Memory technology is a facet of hardware that doesn’t share the same sorts of revolutionary jumps forward that processors do. The last time a new major memory was introduced, it was 1999. NAND revolutionised how digital memory would evolve over the next decade and a bit, but in 2015 Intel and Micron finally announced a new point: 3D Xpoint. It’s taken two years to actually deliver a product that uses the technology, but Intel’s Optane Memory could squeeze some life from your old, slow HDD.
Right now SDD, or flash, memory is the fastest non-volatile digital memory you can buy (well, excluding the first 3D Xpoint drive, which costs $1500 for just 375GB), but it’s still wildly expensive for large drives. A 2TB SSD still reaches prices like $559, while the HDD variant doesn’t even break $100. But the speed difference between the two is astronomical, and playing a larger role in games, video editing applications and just the general speed of your system.
Intel Optane, then, is the middle-man. launching is 16GB and 32GB sizes, the 3D Xpoint memory acts as a sort of cache between your processor and your HDD. Just like Hybrid HDDs have done in the past, the Optane memory stores information that it thinks will be important for work you’re currently doing. Just like system RAM, except that it doesn’t forget when you lose power. That makes recurring system boots faster, games load quicker, and hair on your head stay there when Photoshop doesn’t take over a minute to open.
Intel has lofty ideas of just how much faster this makes your operating speed, but in practice, the effectiveness can vary. Since it’s a cache, the Optane inclusion doesn’t really help the speed of applications that are opening for the first time. And since the biggest size is 32GB, it’s easy for memory to run out and lapse when you have a lot going on. But when it works, it works well. Gizmodo found in their tests that the combination of an HDD and Optane can (in most cases) reach SSD performance. That’s staggering, considering a 32GB chip only costs $77.
The only drawback really is compatibility. Intel Optane is only being supported by 7th-generation Kaby Lake Processors, and then an even smaller list of motherboards are Optane ready. That list might grow, but it still means only PCs with the most recent CPUs can take advantage. Intel promises that more laptops and pre-built desktop systems will start shipping with Optane support built in, but it does lessen the impact of the chips on the market today.
But if you’ve just built a new PC and aren’t yet ready to shell out for massive SSD drive, Optane provides a neat middle-ground for the time being. It’s not an effective measure to stay as SSD prices decrease, but it’s in interesting first step in the long history that 3D Xpoint is only just getting started with.
Last Updated: April 25, 2017