Tag Archives: mSATA

Installing an M.2 SATA hard disk on a laptop


SSD drives provide a world of a difference to your laptop and desktop, however there might be many who are running with standard magnetic drives, wanting to upgrade but are put off by the high prices of large capacity SSD drives.  For desktop users of course they could install a small SSD as the boot drive, and then have the large capacity standard disk as the data drive.

But when it comes to laptops, there is usually space only for one 2.5″ hard disk, so the option available is to replace the standard disk with an SSD.  But not all may be keen on this option, with justifiable reasons.

Why not SSDs?

1. SSD hard disks are expensive, and typically a 512G SSD can cost well over 2-3 times the price of a normal disk (though prices of SSD drives have reduced drastically in the last 1-2 years)

2. SSD drives and data losses seem to be something people fear, specially with that fact that SSD start loosing capacity and performance as their cells die away.  However industry comparisons show SSDs failure rate of 1.5% compared to 5% for normal HDDs

3. The issue that SSDs can loose data stored due to power failure.  Then again this is something that can happen with normal HDDs

But the performance of an SSD is something that can even make an old PC feel fast..  and the allure is very tempting..

Use the mSATA/M.2 SATA for SSD and keep your standard hard disk

What many may not be aware is that most new laptops do have another option.  This comes in the way of another slot that we rarely bother about.  Older machines came with mSATA (mini SATA) port and the new devices come with the next gen M.2 SATA (these were called NGFF drives, Next Generation Form Factor) ports.  This port can take a drive or other device such as internal 4G modem, etc.  Many brands offer mSATA and M.2 SATA drives that work in two manners.

1. As a boot drive just like any other SSD

2. As a cache drive, where linked with software cache application the drive provides the SSD performance

What does an mSATA or M.2 SATA drive look like!

mSATA and M.2 SATA drives are tiny when compared to a 2.5” SATA drive, and actually they can be even smaller than the RAM/Memory chips in your laptop!!!

Lenovo X240 M.2 SATA installation

Lenovo was among the first to opt to replace the mSATA with the newer NGFF/M.2 SATA port.  We found that buying a M.2 SATA (or even a mSATA) drive is not simple as a 2.5” SSD as they come in various form factors and sizes in addition to the capacity!

Beware of the different sizes of mSATA and M.SATA drives

mSATA and M.2 SATA drives come in different sizes!!!! You need to make sure you buy the correct size so that it fits yyour laptop.  Lenovo in particular has a rather small size which is not supported by big brands that we know (E.g. SanDisk, Kingston, Samsung, Crucial, etc), and you find that a big player for Lenovo compatible size is a Taiwanese based company called MyDigital.

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While the width of the M.2 SATA drives seems to be set at 22mm, the length of the M.2 SATA drives vary and include 80mm, 60mm and 42mm.  The Lenovo X240 and T440 have 42mm sizes M.2 SATA ports.

Do note you also find custom size mSATA SSD units that are even smaller than the 42mm variant!  Hence is very important you get the exact requirement that will meet your laptop.

Steps to restoring your old OS to to the new mSATA/M.2 drive

So now we have the correct format, and the correct size.  We ordered the first drive for my friend, who was running a X240.  When installing the drive he had few challenging requirements.

1. He did not want to do a fresh installation of Windows 8.1

2. He wanted to use his standard drive as the data drive and the M.2 SATA as the boot drive

Based on past experiences we started our venture, by creating an image of his existing drive using Acronis, which i had got free with my Crucial SSD.  We carried out the following steps.

1. We created a backup of all partitions required other than the Data partition and the Lenovo recovery partition using Acronis

2. Booted with the Acronis rescue disk that we had created in an USB and restored the backup to the new M.2 drive

3. Removed the old hard disk and booted with the new SSD

BANG…. Baring teeth smile problems.. Windows indicated to us that drive could not boot.  We tried to fix the boot by loading with the Windows CD and using diskpart in command line, but no luck Baring teeth smile.  We also noticed something peculiar, though we had copied all the partitions, the EFI boot partition was not getting created on the new drive (we tried it twice).

We then decide on a new approach, we did a fresh installation of Windows 8.1 on the new drive to see if it booted and worked.  Yes it worked fine.. and then we booted using the Acronis recovery USB boot drive and replaced the OS partition of the new installation with the OS partition from our backup.

Booted.. and this time it WORKED Smile

Performance

I am currently running with only a SSD (a Crucial MX500), and when my friend’s machine only worked with the MyDigital SSD it performed pretty similar to my machine.  However when we had it coupled where the standard hard disk was also there as the data drive, the shutdown was noticeably not instantaneous, presumably because the standard drive had to be gracefully shutdown, negating some of the benefits of the SSD.

Boot up times were significantly better and so was the general usage.  However it must be noted that the MyDigital M.2 SATA drive in pure boot mode is a slower than current low-end-tier drives, which might explain why it felt slower than my Crucial MX500.  I will update this once I install the same drive on my T440p to do a proper comparison.

I tested the drive with bootracer to compare how it performs against my drive, and another machine with a standard drive.

To login screen (secs)
MyDigitial SSD 13
Crucial MX500 256GB SSD 11
Hitachi 500GB 7200rpm

Benchmarks are one thing, but perceived performance is the key.  Specially in an enterprise laptop where the greatest performance killer the famous McAfee Virus scanner and its bloatware rule, the system performance most impacted is storage reads. Unusually compared to the benchmarks from professional sites using the same tool, my times are far slower, one reason maybe the fact that domain login is setup on our PCs.

The noticeable improvements after the upgrade were,

  1. Faster boot times
  2. Much faster time to load the desktop after logon
  3. General usability is vastly improved (mainly due to the improved read performance, making background tasks such as McAfee performance much faster)

I got some benchmarks from legitreviews.com that had tested the MyDigital drive, as well as the MX100 as well as other key brands, and have tabulated it for the benefit of your reading.  Links to the actual reviews from where I have extracted this scores are listed below.  Based on this review, and a few observations,

  • M.2 drives such as the MyDigitalSSD offer very good boot times, bettering the 2.5” SSD drives
  • Read performance of the MyDigitalSSD is on par with the other big brand M.2 offerings as well as 2.5” SSD
  • Write performances are much lower than other drives, part of the reason seems to be the lack of any cache on this drive.  This is also reflected with the slower real world copy times.
Drive MyDigitalSSD 128GB M.2 Kingston SM2280 M.2 120GB Crucial MX100 256GB Samsung EVO M.2 256GB
ATTO Read (MB/s) 538.1 554.1 550.3 550.3
ATTO Write (MB/s) 443.2 516.2 346.4 512.5
AS SSD Seq Read (MB/s) 512.3 499.7 518.3 506.8
AS SSD Seq Write (MB/s) 140.4 339.3 329.2 481.2
Real World Copy 5GB JPG (sec) 71.1 44 50 40.9
Real World Copy 5GB Mp3 (sec) 69.2 44.7 39.3 43.6
Windows Boot Bootracer Time to login (sec) 3 3 7 2
Windows Boot Bootracer Time to desktop(sec) 19.4 19.5 28.3 19.3

What if I don’t want use my mSATA/M.2 SATA in cache mode than boot mode?

First you have to realize that the software to use your drive in cache mode does not come with your drive as standard in most cases.  For example the drive we got is sold by MyDigital on amazon in three forms (yes in addition to the length and capacity of the drive, complicated is not the wordSarcastic smile)!

  1. A drive that works purely as a boot drive.  This version does not come with Hybridrive software that will enable the drive to be used in cache  mode.  This features the Phision controller and Toshiba NAND chips.
  2. A drive that can work as a boot drive as well as a cache drive.  This version comes bundled with a license copy of Hybridrive. Hardware wise this is identical to the above drive.
  3. A pure boot drive, but featuring a different brand of NAND chip and controller, and Amazon review comments suggest this drive is more reliable than the other two.  This drive features Micron NAND chips and a XXX controller.

In this case you don’t need to do any recovery, you just install the M.2 (or MSATA) drive and boot as usual.  Once you have booted you install the Hybridrive software, and configure it.  Configuration include to use the full disk as a cache drive, or a part.  The part you don’t allocate for caching can be used for standard data storage purposes and is loaded a physical drive.  The storage you allocate for caching is NOT shown as storage and is internally managed.

You only get the performance benefit after about 2-4 reboots, as the Hybridrive software needs to identify the OS files and common files which are then copied to the M.2 SATA drive.  Thereafter you always work on the M.2 SATA drive, and the Hybridrive software copies the updated files to your standard hard disk when the machine is idle.

Can I install an mSATA or M.2 SATA on my desktop?

If you have one of the small form factor desktops (e.g. Such as an Intel NUC) or a mini-PC, these essentially come with laptop or tablet like motherboards, and are certain to have M.2 or mSATA ports for you add storage.  Further even full size boards may feature these ports, but these ports may only support a drive purely for caching purposes and not be capable of booting an OS.  The only way you can confirm is by checking your technical guide for your board or device (And forums).

Checklist when deciding to install an mSATA or M.2 SATA drive

Based on my experiences, here is my checklist, and I am most glad for feedback to improve this!

  • Check if your laptop or device has a mSATA or M.2 SATA port
  • Check if the port can be used to boot into an OS or if it can only work as a data drive or cache drive
  • Check what type of port is supported (mSATA, M.2 SATA, etc)
  • Check the length of the drive
  • Check what brands of drives are tested and confirmed by your laptop/device manufacturer
  • Check with the SSD drive you are choosing what brands of laptops/devices they have tested and see if your is listed
  • If your device is not listed by your laptop manufacturer or in the SSD, check out forums, if not test the device before purchasing to ensure its compatible
  • If you wish to use the drive as a cache drive, see if the drive is offered with a copy of a caching software (as it might cheaper than having to buy this software separately)
  • To compare boot times before such an upgrade, install Bootracer and test your boot time, and then compare after the upgrade.
  • If things are slow to load the desktop, check your startup apps as no matter what these can slow down if any software is having a long wait