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The Intel Optane Memory Module Review

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To say Intel’s Optane technology is a new idea would be a fallacy. The thought of accelerating a system’s overall performance through a combination of high capacity storage alongside a more targeted low latency secondary solution has been around for decades now. As you might remember Intel themselves has been doing this for years with their Smart Response SSD Caching while AMD took another approach with their RAMDisk technology and others went the same route. However, what Optane hopes to do is bring that synergy to the next level by offering a lightning fast, affordable and adaptable medium that should drastically increase a system’s responsiveness.

In a recent article we discussed the ramifications of Intel’s Optane technology on the enterprise market and alluded to a more consumer-friendly option. Well that option has now arrived in the form of the first Intel Optane Memory modules. Code Named ‘Stony Bench’ these $44 (16GB) and $77 (32GB) devices are meant to lead the charge into non-Enterprise markets and quickly gain the awareness of home users. Only later will Intel release their mainstream / enthusiast crossover device.

The best way to describe these Optane Memory modules is “Smart Response Caching on steroids” since their intent is the same as Intel’s older implementation but the underlying technology is much more advanced. Launched years ago, Intel’s SSD caching utilized their Rapid Storage Technology (or RST) backend to harness the power of lower-capacity SSDs to effectively cache key pieces of information needed to accelerate load times of frequently-used programs. Back then it was a great way to attain SSD-like performance without spending a small fortune for higher-capacity SSDs.

While the landscape has since changed and SSDs are more affordable than ever, Intel believes their combination of blazing fast 3DXpoint memory and a thoroughly updated version of the RST caching algorithm could bring higher level system performance to almost everyone. That even includes folks who are currently using an SSD.

As with previous versions of RST, there are some limitations when it comes to Optane compatibility. While it will work as a complementary device to any HDD or SSHD, you’ll need a Z270 motherboard and a 7th generation Core series processor since those devices hold the necessary microcode updates for communication with an Optane module. Take note that even if you have a Z270 motherboard and older 6th generation processor (IE: 6xxx-series CPU), Optane won’t work; Kaby Lake is an absolute necessity.

There are a few other notable limitations as well, some of which will likely make Optane a less than optimal solution for gamers. First and foremost, Optane will only be able to accelerate data coming from your primary boot drive and not a secondary drive. That means if you store your game library on a secondary high capacity volume, none of those applications will benefit from improved load times.

Another thing to note is that much like traditional RST caching, Optane Memory isn’t meant to replace or even be complementary to traditional SSDs. Rather, it is very much meant to address the performance shortfalls associated with traditional spindle-based media. The SSD market will be effectively targeted by the upcoming Optane SSD which we will cover a bit later this year.

As we have mentioned many times in the past the ‘upcoming’ Optane technology is a major reason for people to upgrade from even last generation Z170 based systems to Z270 based systems. Without Optane the ‘double tock’ Kaby Lake refresh is arguably less than over-brimming with justifications to upgrade. With the PC market in a rather long period of stagnation Intel may not be betting the bank on Optane Memory but it success will play a large part in whether or not Intel can hold market share against AMD and their recently released X370 + Ryzen 3/5/7 combination.

One of the key differentiators here is the previously-mentioned pricing structure for Optane Memory but that can also be its Achilles heel as well. At $44 for the 16GB module and $77 for 32GB, they don’t seem to be that expensive but Intel has put that 32GB model in a precarious position. For about that same price you can grab a Corsair Force LE 120GB or PNY CS1311 120GB stand-alone drive. On the other hand, the 16GB Optane module really stands without peer right now.

But will this be enough to convince buyers to go with Optane? From the way we see it, Optane seems to be an excellent way to affordably boost performance of lower-end systems and budget notebooks. For system integrators it represents a method by which they can decrease BOM costs while also adding a key bullet point for their marketing materials. Over the course of this review, we’ll explore exactly what Optane can bring to the table and whether or not it is truly beneficial over the alternatives.

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