“Every gamer will want 3D Xpoint. Every single gamer.” These were the bold word of Intel’s CEO at a recent investor conference. He may well be right, too. 3D Xpoint is the storage technology behind Intel Optane, a new super-fast storage device which works with Intel’s Kaby Lake processors.
What is Intel Optane?
Few people have an NVMe SSD yet at they’re relatively new, and only high-end (and recent) motherboards have the requisite M.2 slot.
But although the 960 Evo is extremely fast, Optane is in another league entirely.
Intel says Optane is 4.42 times faster than a ‘NAND’ memory-based NVMe SSD in terms of IOPS (Input/output operations per second) and has 6.44 times less latency.
It has also said that Optane could be up to 10 times faster than traditional SATA-based SSDs.
As of yet, there have been no real-world benchmark results, and Intel showed off only 16GB and 32GB units at CES 2017. This pales in comparison with the 1TB capacity of the 960 Evo, but the promise is that ‘high capacity’ Optane will come over the next few years.
How does Intel Optane work?
It’s easiest to think of Optane as a cross between an SSD and RAM. It’s (nearly) as fast as RAM, but doesn’t lose its data when power is removed. This is why Intel is calling it Optane Memory, and not Optane SSD.
Intel has worked with Micron (better known as Crucial memory in the UK) to develop 3D Xpoint technology, which is a little like Samsung’s 3D V-NAND.
Xpoint should be read as ‘crosspoint’ because the structure of the memory is like a 3D latticework, which means a lot of storage capacity can be crammed into a small space, and the data addressed quickly.
Intel Optane Memory: price and release date rumours
Intel has said you’ll be able to buy Optane Memory in the second quarter of 2017, so it could arrive as early as March, or as late as the end of May.
No price has been mentioned, and this will be the critical factor. However, the aim is that it will be cheaper to pair a small-capacity Optane module with a high-capacity mechanical hard drive than to have an all-SSD system.
The problem – right now – is that 3D Xpoint is not as fast as RAM but costs more to produce. It has been claimed to be 1,000 times faster than NAND flash memory, but in reality is (as per Intel’s figures above) only 6-8 times faster.
Also, only a tiny proportion of PC owners will have a PC that’s Optane Memory Ready (look out for the logo below if you’re buying a PC).
Only Kaby Lake processors support Optane, so it won’t work with your sixth-gen Skylake system or anything older.
Your motherboard will need an Intel 200-series chipset, and an “M.2 type 2280-S1-B-M or 2242-S1-B-M connector on a PCH Remapped PCIe Controller and Lanes in a x2 or x4 configuration with B-M keys that meet NVMe Spec 1.1 and System BIOS that supports the Intel Rapid Storage Technology 15.5 driver.”
You can find out more about Optane requirements on Intel’s website.
It’s unclear whether Windows 7 will be Optane aware, so it’s likely you’ll also need Windows 10.
Intel Optane Memory and gaming
So why will “every single gamer” want 3D Xpoint inside their PC? Essentially, it’s because games will load a lot faster, and parts – new levels, for example – can be pre-loaded on the Optane module so there’s no waiting around as with current hard drives and SSDs.
We’ll have to wait and see just how much of a difference there is, and how Kaby Lake + Optane stack up against AMD’s rival Ryzen CPUs and new motherboard chipsets.