What Is SATA? Here’s Everything You Need to Know About It

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If you’ve owned a desktop PC or laptop in the past decade and a half, you can guarantee that you’ve possessed a Serial ATA (SATA) compatible piece of hardware. Whether it was a hard drive (HDD), a solid-state drive (SSD), or an optical drive, almost all of them used SATA until recently. What is SATA? In short, it’s how almost everything storage-related connects to your motherboard.

That’s not always the case, as there are some newer standards available for high-speed drives. But alongside PCIe and NVMe, SATA is still a significant player, especially when it comes to larger-sized HDDs and SSDs.

Are you confused already? Read on to learn more about SATA, and don’t forget to check out our guide to what SSDs are, as well as our guide on some of the best SSDs available today.

Data and power

Although there is a myriad of computer products that are designated as SATA devices, the reason they are called that is that they use the SATA interface. In other words, your PC connects through two SATA ports, one on the drive and another on the motherboard.

Although SATA connectors are described as a single port or connector, SATA encompasses two ports: The data connector and the power connector. The former is the short, L-shaped, seven-pin connector, while the latter is the more extended 15-pin connector — the taller “L” of the two.

Both connectors are typically reversed on the drives they allow connections for, with the bases of their respective “L” shapes facing one another. Beyond length, they can be told apart by the cables that connect to them. Where the SATA data cable is usually made up of solid plastic, which extends into a flat, single-band cable, the SATA power connector will continue from its head to multiple, thin, rounded wires of different colors.

Both cables are required for SATA devices to work, and both do different jobs. The data cable provides the high-speed connection to the rest of the computer, transferring information back and forth as requested, while the power cable is what gives the drive the electricity to run in the first place.

SATA generations

A SATA data cable BlickPixel/Pixabay

Although most PCs in recent years have used SATA devices, there are a few different types that are worth noting. SATA was first introduced in 2000, replacing the aged PATA ribbon cables. It was revised in 2003 and again in 2004 and 2008, bringing SATA to version three, commonly referred to as SATA III or 3.0. These standards increased speed and added additional features to allow for faster and more reliable storage drives, but didn’t change the physical look of the SATA connector itself. SATA III is the most common SATA interface used today, though there have been four revisions since its introduction, namely 3.1 through 3.4.

In Revision 3.1, SATA focused on improving the performance of SSDs, allowing host PCs to identify the capacity of their hardware devices and the port that made USBs possible, the Universal Storage Module (USM). Improvements for Revision 3.2 included slimming down the USM, incorporating microSSD to shrink the size of storage components, adding USB 3.0 ports, and reducing power requirements for devices in constant operation. Revision 3.3 offered users greater choice and flexibility, with staggered startup options and an activity indicator, as well as improved data center maintenance and hard drive disc space. SATA’s 2018 update, Revision 3.4, added improvements like SATA device temperature monitoring, writing critical cache data, and enhanced compatibility with manufacturers, all while minimizing the impact on how your PC operates.

There have been a few alternative SATA interfaces over the years, like mSATA for laptop drives, which debuted in 2011. The latest generation of that technology was the M.2 standard. Currently, the fastest drives have moved beyond the mSATA interface and now take advantage of PCI Express ports for higher performance.

First introduced with SATA 3.2 in 2013, SATA Express allowed for cross-compatibility with SATA III and PCI Express drives. Still, it wasn’t a popular choice while eSATA offered SATA-like speeds for external drives. Today, most high-speed external drives use USB 3.0 connections, commonly with the Type-C standard of the connector.

How vital is SATA today?

Back in 2008, SATA was the standard, but as we’ve completed the first two decades of the millennium, several computers no longer depend on SATA. Less complicated laptops may need built-in flash memory, and PCI Express (PCIe)enhances more sophisticated computers’ performance.

That is not to say that SATA outmoded, though.

Serial ATA has gone farther than the PC arena. The auto industry, consumer electronics, and other devices now use SATA. It’s a standard crucial link for more significant SSDs and hard drives that venture into the multi-terabyte range.

Still, NVMe and fresher M.2 drives are top picks for users who hold performance above all else. You’ll spend more money on M.2 and NVMe drives, but the constraints of SATA cables limit SATA ports. With a PCI Express slot, your drives can function and speedier data rates. If you wonder how much faster, some users can get GBs of data per second, which outperforms the hard SATA III limit of 1.5Gbps, 3Gbps, and 6Gbps.

Buying SATA cables

If you are putting together a computer and buy a motherboard with SATA connections, it will typically come with a couple of SATA cables for you to hook up your components as you build. However, as we mentioned above, if you are building a new rig, PCIe storage can be much faster and lower profile.

Sometimes, when replacing an older hard drive or upgrading another component of your computer to help it stay speedy, you will need to buy a SATA cable or adapter for compatibility reasons. In this case, make sure you’re getting the latest SATA III standard. They do make adapters to interface with a variety of connections, including USB-C and USB-A 3.0, but this can affect connection quality.

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