As a refresher, PCIe 5.0 is due to hit the scene in Q1 of 2022 and it’s more than just a modest bump in spec compared to PCIe 4.0. As in the past, maximum theoretical performance is expected to double. So instead of 7Gb/s read and write speeds, the next-gen standard goes all the way to 11 14GB/s for an x4 connection, making it a huge performance leap and an instant upgrade choice for a lot of hardcore PC users.
The only problem is that upgrade might not be as easy as you think it’s going to be. Companies have already begun announcing active cooling solutions for these barn-burner drives (that is, coolers with spinning fans attached to them). This is a bit of an upgrade to the heatsinks a lot of companies have been using on their drives previously, which are typically passive and have no fans. The heatsink absorbs the heat from the drive and radiates it away via airflow inside the chassis in an effort to prevent the drives from throttling under heavy workloads.
When throttling occurs, performance is reduced, just like how the process works with CPUs, GPUs, etc. The issues with SSDs in particular, is they are placed inside a warm environment in the first place, such as next to a GPU in a desktop, or sandwiched inside a laptop, so there’s usually not a lot of cool air swirling around. Second, they can generate a lot of heat in a very small area inside the drive, which is where things like heat spreaders and such come into play.
This brings us to the newest M.2 PCIe SSD cooler from Qiao Sibo, which is an actual blower fan for your drive. This type of cooler sucks air into a chamber and then exhausts it in one direction, which is usually towards the rear of the chassis or outside the chassis in the case of GPU coolers with a similar design. According to Tom’s Hardware, the cooler mounts onto the SSD and sucks the heat into its enclosure, then exhausts it using a fan that spins at 3,000rpm at 27 dBA. The fan can move 4.81 CFM of air, which is modest but still overkill for an SSD, typically. This is because a normal workload for a home user leaves an SSD idle most of the time, with bursts of activity when the person decides to access the drive.
Since PCIe 5.0 will theoretically offer double the performance of today’s drives, it will certainly require more power and thus generate more heat., So, does that mean this new generation of drives will be transformed from the lukewarm devices they are today into power-hungry, active-cooling-needing hellbeasts? The answer is is kind of murky at this time, but it is safe to say that since some of today’s fastest drives can hit 80C under a heavy workload, a logical conclusion is that the next-gen might require more robust cooling than our current options, which typically just heatsinks. If these new drives start do require something more extravagant, it could limit the number of SSDs people are able to attach to their mainboard, as one M.2 drive usually goes above the GPU, but the rest must fit in between the PCIe slots, which could prove problematic for people with thicc GPUs, or other add-in cards.
Still, there is some evidence that PCIe 5.0 might not require that much more power than PCIe 4.0. For example, Samsung says its first PCIe 5.0 drive is 30 percent more efficient than the previous generation, but it doesn’t quote any numbers. Also, a company named Fadu has released info on its first PCIe 5.0 SSD, and it also has an average power rating of 5.2w, according to Tom’s Hardware. That is hardly a scenario that requires active cooling — assuming peak power generation isn’t dramatically higher.
In the end, we’ll just have to wait and see how these drives perform to draw any conclusions. Maybe SSDs will follow the same trajectory as GPUs, which started out with naked chips on a PCB, then evolved into the hulking, actively-cooled monstrosities we use today. We sure hope that’s not the case, but then again if SSDs can improve in performance over time the way GPUs have, having a separate cooler for them would actually be a fair tradeoff.
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