Phase change memory devices are based on the rapid and reversible amorphous-to-crystalline transformations of phase change materials, such as Ge2Sb2Te5 and AgInSbTe. Since the maximum switching speed of these devices is typically limited by crystallization speed, understanding the crystallization process is of crucial importance. While Ge2Sb2Te5 and AgInSbTe show very different crystallization mechanisms from their melt-quenched states, the nanostructural origin of this difference has not been clearly demonstrated. Here, we show that an amorphous state includes different sizes and number of nanoscale nuclei, after thermal treatment such as melt-quenching or furnace annealing is performed. We employ fluctuation transmission electron microscopy to detect nanoscale nuclei embedded in amorphous materials, and use a pump-probe laser technique and atomic force microscopy to study the kinetics of nucleation and growth. We confirm that melt-quenched amorphous Ge2Sb 2Te5 includes considerably larger and more quenched-in nuclei than its as-deposited state, while melt-quenched AgInSbTe does not, and explain this contrast by the different ratio between quenching time and nucleation time in these materials. In addition to providing insights to the crystallization process in these technologically important devices, this study presents experimental illustrations of temperature-dependence of nucleation rate and growth speed, which was predicted by theory of phase transformation but rarely demonstrated. © 2014 AIP Publishing LLC.