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The Intel Optane Memory Module Review

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Conclusion: Teaching a New Dog Old Tricks

Before I get into the “meat” of this conclusion, let’s take a look at how Intel’s 32GB Optane module stacks up in comparison to both the drives it is meant to compliment and those it may find itself competing against.

SSD = Crucial MX300 275GB, HDD = WD Black 1TB, SSHD = Seagate Desktop SSHD 1TB

As you can see Optane does indeed boost performance of any HDD or SSHD to some pretty significant levels. This is a very good thing as it offers consumers another alternative to the Solid State Hybrid route and does so with improved flexibility in choosing what HDD to pair the technology with. For anyone that already owns, and is using a hard drive Optane is indeed a great match. It will also be a good pairing for system integrators who are still leveraging the price per GB ratio of spindle-based media to compliment their notebooks and desktops.

Unfortunately, even entry level solid state drives can offer a better overall experience and those are products which Optane in its 32GB form will find itself competing against. While opting for a SATA-based SSD instead of Optane will result in lower sequential read throughput this is more than made up for in writes and overall system performance.

So with all of that being said, what do we really think about Optane in its Memory Module form? Well that’s not quite so cut and dried as some may have hoped since its net benefits target a narrow but massive market. With that being said, what we are now seeing is the very tip of what Optane can provide.

As every enthusiast knows Intel has placed high expectations upon this much promised, but somewhat delayed technology. They fully expect Optane to be the foundation upon which many entry level and mainstream systems of the future will be built. Their first Optane salvo in the recently hot war for your dollars has proven to be impressive if somewhat limited in its scope.

As we saw throughout testing these inexpensive little devices really do deliver on their promise of noticeably improved system responsiveness in a wide array of scenarios. It can make a less expensive system act, and react, more like a high-performance one. That is indeed great news for Intel and consumers alike. Intel can now offer a tangible reason to upgrade to the Kaby Lake platform and buyers have a great new tool in their arsenal to help keep their budget from ballooning out control, all the while keeping performance first rate.

It is important to remember this still is a first-generation device and in some ways this newness does show through the thick new coat of paint Intel has spackled onto a rather old idea. As a result there are some pretty significant hurdles here. Things like chipset and form-factor limitations, capacity constraints, reduction of future system upgrade options, lack of fine tuning / customization of the Optane caching configuration, and imbalanced overall performance all need to be highlighted.

With this new technology being baked directly into the LGA1151 2-series chipset a vast swath of Intel’s past customers are effectively shut out of Optane’s walled garden. Everyone from Z170 owners to even Intel HEDT users running X99 systems need not apply. This is unfortunate and the optics of this move have left some people less than enthused with Intel in general. Given this new idea is based on an Intel’s old SRT foundation, that is arguably a fair assessment regardless of excuses to the contrary.

The capacity issue is a bit more concerning as Optane Memory modules only come in two sizes: minuscule and tiny. This is where the Smart Response Technology lineage of Optane Memory caching technology shines through the brightest. Back before it was launched Intel’s internal testing of Smart Response Technologies’ caching abilities showed that for most scenarios 16 to 32 GB of cache was more than enough. This made sense in a time when OS footprints were small, applications were even smaller, games were rarely bigger than a DVD and SSDs cost an arm and a leg per Gigabyte. Fast-forward to the present and capacity requirements for both applications and their cache files have grown exponentially. With that in mind, much like previous iterations of RST caching, Optane will indeed boost performance but not for everything all the time.

It should be more than obvious that Optane is made to appeal primarily to system builders and newcomers rather the people who are accustomed to building a system with their own two hands. As such its plug and play capabilities cannot be overlooked as they are indeed well done but they also limit customization. There is currently no way to modify the existing caching configuration and the rather imbalanced overall performance. As we saw throughout testing the Optane Memory Module is indeed faster than a Hard Disk Drive or a Solid State Hybrid Drive but compared to similarly priced SSD options it just cannot compete when it comes to write speed and deep queue depth scenarios. Now granted the narrow focus on read performance fits perfectly with the caching niche it is trying to play within, but the Optane Memory Module certainly isn’t as adaptable as it could be.

This issue could have been avoided had the software backend allowed for more than an “all or nothing” approach. Since the Optane application incorrectly assumes the Memory Module will always be the faster of the two paired storage devices, users wishing to have the fastest system possible for the smallest investment would be wise to not pair an SSD with it. Instead that money would be more wisely spent on a HDD to accompany an inexpensive SSD and skip Optane altogether. For instance, a Crucial MX300 275GB SSD is only $13 more than the 32GB Optane Memory module but is more well-rounded in its abilities and offers well over eight and a half times the capacity. And therein lies the issue: it is almost impossible to find a use for Optane that RST caching didn’t already provide.

All told Intel certainly has created a device that is very capable for existing hard disk drive owners,
but its usefulness is quite limited for homebrew DIYers who choose their own components. On the other hand we’re certain system builders will lap these modules up for their notebooks and small form factor desktops since they could drastically accelerate system responsiveness without much trouble or cost.

To summarize, while this certainly is not the slam dunk Intel may have been hoping for to counter sales stagnation it is only the first foray for Optane technology into the consumer market. Those who decide against Intel’s first consumer orientated Optane Memory series may indeed find a more suitable solution to their needs in the upcoming months. Otherwise, what we see here is raw potential coupled with a caching formula that’s been around for more than a decade.

 

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