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What is Optane Memory? If you’re not sure how to wrap your head around the new M.2 chip from Intel-Micron, think of it as the El Camino of computer memory. Not quite RAM, not quite flash. If anything it’s both at once. Functionally, Optane resembles what phase change memory (PCM) sets out to achieve. But don’t call it that; it’s not officially PCM as Intel and Micron insist.

Switching out a spinning hard disk drive (HDD) with a solid-state drive (SSD) remains the de facto way to give a PC a performance boost. In systems with larger drives, that upgrade does not come cheap. Upgrade a terabyte HDD by replacing it with a terabyte SSD and you’re making a $300 hardware purchase.

Now there’s a way to supercharge storage performance without switching out the hard drive at all. With an Intel Optane Memory M.2 card in a PCIe 3.0 x 2 slot your standard 7200 RPM hard drive will smoke the fastest consumer SSDs in read and write performance.

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How does Optane work?

Intel and Micron first introduced 3D Xpoint architecture in DC P-series NVMe enterprise solid state drives used in high performance datacenters. Now end users get a taste with M.2 cards designed for integration into OEM systems.

Aftermarket upgrades require a designated “Optane Memory ready” Intel 270 motherboards for the HDD performance boost. LGA1151-socketed BIOSTAR Z270GT9 and BIOSTAR Z270GT6 are two early adopters for Optane compatibility. In other motherboads with an M.2 slot, the Optane will function the same way a M.2 SSD would.

Is 3D Xpoint phase change memory?

It seems similar but it’s hard to confirm or deny because Intel and Micron play close the vest with the inner workings of the technology. Functionally, Optane resembles what phase change memory (PCM) sets out to achieve.

Intel and several hardware manufacturers have invested in R&D efforts in developing PCM chips in a race towards the successor to NAND. Describing Optane’s form and function, Intel and Micron are careful to avoid mentioning PCM when discussing 3D Xpoint architecture. Certain industry analysts think that 3D Xpoint is indeed PCM technology.

This is a cross-section of two PRAM memory cells, with the cut parallel to the bit line. One cell is in crystalline state, the other amorphous.

How is PCM different from NAND?

Phase change semiconductors pass electrons through a glass tube filled with chalcogenide gas; when powered down, the tube cools and gas changes to crystalline solid, storing blocks of electronic signal inside until powering on again. Compared to NAND cells, the low resistance of the tubes when in the gas state lets the electronic signal pass at greater speeds, similar to DRAM. In its crystalline powered-down state, PCM captures and stores signal in the tubes as transistors in NAND cells would, something DRAM is incapable of achieving.

SSD caching: I want my SRT

Essentially Optane behaves like a fast, large (16 GB or 32 GB) cache for the main storage drive. System builders might remember Intel Smart Response Technology (SRT), a proprietary caching mechanism introduced in 2011 for Z68 chipset Sandy Bridge systems, wherein a SATA SSD could function as 16-64 GB of cache for the main hard drive. Intel lists the Z97 chipset (Haswell CPUs) as the last to support SRT.

At this time Optane memory resembles the heir apparent for SRT-like performance for Z170 chipsets and later. 3D Xpoint writes and reads 1,000 times faster than NAND. If the benchmarks confirm this, fans of Intel SRT will enjoy a performance boost using Optane for SSD caching.

Adam Lovinus

Author Adam Lovinus

A tech writer and Raspberry Pi enthusiast from Orange County, California.

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