• Pros

    Improves performanace over hard drives alone. Easy to set up.

  • Cons

    Pricey compared with a 2.5-inch SSD. Works only with Kaby Lake CPUs and 200-series chipsets. May require a motherboard BIOS update.

  • Bottom Line

    Part storage drive, part system accelerator, Intel's Optane Memory speeds up desktops with traditional hard drives. But you'll need the newest CPUs and motherboards to use it, so it's currently more attractive to system manufacturers than PC tinkerers.

By Joel Santo Domingo

Intel Optane Memory is part storage drive, part system accelerator. It's a memory board that fits in the M.2 slot on desktop PC motherboards, acting as a staging area between the slow interface of your hard drive and swift system memory. It measurably reduces access times for repeated tasks like launching your favorite programs or reopening the lengthy manuscript you work on everyday. It will make a system with just a hard drive feel as fast as PC booting off of a solid-state drive (SSD). However, since it is a new technology, you'll likely see it in new PCs rather than as a feature you can add to your existing desktop, particularly if you're not running the latest hardware.

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Optane Memory is one of the first consumer offshoots of Intel and Micron's 3D XPoint (pronounced "crosspoint") technology. 3D XPoint is designed to bridge the gap between slower, cheaper, and non-volatile storage like flash memory, and faster, more expensive, and volatile (disappears when you shut the power) RAM. Full implementation of 3D XPoint will mean that you'll only have to buy and install one module, instead of one (or more) RAM stick(s) along with a separate SSD or hard drive for storage.

Right now, the best way to describe Optane Memory is as a caching accelerator for slow storage like hard drives. When added to a compatible desktop system with an Intel seventh-generation Core i5 CPU and Intel B250 chipset, booting and operating speeds improved to match the performance of an SSD rather than a hard drive. Boot times and opening oft-used programs like Chrome and Photoshop were faster, and even searching for a file in Windows 10 improved. That translates into several minutes of waiting shaved off everyday, which adds up.

Unfortunately, because it would require a herculean effort on Intel's part to certify all the existing motherboards on the market today, Optane Memory is limited to newer Kaby Lake (seventh-generation) Intel CPUs running on motherboards with 200-series chipsets. Your current one- or two-year-old desktop may be compatible, but it may take a BIOS firmware upgrade to enable compatibility. Once that's done, though, the module installs easily in a free M.2/PCIe slot on the motherboard. Just update your driver and your should be good to go.

The 16GB Optane Memory module costs $44, while the 32GB capacity costs $77. That doesn't sound too bad, but an inexpensive 128GB 2.5-inch SSD can be had for about $80 these days, and you won't need a new motherboard for that. Eventually, prices will go down, but for now Optane Memory seems more attractive to PC manufacturers than end users. For more on the Intel Optane Memory module, check out our sister site, Computer Shopper, for a full review including real-world benchmark tests.

Joel Santo Domingo By Joel Santo Domingo Lead Analyst Twitter Email

Joel Santo Domingo is the Lead Analyst for the Desktops team at PC Magazine Labs. He joined PC Magazine in 2000, after 7 years of IT work for companies large and small. His background includes managing mobile, desktop and network infrastructure on both the Macintosh and Windows platforms. Joel is proof that you can escape the retail grind: he wore a yellow polo shirt early in his tech career. Along the way Joel earned a BA in English Literature and an MBA in Information Technology… More »

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