Intel Optane Memory looks to give traditional hard drives a serious speed boost

Hard drives are getting a much deserved kick in the pants with Intel’s new Optane Memory.

The processor maker claims its newest technology will give old-school spinning drives solid-state drive-like (SSD) speeds today and eventually transform computer storage forever. 

Intel Optane Memory might sound like RAM, but it’s actually a specialized storage product that hooks up to the M.2 storage slot (PCIe Gen 3.0x2) on a PC motherboard. You’ll find them on the latest motherboards designed for Intel’s latest 7th generation, or Kaby Lake, processors and the 200 series Intel chipset.

The connected storage drive endows you with 16GB or 32GB of Optane Memory for blazing fast cache.

Cache that can make, say, your 1TB, 7,200 rpm spinning hard drive twice as responsive in performing daily tasks and booting up or launch your browser up to five times faster. Oh, and how about 67% and 65% reductions in game app launch and game level load times, respectively?

These are the initial figures that Intel promises are possible out of a seemingly old hat, spinning hard drive when boosted by its Intel Optane Memory cache module. So, what’s the secret?

  • While we wait, consider shelling out for the MacBook Pro

Better materials, smarter storage

Intel’s answer to that is twofold. First off, Optane Memory is built differently than traditional NAND-based storage cells used in SSDs, instead crafted using 3DXpoint. Pronounced “3D crosspoint,” this is a different kind of proprietary storage media, built using materials (the identity of which Intel is keeping to itself) in a three-dimensional pattern similar to how a processor is built – sort of like a s’more.

However, a computer’s processor can only access data as fast as the storage medium can deliver it, which depends both on how quickly it can recall the data in its stores and how quickly data transfers over connectors, usually SATA (off-motherboard) or PCIe (on-board) these days.

This is why RAM, or random access memory, was developed decades ago to store frequently used data. However, RAM is expensive to build at high capacities, and thus isn’t a realistic way to store all of a PC’s data.

“We want something that brings that data much closer to the processor,” Intel Senior Fellow Al Fazio told a room of journalists when debuting the technology. “We need something that’s closer and faster to provide data to the processor.”

The crosspoint is the smallest and densest silicon structure that you can construct lithographically and can switch 1,000 times faster than NAND flash, according to Fazio, because of the proximity. The physics of the data delivery have been changed.

Not only, as Fazio tells it, does this make it 1,000 times faster than NAND, but it provides 1,000 times better endurance than NAND and 10 times the density of conventional memory.

This technology also operates at sub-microsecond speeds, Fazio said, compared to microsecond speeds of other storage and memory. The idea is to get the capacity of NAND and the speed of RAM or better in a non-volatile solution.

The second piece of how Optane Memory boosts your existing storage drive is in the product’s intelligence. A small processor inside the M.2 memory module runs Intel Rapid Storage Technology, firmware that allows the module to detect which apps and services you use most over time, prioritizing the files associated with those apps into its 16GB or 32GB cache.

This, in turn, serves up those apps and services much faster than if their files would have to be called from the storage drive proper and then placed into RAM. The result is faster boot times, app start times, in-app data loads and generally improved responsiveness in your most-used apps.

Now, while Optane Memory can reach higher capacities than RAM for cheaper, it’s not quite at the point of replacing either your RAM or your hard drive or SSD. This product is architected as a memory, not a storage device. In short, you cannot dual boot an Intel Optane Memory module – sorry, savvy users.

The fine print

Now, mind that, in order to improve the speed of functions like boot time and improved responsiveness in system services, a certain amount of the Optane Memory module’s cache is reserved for these system process files. Exactly how much, Intel won’t say.

Also, again, the Intel Optane Memory module only operates with motherboards that support both 7th generation Intel processors and Intel’s 200 series chipset. So, if you can’t spruce up your old hard drive with that 6th generation or older Intel chip and dated motherboard, who is this for?

For one, those looking to upgrade their PCs with gobs of storage that’s also fast could look to this as a more affordable route to that kind of PC build. After all, a 2TB spinning hard drive calls for a fraction of the cost of an equally capacious SSD.

To that end, Intel has worked with partners to ensure that over 130 of such supported motherboards are available right now.

We’re also told that Intel is already working with key desktop PC producers to include the option for Intel Optane memory modules in models that generally offer large amounts of spinning storage. So, otherwise hapless PC purchasers will effectively enjoy the speed of an SSD for the cost of a PC with an old hat spinning drive inside, thanks to an Optane Memory module.

Since Intel first revealed its Optane storage technology way back in 2015, we’ve dreamt of a world free of distinctions like “storage” and “RAM”. While that reality is still a ways off, Intel’s new Optane Memory module finally begins to blur those lines today.

Optane Memory looks to set the computing world on fire when it launches for desktop PCs on April 24 . In the US, Optane Memory will cost $44 for 16GB while 32GB will call for $77. We're awaiting comment from Intel on pricing and availability in the UK and Australia, and will update this space with whatever information we receive. 

For more of Intel’s data on how an Optane Memory PC compares to systems without it, check out Intel’s website.

Joe Osborne

Joe Osborne is the Senior Technology Editor at Insider Inc. His role is to leads the technology coverage team for the Business Insider Shopping team, facilitating expert reviews, comprehensive buying guides, snap deals news and more. Previously, Joe was TechRadar's US computing editor, leading reviews of everything from gaming PCs to internal components and accessories. In his spare time, Joe is a renowned Dungeons and Dragons dungeon master – and arguably the nicest man in tech.