In the quest for ever-faster computers, Intel is constantly introducing new upgrades to its products to try and get a bit of extra cash out of enthusiasts and corporate customers. One of the company’s most dramatic introductions as of late has been its branded Optane memory.
What is Optane?
Optane is Intel’s trademarked term for a new class of hyper-fast memory modules. The name refers specifically to the memory itself, not an individual format, but at the moment it’s being marketed primarily in a specialized M.2 card, compatible only with supported motherboards that can use Intel 7th-gen Core processors (i3, i5, and i7 chips in the 7XXX series). Optane memory uses 3D NAND fabrication techniques and various proprietary technologies to achieve super-low latency—as fast as 10 microseconds.
Optane memory isn’t a type of conventional random-access computer memory, or RAM. And it isn’t a technology that’s being used for conventional storage—at least not at the consumer level, and not yet. Instead, the consumer M.2 Optane modules sold in 16GB and 32GB capacities are meant to work as a cache memory bridge between RAM and storage, allowing for faster data transfer between the memory, storage, and processor. This accelerates more or less every operation for the end user, especially when paired with caching software that intelligently stores relevant data on the Optane drive for near-instant retrieval.
How does Optane work?
After first boot, the Optane module will learn and predict which data will be required, providing super-fast access to both large workloads and even games.
This means that with the right budget, it could become feasible to run a smaller capacity Optane module with a large capacity HDD and get better performance than an all-SSD system.
This is where the message becomes a little fuzzy. The biggest benefits of Optane come when it’s paired with an HDD. But you can only use Optane with Intel seventh-generation processors and higher. And if you’re buying a new system right now there’s a strong chance it has an SSD boot drive at least. You’ll also need a B250, Q250, H270, Q270 or Z270 motherboard with a vacant m.2 slot.
Optane’s appeal is perhaps limited, initially, beyond enthusiasts who like to get involved in the latest technologies. But since you can only get 16GB and 32GB modules initially, you’re probably not going to give up that blazing fast NVMe SSD in your system for one of these. Larger capacities will be coming, and Intel will sell full SSDs with large storage capacities based on Optane in the future.
What differentiates Intel Optane Memory from others is that it uses an entirely new entry on the memory pyramid: 3D Xpoint. This slots in between DRAM and NAND. The concept is to give users a more affordable memory device that brings top quality. Will it work? Tests were completed and demonstrated faster opening times for programs like Adobe Premiere and Photoshop. After activating the 32GB Optane Memory chip, it took just 11 seconds to open a project in Photoshop, which is down significantly from the regular 37 seconds.
Optane can make your PC faster
According to Intel’s marketing material, adding an Optane M.2 memory module to a 7th-gen Core motherboard can speed up overall “performance” by 28%, with a 1400% increase in data access for an older, spinning hard drive design and “twice the responsiveness” of everyday tasks.
These claims are based on a series of benchmarks, the SYSmark 2014 SE Responsiveness subscore and the PCMark Vantage HDD Suite, so they’re fairly reliable. That being said, the actual hardware used to test those figures is hardly industry-leading: Intel used a mid-range Core i5-7500 processor, 8GB of DDR4-2400 memory, and a conventional 1TB hard drive with a speed of 7200RPM. That’s a decent system, but without the Optane add-on pretty much anything with an SSD installed will beat it for storage access and responsiveness.
Anandtech did a series of more intensive benchmarks using the same SYSmark 2014 test. They found that combining an Optane memory module with a conventional spinning hard drive could indeed increase overall system performance, in some cases beating out an SSD alone. But in each case, the performance was close enough that a simple SSD setup might be preferable to a hard drive plus Optane memory module, especially if you can afford to match the extra storage space with a 1TB or denser SSD. Performance improvements when pairing an Optane storage module with an SSD will be present, but much less dramatic.