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Intel Unveils First Optane Memory Modules

Intel on Monday began selling its first Optane memory modules, which it says will transform the traditional relationship between PC memory and storage, making everything from gaming to web browsing much faster on the mainstream computers most people buy.

It's a bold claim, especially since the approach Intel is taking with Optane has been done before. Optane memory's crowning achievement is its ability to intelligently allocate the data on a PC between the memory and the hard drive, all the while continuously monitoring your computing patterns to achieve faster app launches and boot times. That allocation approach will sound familiar to anyone who owns a computer with a hybrid drive configuration, which stores the applications you use most in a fast solid state drive (SSD) while relegating large files to the slower spinning drive.

But Intel says that Optane's all-memory approach to data allocation is better than the hybrid drives that have been on the market for nearly a decade, both because of advances in memory technology and the fact that the Optane software configures everything automatically: you don't have to chose which data are kept in memory and which go on the storage drive.

The upshot is that Optane memory will increase the speed of a traditional hard disk drive-based PC (which is nearly 80 percent of the PC market, according to Intel) by 28 percent, with up to 14 times faster storage performance, Intel says. The company didn't offer test results for Optane-powered SSD systems.

In anecdotal testing during a press event at Intel's factory in Folsom, Calif., earlier this month, I saw a noticeable performance boost when replacing the conventional memory in a HDD-based Intel NUC with an Optane module. Boot times decreased by about 10 seconds with Optane, but the real difference was in some basic video- and photo-editing tasks Intel devised. A sample task using the Gimp open-source image editor took 13 seconds with conventional memory, 10 seconds with Optane freshly installed, and just over three seconds after the system was restarted a second time to allow the Optane software to work its magic.

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While this test was far from scientific (here's how we test system performance at PC Labs) it did suggest that the 10 years of research Intel has put into Optane resulted in memory that is remarkably attuned to the needs of each PC user. It's worth noting that SSDs and hybrid drives get faster as they learn your usage patterns too, though, and Intel isn't making the claim that Optane memory will replace SSDs, just that it will be a worthwhile alternative for mainstream desktops. In fact, Intel is also selling Optane-powered SSDs, which are currently available for enterprise servers but will also likely make their way to the consumer market later this year.

Optane memory modules are now on sale in 16GB or 32GB versions. You'll need an Optane-ready system powered by a seventh-generation Intel Core processor to install one; Intel says there are now more than 130 Optane-ready motherboards on the market. Intel's MSRP for the 16GB module is $44, while the 32GB version is $77.

Off-the-shelf enterprise and consumer systems from the likes of HP, Dell, Lenovo, Asus, Acer, and others will begin shipping with Optane memory starting in the second quarter.

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