Consumers and businesses always demand more power from their computers. We want more powerful processors with additional cores, better GPUs, and faster RAM, and we want it now.
So when a new technology arrives on the market offering the holy grail—to make your system faster—enthusiasts and enterprises take note.
Intel’s Optane memory is one of those innovations. But what is Optane? And does it mean you no longer need actual system RAM? Let’s take a look.
What Is Intel Optane Memory?
Optane is a new hyper-fast type of memory. The Intel “Optane” trademark refers to the specific type of memory, rather than a format. Optane is somewhat like a super-charged SSD, albeit at a higher cost and in a less-user-friendly format. But then again, it isn’t actually an SSD, so don’t confuse the terms.
In that sense, it is probably easiest to consider Optane as the offspring of an SSD drive and some DDR4 RAM. Still with me? It will all make sense at the end by the end!
Optane began life as a specialized M.2 Non-Volatile Memory Express (NVMe) module. It is only compatible with 7th generation Intel processors or later, plus a matching motherboard. Using a specialized 3D NAND fabrication process Intel (developed in conjunction with Micron) calls 3D XPoint, Optane memory can rapidly switch between high-resistance and low-resistance states to more efficiently access densely packed data.
Optane memory modules see use as super-powered boot drives. That is, you pair a relatively small but super-fast Optane memory module with a massive old 2TB HDD, and the latter receives a decent performance boost. But the modules can also boost your existing RAM, lend some extra capacity to your system, and feature as an actual storage location.
Is Intel Optane Memory Like Cheap DDR RAM Then?
In the beginning, the answer to this question was a simple “no.” But since Optane hit consumer markets, the scene looks a little different. In fact, let’s break this question down.
Is Optane Like Regular RAM?
No, Optane is not like regular volatile RAM—and that’s the key. Regular RAM is volatile, meaning when you turn your PC off, the data held in the RAM clears. When you power on your system, the RAM fills with useful data.
Optane memory is not volatile—it retains data after you power down your system. At the time of release and indeed, up until mid-2018, Optane was not expected to feature as a complete replacement for regular RAM.
Can Optane Replace Regular RAM?
At the current time, no, it cannot. However, you can use an Optane M.2 module to give your existing RAM a boost. Check out Linus’s explanation on how this works in practice:
However, the final decision here will come down to your PC specifications. The price of actual RAM is stable, but not decreasing (and has continued increasing slightly over the past 18 months). A cheap-ish Optane memory module to boost performance is accessible, rather than spending another $200 on RAM. Still, this ignores the initial cost of the Intel 7th generation or later CPU and corresponding motherboard.
What Is Intel’s Apache Pass?
Will Intel’s Optane eventually replace regular RAM modules? Yes it will, and sooner than you think.
Intel recently packed Optane technology into a regular-sized DDR4 RAM module. The Optane DIMMs, known as Apache Pass, are primarily available in three massive flavors: 128GB, 256GB, and 512GB. Apache Pass Optane DIMMs will initially feature in the next generation of Intel’s Xeon server range. And to be fair, it’s in those huge server environments where the blazing speed of a full Optane RAM module will make the most impact.
Unfortunately, that means Apache Pass won’t appear in your home system in the immediate future, but it isn’t too far off.
There’s another factor to consider, too. In its current guise, Intel Apache Pass offers between 30-60 drive writes per day (DWPD), up to five years. DWPD is an endurance measurement for NAND storage, informing the customer of how many times you can overwrite the drive daily before reliability issues appear.
If this sounds low, remember the size of these modules and the environment they work within.
What Can You Use Optane for Right Now?
Optane has one clear mandate: it is really fast. Faster than essentially every other memory format, at the time of writing. But what you do with your Optane memory depends on the format and how much you purchase. For instance:
- Smaller 32GB and 64GB units can, in theory, fit a Windows 10 installation. But the former leaves little room for large updates, while both will struggle with the notorious hibernation file.
- A 118GB M.2 Optane module will cost you several times more than a regular SSD of similar size.
- Similarly, as Linus’s RAM test video shows above, you can boost your RAM, but regular RAM is still faster. Furthermore, you still need regular RAM. Optane doesn’t absolve an actual lack of RAM, but is potentially a cost-effective bridge until you can upgrade.
- You can now share Optane memory module boosting with secondary drives; previously only the primary boot drive could use the extra capacity.
Intel Optane SSD 900P (480GB)
The final Optane product for your consideration is an actual SSD. The Intel Optane 900P is a 480GB NVMe SSD. This drive’s target audience is high-end performance rigs for processing, rendering, content creators, and gaming.
Like much of the rest of the Optane lineup, the demand for a dedicated 3D XPoint SSD seems low when there are other similar products at lower price points.
However, when Optane increases production and becomes more widespread, expect that situation to change. Because undoubtedly, Optane has blazing-fast potential.
Should You Buy Optane Memory Right Now?
If you have the hardware already on hand and it isn’t a financial burden, sure, give Optane a try in some capacity. Otherwise, the expensive hardware upgrade isn’t worth shelling out for, given the capacity of similar products that are also easier to use.