What is SATA? Here’s everything you need to know about it

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?

In 2008, SATA reached a near-complete saturation of the desktop PC market, with as much as 99% of all drives utilizing the standard, but that’s not necessarily the case today. Where many smaller laptops and tablets will use built-in flash memory for their primary storage, higher-end desktop and laptops will instead now use faster standards like PCI Express to deliver higher performance.

Outside the realm of PCs, SATA still sees widespread use for storage solutions in many industries, including automotive, mobile, and consumer electronics, and many more. While SATA is still a vital connection standard, especially for larger hard drives and SSDs in the multi-terabyte range, newer M.2 and NVMe drives are the go-to choice for those who prioritize performance. They are more expensive, but plugging into a PCI Express slot instead of a SATA port gives them a connection that isn’t constrained by the limits of SATA cabling and allows drives to operate at far faster data rates. For some, as fast as gigabytes of data per second, compared with the hard SATA III limit of 6Gbps, 3Gbps, and 1.5Gbps.

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