Intel’s Optane Memory Makes Cheap Hard Drives as Fast as Expensive SSDs…

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Intel’s Optane Memory Makes Cheap Hard Drives as Fast as Expensive SSDs

All images: Alex Cranz/Gizmodo

It isn’t only the junk processor that makes a really cheap computer slow. Or the memory or the video card (or lack of video card). The primary reason your cheap laptop loudly chugs along at glacial speeds is because of the hard drive. Cheap laptops use cheap hard disk drives, which are much slower than the solid state drives found in better computers. But Intel’s new Optane Memory changes that. This little $70 chip makes a cheap hard disk drive run as fast as a solid state drive.

It does all this by using a brand new type of memory. That sounds very boring, but memory might be one of the most important components in your computer.

What the hell is memory?

Memory is anything in a computer that reads and writes data. There’s memory in your processor, in your RAM, and all the way down to your USB drives. “It’s like a pyramid,” Greg Schulz, a storage analyst and operator of StorageIO told Gizmodo. “As you go down the pyramid the capacity is cheaper, but slower.” So the tip of the pyramid is the memory in your CPU, then comes DRAM, then NAND-based flash storage like SSDs, then hard disk drives. At the very bottom would be the oldest and cheapest kind of memory tape drives.

After you understand the pyramid there’s only one other thing you really need to understand: volatile and non-volatile memory. Volatile memory tends to be faster—it’s DRAM or the stuff built into your CPU. Its crazy speedy and writes at the smallest possible read/write level: the byte level. Yet volatile memory can’t actually remember anything when it loses power. So the minute you restart your computer, volatile memory forgets everything it’s learned.

The first time you open a big program on a computer after a restart, it takes longer than usual. Why? Your computer’s DRAM has forgotten all the crucial info it needs to open the program quickly.

Non-volatile memory doesn’t have that problem, but it’s also a lot slower, and can’t write at the byte level. So what is non-volatile memory? It’s the stuff that maintains all the data it learns even when it’s not receiving power. It’s persistent memory. As soon as something is classified as persistent memory it can take on another name: storage. Every hard drive, floppy, or thumb drive you use is persistent memory.

Intel Optane memory is cool because its uses an entirely new entry on the memory pyramid: 3D Xpoint memory. 3D Xpoint slots in right between DRAM and NAND. It’s as fast as the volatile stuff—capable of reading at that crucial byte level—but it’s also persistent. It’s the best of both worlds.

What the is 3D Xpoint memory?

“Since digital memory was created, there’s only been eight major memories, the most recent being 3D Xpoint,” Schulz said. The last big memory advancement before 3D Xpoint? That was NAND, which was introduced back in 1999. “These things only come around every couple of decades.”

3D Xpoint was announced by Intel and Micron way back in 2015, sixteen years after the last big memory leap. At the time, the two companies promised that 3D Xpoint was a thousand times faster than NAND, but just as persistent. Which would mean a whole new ultrafast medium for storing data. Yet it’s taken nearly two years to go from announcing the memory to actually putting it in hardware you and I can buy.

What is Intel Optane memory?

Intel’s Optane memory is the first instance of 3D Xpoint being used in consumer-level products. There’s already a 3D Xpoint storage drive available, taking advantage of the technology’s incredible speed, but that drive is 375GB and retails for $1500.

Optane memory is Intel’s shot at giving consumers an affordable taste of 3D Xpoint’s incredible speed. It functions as a cache system for your primary storage drive, storing necessary data, sort of like RAM might, but holding onto that data in between restarts.

The memory stick fits in the .M2 slot on Optane ready motherboards. Bring your own screw.

If that concept sounds familiar that’s because manufacturers have been using faster non-volatile memory as a cache system for the slower stuff for a while now. Notably, Apple has its optional Fusion drive for iMacs. That one combines an SSD and HDD, with the SSD functioning as the cache system while the HDD handles storage. While it is definitely cheaper, and larger, than a solid state drive alone, the speeds don’t quite get to solid state levels.

Seagate also introduced such a drive, though it goes with by a more generic “hybrid” name. A 2TB hybrid drive with 8GB of onboard flash memory is $99, but Intel’s new Optane setup is similarly cheap. A 32GB Optane memory stick and 2TB hard disk drive costs just $140. The cost of a 2TB solid state drive? $550.

So why spend $140 instead of $99? Because Intel Optane is really damn fast.

Okay, how good is Intel Optane memory?

I put Intel’s new hardware through a series of benchmarks to test just how much it could improve the performance of HDDs and SSDs. In the case of the former, it improves speeds so much that you’ll never, ever want to use a Optane-less HDD again. This was best exemplified with Adobe Premiere and Adobe Photoshop. Both apps are notorious for taking forever to open. When I opened a project in Premiere on a regular HDD, it took 52 seconds. Opening a huge project in Photoshop took 37 seconds. Yet once I’d activated the 32GB Optane memory chip, those processes took 11 seconds and seven seconds respectively. Shockingly it actually made the HDD faster than a SSD too, and bizarrely, in the case of Premiere, the HDD with Optane was actually a full two seconds faster than the SSD with Optane.