Optane Memory review: Why you may want Intel's futuristic cache in your PC

This next-gen memory technology greatly increases responsiveness of PCs, but only for those who still want to use a hard drive.

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Credit: Intel
At a Glance
  • Intel Optane memory

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    $54.74 MSRP $45.00
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Intel’s Optane Memory gives mainstream users a rare first bite at the bleeding edge of technology. No matter how much hardcore PC enthusiasts yell, scream, and gnash their teeth, they're not going to be using this as standalone storage just yet. Instead, Optane Memory debuts as a caching drive that can—at times—make a hard drive competitive with even the fastest SSDs.

If this seems too good for your dog-slow drive to be true, don't worry. We ran the benchmarks, and you can see the results for yourself. You can also see the caveats in the system requirements, which unfortunately bar the vast majority of PCs from this speedy upgrade. 

Setting up Optane

intel optane memory 2 Intel’s Optane M.2 SSD

You’ll need a mobo that supports Optane and a Core i3 Kaby Lake CPU to run Intel’s newest memory technology.

Not everyone will be able to run Optane Memory. Essentially a 32GB or 16GB M.2 module that supports the fast NVMe data/communications interface, it requires a motherboard that has an M.2 module and BIOS support for Optane. You’ll also need a Kaby Lake Core i3 CPU or better. Intel doesn’t say why it won’t support Celeron or Pentium chips based on the Kaby Lake architecture, but we’d guess the company would rather sell expensive Core i3 and Core i5 CPUs than budget chips. Skylake users are also excluded, to reduce the qualification Intel would have to do, the company claimed. And remember, Kaby Lake is a Windows 10- (or Linux-) only CPU.

To set up Optane, you simply drop it into the M.2 slot, install the drivers and application, then pair the drive with your primary boot drive. The Optane software moves some OS files to the Optane drive itself to aid in faster performance. If you decide to remove the Optane drive, you must unpair them so you don’t lose files.

disablingoptane IDG

You pair your Optane memory with your hard drive, which moves some OS files to the SSD. If you pull the drive without unpairing it, you’ll lose data.

Once installed, the Optane memory drive will be invisible to the OS, and only your hard drive will appear in the File Manager. This is actually one key advantage that Intel touts for Optane, and I’d agree. While a more advanced user can manage having a small 240GB SSD with a 2TB hard drive, the typical person just wants to save files to the primary drive and call it a day. Optane Memory caching for, say, a 4TB drive would be a lot easier for those folks.

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We used a 32GB Optane memory module in an Asus B250 motherboard for our tests.

How we tested

To test Optane Memory we used an Intel-provided system with a quad-core Core i5-7500, 16GB of DDR4/2400, and an Asus B250 Prime motherboard using the Intel B250 chipset. Intel provided the system sans-GPU, so we dropped in a budget Radeon RX 480 for all of our testing.

For storage, Intel provided a 1TB Western Digital Black 7,200rpm hard drive with Windows 10 installed, and a 32GB Optane memory module in the M.2 slot.

To get a feel for how Optane Memory would do against the best, I installed a $629 Samsung 1TB 960 Pro NVME M.2 drive in a PCIe slot. Obviously, Optane is aimed at mainstream-level technology, so I also tested with what I’d consider the opposite of the 960 Pro.

With its TLC NAND and limited cache The 960GB Toshiba Q300 SATA SSD is technically an SSD, but it posted disappointing results in our review, often performing like a hard drive. Although other TLC-based drives aren’t the dog the Toshiba Q300 is, budget SSDs may get worse as QuadLevel Cell NAND is introduced. Still, the question today is how an Optane Memory-accelerated hard drive will perform.

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The Optane control panel is pretty bare-bones right now.

CrystalDiskMark Performance

Our first test is the synthetic CrystalDiskMark 5.2.1 benchmark that’s built on Microsoft’s DISKSPD server and cloud storage performance testing tool. I ran the test on the bare Western Digital hard drive, as well against the same hard drive with the Optane module for caching. I also ran it on the Optane drive itself configured as a standalone 32GB SSD, plus the Toshiba Q300 and Samsung 960 Pro SSDs.

The first result you see here is a sequential read performance using 1MB block sizes and a queue depth of one. As far as workloads go, this would be like reading or copying a single file from your drive. As you can see, the pricey Samsung 960 Pro buzzes along with read speeds around 2.5GBps. The Toshiba Q300 is held back by the SATA 600 interface, with read speeds of about 546MBps. The Western Digital Black 7,200rpm hard drive plods along at 165MBs. Optane Memory, whether configured as a standalone non-caching SSD or used as a caching drive for the Western Digital Drive, turns in a consistent performance of 1.3GBps. 

optane cdm seq 1t read IDG

The sequential read speed of the Optane memory either cached or standalone easily outstrips the Toshiba Q300 SSD but can’t touch Samsung’s 960 Pro.

Although the read speed of the Optane memory is relatively healthy, write speeds are less impressive—closer to that of a low-end SSD, worse even than the Toshiba Q300. Synthetic benchmarks aren’t everything, though, and we’ll cover the weaknesses of budget SSDs vs. Optane in a few paragraphs. Either way, write performance on Optane memory is nothing to write home about.

optane cdm seq 1t write IDG

In pure sequential writes using a single thread, Optane memory doesn’t wow us.

The thing is, to wring the most out of an NVMe SSD with multiple channels, you really need high queue-depth workloads (high queue depths are basically multiple simultaneous requests of the drive). 

Here’s the performance of our drives reading 128KB blocks with a queue depth of 32. The Samung 960 Pro is simply smoking, with read speeds of 3.3GBps. Intel’s Optane drive set up as a small SSD also gives up a decent, but certainly not as impressive score of 1.4GB. When configured as a cache drive it’s pretty much identical, with a score of 1.4GB. The Toshiba Q300’s performance is essentially constrained by the SATA interface with read speeds of 562MBps. And yeah, the hard drive gives up a “blazing” 169MB read speed.

optane cdm seq write q32 IDG

The read performance, however, of the Optane drive as a cache and standalone is far better with a 1MB block-size load and queue depth of 1.

One argument against using high queue depths as a measurement of SSD performance is that few consumer workloads ever actually match that. Intel says concentrating on high queue depths just isn’t realistic, and many reviewers would agree. This excellent Tom’s Hardware primer by Andrew Ku shows that loading and playing games, for example, are “almost completely at a queue depth of one.”

Another argument Intel makes for Optane is its performance on small 4KB blocks. Configured as a standalone SSD, the Optane module offers substantially higher performance with small files with a single queue depth. In fact, even the mighty Samsung 960 Pro gets its lunch eaten here. Running the Optane module in its cached mode we also see a significant performance advantage. And yes, the plain Western Digital hard drive is basically moving as slow as a snail here, with a score of 0.

optane cdm 4k block read 1t IDG

One of Intel’s arguments for Optane is off-the-hook latency when reading small files with very low queue depths. Optane as a cache for the hard drive also destroys both SSDs, including the mighty Samsung 960 Pro.

Read on for how Optane memory does in more real-world tests.

At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating
    $54.74 MSRP $45.00
    View
    on Amazon

    Intel's Optane Module will make a world of difference for users stuck with traditional hard drives. Those drives must be in higher-end Kaby Lake systems running Windows 10, though.

    Pros

    • Exceptional 4K file performance
    • Can rival high performance SSDs under some circumstances
    • Wipes out hard drive-only performance

    Cons

    • Only works with Kaby Lake Core i3 and up CPUs
    • Performance drops once you burn through the cache
    • Would feel better if $15 lower in cost.
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