Some early thoughts about performance and pricing
While we were at Intel's Folsom, CA facilities recently, I got some hands-on time for comparison testing with an Intel-provided Optane Memory module and a compatible PC equipped with a hard drive and Windows 10. Intel allowed us to run some canned tests on these Optane Memory-equipped systems, and after comparing first-launch performance with second-launch performance, the Optane Memory cache did shave off a few seconds of launch time from each application available to us (the GIMP, Blender, and FL Studio). We'll need to do more comparison testing to get a full idea of what Optane Memory offers, but users should at least enjoy some net benefit from this technology if it comes installed in a given PC.
Given how aggressively Optane began caching programs after even one program load, the tech should have near-immediate benefits for PCs with the Optane Memory software installed. It remains to be seen how extended use will affect what can remain in the Optane cache, and we also need to test a broader range of applications than the almost certainly cherry-picked choices that Intel made on the testing PCs available to us. Still, there is a definite benefit to Optane Memory when it works. We'll just need more time with Optane Memory—and time with a broader range of comparison systems—to see whether the tech is actually worth it.
The most pressing question about any whiz-bang new storage technology is whether it's worth the cost to add it to a system to begin with. Thankfully, Optane Memory is relatively affordable. Intel told me that the 16GB version of the device will retail for $44, while the 32GB device will go for $77.
The cost of entry for the 16GB Optane Memory cache seems reasonable enough that budget builders trying to get both capacity and responsiveness might not have to break the bank. Adding the 16GB Optane Memory device to our B250-chipset-powered budget box would take its price from $500-ish to $550-ish. The same $100 or so (between a WD Blue 1TB and the 16GB Optane Memory cache) gets a nice 250GB-class SSD, but such a drive will fill up much faster than the WD Blue.
The problem for Intel in the DIY PC world is that builders will be weighing that extra $45 and thinking about putting it toward a more powerful graphics card like a Radeon RX 480 4GB, which is well within the range of attainability over our GeForce GTX 1050 Ti budget pick given that extra dough. We guess many will be willing to tolerate slower boot-ups and game loading times for higher performance once an application is loaded (at least assuming a game doesn't become CPU-bound, as it might with a Pentium G4620 and an RX 480 4GB). Still, Optane Memory might prove to be an affordable way to spiff up a hard-drive-equipped PC on a budget without sacrificing capacity.
I'm less enthused about the prospect of pairing Optane Memory with an NAND SSD in a more expensive system like our Sweet Spot build. Intel still claims that users will experience benefits from pairing Optane's unique QD1 performance characteristics with a less-responsive NAND device, but the challenge I see in that market is whether the performance difference (if there is one) is noticeable enough to be worth the price over simply buying a larger SSD. Intel might still find some takers in this market, however, since the impact of $45 to $75 extra on a high-end system isn't that much in the grand scheme of things. Given Optane's order-of-magnitude latency reduction versus NAND for responsiveness, I have a hunch this technology might have interesting impacts on 99th-percentile frame times in games. Just a hunch, though.
As we've known for some time, Optane Memory won't work with just any system. OEMs and system builders who want to take advantage of the technology will need a seventh-generation Core (or Kaby Lake) processor and a motherboard with any 200-series chipset (B250, Q250, Q270, H270, and Z270) that has an M.2 slot. Intel explains this limited hardware support by noting it's only performed the necessary qualification work for Optane Memory on systems comprising those two key components. Fair enough, I suppose.
Even with those limitations, an Optane Memory stick will certainly fit into any PCIe 3.0 x4-powered M.2 slot, and it'll likely appear as an NVMe storage device to the operating system, but the tiny sizes of the intitial Optane Memory sticks make this use case little more than a curiosity.
If nothing else, Intel has seized on a real pain point for system builders on a budget. The ever-increasing sizes of photos, videos, and game installs are putting more and more pressure on storage space for affordable PCs these days, and they're certainly outstripping the price decreases we've seen for a given amount of NAND flash storage. While a 128GB SSD is affordable these days, it'll be quickly overrun by the needs of anybody with a few advanced programs and a modest Steam library. Even a 240GB-class SSD is getting harder and harder to live with these days, as I'm reminded fairly often when I need to fire up WinDirStat to figure out what's filling up my daily-driver PC's 840 Pro.
As I've noted repeatedly in the preceding paragraphs, the 1TB hard drive we recommend to budget builders lets those folks rest easy with plenty of room to store today's increasingly belt-busting titles. The downside is that a hard-drive-only system just can't be as snappy or responsive as a box with an SSD for its system drive. Once you've seen the SSD light, switching back to a box with nothing but a hard drive for storage is a grating experience. We'll have to see whether Optane Memory eases that pain when we get an opportunity to run it through a broader range of tests soon.