Can In­tel Op­tane re­ally boost your lap­top’s speed?

Chris Szewczyk in­ves­ti­gates whether In­tel’s cache drives ac­tu­ally de­liver real-world ben­e­fits.

APC Australia - - Contents -

In­tel’s Op­tane stor­age tech­nol­ogy has all the po­ten­tial to be a game changer. Ac­cord­ing to In­tel, Op­tane prod­ucts have the ca­pa­bil­ity to be or­ders of mag­ni­tude faster than tra­di­tional SSD so­lu­tions, never mind tra­di­tional hard drives. While there are al­ready large ca­pac­ity Op­tane drives that serve as NAND SSD re­place­ments on the market, their cost rel­e­gates them to those with deep pock­ets or for use with pro­fes­sional ap­pli­ca­tions.

In­tel’s plans for the main­stream market are much more grounded in re­al­ity. The ex­cel­lent low la­tency read per­for­mance char­ac­ter­is­tics of Op­tane prod­ucts makes them ideal cache drives. Pair­ing a low ca­pac­ity Op­tane drive with a me­chan­i­cal hard drive prom­ises to mas­sively ac­cel­er­ate per­for­mance, while keep­ing costs to a min­i­mum. Th­ese are lofty prom­ises, and in this ar­ti­cle we’ll go over why a cache drive can ben­e­fit your desk­top sys­tem or lap­top, and put Op­tane’s caching ca­pa­bil­i­ties to the test.

The Op­tane Mem­ory Mod­ule uses a stan­dard M.2 2280 form fac­tor. It’s com­pat­i­ble with 7th Gen Kaby Lake and newer pro­ces­sors. It re­quires BIOS sup­port and is used in con­junc­tion with In­tel’s Rapid Stor­age Tech­nol­ogy. Op­tane drives are in­creas­ingly be­ing of­fered as op­tions in lap­tops, with the af­ford­abil­ity of 16GB and 32GB drives and com­pat­i­bil­ity with stan­dard M.2 slots mak­ing them a sim­ple add on. When en­abled, the Op­tane drive is in­vis­i­ble to the user; it acts purely as a back­ground cache.

To test the ef­fec­tive­ness of Op­tane tech­nol­ogy as a cache so­lu­tion, we con­fig­ured two iden­ti­cal-spec Dell In­sp­iron 5570 lap­tops, one was equipped with a small and af­ford­able 16GB Op­tane drive, while the other was not.

THE CASE FOR ADDING AN OP­TANE CACHE DRIVE

What is it that makes an SSD per­cep­ti­bly faster than a me­chan­i­cal hard drive? It’s pri­mar­ily the ac­cess times and ran­dom read op­er­a­tions. Your op­er­at­ing sys­tem is ac­cess­ing small files all the time, and when you pile up thou­sands of th­ese small reads, the dif­fer­ence be­tween the mil­lisec­ond ac­cess times of a HDD and the mi­crosec­onds of an SSD be­come painfully ob­vi­ous. The pur­pose of a cache drive is to bridge the gap be­tween in­ex­pen­sive HDDs and more ex­pen­sive large ca­pac­ity SSDs. Es­sen­tially you get the best of both worlds — af­ford­able high ca­pac­ity HDD stor­age com­bined with SSD level per­for­mance.

The 16GB Op­tane drive we’re us­ing here goes for un­der $40. Many newer lap­tops, in­clud­ing the Dell In­sp­iron mod­els we used for testing, of­fer it as stan­dard or as an op­tion. Ad­mit­tedly

“When you pile up thou­sands of th­ese small reads, the dif­fer­ence be­tween the mil­lisec­ond ac­cess times of a HDD and the mi­crosec­onds of an SSD be­come painfully ob­vi­ous. ”

16GB is not very big, and you’ll likely see bet­ter re­sults with a 32GB or higher drive, but if you do that, you’re get­ting to­wards the price of a stand­alone SSD. If you’re on a bud­get and want an af­ford­able way to give your sys­tem a boost, we think its money well spent.

HOW DOES IT PER­FORM?

Let’s look at the two Crys­talDiskMark re­sults above. The one on the left shows the stor­age trans­fer speeds us­ing just the hard drive, while the one on the right shows the same spec sys­tem with Op­tane caching en­abled.

Th­ese re­sults are not just in an­other league — they’re in an­other sport. It’s em­bar­rass­ing re­ally, but the num­bers don’t lie. How does it ‘feel’ though? Well, the lap­top boot time is mas­sively im­proved. Dur­ing bootup with­out Op­tane en­abled, you can hear the hard drive go­ing crazy ac­cess­ing all those tiny files. Even af­ter reach­ing the Win­dows desk­top, there is some lag be­fore be­ing able to open an ap­pli­ca­tion such as a web browser. With Op­tane caching en­abled, th­ese delays are largely ab­sent.

Due to the small size of the drive, ac­tual test re­sults are highly vari­able as data gets moved on and off the cache drive quite reg­u­larly. Ev­ery­day fre­quently ac­cessed ap­pli­ca­tions, like a browser or spread­sheet, get quite a speedup, but some­thing re­quir­ing a large amount of space like a game sees lit­tle ben­e­fit. We tried open­ing and clos­ing Far Cry 5 a few times and we did see im­prove­ments, but do­ing so also flushes a lot of the cache, par­tic­u­larly core OS files, which is where the real ben­e­fits are to be found. This makes the 16GB drive we tested here best suited to an ev­ery­day in­ter­net/work/study/me­di­a­con­sump­tion ma­chine. Gamers us­ing a hard drive as their pri­mary stor­age should look to­wards a larger Op­tane cache drive, or take the slightly more ex­pen­sive op­tion: and grab an SSD ca­pa­ble of hold­ing en­tire games.

IS IT WORTH IT?

Of course, Op­tane caching isn’t for ev­ery­one. If you’ve al­ready got an SSD, Op­tane won’t de­liver any tan­gi­ble ben­e­fit. If you’ve got a spare M.2 slot and the money to splurge on a de­cent ca­pac­ity NVMe SSD to hold all your data, do it. You’ll get bet­ter con­sis­tency un­der all op­er­at­ing con­di­tions, even though a small ca­pac­ity Op­tane cache drive can beat a mighty NVMe drive in some cir­cum­stances. Games re­quir­ing a lot of stor­age space will load faster and have faster level tran­si­tions when the en­tire game is on an SSD.

In the end, adding a small Op­tane cache drive is an af­ford­able way to speed up a sys­tem or lap­top that’s en­cum­bered by a HDD. A high ca­pac­ity SSD is ul­ti­mately still the way to go, but they cost a lot more than what a lit­tle Op­tane drive will cost. It’s a ter­rific, and un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated way to give your sys­tem a truly tan­gi­ble speedup with­out break­ing the bank.

VER­DICT

Adding an In­tel Op­tane cache drive to your hard drive equipped PC or lap­top pro­vides an af­ford­able and sur­pris­ingly tan­gi­ble speedup.

Op­tane SSDs used as cache come in M. 2 form fac­tors.

But with an Op­tane cache, well, the re­sults speak for them­selves.

The HDD of­fers very poor per­for­mance.

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