Installing an M.2 or SATA SSD on your desktop is an essential part of any PC build, or a simple upgrade to make your PC feel faster. Fortunately, installing an SSD is easier than finding the best one (we’ve got an overview for that!) Or even understanding how they work. I’m not going to cover that here, but I’ll go through the installation of both types.
The steps below apply to almost every model. I’ll start with the M.2 SSD as it is a bit trickier to install, and there are a few things to research before doing it. Click this link to go to the SATA SSD section.
How do I install an M.2 SSD on a desktop PC
An M.2 SSD looks like a piece of chewing gum with chips on one side, a label on the other, and gold contacts on one end. Some will install just like that. Some have their own heat sinks and look more like a pack of gum than a piece of gum. Some motherboards have a shield for the M.2 slot, and you will have to slide the drive underneath. We cover all the forms below.
Step 1: Find the M.2 slot
The first thing you’ll want to do is find where the M.2 slot is on your motherboard. Look for a slot about an inch wide that protrudes about a quarter of an inch from the motherboard. Every motherboard is different, but the most common locations are under the CPU and around the PCIe slots in the bottom half of the board. If you can’t find it, check the manual.
Some motherboards have a pre-installed shield that serves as a heat spreader but can also provide a nice bit of visual flair. This will of course have to be removed before you can access the M.2 slot.
If your motherboard supports two M.2 SSDs, you should check your manual to find out which slot is the recommended slot for installing your boot drive. Each slot may offer different levels of performance, while others may disable a PCIe slot if it is in use. In short, read the manual first!
Step 2: Find the M.2 mounting system
Once you find the correct slot, locate the screw about two inches to the left that is inserted into a spacer. The distance is there because when the drive is inserted, there is a gap between the SSD and the motherboard. The deadlock plays the critical role in keeping the drive flat.
If your motherboard doesn’t have the screw or spacer, check the box – it may come in a small plastic bag. If your motherboard has an M.2 shield, you will need two screws to attach it to the motherboard.
Step 3: Prepare for the M.2 SSD installation
Now is the time to touch something made of metal, such as a metal furniture leg, to ground yourself, and then grab a screwdriver. Loosen the screw on the spacer and put it somewhere safe – you don’t want to lose a screw or roll it on your motherboard.
For those of you with a shield, unscrew it from the motherboard, but pay attention to the bottom, where there should be a thermal pad with a piece of plastic over it. Don’t remove the plastic just yet – put the shield in a safe place.
The most common M.2 size is 80 millimeters, but you should at least make sure that the spacer is correctly positioned for your drive size. Move the disc over the slot and note its length. If necessary, use pliers to loosen the spacer and move it to the correct length position. Make sure the spacer is screwed on completely – not too tight, just plain tight. You don’t want it spinning while we try to install the propeller.
For those of you with shields, you probably don’t have a distance. Instead, there should be some sort of square bracket for the drive to rest on while the shield holds it in place.
Step 4: M.2 SSD installation
The next step is to insert the disc. Think of the “top” of the disc as the side with the label or sticker of the brand. The edge with the semicircular notch is held in place by the screw. The gold contact edge is what we insert into the M.2 slot.
There is a small notch that divides the contact points into two parts. You want to align that notch with a notch in the M.2 slot, with the top of the drive facing up. Firmly insert the disc at an angle of about 15 degrees until no more yielding and release.
If you have a screw-and-spacer-based system, you’ll want to press the disc down so that it lies flat and the semicircular notch lines up with the spacer. While holding the drive flat, insert the screw and tighten it to a comfortable point. Be careful not to overtighten or you risk damaging the drive, screw or motherboard. If you installed it correctly, the drive shouldn’t slide in place at all.
For those of you with shields, you have a bit more to struggle, so take your time for these next steps.
Since there is no screw to keep the drive flat, you will need to hold it down while placing the shield over it, or get help from someone who can hold it flat while you grasp the shield. It may help to perform a dry run before removing the plastic sheet from the thermal pad – just make sure not to leave that plastic on permanently!
When you’re done, take the plastic off and lower the shield straight onto the disc. It is important to lower it straight onto the disc as the thermal pad is sticky and the disc can slide out of the slot if you slide it after it is attached to the shield. If it does, don’t panic: gently remove the SSD from the thermal pad and start over.
The hardest part here is aligning the screws up to the spacers. One trick is to hold the screws in place on the shield while you lower it. This allows the screws to hit the spacers before the thermal pad hits the drive.
Once the screws are aligned, lower the shield into place and tighten the screws. Again, there is no need to over-tighten them – it just needs to be snug.
M.2 SSD Installation: Final Notes
The last thing to note here is that some M.2 SSDs have their own built-in heat sink. An Adata XPG Gammix S70 drive we reviewed had a heat sink so large that installing the drive was a challenge. Most we’ve tested are less intrusive.
If your motherboard has a shield, you don’t want to place that over the included heat sink. Just keep the shield somewhere safe in case you need it in the future.
Next, we’ll dive into installing a 2.5-inch SATA SSD.