Optane Memory review: Why you may want Intel's futuristic cache in your PC

This next-gen memory technology greatly increases responsiveness of PCs, but only for those who still want to use a hard drive.

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Intel Optane 3D Xpoint Intel

Just because you have an m.2 slot doesn’t mean you can run Optane memory

PCMark Vantage Storage Test

One of the tests Intel recommended for reviewing Optane is PCMark Vantage. If you’re not familiar with this version, that’s because it’s a decade old. 

The actual storage test uses data sets created from monitoring various tasks on a PC such as launching Word, Photoshop and Outlook. These patterns or “traces” of the the workload are then applied to the drive being tested.

Think of it as a synthetic test that uses a “real-world” workload. Of course the workloads are old, as we’re talking Word 2007, Photoshop CS2 and IE7. The OS load, for example, measures loading Windows Vista and is 87-percent-read- and 13-percent-write-focused. Still, the results are, for the most part spectacular.

optane pcmark vantage overall IDG

PCMark Vantage names the Optane drive as king. 

As you can see from the results, the Optane module configured as a small SSD even outruns the mighty Samsung drive. The surprise is the cached run for the Optane drive also puts finishes just ahead of the 960 Pro. The non-cached run of the Western Digital drive, though, is hard-drive ugly. 

optane pcmark vantage application load IDG

Optane drive is all kinds of stupid fast in PCMark Vantage at application loading.

Here are the results for the application load test section. Again, the Optane drive kicks around all other drives like Godzilla punting tanks in downtown Tokyo. As a cached drive, it’s also spectacularly fast—once you’ve run it once and the Optane memory has cached the data.

So why does PCMark Vantage so heavily favor Optane? It’s not clear to me, but one thing Futuremark implemented with this version was support for “new” Advanced Format Technology in hard drives, which moved from the then-standard 512-byte sector sizes on hard drives to 4096-sector sizes, or 4K.

And yup, if you scroll back up to the performance of the Optane drive with 4K blocks, you’ll be reminded that Optane simply sizzles with 4K blocks.

The question is whether this applies to other trace-based benchmarks such as PCMark 8, which is the current version of PCMark. 

PCMark 8 performance

pcmark 8 storage test overal IDG

The current iteration of PCMark 8 curiously says the difference between an Optane-cached hard drive and two SSDs won't be that different.

The short answer is no. For the most part, PCMark 8 Storage Test 2.0 puts the Optane-accelerated setup on a par with the mighty Samsung 960 Pro drive—and the mediocre Toshiba Q300 catches up, too.

PCMark 8 also reports an overall storage bandwidth test, which is a score for the total amount of data read and written divided by the amount of time the storage drive was busy. This result puts the Samsung in front, with the Optane-cached hard drive in second place. The Q300 is a distant third, while the hard drive is, well, a hard drive. For this test series, I unfortunately did not have time to run the Optane as a standalone unit. The test was run twice so the data could be cached but unlike PCMark Vantage, there wasn’t a huge variance between runs.

pcmark 8 storage bandwidth IDG

PCMark 8’s Bandwidth Test is the total amount of data read and written divided by the time the drive was busy doing it.

Like PCMark Vantage, PCMark 8 uses patterns or “traces” of actual application impact on the storage drive and then reproduces them. For the Photoshop Heavy test, about 468MB is read from the drive and 5,640MB written. It’s basically what happens when you start Photoshop, open a file for editing, and apply about 16 different changes to it, including Gaussian blur and lens blur, before saving it as a PSD, TIFF and JPEG.

For the most part, you’ll find very little difference between any of the SSDs and the hard drive.

pcmark 8 photoshop heavy storage IDG

PCMark 8's Photoshop Heavy test says in actual day-to-day use, Optane won't feel much different than a high-end SSD or a low-end one.

Another test PCMark 8 performs is reproducing the impact of starting World of Warcraft, logging in and playing the game. This particular test reads about 390MB of data while writing about 5MB of data.

As with Photoshop, you’d be hard-pressed to see a difference between any of the SSDs and the hard drive. While you might be skeptical of the results from PCMark 8 that show the atrocious Toshiba drive equaling the Samsung drive, it’s actually entirely possible. We know stepping up from a SATA drive to a PCIe NVMe drive will yield performance on tasks that truly push the storage, but for a lot of normal day-to-day tasks it would be hard to feel the difference. Bottom line, the performance in PCMark 8 put the cached-drive setup in the same ballpark as the SSDs, which is a win.

pcmark 8 world of warcraft IDG

It might be hard to believe a lowly TLC drive is as fast as the mighty Samsung 960 Pro, but it’s possible when just launching a game.

Launch Performance

If you still don’t believe how effective Optane can be as a cached drive, here are a few more tests with it enabled and disabled. I didn’t have time to perform these tests on the SSDs, as it would require cloning the installations, but I suspect the results would match the others and put the Optane-accelerated drive on a par with standalone SSDs.

For this I measured how long it took to launch the Google Chrome browser. No surprise, the Optane cached drive is much faster. I’ll add, however, that even on a hard drive, Chrome isn’t exactly slow to launch in the grand scheme of things.

optane browser launch IDG

We measured the launch times of Google Chrome using the Optane drive as a cache and without it. No surprise—you want the cache.

Another test measured how long it takes to launch PowerPoint 2016 and open a file for editing. The results is, well, like comparing an SSD to a hard drive: one second on the Optane accelerated drive and six seconds without the acceleration enabled.

optane power point launch IDG

Launching Power Point also greatly increases speed over just a plain-old hard drive.

Conclusion

There really is no short answer on what to think about Optane Memory, so I’ll instead break it down by putting it against the competition.

Optane memory vs. Samsung 960 Pro or similar high-performance SSD: Get the 960 Pro. Yes, there will be some situations where the Optane memory is faster, but it's only 16GB or 32GB of cache. Once you’re beyond the cache, it’s hard-drive slow. A fast SSD will be fast almost all of the time. But as we know, this isn’t the user Optane is aimed at, as the 32GB Optane memory module and 1TB hard drive could cost under $140, while the 1TB 960 Pro will push $600.

Optane memory vs. mediocre SSD: I have to admit this one has me torn, which I didn’t expect. When you’re looking at truly mediocre SSDs that struggle to exceed hard drive performance, it’s a real dilemma. There will honestly be many situations where the Optane drive will outperform a cheap SSD tied to a SATA port. For example, here’s what it looks like when you copy a 4K resolution Premiere Pro CC project to a cheap TLC SSD. Once you burn through the limited cache of the TLC drive, you’re writing at near-hard drive speeds.

copyingfrom960prototoshq300 IDG

Cheap TLC drives can be dog-slow.

Here are the same files being copied to the Optane memory-accelerated drive. You can expect the same result anytime you blow through the cache on the cheap TLC SSD or an Optane system. Both are basically very similar in performance, which gives the advantage to Optane when cost is factored into it. Maybe the right answer is to buy a better SSD instead of that ultra-budget SSD you were eyeballing.

copyingfrom960protooptanehdd IDG

An Optane memory module can give TLC drives a serious run for the money.

Optane memory vs. hard drive: This isn’t even a contest. If there’s an option for an Optane module in your friend’s or relative’s hard disk-based system, the $44 16GB or the $77 32GB Optane module will make a world of difference to this person’s computing life. Basically, if you see this logo on your friend’s hard drive-based PC, run to the store and buy them an Optane module.

thumbnail optanememready Intel

If you see this logo on your uncle’s slow PC, spending $77 on an Optane drive would greatly improve its performance.

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At a Glance
  • Intel's Optane Module will make a world of difference for users stuck with traditional hard drives. Those drives must be in higher-end Kaby Lake systems running Windows 10, though.

    Pros

    • Exceptional 4K file performance
    • Can rival high performance SSDs under some circumstances
    • Wipes out hard drive-only performance

    Cons

    • Only works with Kaby Lake Core i3 and up CPUs
    • Performance drops once you burn through the cache
    • Would feel better if $15 lower in cost.
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