Since the introduction of the first laptop in 1981, the Osborne 1, the world has come to appreciate the economy of size and computing hardware that gets smaller and more capable every year. While screens get bigger, computers get slimmer. Form factors - industry standards or otherwise - of key components like storage, memory, processors and expansion cards determine the size and shape of laptops, cell-phones, and other computing devices.
Almost as rapidly as the size of hardware has shrunk, the speed and variety of wireless networking have increased. Mobile professionals and other application areas of the IT industry have kept the pressure on for wireless network adapter form factors to become ever smaller and more capable to meet challenges of new high-speed wireless communications avenues. 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE-A-Pro) solutions can reach data rates of over 1Gbps, with 5G connections bringing more devices together than ever before.
By 2020, the number of devices connected to the internet will outnumber the world’s population with a staggering count of over 20 billion.
In most laptops, corporate network appliances, industrial routers and gateways, you will likely find one of two competing standards of small-form-factor (SFF) multi-purpose connectors: Next Generation Form Factor (NGFF) M.2 and mini Peripheral Component Interconnect Express (mPCIe).
How do you decide which mobile broadband PC card or cellular adapter standard to use?
Below, we’ll give you the information you need to select the right IoT data card form factors on the road to 5G.
The Need for Speed and Space
Mobile users, businesses, and industries across a wide spectrum are looking to the Internet of Things (IoT) for faster connections across multiple devices, more data transmission and downloading capabilities, and innovative solutions that will transform day-to-day operations.
Thankfully, both the worldwide preparation for 5G broadband speeds and business optimization of LTE solutions have paved the speedway for the future. But speedy services that let the mobile workforce connect to corporate video conferencing or companies extending IT resources to new offices and branches can pay a price in real estate and performance. Both NGFF-M.2 and mPCIe standards are useful and address those issues, depending on how much space one needs and how the cards are utilized within a given industry.
The Many Uses of M.2 and Mini PCIe Explained
What is M.2?
As more devices connect people to the world, technology shrinks to save space. M.2 emerged in late 2012/early 2013 as it evolved from the Next Generation Form Factor (NGFF) internally mounted computer expansion cards. The M.2 standard included several power-saving protocols that contributed to other important measures to extend laptop battery life to between 8-10 hours while leaving a smaller physical footprint in thinner (Intel-designed) laptops.
Since then, M.2 data cards have become the standard for the majority of consumer and professional targeted laptops within the last five years. Typically smaller than mPCIe, M.2 cards let users take their work on-the-go with smart tablets and razor-thin portable laptops.
What is mPCIe?
Mini PCIe evolved from the large desktop PC form factor PCIe in 2002. Initially, mPCIe cards plugged into the motherboard to save space in laptops, but their applications have become exponentially greater in industrial devices, enterprise routers and gateways where real estate isn’t as important as it is in laptops.
While mPCIe requires a slightly larger footprint than M.2, many network appliances in the enterprise networking market and industrial routers consider mPCIe the data card standard of choice in their products. But other than the mobile computing industry that has pretty much completely gone to M.2, most other types of devices include both an M.2 and mPCIe connector allowing the OEM to integrate either type of card in their products.
How are M.2 and mPCIe Different? Which is Better?
With the arrival of 5G, M.2 becomes a better fit not only for laptops and personal computing but also for enterprise and industrial appliances, routers and gateways. Because it is a standard 10 years younger than mini PCIe, its interface bus can accommodate much higher data transfer rates like those required for 5G. Additionally, with 5G technology relying on massive MIMO (a large number of antennas to connect), a new generation of RF connectors that harmonize well with the M.2 thinner and smaller dimensions have come to market.
Benefits of M.2 include:
- It comfortably accommodates 5G data transfer rates to the host device (over PCIe x2, USB 3.0, I2C, or DisplayPort x4)
- 5G antenna connector technology aligns well with smaller, thinner dimensions of M.2
- 5G millimeter-wave antenna arrays are off-board elements reducing the RF complexity and heat inside the M.2 space
- 5G 7nm semiconductor technology is well-aligned electrically and thermally with M.2 physical characteristics
The origins of mPCIe made it a viable form factor for industrial use, IT gateways and routers. Because of more space to mount electronics and a much simpler interface bus protocol, mPCIe became an easy FF standard for wireless vendors to proliferate network adapter options, making the standard very popular among design engineers.
With the introduction of ultra-high-speed LTE Advanced Pro, mPCIe was a clear FF choice. LTE Cat18 Gigabit technology can’t be placed in low-power mode, there are 4 or more individual antenna connectors (4 MIMO antennas and possibly another satellite positioning antenna), which can severely tax the tiny card, consuming a lot of power. Mini PCIe cards can be thicker, more rigid, better accommodating LTE-A-Pro thermal (10nm chipset technology), space and rigidity requirements.
Benefits of mini PCIe include:
- It is a legacy, well understood and tested form-factor that many mobile broadband companies prefer
- There is more support for PCIe connectors across industrial applications
- Accommodates 4G thermal dissipation requirements effectively (single-sided card can be mounted directly on heat dissipation solutions for thermal stability in always-on use cases)
- Covers both mobile broadband and industrial applications
- Integrates well with LTE Advanced Pro technology – delivering performance and reliability particularly in always-on applications.
No matter what you go with, choosing the right data card will depend on your unique application needs.
Where to Find the Best Cellular Broadband Data Card Form Factor Solution
A global leader in mobile broadband innovation, Telit prefers the mini PCIe option when looking to always-on 4G LTE applications. Telit’s LM960A18 Gigabit Class LTE Cat 18 data card is the world’s first global full-size mPCle available for enterprise cellular routers and appliances. The 23-band card supports LTE Cat 18, has download speeds of up to 1.2Gbps, support to CBRS and integrated GNSS receiver.
In the battle of competing data cards form factors, Telit recommends M.2 as the clear winner for all 5G applications and 4G on/off operations, like laptops and other mobile computing platforms. Telit recently launched the first industrial-grade 5G M.2 data card, the FN980m. This data card makes it easy for M.2 end-products with 3G and 4G to migrate to 5G and is suitable for industrial use cases, such as enterprise gateways and surveillance.
Telit aims to maintain leadership in mobile broadband connectivity to deliver the highest available speeds that cellular networks can support for all our solution providers and integrators.
Editor's Note: This post was originally published on October 3, 2018, and has since been updated.