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By act­ing as a PCI-E cache, In­tel Op­tane Me­mory rein­vig­o­rates the per­for­mance of PC hard disks

VERDICT

It’s not en­tirely an SSD-beater, but Op­tane Me­mory suc­ceeds in wran­gling solid-state speeds out of an old hard disk

CONVENTIONAL WIS­DOM DICTATES that the ideal PC stor­age setup – the sweet spot be­tween per­for­mance and af­ford­abil­ity – is an SSD mas­ter drive with a me­chan­i­cal hard disk pro­vid­ing ex­tra ca­pac­ity. It makes per­fect sense: you get a few hun­dred gi­ga­bytes of solid-state stor­age to keep Windows and some choice ap­pli­ca­tions nice and re­spon­sive, while a ter­abyte or two of HDD space takes care of big files, which don’t suf­fer so much from slower read and write speeds.

In­tel’s Op­tane tech­nol­ogy her­alds the big­gest chal­lenge to this ap­proach in years. It’s based on 3D XPoint, a new kind of non-volatile me­mory co-de­vel­oped by In­tel and Mi­cron Tech­nol­ogy, and is sup­pos­edly both denser than DRAM (mean­ing it can save more data in a given phys­i­cal space) and faster, in la­tency terms, than NAND.

It’s planned for use in data cen­tre SSDs, such as the DC P4800X se­ries. We con­sumers, how­ever, can al­ready buy some­thing very dif­fer­ent: In­tel Op­tane Me­mory. Whereas the DC P4800X is a stand­alone drive, Op­tane Me­mory acts more like a cache for your ex­ist­ing SATA­con­nected drives, com­ing in tiny 16GB and 32GB mod­els. It fits into the M.2 slot on your moth­er­board, like a full-fat NVMe SSD, but first and fore­most it’s about boost­ing the speeds of creak­ing old hard disks.

HELP­ING HAND

It does this by iden­ti­fy­ing your most-used pro­grams (as well as Windows it­self) and ef­fec­tively mov­ing them from the hard disk to the PCI-E-con­nected Op­tane drive; this al­lows the CPU to ac­cess the data more quickly, re­sult­ing in faster boot times and fewer load­ing de­lays, both in tech­ni­cal ap­pli­ca­tions and games.

Of course, this isn’t a rad­i­cal idea – it’s been around on hy­brid SSHDs for years. These, how­ever, tend to use NAND me­mory caches, and are still be­holden to SATA speeds. Op­tane Me­mory prom­ises much higher per­for­mance, and at much lower prices than buy­ing a stand­alone NVMe SSD. The 32GB model we were sent for test­ing costs £73, while the smaller, slower, 16GB ver­sion is about £45.

Be­fore we get into test­ing re­sults, a dis­claimer: our re­view unit is marked as an ‘en­gi­neer­ing sam­ple’, not a re­tail prod­uct. Specs should be the same, so it should at least be broadly rep­re­sen­ta­tive of what you’d see from a 32GB model off the shelf. We tried us­ing it with an In­tel Core i7-7700K pro­ces­sor and 8GB of RAM, to ramp up the speed of a 1TB Sea­gate Bar­racuda, about as close to a bread-and-but­ter hard disk as you can get.

FAST TRACK

With­out Op­tane ac­cel­er­a­tion, the Bar­racuda av­er­aged 143.01MB/s read and 222.7MB/s write speeds in our huge files test. In the large files test, these dropped to 72.43MB/s read and 77.72MB/s write. The most stren­u­ous small files test re­turned a 63.13MB/s read speed and 73.82MB/s write speed.

After in­stalling our Op­tane Me­mory drive, the huge file read speed ut­terly ex­ploded: it av­er­aged 1,548MB/s over­all, a mas­sive im­prove­ment that blasts through max­i­mum SATA speeds and heads into PCI-E SSD ter­ri­tory. Av­er­age write speeds only went up to 341.46MB/s, but that’s still a siz­able boost, and both re­sults ex­ceed In­tel’s own claimed speeds.

It’s a sim­i­lar story with the large and small file tests: none of the other re­sults went as ex­tremely and con­sis­tently high as the huge files read per­for­mance, but we still saw sig­nif­i­cant gains across the board. In the large files test, av­er­age read and write speeds went up to 232.69MB/s and 223.26MB/s re­spec­tively, both roughly a three-fold in­crease. Small file write speeds were raised to 133.72MB/s, with write speeds up­ping to 209.83MB/s – both more than dou­ble what the un-ac­cel­er­ated hard disk man­aged.

We should note that other than the huge read re­sult, our Op­tane/Bar­racuda combo isn’t ac­tu­ally all that fast – our SATA SSD Best Buy, the Sam­sung 850 Evo, is con­sis­tently faster in the large and small tests, and only costs £10 more. But still, squeez­ing 1,500MB/s out of a me­chan­i­cal hard disk is a pretty im­pres­sive feat.

It’s not just about in­creased file-trans­fer speeds, ei­ther. One of the Op­tane Me­mory’s head­line fea­tures is be­ing able to cut down on boot­ing and load times, and we found it de­liv­ers: with the Bar­racuda alone, our test rig took an ag­o­nis­ing 42 sec­onds from press­ing the power but­ton to load­ing the desk­top; after Op­tane was in­stalled, this was cut in half to 20 sec­onds.

SLOW STARTER

We do wish it was eas­ier to get run­ning, though. You don’t need to tin­ker with Disk Man­age­ment, but be­sides the fid­dli­ness of se­cur­ing such a small thing in the M.2 slot, we had to up­date our moth­er­board BIOS, man­u­ally en­able Op­tane com­pat­i­bil­ity in said BIOS (it’s off by de­fault), down­load and run an in­stal­la­tion util­ity and per­form mul­ti­ple restarts be­fore the Op­tane Me­mory was ready to go.

What’s more, it’s rather picky about what hard­ware it can work with. On top of the ob­vi­ous need for a moth­er­board with an Op­tane-ready M.2 port, only re­cent In­tel CPUs with a 200-se­ries chipset (such as Kaby Lake or Sky­lake-X) are com­pat­i­ble; if you’re still us­ing Sky­lake, Broad­well-E or ear­lier, Op­tane is a no-go. It also re­quires Windows 10, so Windows 7 hold­outs are out of luck as well.

While we were very im­pressed by how the Op­tane Me­mory breathed new life into our hard disk, for an all-new PC build, we’d rather have a stan­dard SSD that can han­dle smaller files even bet­ter. Where it re­ally shines is as an up­grade to an ex­ist­ing, HDD-based sys­tem; you can con­ve­niently keep all your files on the same drive, but can dou­ble, triple or even de­cu­ple its speeds for rel­a­tively lit­tle money.

James Archer

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