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|
|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 3840×2160 monitor running at 60 Hz. With those introductions out of the way, let’s get to testing.
Some quick synthetic performance tests
Since Optane Memory uses NVMe as its underlying protocol, an Optane Memory module will first appear as a small SSD in Windows’ Disk Management utility. Although this is absolutely not the way most people will or should use Optane Memory, I was able to format the drive as a 27GB NTFS volume so that we could run some basic synthetic storage benchmarks on the stuff. CrystalDiskMark is admittedly not the most in-depth storage benchmark around, but it at least gives us a basic idea of a storage device’s performance.
Starting with one thread at QD1, Optane has pretty spectacular low-QD performance for both sequential and random reads. The media configuration or firmware of the device seems much less speedy with writes, however.
Get away from typical desktop workloads by upping the queue depths to four and eight, and the Optane Memory module still enjoys some read performance scaling. Write performance seems to run into a wall far quicker, though.
Finally, at four threads and a queue depth of 32 for maximum parallelism, we can see that the device’s sequential read performance tops out at about QD8, in accordance with Intel’s claims for Optane in general. Random read performance still had plenty of room to scale, however.
Playing by the rules
With my basic curiosity about the Optane Memory module’s performance satisfied, I ran the setup process baked into Intel’s Optane Memory driver. After a couple of reboots, the app indicated that Optane Memory was up and running, so I got to testing. The natural first test of Optane Memory’s performance was boot times.
Windows 10 adds a small wrinkle to shutdown and startup behavior with a feature called Fast Startup that’s on by default. As Microsoft explains it, fast startup “simply loads the hibernation file (Hiberfil.sys) into memory to restore the previously saved image of the Windows kernel and loaded drivers” after a shutdown. The net result is a much faster boot than starting from scratch, and we can see that Fast Startup delivers on its promise even with no help from Optane. Strangely, Optane Memory seems to perform better with Fast Startup disabled than it does with the feature enabled. Worth noting, we suppose.
Oddly enough, the Optane Memory setup also outperforms our SSD for getting to the Windows desktop quickly. Maybe there’s more to 3D Xpoint’s low-QD performance than we figured.
The first pure productivity app in our suite is Adobe’s evergreen Photoshop CC 2017. The hard drive alone is unsurprisingly the worst performer of the bunch. The real surprise is how the Optane cache outperforms even the OCZ Trion 150 by a couple seconds here. The SSD may launch the app four times faster than a hard drive alone, but Optane Memory can apparently halve the launch time again for a roughly eight-times-faster improvement. Not too shabby.
I also tested Optane Memory with Adobe’s Premiere Pro CC 2017 non-linear video editing software. We tested this app two ways. The first involved a cold load time, as we performed with Photoshop. Once again, Optane Memory won out, albeit not quite as widely as it did with Photoshop. The cache layer lets Premiere launch more than 3.5 times as fast as it can on a hard drive alone. Launching Premiere from the Trion 150 offers nearly a 3x speedup.
Our second test involved loading an Intel-provided Premiere project file comprising a couple hundred megs of files. In this test, both solid-state storage devices are still impressively fast, but the hard drive is able to close the gap for some reason. Still, both Optane Memory and the Trion 150 are preferable to spinning rust alone by a wide margin.
What about common productivity applications like Word, PowerPoint, and Excel? We tried timing launches of those applications, but we ultimately decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Even trying to open multiple large documents at once from a hard drive, Word launches in less than five seconds, and the other Office apps aren’t far behind. (We also had trouble determining when these applications were finished launching, since some of them don’t stagger multiple document windows.) Optane makes launching those apps take just a couple seconds at worst.
Our guess is that Microsoft already optimizes the heck out of these apps so they can perform well even on resource-constrained systems, and Optane just speeds them up more. In short, if Office is your thing, you’ll likely experience a boost from Optane Memory—just don’t expect Photoshop or Premiere levels of boost.
Gaming tests with Doom and GTA V
With productivity apps out of the way, we further tested load times using id Software’s hit Doom remake and Grand Theft Auto V. As we did with Premiere Pro, we tested Doom‘s load times two ways: one for the application startup time, and once while loading the game’s Foundry level.
Doom seems most I/O-bound in its initial load, where Optane Memory and the Trion 150 both cleave off more than half the time versus the hard drive alone. Once it’s loaded, Doom performs much more consistently among storage devices, at least as far as load times are concerned. Once again, having either Optane Memory or an SSD in one’s system is far more preferable than plain old spinning rust.
Firing up Grand Theft Auto V lets our WD Black 1TB hard drive close the gap with solid-state storage a bit in our intial application load test. The hard drive can’t keep up when we actually go to load the game’s story mode, however. With Optane Memory enabled, the 3D XPoint cache lets the game load over 11 seconds faster than it can from the mechanical drive, and the OCZ SSD isn’t far behind.
We’d have to test more games to be sure, but it seems that in the three-way race between Optane Memory, no Optane Memory, and an SSD, it’s far preferable to have Optane Memory in a gaming system than it is not to. As far as system responsiveness goes, Optane Memory is actually even slightly faster than our budget SSD representative. Not bad, given its modest cost.
Intel’s Optane Memory tech unquestionably improves the responsiveness of a PC that relies on a hard drive for its primary storage, and by no small margin. Going by the metrics I tested, Optane Memory can even help a hard-drive-powered system outpace an affordable 480GB SSD in some scenarios. That’s great performance, and the outstanding speed of 3D Xpoint at low queue depths seems to make it ideal for serving as a cache layer.
Optane Memory significantly reduces the time spent loading games over a hard drive alone. The Optane cache cut the start-up time for Doom in half versus a hard drive alone. That’s a huge speed boost, and it suggests Optane Memory can blend a hard drive’s capacity and an SSD’s responsiveness for gamers on a budget. Grand Theft Auto V‘s startup and level-loading times also benefited from having a slice of Optane installed, though not quite as much as Doom‘s did.
Power users will also enjoy benefits from having a stick of Optane Memory installed. Adobe’s Photoshop launched an incredible eight times faster with the support of Optane Memory than it did without, and Premiere Pro launched in about a third of the time with Optane enabled as it did without. If your time is money, Optane Memory will definitely let you spend more time working and less time waiting around, even more so than with our affordable SSD.
Other commonly-used applications like Word and PowerPoint already start pretty darn fast even on a mechanical hard drive, so Optane takes things from “pretty darn fast” to “really fast” for those widely-used apps. Windows 10’s default fast boot mode lets it start up as quickly from a hard drive as it does with Optane Memory enabled, as well, which might explain why Intel is no longer touting improved boot times as an Optane advantage.
For casual PC users, Optane’s biggest advantage might be that it seems to handle heavy simultaneous I/O (like launching apps right at startup) about as well as an SSD does, while asking the same of a hard drive feels like wading through mud. My testbed system felt ready to go more or less right away after booting with Optane Memory enabled, while the first minute or so of using the PC with the hard drive alone felt distinctly unresponsive. That sluggishness is why anyone with the means switched to an SSD for a boot device as soon as they could ages ago, and Optane could help bridge the gap.
I tried to hash out Optane Memory’s platform cost out at the beginning of this article, and even after seeing its impressive performance, I think Intel has limited the appeal of Optane Memory a bit by making a Kaby Lake Core CPU a requirement. Had Optane Memory worked with Intel’s entire range of Kaby Lake chips, the $44 price tag for the 16 GB module might have been an impulse buy for many budget builders. As matters stand, I imagine that the budget-conscious will only grudgingly step up to the $120 Core i3-7100 over the $65 Pentium G4560 or $93 Pentium G4620 on the way to Optane compatibility, assuming they step up at all. It’s hard not to feel nickel-and-dimed by this requirement when one is already spending $44 to $77 on the Optane Memory module itself.
That said, nitpicky DIYers probably aren’t the bullseye of Optane Memory’s target market. Intel claims PC buyers put storage capacity in their top three priorities for a new PC, and SSDs can’t offer large capacities at affordable prices yet. PC makers like Dell seem reluctant even to give buyers a solid-state option in their lower-end desktop PCs. Considering that SSD prices seem likely to rise this year, the relatively low price of Optane Memory modules could make these gumsticks a compelling add-in for folks who want some of an SSD’s performance without giving up a big disk in their midrange systems.