Intel Optane Memory attempts to combine the faster speeds of an SSD (solid-state drive) and the space available on an MHD (mechanical hard drive). An ideal memory device operates quickly. Is extremely durable. And retains data without much power. It should also be affordable with a large enough capacity to sustain an operating system, along with other applications. These considerations were the driving force behind Intel’s creation of Optane Memory. It’s intended to bridge the gap between RAM and flash-based storage like NAND-based SSDs. Here’s everything you need to know to decide if Optane Memory is worth it to you.
What is Optane Memory?
Intel Optane Memory is a form of disk caching. It provides the fast data access of SSDs with the high capacity of an MHD (it can even be used with SSDs). The data you use most often gets replicated onto the faster M.2 Optane Memory storage unit. While less important data is pulled from your laptop’s local storage, like the MHD.
Although it can be used to accelerate slower SSDs, its more often used to speed-up the performance of the much slower mechanical hard drive.
How Does It Work?
Optane Memory uses an LRU (least recently used) approach to determine what gets stored in cache. All initial data reads come from the slower storage data, i.e., the MHD in this case. And data gets copied to the cache. Data writes go first to the cache, then gets replicated over to the MHD. Then each time a block of data in the cache gets read or written, its last access time gets updated.
As data fills up, old data gets ejected; this is data that hasn’t been used in a long time. The larger the cache capacity, the more data it can hold. And the more likely that reads and writes will first visit fast cached storage rather than hitting up the slower MHD.
Intel originally released Optane Memory in 16GB and 32GB capacities. Optane Memory relies on Intel’s RST (Rapid Storage Technology) application and drivers to determine what gets cached. The company hasn’t provided specifics on how their caching algorithm works. But RST can intelligently determine what gets stored so that even a small 16GB Optane Memory module can provide a noticeable improvement in Windows boot times and game load times.
How Large Should Cache Be?
The amount of cache you need to hold the important data you use regularly depends on you. Windows 10 can use up a sizeable chunk of a 16GB capacity Optane Memory module. That leaves some users without enough room for commonly accessed data. This means that when you run a few applications or games, old data can quickly get evicted out of cache. So, the company later added a 64GB option.
Optane Memory drives have different performance depending on the capacity. Regardless of whether you choose to go 16GB, 32GB or 64GB, Optane Memory is plenty fast for loading applications and games.
The model you get depends on your routine workloads. 32GB of Optane Memory should prove sufficient for most users. Heavier workloads can exceed even a 64GB capacity. But it will take some warming up before its fully ready to go (more about this later).
NOTE: You can also use an Intel Optane 800p drive as an even larger 118GB Optane Memory cache.
Optane Memory Specs
Optane Memory is built using Intel’s 3D XPoint Technology. Generally, it’s a form of non-volatile memory that’s like the NAND used in most SSDs. Except, instead of relying on storing charges. It relies on changing material properties. The specs are better than NAND in many ways. But not quite as good as initial claims, yet.
For instance, the raw throughput for Optane Memory isn’t really faster than NAND at this time. But a big advantage of Optane Memory is that when tested against SSDs, overall performance was often better than significantly larger SSDs.
Additionally, Optane Memory has lower latency than SSDs. Most NAND-based SSDs have a latency of around 100/50µs compared to Optane’s 18/7µs for the 32 to 64GB drives.
About Caching Drives
Caching drives like Optane Memory and PrimoCache (keep reading for more about these) often end up doing more writes than normal SSDs. That’s where 3D XPoint’s advantages become obvious. Where NAND cells can be erased and rewritten 1000 to 3000 times before the cell walls wear out and stop storing charges properly. 3D XPoint’s endurance is much higher at around 20,000 cycles. The technology certainly helps when using caching drives which are smaller than SSDs.
Optane Memory System Requirements
Given the name, it’s no surprise that Intel Optane Memory can only be found in laptops with Intel platforms. If you want to add the technology onto your existing laptop, it requires a motherboard with either a 200- or 300-series chipset (H310 doesn’t support Optane Memory).
In general, you’ll need at least a 7th gen Intel CPU. All Intel Core processors support Optane Memory. Celeron and Pentium chips do not. You’ll also need a free M.2 slot on the motherboard. And your laptop must have the 1803 version of Windows 10 and Intel’s RST 15.5 or later software as there’ve been quite a few improvements to Optane Memory support.
Optane Memory Alternatives
These solutions use the Intel Optane Memory module differently. For example, StoreMI/FuzeDrive uses tiered storage, which is actually better than SSD caching. You get the combined storage capacity of all tiers instead of duplicating data on fast and slow tiers.
StoreMI comes with any AMD Ryzen 400-series or later chipset motherboard; it also comes free with Threadripper x399 and TRX40 motherboards.
Optane Memory Performance
Solid-state drives are up to 10x faster than mechanical hard drives. In real world performance, Optane Memory boosts the speed of an MHD laptop to that of one with an SSD.
The caveat to all this is that you’ll have to give Optane Memory time to figure what data you use most often. In other words, when you first boot up your machine with Optane Memory, you won’t notice that much of a speed increase. But as un-cached data becomes cached, subsequent boot times will become markedly faster.
Loading a game or an application the first time with Optane Memory will also only be marginally faster. But as you load them more often, the RST application will recognize and store them in cache.
Optane Memory vs DRAM and SSD
DRAM (Dynamic Random-Access Memory) is fast. But since it’s a type of volatile storage, it’s not able to hold data once you turn off your laptop. Once you turn your machine on again, DRAM needs to go to local storage in order to retrieve the data for the project you were working on.
SSD (Solid-state drives) are able to hold onto data, even without power to the system. It’s a type of non-volatile storage. But this storage type lacks the ability to read/write quickly. Thus, they have a high latency that would make it virtually impossible to use efficiently with heavy workloads.
In 2015, Intel unveiled the Optane brand on 3D XPoint technology. It’s designed to join the low latency of DRAM with the high data density of local storage like an SSD, which is supported by the fast data access of flash technology.
Although Optane Memory is faster than an SSD, it’s not as fast as RAM. But when stuck between the expensive proposition of purchasing a laptop with either more RAM or a larger capacity SSD. A laptop offering Optane Memory becomes a good compromise between price and performance.
Is Optane worth it? Pairing a high-capacity storage drive with Optane Memory is a less-expensive way to give your laptop SSD-equivalent performance without equivalent SSD prices. Cost-wise unless you need more than 2TB of storage space. A laptop with an SSD probably makes more sense. But if you need more terabytes, an MHD paired with Optane Memory is a viable choice to save money. Optane Memory is best if it has a 64GB capacity.
If you’re not using massive data sets that flush out your SSD cache regularly, Optane Memory is totally worth it. SSDs will always outperform MHDs. An MHD with Optane Memory is a reasonable compromise. For our money, we would go with a laptop that offers a low capacity 128GB SSD paired with a 64GB capacity Optane Memory.