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Intel's 32GB Optane Memory storage accelerator reviewed

3D Xpoint offers a helping hand to hard drives

Intel's Optane SSD DC P4800X looks like a performance revolution for certain data-center workloads, but the company's Optane plans for plain old PCs are a bit more modest. A couple weeks ago, Intel let loose the details of its Optane Memory cache, a small slice of 3D Xpoint storage that sits on an M.2 gumstick. If you're not already familiar with Optane Memory, you should go read my introductory article now—I won't be rehashing much of that content here.

As a brief refresher, Optane Memory is meant to give a shot of SSD-like speed to systems that rely on hard drives alone for storage when used with its companion software. The underlying 3D Xpoint tech seems ideally suited for that purpose, given its high performance and responsiveness at the low queue depths typical of desktop workloads. About 80% of desktop PCs will ship with nothing but a hard drive in 2017, at least if you believe Intel's numbers. At first glance, that would appear to give Optane Memory a broad potential market.

However, Optane Memory's platform requirements and pricing seem to pose some hurdles for the product. The $44 16GB module and the $77 32GB module that will be available at launch only work with PCs with 200-series motherboards and Kaby Lake Core CPUs. Budget builders and system integrators who might have wanted to pair Optane Memory with Intel's Kaby Lake Pentiums are out of luck.

That's a shame, because Optane Memory only seems to make sense for a narrow set of systems right now given those restrictions. To start off, I went looking for the price range one needs to pay a major system integrator to get a PC with a reasonably-sized SSD as a system drive. (128GB SSDs don't count these days.) I found that $1000 buys a Dell XPS Special Edition tower with a Radeon RX 480, a 256GB M.2 SSD, a 1TB hard drive, and a Windows 10 license. Pretty dear, all things considered, but it's what's on offer.

The most expensive Dell desktop PC I could find without an SSD on board is a "New Inspiron Desktop" with a Core i5-7400, integrated graphics, and a 1TB hard drive inside for $630. Given that spec, I expect Optane Memory will probably show up most often in prebuilt PCs selling for $700 or less. Dell's cheapest seventh-gen Core system with a hard drive as its only storage device runs $429, so I'd guess $500 is about the price floor for an Optane Memory-equipped system. Potentially tight window of opportunity, like I said.

PC DIYers face a different set of choices around Optane. Using our Budget Box as a starting point, one has to factor in at least an extra $27 or so for the Core i3-7100 CPU one will need at a minimum, $44 to $77 for the Optane Memory device itself, and at least $50 for the WD Blue 1TB 7200-RPM hard drive we like. If a builder were to spring for the $77 32GB Optane Memory module, that would take the total platform cost to about $150, or the same as a 480GB-class SSD these days. Even the 16GB module at $44 keeps the total platform cost tantalizingly close to that of a 480GB drive.

As just one upgrade recipe for our Budget Box parts list, one could step down to a Pentium G4560 to save $27 over the Pentium G4620. Scratch the WD Blue 1TB off the parts list, add in the virtual $44 or $77 from the Optane Memory modules, and we end up close to getting a 480GB SSD for the same price as the Optane Memory upgrade would have cost, slightly lower CPU performance and lower total storage capacity aside. Point is, builders have choices in this market, and Optane will need to perform well to justify its platform price tag.

Now that we have Optane Memory in the lab, I'm going to find out just what offers to a hard-drive-only system, and whether the performance it offers is worth the extra cost and strict platform requirements it brings with it. Given the cost breakdown I outlined above, I'll also be comparing Optane Memory's performance to that of a comparably-priced 480GB SSD. Let's dive in.

The testbed and our testing methods
To let me take Optane Memory for a test drive, Intel sent over not just an Optane Memory module, but an entire PC to go with it. The company put together a rough equivalent of the New Inspiron Desktop I just described for me to test with. Here are its full specs as it turned up in the TR labs:

Processor Intel Core i5-7500
Motherboard Asus B250-Plus
Chipset Intel B250
Memory size 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-2400
Hard drive WD Black 1TB + Optane Memory 32GB
OCZ Trion 150 480GB
Power supply Cooler Master G550M
OS Windows 10 Pro

Our thanks to Intel for providing the PC to make this review possible. Here's a glimpse of this box and its innards:

Being the gamer that I am, I couldn't rely on Intel's integrated graphics for my testing. To remedy this system's weak gaming performance, I installed EVGA's GeForce GTX 1050 Ti Superclocked graphics card.

This $140 card doesn't need external power to deliver high-quality gaming performance, so it was a natural fit for this PC. Our thanks to EVGA for letting us get our grubby paws on this budget-friendly pixel pusher.

We also needed a budget-friendly SSD to represent the upgrade option in our tests. Say hello to OCZ's Trion 150 480GB SSD, a budget favorite of ours for some time. Our thanks to OCZ for this drive, as well.

Here's a bonus image of the Optane Memory module itself, if you were curious. It looks like just about every other M.2 gumstick on the market. It's what's inside that counts, though.

As always, we did our best to deliver clean benchmark numbers. Each test was run three times, and we took the median result of the three. We used Windows' Balanced power profile for our tests. To ensure similar test conditions at the start of each benchmarking run, we restarted the PC after every measurement. We connected the PC to a 3840x2160 monitor running at 60 Hz. With those introductions out of the way, let's get to testing.