Just recently I was going through external options for my testing rig, which got me thinking, why don’t revisit one of my older videos, but with a bit of a twist to it with using this external NVMe M.2 SSD.
This type of fast external drive solution can be a really handy add-on for users who for are example switching between their PC and laptop and want to have a portable game library that can be moved back and forward between these two devices as needed. Let’s say one of them, or even both, are not big enough for your needs as nowadays games can get enormously big, khm, Call of Duty, so something like this can be a good alternative, in that case, so you don’t want to waste any space on the devices themselves, or you just want to have that level of flexibility at your disposal.
In my case, since I tend to do a lot of hardware testing and troubleshooting on-the-go, I sometimes need an easy and basically instant way of being able to boot the system up and start working right away, without messing with the drives, installations, and so on, which is why I’ve decided to make a portable Windows 10 drive, with everything already installed and ready to go, with using one these for my daily use.
Building an external M.2 NVMe SSD
Anyhow, there’s a couple of routes you can take. You can get an already build up and pre-assembled external M.2 SSD or you can buy an external chassis, plus an SSD itself separately, and just put them together yourself. In that case, in terms of external chassis format, you can either go for a 2.5” enclosure and put a standard 2,5” SATA SSD in it, or you can go for an M.2 format type of external enclosure, like one I have here and put an M.2 SSD module in it. Within the M.2 SSD drives, we have two basic categories when we talk about standards – protocols standards and interface standards. They can then be summed up in two product categories which are most commonly used when it comes to M.2 SSD’s. One is models using the NVMe protocol standard in combination with the PCI-express interface, and the other is models using the AHCI protocol standard in combination with the SATA interface. In practice, the SATA based M.2 SSD’s have write and read speeds of around 600 MB/s at most since the SATAIII interface has a bandwidth limitation of 6 Gbit/s, although the flash chips and controller could maybe offer even greater speeds. These ones are often cheaper and good for storage use, as well as for system builds for not that demanding users. On the other hand, the PCI-express based NVMe M.2 SSD’s can be far more expensive, but much faster and nowadays can offer speeds which sometimes even boggle my mind.
Although it’s not that important if we talk about putting an M.2 SSD on a motherboard, because most of them support both of these product categories, in the context of external M.2 SSD enclosure the situation can be a little bit tricky, so it’s good to pay attention. For example, this is Silverstone’s MS11 external enclosure model, which is not to be confused with their MS09 or MS10. The reason why I pointed this out is that the MS10 and MS09 only support SATA interface based M.2 SSD. On the other hand, the MS11 which I have here supports NVMe M.2 SSD’s meaning you can use a really fast M.2 drive module based on this protocol and up to 80 mm long. Granted, you won’t be flying past the 10 Gbit/s mark, since this enclosure support USB 3.1 Gen 2 standard over its Type-C connector, or as they now also called it USB 3.2 Gen 2. standard, so you’ll be limited to around 1,2 GB/s of read and write speeds. This is kinda let’s say inconvenient, because today’s NVMe M.2 SSD’s go far beyond those speeds, so you won’t be able to use it to its full extent in this format, the next step would be TB 3 or the future USB 4.0 standard. Also, it’s important to point out that SATA based M.2 SSD uses both the M and B key edge connector or just the B key in some cases, while the M.2 NVMe SSD’s use only the M key.
The installation of the M.2 module in the MS11 was fairly simple, as it usually is with any of the external drive enclosure. This gorgeously crafted chunk of aluminum housing looks to be completely sealed off at first glance, but all you need to do is to pull the metal cover on both ends, pull the PCB out, install the M.2 drive, but the thermal pad on it which you will get from the bundle on it and that’s it, simple as that, a bit more complicated than putting it on a motherboard, although I guess that can also be as complicated as this as on most of the better-equipped ones you have those metal covers and sometimes even dedicated enclosures. With Silverstone’s MS11 you’ll get a short Type-A to Type-C, as well as Type-A to Type-C adapter in case you have a Type -C to Type-C connection, so you just plug the drive-in and you’re good to go. Oh, yeah, you’ll also get this tiny tiny screwdriver, which was useless.
Creating an external M.2 SSD with Windows 10
Since I put an M.2 drive in it that was used on my AMD test rig, it already had everything installed, so I went in to check if that would work right of the bat, would I be able to boot from it from the first go. Weeeell, it sort of worked. It would crash upon trying to boot, and eventually, I would get to the recovery screen, and I could actually enter safe mode, but I couldn’t boot into it regularly. I’ve tried a few common fixes for this problem, but nothing worked, I would get I/O errors, which was not a big deal since I was planning to put a fresh install anyway.
Because the PC reads this drive as a regular external NVMe SSD, you can just easily install Windows onto it using Rufus software utility and it’s Windows To Go image option, you can either mount your own ISO or let them download it for you, you can even choose which version here, just be sure to put a checkmark on the list USB hard drives option so it shows you the external USB drivers and uses MBR partition scheme in case you can’t finish your installation process with GPT scheme. Once you’re done with that, you’re pretty much ready to use the drive, you can plug into a PC that you want to boot from it and use it. In case you’re having trouble booting, double-check in BIOS that boot devices are set to the right ones.
Testing with Windows 10 on the go
Once you’re in Windows, the last step is of course to activate the Windows 10 installation that was just done. With this out of the way, well, you’re basically good to go. As for me, I went in to install my usual set of benchmarking and monitoring tools and some games. I’ve also done a few passes off benchmarking runs and check the booting time, just to see if everything was in-line with what would I experience with the M.2 drive being put directly onto the motherboard. And, to my surprise, it all checks out, I didn’t experience any obvious performance difference. The loading times for the games were spot on, as well as the boot time, I’m really surprised it worked as nothing actually happened, although granted when I’ve benchmarked the drive itself I got a read and write speeds well below the ones specified by the manufactures, that was expected due to USB interface limitations.
As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve also tried using this drive setup on my Z490 chipset based ITX motherboard, and this marks my start of doing some further extensive testing of this kind of setup, because it is known to be unstable sometimes, so I need to dial everything in and be sure it’s sustainable long term. Be sure to subscribe because I’m going do a build with that system in a very interesting Streracom DA2 chassis.
Either way, you’re going to get a fast drive for your on-the-go boot drive, game library, or just a storage device. That’s it for this time, thanks for checking out my external M.2 NVMe SSD with Windows 10 tutorial, if you have any question feel free to hit me in the comments section of my YouTube video listed above, you can contact me via my social media channels!