its speedier sibling.
The main way it has achieved this is by being a DRAM-less SSD drive. This saves a big chunk of the manufacturer’s bill of materials, and thanks to advances in the latest controllers, it can be surprising how little impact this has on performance. Such drives are slower, don’t get me wrong, but this new SN770 still quotes read and writes of 5,150MB/s and 4,900MB/s respectively. Not bad.
As those figures should imply, this means that you’re looking at a PCIe 4. 0 SSD. You’ll need a supporting CPU and motherboard to make the most of it, although there’s nothing to stop you from sliding it into a PCIe 3.0 slot and maxing out the bandwidth there—you’re going to be limited to a peak throughput of around 3,500MB/s if you do though.
The drive itself is a low-profile affair, with this 1TB model boasting a single NAND flash module at the back (actually a rebranded Kioxia BiCS5 112-Layer TLC chip) and the SanDisk controller towards the connector. Western Digital rarely reveals much about its controllers, and that’s the case once again here. The SN770 is available in four sizes—250GB, 500GB, 1TB, and 2TB, although there’s no 4TB option, which is a bit of a shame.
Other than the large sticker in the middle of the drive, that’s pretty much your lot. There’s nothing of note on the backside of the drive. Given how much space is unused here, I can’t help wondering if Western Digital could make a version of this drive that would fit inside the Steam Deck. Pickings are certainly slim for the 2230 form factor as it is. But anyway…
WD Black SN770 1TB Specs
Form factor: M.2 2280
Interface: PCIe 4.0 x4
Controller: SanDisk PCIe 4.0
Flash memory: Kioxia BiCS5 112-Layer TLC
Rated performance: 5,150MB/s read, 4,900MB/s write
Endurance: 600 TBW
Warranty: Five years
Price: $105 | £108
The first thing we do with any new SSD is to fill it up to get a real sense of what the performance will be like once it’s actually been used, as opposed to its factory-fresh perfection. This also gives us a chance to see at what point the dynamically allocated SLC cache runs out.
On this 1TB drive, you’re looking at around 130GB of 2GB/s transfers before dropping down to just 400MB/s after that. For reference, the Crucial P5 plus was good for 300GB before hitting the limits of the cache, so the SN770 certainly trails here.
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(Image credit: Future)(Image credit: Future)(Image credit: Future)(Image credit: Future)(Image credit: Future)(Image credit: Future)(Image credit: Future)(Image credit: Future)
CPU: AMD Ryzen 5 5600X
Cooler: Zadak Spark AIO
Motherboard: Gigabyte X570 Aorus Master
RAM: 16GB Thermaltake DDR4 @3,600MHz
GPU: Nvidia RTX 3080
PSU: Ikonik Vulcan 1200W
When looking at the performance of this drive, it’s worth keeping the price in mind, which can ask for almost double what this goes for. For comparison, I’ve pitched the $105 Western Digital SN770 1TB against the similarly budget-oriented $135 Crucial P5 Plus 1TB, the DRAM-less $100 Samsung 980 1TB (a PCIe 3.0 SSD), and our favourite SSD right now, the $150 WD_Black SN850, which has recently enjoyed some tempting price cuts.
The synthetic performance as recorded by ATTO and AS SSD show the SN770 trails the Crucial P5 in terms of reads, although the writes are much closer. The 4K performance is relatively impressive though and shows that the SN770 has something to offer in this crowded marketplace. It’s not too surprising that this drive outperforms Samsung’s DRAM-less offering, as that is a PCIe 3.0 drive, after all, but the extent to which it does is impressive.
It’s worth noting that this drive can get hot when pushed, just like the SN850 in fact. It hit 76°C after a long day of testing, although that was without any direct cooling on it at all, not even a heatsink. It should be fine in most systems, especially if your motherboard does come with some cooling solution.
It’s in the real-world tests where the SN770 really struts its stuff though, with little between it and the Crucial P5 Plus. In very real terms, you’d be hard pushed to tell the difference between the two in day to day operations, and given this is the cheaper drive right now, that counts for a lot. If you need better performance, then the SN850 is clearly the better drive, but you will pay considerably more for it.
For SSDs to reach far more people, affordability is key
In many ways, that’s the story of the WD_Black SN770. It isn’t the fastest drive around, nor is it quite the cheapest (although it is close), but it does balance the two better than most. If you’re on a tight budget but want to enjoy speedy PCIe 4.0 performance, then there’s plenty to like here. It’s closer to first-gen PCIe 4.0 performance, sure, but if you want faster than this, you’re going to have to drop considerably more cash.
It wasn’t too long ago that the very idea of a DRAM-less NVMe SSD was met with scorn. The Samsung 980 was dismissed by many before the results were even seen, even though it wasn’t that bad a performer for a PCIe 3.0 SSD. The SN770 looks to improve the lot for the DRAM-less though, and with numbers like these, it deserves to. Phison also has a PCIe 4.0 DRAM-less controller on the way, so expect more drives like this shortly.
(Image credit: Future)
The reason DRAM-less drives are important is simply that they are cheaper. For SSDs to reach far more people, affordability is key, and this is a good way of getting closer to, if not below, that $100 for a 1TB drive barrier.
With DirectStorage promising big improvements for our games, the more gamers that have fast drives in their machine, the more tempting it is for developers to actually use it. It’s going to be a long journey for sure, and it’ll probably be years before developers are really pushing SSDs, but still, it’s good to plan ahead.
The only problem here is that we don’t know for sure how fast a drive needs to be for DirectStorage. We know some developers have been targeting 5,000MB/s, which is where the SN770 sits in our testing. So it should be good, and for the money, it’s very tempting. If you’re a serious gamer though, we’d recommend going a little bit higher up the product stack, and grabbing that WD_Black SN850.
WD Black SN770 1TB: Price Comparison
Read our review policy
WD Black SN770 1TB
Western Digitals takes a knife to the memory of its entry-level PCIe 4. 0, but still manages to produce a speedy SSD that comes in at a very tempting price.
Alan has been writing about PC tech since before 3D graphics cards existed, and still vividly recalls having to fight with MS-DOS just to get games to load. He fondly remembers the killer combo of a Matrox Millenium and 3dfx Voodoo, and seeing Lara Croft in 3D for the first time. He’s very glad hardware has advanced as much as it has though, and is particularly happy when putting the latest M.2 NVMe SSDs, AMD processors, and laptops through their paces. He has a long-lasting Magic: The Gathering obsession but limits this to MTG Arena these days.
What is NVMe memory? Understanding NVMe Memory
Non-Volatile Express Memory (NVMe) is a new data transfer protocol designed for SSD memory. Although SATA (Serial Advanced Technology Attachment) remains the industry standard for storage protocols, it was not designed specifically for flash memory such as SSDs and does not come with the benefits of NVMe memory. Ultimately, NVMe SSDs will replace SATA SSDs as the new industry standard.
NVMe vs. SATA
One easy way to compare NVMe and SATA is to think of them as racetracks because they are used to transfer data from the SSD to the CPU. The SSD is a Formula 1 race car in terms of data storage, while the spin technology drives are more like an old family sedan. The SSD can only travel at the speed that the road it is traveling on dictates. If you put a Formula 1 car on a race track (NVMe) it will run at its maximum potential, but if you drive on an old dirt road full of rocks (SATA) it should slow down.
Kingston NVMe SSDs
Kingston offers several SSDs that use NVMe protocols. For the latest range of our offerings, please see the related products section below. While NVMe SSDs are significantly faster than SATA SSDs, there are still differences between them. Some products may support entry-level NVMe speeds, while others may support the latest PCIe Gen4 standards for exceptional performance on the latest processors.
NVMe hardware compatibility
However, there are a few things to consider before purchasing an NVMe SSD. Is your system compatible with the NVMe protocol at all? There are two things you need to pay attention to in your computer system: the built-in M.2 mounting socket and NVMe memory protocol support. Check the product page for your computer to see if it has an M.2 installation connector. Next, you need to check if your motherboard supports NVMe SSDs. Some motherboards that support this protocol may not always list it as NVMe. Instead, it may be referred to as “PCIe mode” (PCIe mode). Ideally, there should be an easier way to determine if your computer system can support the NVMe memory protocol, however, unfortunately, there is not yet. You just need to go to the website with information about your motherboard or use Google to search for similar information and find out if this is the case.
NVMe compatibility with operating systems
Along with hardware compatibility, you must also consider OS compatibility. The latest versions of Linux, Windows, Chrome OS, and Mac OS support the NVMe memory protocol, but Apple does not allow upgrades to its hardware on most of its latest models, so it may not be possible for Mac users. The cloning software is currently also compatible with NVMe drives. Kingston uses the Acronis True Image software that comes with many Kingston SSDs. See product pages for information on included software. Most of the other major cloning software has been updated to include support for the NVMe memory protocol.
Understanding SSD technology: NVMe, SATA, M.2
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SSD drives for enterprises and corporations
NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory Express) is a communications interface and driver that defines a set of commands and functions for PCIe-based SSDs to improve performance and compatibility across a wide range of enterprise and client systems.
NVMe was designed for SSDs. It communicates between the storage interface and the system CPU using high-speed PCIe connectors, regardless of the storage form factor. I/O tasks performed using NVMe drivers start faster, transfer more data, and complete faster than older storage models using older drivers such as AHCI (Advanced Host Controller Interface) like SATA SSDs. Because it was designed specifically for SSDs, NVMe is becoming the new industry standard for both data center servers and client devices like laptops, desktop PCs, and next generation gaming consoles.
NVMe technology is available in a number of different form factors, such as slot for PCIe, M.2, and U.2 bus cards. While there are SSDs that use SATA, a PCIe slot, and M.2 that are AHCI and not NVMe, U.2 is a form factor that exclusively uses the NVMe protocol.
The infographic below will help you understand how all these different form factors and protocols can be found in different types of SSDs and how this translates into performance differences.
Ask the Expert
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