Optane vs. RAM: What Makes These Memory Types Different?

Optane vs RAM

Optane vs RAM? It’s almost too easy to confuse the two. But if you’ve been looking for ways to enhance the speed of your laptop, you’ve likely come across both – they’re technologies designed to help you store information on your laptop more efficiently. But each form of memory works entirely in its own way. So, should you go with Optane Memory or RAM? The truth? Choosing one over the other depends on your usage and priorities. In what follows, we’re going to show you some of the technical concepts behind their technologies and present them in a way that’s easy to understand. Let’s go!

First, Some Important Concepts

A hard drive, aka MHDs and SSDs, is what’s referred to as a laptop’s local storage.  It’s the main source of memory designed to store programs and data. Nowadays, they’re made with huge capacities to hold a lot of information.

But a larger storage capacity comes at the expense of speed. And with the long read/write times of a local storage drive like an MHD, it would be a near impossibility to achieve any meaningful task.

This is where RAM (random access memory) comes in. This type of memory stores all the data that the CPU needs in real-time. Because of it shorter read/write times you can interact with programs much faster and call on applications on-demand.

The hard drive is what’s known as non-volatile memory.  Information is saved even after you power off your laptop. RAM is volatile memory. This means that any data stored on it is whipped once power is cut from the system.

So, What Is Optane Memory?

Optane is a revolutionary type of memory conceptualized by Intel in 2015 before it was officially released in 2017 in partnership with Micron.

To put it simply, Optane is intended to bridge the gap between the faster read/write speeds of RAM and the bigger storage capacity of a hard drive. What you get is: faster data access for amazing response and speed.  Along with a quick and easy operation.

What’s in it?  Optane memory utilizes Intel’s 3D XPoint technology, which consists of storage controllers, Intel memory, Intel interconnect IP, 3D XPoint memory and Intel software.

A laptop with an old mechanical hard drive fitted with Optane memory will feel as fast as a machine with an SSD with the ability to handle tons of requests simultaneously.

This type of memory works best in a system with at least a 7th generation processor and Intel Rapid Storage Technology, (more about this momentarily).

Optane vs RAM: How Do They Work?

Comparing Optane and RAM is like comparing oranges and mangoes. Yes, they share a somewhat similar hue, they’re both pretty tasty, and they can have similar sizes. Nevertheless, they can’t be considered the same thing, not by a long shot.

Optane operates via the 3D XPoint memory (pronounced: cross-point). Unlike RAM, this memory is built to store much larger data in a considerably smaller size. Intel achieves this by completely changing the memory structure:

3D XPoint Structure

Intel Optane Memory vs SSDs vs RAM: What are the Differences?Instead of using separate transistors, the 3D XPoint utilizes perpendicular conductors that group billions of densely packed memory cells together. Each cell is intended to store a bit of data. To read or write on these cells, the system varies the voltage sent to each conductor.

RAM, remember, is a volatile form of storage. Once you shut-down your laptop, data is automatically wiped off this storage type. Optane, on the other hand, works more like a non-volatile memory to preserve the data indefinitely, much like a hard drive.

Optane vs RAM: Transfer Speeds

This is where the comparison starts to crystalize:

No matter what, volatile memory is always faster than non-volatile memory.

To put things into perspective, a DDR4 2133 MHz RAM can reach transfer speeds of up to 17 GB/s. On the other extreme, the first reports of Optane claimed that it’ll transfer at 2.5 GB/s. But the actual speed couldn’t exceed 1.4 GB/s. Either way, that’s way slower than the speed of RAM.

And just so we’re 100% up front, RAM can flex its muscle even more: A DDR4 3200 MHz RAM can hit nose-bleed speeds of a whopping 25.6GB/s!

And with volatile memory, we wouldn’t be surprised to find speeds doubling or even tripling that in the near future. While XPoint can increase cache size, it’s technically impossible for Optane memory to get any faster.

What About SSD?

If comparing Optane and RAM is illogical, is there a comparison that makes more sense, then?

Yes!

We don’t think that Intel intended to be pitted against RAM with their Optane technology. In fact, we don’t think the intention of Optane memory is to go head-to-head with any established form of memory and here’s why:

SSD vs. MHD

SSDs (solid-state drives) are another form of non-volatile memory. To understand how they work, we should briefly explain how MHDs work.

If you open an MHD, you’ll find a large shiny platter with a sophisticated arm going back and forth over its face. An internal spindle rotates the platter so that the arm can read the data etched on the surface.

SSDs ditch this mechanical build all together for a more “futuristic” construction. SSDs have a circuit board with a bunch of NAND flash memory parts installed. Instead of using a moving arm, the data is read and written via a small multicore processor called the controller.

In terms of transfer speeds, the best MHD on the market can’t go any faster than 0.1 GB/s. SDDs raise the bar to about 0.5 GB/s.

Optane vs. SSD

As you must’ve deduced, Intel’s Optane memory pretty much crush SSDs with their higher transfer speeds (1.3 vs. 0.5 GB/s). But it doesn’t end here.

Optane: Smart Behavior-Driven Performance

On their own, SSDs are mere hard drives. They have faster speeds than MHDs, but they’re still lifeless machines. It’s our belief that Optane is intended to make hard drives smarter.

The Optane memory uses the “least recently used” (LRU) caching system. To understand what this means, let’s use a simple analogy.

Let’s say you’re an office worker in a time before PC’s were widespread. Your job is to handle a certain amount of paperwork per day. Your assistant is supposed to get you the daily paperwork from the storeroom.

At the end of the day, you might leave some complex cases on your desk for the next day. Nevertheless, your manager mandates that all desks be cleared before leaving for the day.

This is where your assistant kicks. Your assistant needs to use their best judgement to decide whether to send the finished cases you won’t need soon to the storeroom. Then move the cases you’ll need the next day to their desk where you can instantly grab them as soon as you arrive tomorrow.

That’s exactly how the LRU works. It sorts the cache based on your usage history. Programs, games, and files that you open frequently are always kept in the cache. Data that’s rarely used are regularly stored on the hard drive to save space.

Intel Rapid Storage Technology (IRST)

Another useful feature that sets Optane memory apart from the typical hard drive is IRST. Think of it as the software component of the LRU. This software uses sophisticated AI algorithms to sort out your laptop’s cache regardless of the last launching time: It’s totally dependent on runtime, frequency, user performance, etc.

So, Can Optane Replace RAM?

No.

Believe us, when we say you don’t want to run your laptop at a 1.3 GB/s transfer rate. It creates an absurd amount of bottleneck for your CPU. Optane was never built to replace RAM or local storage for that matter. Instead, it’s intended to complement a RAM-MHD setup, or better yet, a RAM-SSD setup.

Put simply, Optane memory technology is meant to compliment volatile and non-volatile memory.  Like a laptop with an SSD, it’s yet another method by which to speed up computer operations.

As Optane memory relates to RAM, it’s connected indirectly to a system via an Input/output bus or disk controller and not directly to the processor; this limits its potential as a replacement for RAM.

The Wonderful Benefits of Optane Memory

Optane memory is totally worth pairing with RAM or your hard drive.  You get a 28% boost in overall system performance thanks to its unique caching feature.

Let’s now consider other ways you can benefit from Optane memory:

  • For gaming, Optane memory offers amazing gaming visuals with high frame rates.
  • Heavy load programs like the ones you use for work and productivity tasks run faster and smoother.
  • Optane memory can help your hard drive store your information much faster and 10x more data than RAM alone.
  • If you have a 2-in-1 laptop you like watching movies and videos on, you can store your favorite ones in Optane memory so you can access them faster.
  • Keep track of the websites you visit the most in Optane memory for faster read operation.

Optane vs RAM: Concluding Words

Again, deciding between Optane memory and RAM depends on your usage and priorities. Optane memory makes system performance faster. It caches and stores the data and programs you use most often which helps the CPU access them faster upon your request. And it does so without compromising storage capacity. RAM is fast, even faster than Optane memory. But it has little to no value when it comes to non-volatile storage. Optane memory acts as a system accelerator for both RAM and your hard drive for faster read operation on larger chunks of data. Use it for un-paralleled gaming performance and productivity tasks.