There are so many different things to worry about when shopping for a computer. How fast should the CPU be? Is this RAM too slow? How much storage space do I need? Will this GPU with that CPU cause bottlenecking? (Don't even get me started on adaptive sync technology.) As the data specialist for Desktops and Notebooks categories, I get to check out new PCs entering the retail and ecommerce markets every week, as well as their price changes. Recently, two HP Pavilion Gaming models caught my eye. They were nearly identical in price on Amazon, but one had more storage and the other had Intel Optane Memory, I was intrigued and decided to dig into the data a little bit further.
These images were captured from Amazon on October 9, 2018.
Considering the ratings for both were about the same, I wondered how much Optane Memory impacted the latter’s performance, or if it was worth sacrificing the 128GB SSD for it. The latter’s product page description also mentions that Optane Memory helps with shorter boot times and overall response rates – but why is it only $50 cheaper then? ($50 is not much when you’re already looking to spend about $1000!)
Is this “Intel Optane Memory” another spec to worry about, or one we can safely ignore when shopping for a new computer? Can it replace SSD? What even is it? These were all questions I had when I still had no idea what Intel Optane even was.
(While there are bountiful videos and articles discussing the nitty-gritty of Optane Memory, SSD, flash memory, and the like, I aim to make sense of the details in layman’s terms, as I did in my previous blogs on adaptive sync technology and panel types.)
What does it actually do?
The first time I ever heard of Intel Optane Memory was in an Office Depot advertisement for an HP desktop. Seeing as that ad had no description of Optane Memory whatsoever – just that the desktop had 16GB of it – I had so many guesses for what it could possibly be. Is it more storage? Is it more RAM? Is it another computer part? Is it a new standard computer part, or just for HP, or just that desktop in particular? There are also advertisements of PCs with Intel Optane Memory that offer some explanation (as opposed to none at all), but still leave behind some guesswork for consumers. Take this banner ad from September, for example:
Here, Optane Memory is described as something that “accelerate(s) your PC.” Accelerating my PC is pretty neat, but how does this work any differently than a regular solid state drive, or faster RAM?
Solid-State Drives & Intel Optane Memory
Wikipedia defines solid-state drive (SSD) as “a solid-state storage device that uses integrated circuit assemblies as memory to store data persistently.” Put simply, they do not have physical disks, unlike a traditional hard disk drive (HDD). For storage, there are plenty of benefits to having an SSD over an HDD for your computer. SSD's "run silently, have quicker access time and lower latency" than HDD's, whereas HDD's generally provide more storage space, are cheaper, and are better suited for archival purposes. It is also worth noting that there are different form factors (physical size/connector combinations) that affect the efficiency of an SSD. An NVMe SSD, for example, is faster than a SATA III SSD – but we’ll get back to this later.
In a way, Intel tries to bridge the gap between RAM and SSD with Optane Memory. DRAM is fast but too volatile (which means data is lost when the power is off), while NAND memory, which is found in SSD’s, is not volatile but also isn't as fast. If SSD’s are treated as RAM, the PC would be much slower due to NAND memory's inferior speed. Likewise, if RAM was treated as a storage solution, you wouldn't be able to save any data on reboot. Intel claims that Optane Memory solves the problems with both speed and volatility. Its density allows it to deliver “greater capacity than DRAM in the same space,” in addition to having a shorter latency than NAND memory.
Basically, Intel Optane Memory is a type of SSD, though it doesn't behave like one. It upgrades the existing HDD to run like an SSD, almost like a hybrid SSHD, but it doesn't store any data like traditional SSD's nor will it appear as a separate drive.
Sounds like a dream.
So now that we know what Intel Optane Memory is…
Which is better for your computer – Optane Memory or a traditional SSD? It’s really not as simple as choosing one over the other. As mentioned before, some “types” of SSD are more efficient and faster than others. This also means Optane Memory may fall in between them as well, performance-wise. One commenter on the Dell.com community forums ranked NVMe SSD as the fastest, followed by Optane + HDD, followed by SATA III SSD. Some commenters also mention that while NVMe SSD is faster than Optane, the difference is not very noticeable.
Additionally, Optane isn’t limited to PCs with only HDD storage. This CyberPower desktop has both 1TB HDD and 500GB SSD storage, in addition to 32GB RAM and 16GB Optane Memory (even though, as of writing this, the product page description in no way describes what Optane Memory is or how it improves performance). So you can certainly combine Optane Memory with a pre-existing SSD as well, but it doesn’t appear to be that common – or affordable.
Use cases for Optane Memory – Intel.com
When it comes down to picking a gaming laptop that has 128GB SSD (or more specifically, a “128 GB PCIe NVMe M.2 Solid State Drive” as advertised on Amazon) and one that has 16GB Intel Optane Memory, but the exact same specifications otherwise – it's actually pretty hard to say. Like my previous conclusions on which monitors work best, this again boils down to preference on how you want your speedy computer to work. With Optane, you only have a single drive to manage, while with a traditional SSD + HDD combination, you have to manage both a C: and a D: drive. Anything coming from a traditional SSD is guaranteed to load fast, whereas anything coming from an HDD (without Optane) is guaranteed to load slower. Conversely, while Optane Memory speeds up the entire HDD, the loading times depend on a caching algorithm, meaning rarely used applications will not be sped up.
From the sounds of it, you could probably pick either of the two laptops and have about the same performance. I would choose the one featuring a 128GB SSD simply because it offers more storage, not because it may or may not run faster than Optane Memory. Then again, I own a lot of external hard drives, so storage really isn't an issue. Maybe the faster loading 1TB + Optane would work better for me after all? Hmmm…
Well, in any case, I hope this blurb helped you understand what Intel Optane Memory is, and whether or not it's a specification you should care about!
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