Optane in the real world
If you were looking for an in-depth analysis of the performance of the Aegis 3, prepare to be disappointed. I could have taken the Aegis 3 to task, meticulously measuring frametimes. However, its combination of a Core i7-7700 CPU and GeForce GTX 1060 GPU are already well-explored. You can check out our review of the GTX 1060, where we used a very similar configuration. Since the Silent Storm 3 cooling system is well up to the task of keeping the machine chilled during operation, the Aegis 3 performs exactly as you'd expect.
Instead, the main thing I was interested in investigating with the Aegis 3 was the performance impact of Optane caching. Jeff already wrote a full review on the topic, and you should check out his impressions there first if you haven't already. My experience with Optane on the Aegis 3 was not far different from his, although I'll still offer my own perspective on the matter. If you're impatient, here's the bottom line: using a machine with an Optane cache drive is very like using a machine with an SSD most of the time.
I say "most of the time" because there are some pitfalls to be aware of. Application installs and program launches happen very quickly, just like on an SSD. Some things are still going to proceed at hard drive pace, though. The initial Windows setup after I unboxed the machine took around 30 minutes. After that, I decided to go ahead and let the machine do all of its updates. The PC came with Windows 10 Anniversary Edition (version 1607) installed, so Windows decided to update itself to the Creators Update (version 1703). This took more than an entire workday. The Creators Update itself took over six hours to install.
I'll be honest: I have only ever done this process on a few other PCs, and they all had solid-state drives. I don't know how long it usually takes to do the Creators Update on a hard-drive-only machine, but I was a bit taken aback at how long this update took on the Aegis 3. Years of SSD use will do that to a person. After the Creators Update, there were still yet more updates to be done, and that took the better part of another hour. All told, including game downloads, it was a whole two days after I got the machine hooked up before I got to actually play anything on it.
So Windows Updates take forever, but the actual experience of using the machine is enjoyable. It feels exactly like an SSD-equipped machine the overwhelming majority of the time. While it was a little sluggish at first, after a few hours of using it you would never know that Windows is installed on a 2TB mechanical drive. Microsoft Edge and File Explorer launch immediately, Steam comes up in a flash, and everything generally proceeds more or less as you would expect on a modern PC with a Core i7. Even app installs, like the MSI Afterburner setup I did just a few days ago, happen in the blink of an eye.
The advantage of Optane caching a single hard drive is that even your games can benefit. At least, that's the idea. MSI and Intel aggressively advertise the benefits of Optane to gamers. I set out to test the idea using GTA V, Warframe, Dark Souls III, and Fallout 4. My idea was that I would play one game until I noticed the benefits of Optane caching (in the form of quicker load times, assumedly). Then, I'd swap to another game for a while, and finally go back to the first game to see if playing a different game caused the Optane caching advantage to evaporate. The problem was, I never really noticed a difference.
While playing all four games—in offline mode where applicable, to avoid network-related nuances—the machine launched games and loaded levels at more or less the same pace as my personal desktop. That's absolutely not a bad thing; my desktop is very fast. However, my desktop runs all these games off of an un-cached hard drive, which means that Optane didn't seem to be making much difference.
To confirm my impressions, I disabled the Optane cache in the Intel Rapid Storage utility. Doing so requires a reboot, and afterwards the machine took upwards of 2 minutes to boot. Applications were incredibly sluggish to launch. Using the machine this way was not much fun. I had been fortunate enough to avoid using Windows 10 off of a hard drive until this point, and I was stunned at how much worse the machine performed without the cache drive enabled. In that regard, Optane is a huge success.
However, the difference in game load time and performance was negligible. I'm sure I could have recorded a difference with a stopwatch, or software monitoring tools, but subjectively speaking it was nil. I picked the titles I picked because they're games with notoriously long load times (GTA V and Fallout 4) or because they're games with frequent loading screens (Warframe and Dark Souls III). I was careful to launch each game three times in succession to make sure the cache was engaged. Despite my efforts, I didn't notice a major difference in game load time when disabling the Optane cache. It's possible that GTA V loaded in a bit faster, but the difference was pretty marginal at best.
In his review, Jeff did observe some significant difference in game load times, and it's difficult to pinpoint exactly why I didn't. It's not unimaginable that the 16GB drive is already loaded up with Windows files and doesn't have room to cache enough of a game to be relevant. It's also within reason that I simply didn't stick to one game long enough for the cache driver to decide to cache the game. Intel may also have tweaked its Optane algorithm between our initial review and my experience with the device.
Whatever the case, I feel comfortable saying that Optane caching is pretty much a wash for gamers versus running games directly off a hard drive, at least with the 16GB module. Obviously, games will load faster from an SSD, but few can afford to stick their entire Steam library on solid-state storage. If you're someone who spends a lot of time playing one game, like an MMORPG you play every day, you might see more convincing results—but then, those kinds of games don't usually have much loading anyway.
One other peculiarity of the Aegis 3 is that MSI splits the hard drive into two partitions. I used to do this myself back when I was using a single drive in my system. It makes Windows re-installs a lot more convenient when all your apps and data are stored on a separate partition. However, MSI's split of the 2TB drive strikes me as a bit strange. The partition where Windows is installed is 1.1TB in size. Meanwhile, the "Data" partition occupies the rest of the disk, making it only around 700GB in size. If MSI were going to split the system disk to make OS installs more manageable, I would have rather seen a 1.5TB data partition and a much smaller Windows partition.
That said, the company's choice is even more confusing in light of the fact that it leaves the user two (logical) disks to manage. One of the more easily-overlooked advantages of Optane caching versus an SSD+HDD arrangement is that, as far as the OS is concerned, the machine only has one disk. That makes file management much simpler for novice users who may not be comfortable installing apps or finding files on a second disk. It also helps for some poorly-programmed games—like many Games for Windows Live titles—that expect all their data to be on the C: drive.
Ultimately I went into testing expecting to be disappointed with the Optane cache. Instead I came away impressed, at least to some degree. Optane is an amazing benefit for a machine that spends most of its time on the desktop. Edge, Excel, and Word open instantly, web pages load and re-load in a blink, and it's a great user experience all around. For gamers, the benefit is less tangible, but it certainly didn't hurt anything. While it's not quite the same as having an SSD, I came away from my time with the Aegis 3 more convinced of Optane's benefits than not.