Intel’s Optane Memory-Storage Combo Aims to Boost PC Performance

By: Jeff Bertolucci| - Leave a comment

Despite incremental enhancements, computer-memory technology hasn’t seen a revolutionary leap forward in at least 25 years. This may change soon, however, if Intel’s Optane system delivers on its promise to dramatically improve PC performance and shorten boot times.

According to CIO, Intel claims Optane could be up to 10 times faster than the conventional solid state drives (SSDs) found in most laptops today, but the verdict is still out until real-world tests are done. The technology could eventually replace SSDs and dynamic random access memory (DRAM), boosting system speed by essentially combining memory and storage while adding smart enhancements to make applications run faster.

How Intel’s Optane Changes Things

Intel and Micron, longtime manufacturing partners, worked together to develop Optane. The system is “a new class of memory and storage” based on 3D Xpoint, a technology in which memory cells sit in a three-dimensional mesh, IDG News reports.

In traditional computers, DRAM is located close to the CPU, enabling speedier access to frequently used data compared to storage-oriented hard disk drives (HDDs) and SSDs. The downside to DRAM is that it deletes its stored data once the computer is turned off.

But Intel’s Optane memory, like an HDD or an SSD, retains data when the PC is turned off. For enterprise and consumer users, the benefits could be substantial: instant booting, faster application launching and better video and gaming experiences, to name a few.

Slow Rollout Expected

Intel’s Optane won’t replace SSDs anytime soon. Instead, the new technology will work in conjunction with very large HDDs to improve performance on high-end PCs.

At CES 2017 in Las Vegas, Intel announced the first Optane hardware — relatively low-capacity 16GB and 32GB memory modules built for caching, not for main storage. These products are expected to ship in the second quarter of 2017 and will allow enterprise and power users to test the technology. Optane products with higher capacities and densities, as well as different form factors, are expected to arrive over the next several years, according to PC manufacturers.

The Future: Optane SSDs

Arguably the biggest payoff of Intel’s breakthrough technology will come when large-capacity Optane SSDs replace conventional SSDs in desktop and laptop computers, although it’s unclear when that day will come.

Optane hardware will be pricey at first — as is the case with new storage technology — but prices should drop over time. According to IDG News, Optane modules are currently being produced in limited quantities in a Dalian, China, factory.

The first batch of Optane-equipped PCs are planned to ship in the first and second quarters of 2017, but PC makers have yet to announce exact pricing. The initial batch of 16GB and 32GB Optane modules will not be backwards-compatible with older processors, including Intel’s Skylake and Broadwell CPUs, or chips from rival AMD. Rather, they’ll work only with PCs running Kaby Lake CPUs, Intel’s seventh-generation Core processors that are starting to appear in higher-end systems, including HP’s Envy Curved All-in-One 34 desktop and Lenovo’s ThinkPad T570 laptop. Dell plans to add Optane to some of its Precision laptops and OptiPlex desktops, as well.

Windows 10 PCs will recognize Optane out of the gate, a benefit of Intel drivers and technologies built to exploit the new memory architecture, according to PC makers. It’s unclear, however, when (or how well) the Mac and Linux operating systems will support Optane.

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About The Author

Jeff Bertolucci

News Writer

Jeff Bertolucci is a Los Angeles-based journalist specializing in technology, digital media, and education. His work has appeared in Kiplinger's Personal Finance, InformationWeek, PCWorld, Macworld, The Saturday Evening Post, The Los Angeles Times and many other publications.