If you are planning on installing a new hard drive to your PC, then you need to make sure whether it is compatible with your motherboard in the first place. So are all hard drives compatible with all motherboards?
Well, the simple answer to that question is a No! They are not all compatible. In order for a certain hard drive to be compatible, your motherboard needs to have the right interface (SATA or PCIe), the right slots, and the right form factor for the drive bay (the physical placeholder where you would install the hard drive).
This can all be a bit confusing for a newcomer, for this reason, you have to first understand a few basic aspects about hard drives.
The first aspect you need to understand are the two interfaces that hard drives use.
The second important aspect you need to understand are the different types of hard drives AND their form factors. There are basically three kinds of hard drives:
- Hard Disk Drives (HDD) – Use SATA Interface
- SATA Solid State Drives (SSD) – Use SATA Interface
- NVMe Solid State Drives (SSD) – Use the PCIe Interface
Again, form factor is equally as important as understanding the different type of hard drives. For instance, if you have a 3.5″ hard drive, it will NOT fit in a 2.5″ drive bay – even if your PC has the right interface and port.
Let us now get into the details.
Understanding SATA and PCIe Interfaces for Hard Drives
There are two important interfaces that storage drives use:
- Serial ATA (SATA)
- Peripheral Component Interconnect Express (PCIe)
SATA is the most common interface used for hard drives. This is the interface we use to connect the typical hard disk drives as you see below.
SATA hard drives require a SATA power cable and a SATA data cable.
The SATA data cable connects to the motherboard’s SATA ports and the SATA Power cable comes from the Power supply unit.
SATA interface is slow. There are three versions of SATA ports the latest is SATA 3. Each SATA version doubles the transfer rate.
- SATA 1 has transfer speed of 1.5 Gbps or 187.5 MB/s
- SATA 2 has transfer speed of 3.0 Gbps or 375 MB/s
- SATA 3 has transfer speed of 6.0 Gbps or 750 MB/s
In reality though, even the best hard disk drives have a max transfer rate of about 200 MB/s.
It is only with SATA SSDs that you would actually require a fast SATA 3 interface. More on this below.
All motherboards have the SATA interface and as far as desktops go, almost all motherboards have multiple SATA ports for connecting multiple SATA drives. Laptops motherboards typically have a single SATA port for hard disk drives.
TL:DR: SATA is a the most popular interface. It is used to connect Hard Disk Drives and SATA SSDs.
PCIe interface is a high speed interface. It is generally used to connect very high demanding expansion cards that tend to generate a lot of data such as graphics cards.
PCIe interface makes use for PCIe lanes which connect to the PCIe slots on the motherboard. PCIe slots can be connected to varying amount of PCIe lanes. An x1 slot, for instance, is small and only has a single PCIe lane. An x16 slot, on the other hand, is the largest and can feature 16 PCIe lanes.
The transfer speed of the PCIe slots scales with the version and the amount of lanes it has. So for instance, an x4 slot can handle four times as much data as an x1 slot.
Similarly, with every newer version of PCIe, the transfer speed per lane doubles. Hence a PCIe 4.0 x4 slot is twice as fast as the PCIe 3.0 x4 slot.
The following table shows the speeds of various PCIe version and their corresponding slots.
There is one class of storage drives that connects to the PCIe interface alone: NVME PCIe SSDs.
NVMe SSDs are super fast. In order to connect these to the motherboards, you require an M.2 slot. An M.2 slot typically connects to 4 PCIe lanes.
TL:DR: NVMe SSDs use PCIe interface. If you have an NVMe SSD, you need a motherboard with a PCIe enabled M.2 slot.
Understanding Different Types of Hard Drives
In order to understand why all hard drives cannot be compatible with all motherboards, you have to understand the different types of hard drives first and their different form factors.
There are three popular types of hard drives:
- SATA Hard Disk Drive
- SATA Solid State Drive
- NVMe Solid State Drive
1. SATA Hard Disk Drives (HDD)
I talked about this earlier. These are the most popular drives that we see in the desktops and laptops.
The best part about these drives is that they are very cheap. Therefore, if you need a large storage capacity, hard disk drives are the way to go.
There are two form factors for HDD:
- 3.5″ – used in desktops
- 2.5″ – used in laptops
3.5″ Hard Disk Drives
These are large, bulky and found in desktops. They are the cheapest per GB, but due to their size and weight, are not found in portable machines.
A 3.5″ hard drive CANNOT be fit into a laptop motherboard!
These reach maximum speeds of abut 200 MB/s. Hence, their speed is their biggest drawback.
2.5″ Hard Disk Drives
2.5″ hard disk drives are also very cheap, but also quite slow.
However, 2.5″ hard drives have a smaller size and consume much less power and hence they are great for laptops.
A laptop’s 2.5″ hard disk drive CAN fit in desktops. However, as mentioned earlier a 3.5″ desktop hard disk drive cannot fit in a laptop.
2. SATA Solid State Drives
SATA solid state drives are SSDs that use the SATA interface. They should NOT be confused with NVMe (PCIe) SSDs.
SATA SSDs are much more expensive than HDDs, but they can reach speeds of upto 550 MB/s (2-3 times that of the HDDs).
There are two form factors that SATA SSDs use:
- 2.5″ Form Factor
- M.2 Form Factor
2.5″ form factor is similar to the 2.5″ hard disk drives. These drives can fit in laptops and desktop motherboards. They require a SATA DATA cable and a SATA Power cable.
SATA SSD can also be found in the M.2 form factor. These SATA drives require an M.2 slot on the motherboard.
3. NVMe Solid State Drive
NVMe SSDs, aka PCIe SSDs, are the fastest drives that you can get. They are also the most expensive. However, they have become the new storage standard as almost all newer systems offer NVMe SSDs.
They connect to an M.2 slot that typically connects to 4 PCIe lanes.
Therefore, depending upon which generation they belong, their speeds can vary drastically.
A PCIe 3.0 NVMe SSD can top speeds of up to 3500 MB/s. The newer PCIe 4.0 NVMe SSD can top speeds of about 5500 MB/s.
So Are All Hard Drives Compatible with all Motherboards
Now that we know the different interfaces and the different drives, it will be easier for you to understand why not all hard drives are compatible with all motherboards
Incompatibility #1: 3.5″ Drives Will Not Work with Laptop Motherboards
For starters, a 3.5″ hard disk will not work with your laptop since a laptop’s drive bay just can supply enough power – let alone fit it inside its chassis.
Incompatibility #2: For M.2 SSDs You Need a Free M.2 Slot
For both M.2 SATA and M.2 NVMe SSD to work, your motherboard needs to have a free M.2 slot.
If you have an older system, then chances are that your motherboard would lack an M.2 slot.
In other words, if you do not have an M.2 slot, then M.2 SSDs WILL NOT work UNLESS you get an M.2 PCIe expansion card.
Incompatibility #3: You Need to Have the Right M.2 Port for the Type of SSD You Have
For an M.2 NVMe SSD you will need to have an M.2 slot that conform to the PCIe standard.
For an M.2 SATA SSD you will need to have an M.2 slot that can support the SATA interface.
Take for instance the following ASUS Prime Z270-A motherboard specs, you can see here that the second M.2 slot does not support M.2 SATA SSDs, while the first slot can.
Incompatibility #4: For NVMe SSD, the PCIe Version of the M.2 Slot Matters
In order for a Gen 3 NVMe SSD to give you the best results, you need to have a motherboard with an M.2 slot conforming to PCIe 3.0.
Similarly, for the newer Gen 4 NVMe SSDs such as the Samsung Pro 980 to give you the best 5500 MB/s transfer speed, you will need a motherboard with an M.2 slot conforming to PCIe 4.0.
Also Read: Which Motherboards Support PCIe 4.0?
Installing a Gen 4 SSD in Gen 3 M.2 slot can reduce the transfer speeds by as much as half!
Incompatibility #5: Some M.2 Slots for NVMe SSD May Only Have Two PCIe Lanes
Earlier I mentioned that an M.2 slot for NVMe SSDs connects to four PCIe lanes typically.
However, in some rare instances, you may find a motherboard with an M.2 slot that only connects to two PCIe lanes.
For instance, the M.2 slot on ASUS Prime H310 connects only to 2 x PCIe lanes. Hence a Gen 3 NVMe SSD installed on this motherboard would operate at half its optimal speeds!
The following table summarizes different hard hard drives, their typical speeds and what they require to connect.
|Drive||Form Factor||Speed||Required Port/Cables||Remarks|
|Hard Disk Drive||2.5"||200 MB/s max||SATA Data|
|Suitable for laptop motherboards|
|Hard Disk Drive||3.5"||200 MB/s max||SATA DATA|
|Suitable for desktop.|
|SATA SSD||2.5"||550 MB/s||SATA DATA|
|Can be replaced with laptop primary hard drive.
In desktops, can be connected to SATA ports
|SATA SSD||M.2||550 MB/s||M.2 SATA Port||Has the M+B key|
|PCIe NVMe SSD |
|M.2||3500 MB/s max||M.2 PCIe Port|
|Has the M Key|
|PCIe NVMe SSD |
|M.2||5500 MB/s max||M.2 PCIe Port|
|Has the M Key|
Also Read: Does My Motherboard Support NVMe SSD?
How Do I Know If My Hard Drive is Compatible with My PC?
Unless your PC is ancient, your PC will most definitely have the SATA interface.
If you have SATA ports such as the ones shown above, then all SATA hard drive will work with your PC.
The only caveat is the version. The most current SATA version is 3.0. SATA hard drives connected to older SATA versions may perform slowly BUT THEY WILL BE COMPATIBLE.
Now of course, the compatibility also depends upon whether the PC in question is a desktop or a laptop.
With laptops, you almost always have single SATA slot intended for a 2.5 inch hard disk drive.
If you have a very old system (15 years and older), that is still using the PATA or Parallel ATA interface, then then the SATA drives will NOT work.
As for the M.2 slot, many older laptop and desktop motherboards may lack an M.2 slot.
But to confirm this and also to figure out whether the M.2 slot can support SATA SSDs, NVMe SSDs or both, you will need to refer to the specsheet.
So are all hard drives compatible with all motherboards? No, they are not. I have talked in detail about the different incompatibility issues that you may come across.
Therefore, the best way to figure out if a certain hard drive, particularly SSDs, is compatible with your motherboard or not, refer to the motherboard’s specsheet.