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Thinking of buying Intel’s Optane technology? Think again. While Optane performs like some insane hybrid between RAM and solid state drives (SSD Should You Get A Solid State Drive (SSD)? [Opinion] Should You Get A Solid State Drive (SSD)? [Opinion] If you've kept up with some of the latest news about new computer parts, you may have heard about SSDs, or solid state drives. They are designed to replace your clunky, slow hard drive and... Read More ), it suffers from unbelievable problems. Don’t trust the hype: it’s a rip-off for what they’re charging.

But before buying from Intel, you might first want to know what Optane is.

What Is Optane and Why Is It So Hyped?

Optane sold out immediately at Amazon and other online retailers. Chances are, even if you need a drive, you won’t be able to get one. But why are consumers so excited about it?

The key technology behind Optane is 3D XPoint. 3D XPoint (pronounced “cross-point”) is a new kind of solid state memory, vaguely similar to a memristor. Its commercial development originated as a joint venture between Micron and Intel (Intel-Micron Flash Technologies). And true to the hype, it’s several times better than the flash memory found in SSDs. Here’s a video explaining the technology:

In short, Optane is a chimera. It melds the 3D architecture of V-NAND, which lends it greater storage density, with the lightning fast latency and bandwidth of RAM. Then it throws in non-volatility, like flash memory. And like a mythological beast, its origins remain a mystery. We know almost nothing about 3D XPoint.

xpoint memory modules
Image Credit: Trolomite via Wikimedia

And that’s why investing in the technology might not be a good idea. While it’s among the fastest SSDs around The Fastest SSDs You Can Buy in 2017 The Fastest SSDs You Can Buy in 2017 Solid State Drives, or SSDs, improve performance over mechanical hard drives (HDD). However, if you want the fastest SSD around, you need to know two things: the connector and protocol. Read More , there are 10 reasons why you shouldn’t buy early models of Optane.

1. Optane Costs a Fortune per Gigabyte

The prices for the newly released 16 GB and 32 GB modules are $44 and $77, respectively. That works out to around $2.75 per gigabyte for the 16 GB module and $2.40 for the 32 GB drive. In comparison, a 960 GB OCZ TRION 150 costs $0.25 (£0.24) per gigabyte.

trion 150 amazon

However, all sources online have sold out of Optane. And the only way to buy one right now is through third party sellers, who are selling at a small markup.

For the Same Cost, You Can Get an SSD Boot Drive

For $49, it’s possible to buy an ADATA 128GB M.2 drive, the SU800. While slightly more expensive, you get eight times more storage. For $80, the 2.5-inch Kingston HyperX Fury 240 GB offers seven-and-a-half times the storage of a 32 GB Optane module.

kingston hyperx ssd

More or less, Optane’s limited capacity makes it unsuitable for use as a storage drive or a location to hold your operating system — except on a Linux-based system. And that’s another problem.

2. Optane Officially Only Supports Windows (For Now)

If you use Linux or macOS, you might suffer problems using an Optane module. While Intel’s overall Linux support has been good, its Optane press releases mention nothing about Linux. In fact, all press releases only mention Windows. While you could almost certainly use the drive for Linux, that might not be advisable. Early Sandforce SSDs suffered from a serious bug in Linux which resulted in data loss. It might not be worth the risk.

Fortunately, the limited capacity of Optane positions it as a cache drive, not a system critical boot drive. But that’s kind of an issue.

3. It’s a Cache Drive, Not a Complete Drive

A cache drive operates in parallel with a primary boot drive. Where a boot drive stores an operating system, like Windows, a cache drive reads and writes frequently used files. For example, whenever you run a web page, the browser downloads a lot of tiny files, like images and web page code — and it reads and writes these to a cache.

However, on a slow hard disk drive (HDD), reading and writing take a long time. That’s where a cache drive comes in. The cache drive handles tiny, frequently used files. When used in combination with the right software, it vastly improves performance. And while you can technically use the 32 GB Optane drive as a boot device, it’s not really designed to work as such. You don’t get the advantages of Intel’s caching software either (see Reason #5 below).

4. Cache Drives Aren’t Magical

Intel’s marketing department believes Optane is a world-class accelerator for regular HDDs. What blows this myth out of the water are the performance comparisons between computers that use non-3D XPoint SSDs alongside HDDs. They are close in performance to Optane cache drives combined with HDDs. But that’s hardly the least flattering comparison.

What Intel doesn’t mention is that RAM can function as a cache drive, with the right software. We refer to this arrangement as a RAM disk What Is A RAM Disk, And How You Can Set One Up What Is A RAM Disk, And How You Can Set One Up Solid state hard drives aren’t the first non-mechanical storage to appear in consumer PCs. RAM has been used for decades, but primarily as a short-term storage solution. The fast access times of RAM makes it... Read More . On desktops with spare RAM slots, it’s possible to purchase 16 GB of RAM for $50 ($6 more than Optane’s MSRP) and create a significantly faster cache drive that doesn’t suffer from wear limitations.

kingston ram amazon

More or less, a RAM disk makes Optane look weak in terms of price-to-performance and raw performance. And those are the most important metrics for desktop enthusiasts.

5. Intel’s Caching Software Has Serious Limitations

After years of neglect, Intel finally updated its SSD caching software: Smart Response Technology (SRT). You can’t run SRT on a single Optane drive. So if you thought Windows would fit on a 32GB Optane module, you’re right. But you’d still need two drives in order to get the maximum benefit from the caching software.

intel smart response technology
Image Credit: Intel

6. There’s No mSATA Option for Older Computers

If you own an older computer, you’re also out of luck (or in luck, depending on your perspective). Optane only sells in the M.2 form factor. However, the M.2 form factor (pictured below) only comes on relatively newer motherboards.

m2 edge connector keying
Image Credit: NikNaks via Wikimedia

Even then, Optane doesn’t work on just any computer. There are fairly strict requirements that prevent Optane from being used on most computers.

Optane Requires a 7th Generation Intel Processor

Yup. Intel wants you to upgrade to a 7th generation, Kaby Lake processor. There’s no reason, either. Well, other than the fact that Intel wants you to purchase a new processor.

Intel’s cache booster version of Optane requires a new Intel motherboard. There’s nothing special about Optane that would necessitate using a new motherboard. They just want you to upgrade to a — minimum — 200-series motherboard. That’s Intel’s latest. For those who might find that too expensive, the cheapest 200-series is the B250. Specifically, MSI’s B250 PC MATE (UK) motherboard. It runs for $80 on Amazon, which is a tad on the hefty side.

intel b250 lga

7. First-Generation Products Always Have Problems

Like early SSDs that lost performance over time How Ultrabook Performance Degrades Over Time with a Samsung TLC SSD How Ultrabook Performance Degrades Over Time with a Samsung TLC SSD Samsung's TLC SSDs are screwing their customers! A bug with Triple Level Cell NAND memory causes performance to degrade and voids warranty early. Find out whether you're affected and get a fix. Read More or burned out in a matter of months, first-generation products (particularly those based on cutting-edge technology) often suffer from teething problems.

Optane doesn’t seem to differ much. The earlier enterprise SSD based on Optane, the P4800X, doesn’t possess uniformly more performance over the highest quality single-level cell (SLC) SSDs out there. On top of that, Anandtech reported that their 32 GB Optane sample burned out during testing. That doesn’t bode well for 3D XPoint’s reliability.

8. You Can’t Use Optane on Most Laptops

As Windows 10 takes up about 20–30 GB of space, even Optane’s largest 32 GB capacity can’t comfortably accommodate it. More or less, it’s not designed as a boot drive. Combine that with the fact that most laptops only provision for a single storage drive and Linux doesn’t officially (as of Q1 2017) support Optane, and you have a problem: Optane won’t work on most laptops.

On top of that, according to ExtremeTech, Optane’s idle power consumption hovers around 1-watt, making it more power hungry than 10 SSDs. High-power consumption makes Optane a desktop-only part.

9. IMFT Also Means Micron

The other partner in the joint IMFT project has no interest in selling exclusively to Intel’s customers. Micron almost certainly will develop a version of XPoint that works with AMD, ARM, and other Intel alternatives. Their brand for 3D XPoint is QuantX. The difference between QuantX and Optane: Micron decided to not release a first generation product and instead further refined the technology. QuantX is scheduled for release toward the end of 2017.

micron logo

What does that mean? Micron will likely release a range of products with better reliability than what Intel is offering in Optane. However, Micron itself doesn’t sell drives. It merely produces the memory modules that systems integrators turn into consumer and enterprise products. The two most likely scenarios are that Micron releases the components for 3D XPoint hybrid drives and drives with 3D XPoint caches. The overall impact on the market will be to dramatically shift performance up while depressing the prices of non-XPoint drives down.

10. The Price Will Come Down

Just as NAND SSD prices fell rapidly within the first few years of release, so too will 3D XPoint. Unfortunately, there are only two manufacturers of XPoint modules. And until late 2017 (without delays), Intel controls the market. When Micron enters the market with QuantX in late 2017, prices should begin to decline.

Unless there’s a serious supply shortage SSDs Are About to Skyrocket in Cost: Should You Upgrade in 2017? SSDs Are About to Skyrocket in Cost: Should You Upgrade in 2017? Solid state drives (SSDs) are about to skyrocket in price! Should you buy a new drive in 2017? We've covered several examples of SSD that are worth upgrading to, provided you need a new SSD. Read More , which we saw last year in flash prices.

Who Should Buy Optane Drives Then?

Optane costs a fortune per gigabyte. It doesn’t work well with laptops. It doesn’t work with desktops older than 2016. It doesn’t work on non-Intel systems. It’s not a magic bullet for performance. It’s superfluous on an SSD-only system. So what’s the purpose of an Optane cache drive?

There’s just one reason: to pressure you into upgrading your motherboard and processor to Intel’s latest. And in that regard, it fails miserably. There’s no reason to buy it unless you’re looking to get your feet wet with a cutting edge technology.

Right now, only commercial users should purchase Optane. The cache drive is a waste of time. However, it’s worth noting that Intel will bundle 16 GB sticks of Optane along with certain 200-series motherboards. So if you’re in the market for a new high-end motherboard, it might be worth a look. Everyone else interested in Optane, however, should wait until Micron releases QuantX. Not only will competition cause Intel’s ruinous per-gigabyte prices to fall, Micron’s product isn’t a first-generation design.

Have you purchased an Optane drive? Either way, what are your thoughts?

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  1. Kaitain
    May 5, 2017 at 2:17 pm

    Surely a RAM disk is not equivalent to an Optane drive inasmuch as its volatility always incurs a startup cost. The Optane drive is going to maintain its cache after a restart, whereas a RAM disk will need to be repopulated. If it's repopulating gradually as a background task you could see some gains, but you're still going to get a performance hit of some kind.

    • Kannon Yamada
      May 6, 2017 at 12:51 am

      You're definitely right that a 16GB RAM disk, if maxed out, will require a substantial amount of overhead when pulled off the disk at boot or copied to disk at shutdown.

      In the most common use cases, I believe that the RAM disk still comes out far ahead. Most users don't need the full 16GB for a cache. A 4GB cache for browsing, or as a scratch drive, outperforms anything out there. Unfortunately, SRT isn't compatible with RAM disks. :-(

  2. likefunbutnot
    May 4, 2017 at 5:40 pm

    End users struggle to see real-world gains from NVMe SSDs as it is. If your day-to-day computing is media access plus web browsing, there's no point to something like this over and above anything else you might stick in an M.2 slot. If you're doing database operations with intensive random reads through a full-stop Optane Enterprise SSD, this technology is all kinds of exciting.

    The Thinkpad T470 notebooks I just ordered have Optane caching drives in them, but that's mostly a function of having the budget to get them in that configuration rather than any specific need.

    • Kannon Yamada
      May 6, 2017 at 12:53 am

      Wow, that's great that enterprise has already begun adopting Optane. I'm a little curious as to why a laptop was chosen. The 1-watt draw makes it pretty much a battery killer. Sounds like the T470 is a workstation and is just plugged in all day long.