So you bought a new motherboard and you are getting ready to build your new system when you realize that there is this U.2 connection right by the SATA inputs. Now, if you are reading this, you likely don’t know what that is and are wondering what on Earth you can do with it.
U.2 is an alternative interface standard for storage devices (drives), like SATA, M.2 (PCIe NVMe) and so forth. M.2 PCIe NVMe drives (the drives that look like memory sticks that slide parallel into the M.2 slots) are a common winner when it comes to speed, replacing SATA drives that max out around 500-600MB/s. With M.2 PCIe NVMe, you can find drives that max out around 3,000+ MB/s (currently). However, U.2 takes that up a notch by offering a faster pipeline of up to 32,000MB/s as it can make use of up to four PCI Express (PCIe) lanes and two SATA lanes. It also allows for more power as it can use the 3.3 V that M.2 is capable of, as well as 12 V for when 3.3 V just isn’t enough. Another big win for U.2 over M.2. In addition to all of this, it makes use of a cable, like SATA drives, allowing it to ride separately from the board (so that the extra heat source isn’t laying directly on the board). Unlike SATA, the U.2 cable carries both power and data in one (as long as it is going to a proper U.2 drive or drive adapter (the latter, we will discuss in a moment). Finally, unlike M.2, U.2 is hot-swappable.
So, it is a faster, more powerful, solution for data storage than your popular M.2 connection. The catch is that the U.2 interface was developed for enterprise use in places like data centers. That being said, anything with speed and power can eventually find its way into consumer models as well, and U.2 connection has done just that. Motherboards designed around gamers and other power users have been including the interface so that consumers can tap into this speed as well. Models like the GIGABYTE GA-Z270X-Ultra Gaming motherboard feature a U.2 input on their board, right by those SATA connections, and that brings us to today’s discussion. What do you do with it?
You can of course completely ignore it if you want as it is an optional connection for those who need/desire it. However, if you choose to use it, you will need a U.2 to SAS HD drive adapter cable (if your board doesn’t come with one) before you can do anything. Sadly, most of these boards do not come with the cable, and the cable will generally run you around $20-$30 (currently). Just like the SATA connections, you will need the cable to run between the drive and the motherboard. If you are running to a proper U.2 drive (or as mention, a drive adapter), then the cable carries both power and data in one. So you won’t have to run any other cables (nothing from your power supply).
Most of these cables, however, also feature a SATA connection in-line, allowing you to use it with a basic SATA drive. If you choose to use it as such, you then have to run power from your power supply like you would a normal SSD. You shouldn’t bother wasting it on a normal SATA drive though. If you don’t have a U.2 drive, then you’re better using this for an M.2 NVMe drive, which we will cover in a moment, how to do that.
Once you have the cable, you can connect it to a U.2 NVMe SSD. Now, if you have clicked the link, you probably can tell that they aren’t cheap. These are incredibly powerful drives and can feature up to 4TB in capacity (and climbing). If you go this route, then you are done. You can format or partition the drive like you would any normal drive.
Alternative Option – Use an M.2 NVMe drive using a drive adapter
If the price of a U.2 NVMe just isn’t your cup of tea, and you would like to rather use an M.2 NVMe drive with the U.2 input/interface, this can easily be accomplished. By doing this, you can make use of the drive without taking up any of the other PCIe lanes, allowing you to maximize the use of your PCIe slots for things like graphic cards and other adapters (most boards, you have the option of the slot or an embedded M.2 slot when using the M.2 slots on the board). Or, you simply have the option of one extra M.2 NVMe drive if you have already maxed out your available M.2 slots.
So to pull this off, you need a drive adapter that converts your M.2 NVMe drive into a U.2 interface.
We have been using the ICY DOCK EZConvert (MB705M2P-B) M.2 NVMe SSD to 2.5″ NVMe U.2 SSD Adapter. It runs around $34-$37, making it pretty reasonable when compared to anything else out there. It is also incredibly easy to use.
You take the adapter and pop off the heatsink cover by pulling up on each of the four corners of it. No screws needed outside of security the adapter into a drive bay like you would a normal 2.5″ drive.
There is a slider for the top of the M.2 drive, that you can slide up and down the length of the adapter tray to the length of your M.2 drive. There is a small silver tooth there (as you can see in the above image) that locks onto the drive once it is installed.
Then, you slide the drive into the M.2 slot like you normally would, and press down on the end until it locks under the before-mentioned metal tooth (if you ever need to release the drive, just slide the metal tooth back and the card will pop right up). Now, you are finished.
Place the top (heatsink) back onto the tray, and it is ready for connection. You do still need the before-mentioned cable, unfortunately. So this does bring the cost up a bit and nearly doubles the price of the adapter. However, this gives you the ability to use any M.2 drive with your U.2 input now. The back of the tray/adapter features the normal U.2 drive connection that should work with any U.2 cable.
It also comes with a thermal sticker/pad to place on top of the M.2 drive before putting the heatsink portion back down onto the tray. This helps to spread the heat away from the drive and into the heatsink section for added heat dissipation and drive performance.
So, if you really need to make use of that extra M.2 drive in your system (or simply do not want to remove any PCIe cards to get to the M.2 slot that might be hiding underneath them), you will have to spend a little to make it happen. Thankfully, this opens the U.2 interface to much more affordable drives. At least, until the price of U.2 drives come down a bit.
So far, we have found that the ICY DOCK solution makes for a great choice in pulling this off with and really helps to maximize the speed potential of M.2 drives.
What if you don’t have a U.2 input/interface on your motherboard? Can you still make use of a U.2 drive?
The answer is yes! You can still install a U.2 drive in your system, even if you don’t have the interface. The catch is that you are going to lose one of your M.2 slots to make it happen, and you also lose on max transfer capabilities (not that any of the U.2 drives support much more than 3,500MB/s right now anyway). But, the solution is simple and all you need is an M.2 slot to U.2 interface adapter.
There are a number of adapters available, coming from companies like Gigabyte and StarTech. The StarTech one being a better option since the interface is facing a better direction when it comes to not getting in the way of graphics cards or anything in the neighboring PCIe slots. These cards are typically less than $20 and are incredibly easy to use. You simply slide the card into the M.2 slot of your motherboard. The adapter features a U.2 interface, so all you need is the cable (which of course, you will need to buy separately). Now, you can use a U.2 drive on your previously non-U.2 supporting system.
I was trying to say SFF-8643 Not SFF-8644
Is the U.2 male connector the same as a sff-8644 connector? Are they compatible?