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Intel Optane memory: Everything you need to know

Whether you're using a laptop or a desktop PC, it's no secret that old mechanical hard drives (HDD) are sloooooooow, at least when compared to solid state drives (SSD). In days gone by, you might only have had an HDD inside your system, which meant lots of storage but painful performance.

The way it's done mostly nowadays is by pairing an HDD for mass storage with an SSD of much smaller capacity for booting Windows and some other key applications.

But Intel came up with something that may well change the very future of computing: Optane memory. So what's it all about?

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What is Intel Optane?

Intel Optane

Optane is a sort of mashup of RAM and traditional storage. It has super low latency, but unlike the RAM in your PC, Optane is non-volatile and can retain data once powered off. And it's a lot faster than even the speediest NVMe SSD you can buy today.

From PC Advisor:

Intel says Optane is 4.42 times faster than a 'NAND' memory-based NVMe SSD in terms of IOPS (Input/output operations per second) and has 6.44 times less latency ... It has also said that Optane could be up to 10 times faster than traditional SATA-based SSDs.

It's built on a new technology developed with Micron that the company is calling 3D XPoint (that's "crosspoint"). This allows much more storage to be squeezed into the same space as lesser NAND flash SSDs. Currently, Optane memory sticks are being shipped on m.2 size drives that slot directly into the motherboard.

So how does Optane work?

Intel Optane

This description from Scan (opens in new tab), a British retailer, spells it out nicely:

Intel Optane Memory is a caching device for HDDs that intelligently learns which applications and games you run most frequently and over time speeds up how quickly they load.

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 was described by Dell's marketing director for Precision desktops Pat Kannar to PC World:

A PC with a hard drive as primary storage and an Optane cache could load the OS and applications faster than an all-SSD system. The trick is that Optane—which is closer to the CPU—would need to hold images of the OS and key applications ... It's cheaper to do that in some cases than having an all-SSD system.

What do you need to run Intel Optane?

Intel Optane

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.

How much does Optane cost?

It's quite expensive right now given the capacities available. A 16GB module will cost around $50 with a 32GB one setting you back about $80. Both sizes are on sale right now, and you can order them from a number of retailers.

The price will undoubtedly come down in the future, and Intel has much more to come from Optane later this year and into 2018. For now, you're probably OK with your SSD, but manufacturers such as Dell, HP and Lenovo are already getting on board and offering Optane options inside their laptops and desktops.

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Richard Devine is an Editor at Windows Central. A former Project Manager and long-term tech addict, he joined Mobile Nations in 2011 and has been found on Android Central and iMore as well as Windows Central. Currently you'll find him covering all manner of PC hardware and gaming, and you can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

35 Comments
  • Thing is, if you are buying a 7th gen Intel system in 2017, chances are you are buying an SSD too. And if you buy an SSD, Optane won't benefit at all as SSD will have much better performance. If you still plan to buy Optane for your seconday mechanical HDD (other than your primary SSD), it won't work either, as Optane works only with system drives (which is your SSD). If Optane doesn't work below 7th gen hardware, I don't really see a benefit to it. You might argue about its price with SSD's, but guys, it's 2017, SSD's are lot cheaper now compared to last few years.
  • Why couldn't it speed up your SSD drive as well? It sounds like it could be used as a cache period. 
  • I've watched a video, and for some reason that I don't know - it doesn't work. Anyways, even if it worked, the performance difference would be negligible. I'm still living with an HDD, and life ain't that bad. Even SSDs are almost too much.
  • good point, but that may or may not be the case, HDD-s are proportionally slow - and caching makes sense. While for SSD-s the gains may not be as visible (overhead etc.). The caching technique, I think, is also not the same, HDD heads move predictably so (so the caching works relying oin that), for SSD-s that is different ball game.
  • Well if you see it that way then of course it wouldn't work but if you take it like the Xbox One handles its work with the embedded SRAM or Xbox 360 DRAM then you would definitely see the advantage. This memory will just keep the data that the processors would look for in the hard drive regardless of how fast the hard drive is, it will be slower than having it at its opening fetch for data!!!! So pretty much for me is just an SRAM attached to it and it works! Well that's my opinion I think!
  • Optane is not relevant for me in any way. Besides i use AMD and it appears my next system will be AMD as well.
  • From what I see, that AMD stuff doesn't fly here like it does on /r/pcmasterrace, this is an Intel-friendly space.
  • I honestly don't care. Amd has treated me well for lower cost. And there new stuff is amazing yet again. If intel wasn't so greedy I may be inclined to use them as well. But yea don't see them changing any time soon.
  • exactly, proprietary tech, this is rambus/rdram all over again
  • I think people are entitled to their choices as long as they arent talking about how superior they are or trying to convince others. I have switched back and forth between Intel and AMD since my first computer and both have their ups and downs.
  • This is similar to what Samsung does with their Windows software package. It creates a RAM Disk and caches commonly used files there for quick retrieval. Seems that this will focus on eliminating the downside of memory consumption and dump it into this device. Also, that video made me cringe. It's like they borrowed the happy music from Apple commercials
  • It sounds like a 2017 version of "Flash Cache," that technology in Windows that let you use a fast thumb drive or special PCIe card oin the motherboard, to speed up the system.  Problem with that was, it was so expensive and so hard to find, that it didn't catch on. I can see something similar with this.  In theory, it sounds great.  Four times the speed of a fast SSD?  If there was a hybrid/fusion drive-like system that could use this to offer massive storage and fast speeds, it'd be useful.  But if the cost to get that type of setup was similar to just having a large SSD that handles all your space needs, I don't see how it would help. Personally, when I first started reading the article, I was hoping it would offer a RAM replacement that would persist across shutdowns.  Shut off my computer, then boot it up a few days later to find I'm exactly where I left off?  Why don't we have that yet?
  • Introducing Windows Timeline.
  • That's a nice name
  • That's what hibernate does. Saves ram to storage for next boot.
  • Intel has has "Rapid Storage Technology" that allowed it to use a faster smaller ssd to make the mechanical HDD "hybrid". Optane has a lot more bandwidth that ssd or pcie drives.
  • Apple has a software based implementation that does similar, with the upside of not losing the SSD storage space, called Fusion Drive. Why doesn't MS implement something like that onto Windows? Intel's system has you lose the SSD space to be used solely as cache.
  • Was pretty interested in this for work purposes* until I saw the capacity limitations. I need both high bandwidth and high storage capacity, so our current cutting edge solution is a Squid with 4x 960GB NVMe using a proprietary storage method to optimize reading files sequentially. It's a crazy fast solution - faster than 16x SSDs in RAID0 - and is doing the job for now, but would love something smaller, faster, and more capacious than what we have now. * Our current highest spec requirement is for 8K x 4K 10-bit uncompressed video at 60fps, or ~5GBps (GBs, not Gbs). The 4x NVMe solution gets us about 6GBps (with some headroom for degradation).
  • Interesting. Two questions: What is a "Squid" in your example? And what storage method do you use?
  • I believe a Squid is a Raycap fiber box where all the connections enter at a single junction point.  Proprietary means proprietary.  Top secret, not going to share tricks of the trade.
  • Amfeltec makes a product called a Squid. And phxchristian nailed it - proprietary. :)
  • Gotta ask. What do you do with something so fast?
  • He answered that in his message. 8K uncompressed video running at 5GB/s.
  • We make high end media servers for museums, theme parks, and digital signage ranging from single channel HD30 up through 8K60, all uncompressed.
  • HDD-s are noisy, mechanical and susceptible to failures and IMO just not reliable (no matter what the statistics is saying, I had so many HDD issues in the company and at home). They're history getting them back, why is that a good thing? I don't see it.
    But the biggest problem I see is the AI and the caching - no matter how smart they say it is, that never works reliably or when you need it, they can't cache everything (or I'd rather have the optane itself) and in reality you're still going to wait for things to load - but in average you'll be waiting the same :) well, thanks. At least from the description available I don't find it to be the future.
  • I did wonder about the AI on the caching.  Personally, I would just want the core OS on it, and any other files I use daily.  32 or 16GB isn't enough for that.
  • yes, if it gets large enough (but that's few years away, you need, what, 128 GB min, 256 to be truely usable) to have it as a system "disk" (HDD terminology:), that's entirely different proposal. Low-level caching is fine, what's working inside CPU-s/chips, some HDD-s etc.
    But high level caching and now AI-level caching, that's like a hybrid drive thing. Mostly 'meh' IMHO - it might work in certain scenarios if you're using your data over and over again and might give some 'average' results that are ok, but you can't really compare that with a true SSD (even at lower speeds). And I'm not even sure if they're talking about the write speeds at all, or just the read.
  • I am so done with hard drives. I have had so many go bad over the years and it takes time to replace and restore... I only but SSD now. Haven't had one go bad yet. I always use Intel SSDs (as reliability is more important than speed to me), but I did go with a Samsung for my recent 2TB SSD purchase as it was much cheaper.
  • If it can speed up HDD performance, faster than SSD, wouldn't it in theory then speed up SSD only systems as well?
  • Looks like an Intel cash grab to me. Why would I use up my only m.2 port when I could just spend that money on an NVMe m.2 HDD and be done with it?
  • Because, as the article states, HDD + Optane is faster than NVMe SSD.
  • That is not true. Just watch benchmarks of real world usage to see that that is not true.
  • Based on my understanding of the tech, Optane best usage is as a pagefile replacement. For systems which has maxed out their ram, Optane can give an additional 32gb instead of it swapping to SSD and wearing it out. System drives will already be on SSD  so Optane wouldn't speed things up especially for this first generation product. We have to wait until the second generation for the performance this article is talking about. The second generation should have performance approaching dual channel DDR2 IIRC.
  • Its the next generation of ReadyBoost. Where the hardware finally matches the expectations.
  • Mobile Nations title-deciders should be more careful with how they decide to name articles. For a new technology/infrastructure this was FAR from everything I needed to know about this tech ;)