Introduction, Design Features
For going on two decades, we’ve been fighting the good fight, explaining to anyone who will listen that those kilobytes, megabytes, or gigabytes of RAM in your PC—the stuff that holds data temporarily while it’s being worked on—should be called system memory. Those same units, when used for long-term stowing-away of your data on a hard drive, is storage capacity.
With Intel’s Optane Memory, that gets all muddied up, and gives us a whole lot more explainin’ to do. That’s not to say that Optane Memory is a bad thing. Just don’t think of it as RAM—though it sounds like it ought to be RAM.
Going on sale April 24, 2017, and expected to start showing up as a component in pre-built PCs in the next few months, Optane Memory is part storage drive, part system accelerator. It’s a caching drive made of solid-state memory that’s designed to speed up the perceived reaction time and speed of a hard drive that’s used as your system’s boot drive.
Spinning-platter hard drives are, as a rule, much slower in terms of load and response time, due to their moving parts. Optane Memory acts as a dynamically managed staging area for your most-used files, operating-system elements, and other bits, accelerating access on the fly according to what you use most. The concept sounds simple, but even close observers of the PC-component market might be forgiven for being confused around this thing called Optane, as it’s been tied to a much-anticipated kind of memory called “3D XPoint.”
The first products featuring Intel and Micron’s joint-developed 3D XPoint memory technology (pronounced “cross-point”) are now hitting the market. But it was not clear until recently what they would actually be, or what markets they’d serve. True client-style solid-state drives (SSDs) employing 3D XPoint are expected down the road, and Intel has detailed a data-center-grade SSD, the 375GB Intel DC P4800X, priced at $1,520, that will make use of the memory tech. While it is also a child of 3D XPoint, Optane Memory—capital “O,” capital “M”—is a whole other animal.
To clear up a few things up front: “3D XPoint” is the name of the new memory tech, while “Optane” is the branding for the products that use it. Also, 3D XPoint, designed by Intel and Micron, is best described as a cross between very fast DRAM and high-capacity, affordable NAND flash memory.
The main differences between these two kinds of memory, at the most basic level, are persistence of data, and cost. DRAM is costlier, and thus, you’ll tend to see it in lower capacities. It’s also volatile, meaning that it needs a constant stream of power to retain data. NAND, in contrast, is cheap, able to scale to larger capacities, and non-volatile—able to hold data without being powered all the time. For those reasons, NAND is found in flash drives and SSDs.
The idea behind 3D XPoint is to deliver the benefits of both technologies. As for what makes it tick, 3D XPoint is rather cloaked in mystery. Intel isn’t saying what materials it uses for it, but it’s essentially a 3D mesh that does not use transistors…
That’s all well and good, but what can you do with it in an everyday PC? That’s where the Optane Memory modules come in.
New Cache, Same as the Old Cache? Optane Memory Hardware
Optane Memory is the first consumer-facing product that’s based on 3D XPoint. As it turns out, we suspect that the first place most PC users will encounter it is when looking at the specs for pre-built budget PCs (desktop ones, most likely) later in 2017. That said, the first Optane Memory products will be available from resellers starting on the date of this review. You can buy them and experiment with them today.
As was reported earlier this month, Optane Memory is debuting as 16GB and 32GB caching modules. When an Optane Memory drive is installed alongside your boot drive, the two appear as one physical drive. The modules themselves look identical to modern PCI Express SSDs, in that they use the M.2 form factor and ride the PCI Express bus. (See our guide to the best M.2 solid-state drives.) As such, you will need an M.2 Type-2280 slot in which to install one. A larger caveat: They are only compatible with Intel’s newest “Kaby Lake” CPUs, on motherboards with a 200-series chipset. (That said, most late-model motherboards that support Kaby Lake and the correct chipset will have an M.2 slot that will work.)
The reason for the Kaby Lake limitation, as Intel explained at a recent press event unveiling Optane Memory: Validating it for use with earlier generations would have been prohibitive. Intel could have made it work with its previous 6th Generation/”Skylake” environment, but company reps said it would require too many resources to validate hundreds of motherboards and all its previous CPUs. So it stuck with its newest platform; that’s where its current focus lies.
The two Optane Memory modules will cost $44 (16GB) and $77 (32GB) at launch. The greater the capacity, the more data can be staged in the fast flash on the module. On a per-gigabyte basis, Optane Memory is quite pricey; though NAND-based SSDs cost about 30 cents per gigabyte, Optane is ringing up at about $2.75 per gig for the memory in the caching drives (or $4 per gig for that in the enterprise SSD we mentioned earlier). Indeed, the 32GB Optane Memory module costs about the same as an entry-level 240GB or 250GB SATA SSD.
Optane: The Setup Routine
The process for setting up Intel Optane Memory is simple, though most users who run across the technology in the near term will probably see it as an Optane Memory module that’s already configured in a PC that they have purchased. We don’t expect many folks will install Optane Memory themselves as part of a PC upgrade or DIY build. That said, if you are starting from zero with Optane, you still should be up and running in a few minutes.
Optane Memory modules, which, as we mentioned, come in 16GB and 32GB flavors, are M.2 modules that fit into the same motherboard M.2 slots that M.2-style SSDs and Wi-Fi cards use. We’ll assume you’re doing this on a desktop; if so, you’ll first want to check with the maker of your PC’s motherboard regarding Optane Memory compatibility. You may need to run a BIOS update in advance of setup, which is really the trickiest part of the whole process. (Remember, this is as bleeding-edge as storage tech comes, at the moment of this writing.) Asus, for one, just before the launch of Optane Memory noted that some of its existing Kaby Lake 200-series boards will need a UEFI BIOS update to gain Optane Memory support.
Once the BIOS is updated, you’ll shut the PC down, disconnect the power cable, crack the case, and find the M.2 slot. The Optane Memory module mounts on the board with the usual tiny, easy-to-lose screw that all M.2 slots use. Install the module with the system lying flat—trust us, you don’t want the screw falling and ending up inside the guts of your PC’s power supply. (Ask us how we know.)
After the Optane Module is in place, you’ll boot up and, once at the desktop, grab the Optane Memory driver from https://downloadcenter.intel.com. You’ll need to check that the Intel RST driver is not installed, then run the Optane installer.
From there, you’ll reboot, and after that, an Optane taskbar utility will load as a startup item. Double-click it, and from inside the simple control panel that pops up, you’ll enable the Optane Memory functionality by clicking the Enable button…
It will then start an optimization routine. The process will also “associate” the Optane Memory module with your boot drive, based on the serial number of the drive. (As a result, swapping out the hard drive will require re-optimization of the Optane setup.) The routine will also copy key files to the module. Once done, you’re ready to go and enjoy the benefit. According to Intel, enabling Optane switches the drive over to RAID/Intel RST mode (as opposed to AHCI).
Disabling Optane, should you decide to for whatever reason (say, to install a true M.2 SSD, or a larger-capacity Optane drive), is as simple as choosing the Disable button in the Optane control panel on the Setup tab, which you should do before making any drive-environment changes…
That’s all there is to it. There isn’t a lot of complexity or tweakability in the driver interface as it currently stands, nor is the hardware install a challenge. It’s meant to be snap-simple to implement, and it is.
That said, we ran across a small bug three times when enabling and disabling Optane Memory in the utility, in which the pop-up window froze then launched an infinite number of times, crawling down the screen…
Everyday users will only enable Optane Memory once, then leave it alone, so they will probably never encounter this; we only did because we were hammering the interface hard in our testing, turning it on and off dozens of times. A reboot fixed the problem in each case.