Today, Intel is launching its first Optane SSDs for the mainstream consumer market after introducing higher-end solutions over the past few years. It’s been nearly three years since Intel and Micron first announced 3D XPoint (pronounced “cross point”) memory, and the rollout to customers hasn’t set the world on fire, with the first Optane products shipping out within the past 12 months.
Intel now has some small Optane cache drives (16GB and 32GB) for use in Kaby Lake and Coffee Lake systems with a 200-series (Kaby) or 300-series (Coffee) motherboard, the server-oriented P4800X 750GB card, and the high-end 280GB and 480GB Optane SSD 900P series. Those drives are now joined by the 800P family, an M.2 Optane solution intended to extend the drive’s strengths into lower price points and form factors.
Those of you who have kept track of Optane since Intel first announced the technology are likely aware that it brings some specific capabilities to the table. First, it’s higher endurance than conventional NAND based SSDs (See on Amazon), with much higher ratings as far as estimated drive writes per day. Second, it offers advantages in responsiveness (latency), responsiveness under load (consistency), and throughput at low queue depths. The new 800P series doesn’t offer a full PCIe 3.0 x4 connection via M.2, however — each drive only uses an x2 connection, which means you can theoretically RAID them together on many motherboards, assuming you have more than one M.2 slot.
For those of you wondering what Optane is, specifically, well, you’re going to have to keep waiting. Intel still isn’t talking about the specifics of the technology. Honestly, we’re increasingly of the opinion that 3D XPoint, aka Optane, is simply phase change memory with a specific storage controller and some additional improvements from Micron to scale to higher densities.
The Register compiled a list of similarities between PCM and 3D XPoint based on Intel’s limited remarks as of 2016, but the similarities are enormous. If Optane isn’t PCM, it’s very closely related to it, and even relies on some of the same materials to function. One theory is Intel and Micron may have modified how PCM is typically switched, thereby giving them some breathing room to call it a new memory technology while still relying on many of the same principles.
But questions of how 3D XPoint memory works are secondary to how it performs, so let’s shift our focus to that question.
Overall performance figures from Intel and other websites suggest that Optane is a game-changer in certain areas. It’s random read/write performance and overall drive latency are head-and-shoulders above any SSD in some cases. While we’re still performing our own analysis, Intel’s benchmark numbers and the reported stats from websites like Tech Report, Hot Hardware, and our sister site PCMag back up these claims.
But this also makes sense: The structure of NAND makes it excellent for sequential transfers, but weaker in other ways, and Optane is specifically designed to take advantage of those differences. It also has advantages in device longevity, endurance, and steady-state performance — unlike NAND, Optane drives don’t suffer performance degradation over time.
The Price Conundrum
The new drives Intel is launching today are a 58GB drive for $129 and 118GB for $199. That works out to a per-GB charge of $2.22 and $1.65, respectively, which is significantly higher than we would’ve expected. Intel’s 900P series is $1.31 and $1.25 per GB for 280GB and 480GB drives. Its accelerator cache drive with 32GB of Optane is also cheaper than the 58GB drive in per-GB terms, at $1.87 per GB rather than the $2.22 on the 58GB drive.
This pricing makes it more difficult to recommend Optane than we like. SSD prices are simply better; you can buy a 512GB M.2 PCI-Express SSD for the same price as a 118GB Optane drive.
There’s also the fact that Intel’s capacities simply aren’t all that compelling. Even if the 58GB SSD was less expensive than a conventional SSD, 58GB simply isn’t enough storage for a modern system and 118GB isn’t much better. Intel points out that you can RAID two Optane 118GB drives together via M.2 sockets, but that comes out to 2x118GB at $200 each, or $400 for 236GB of storage. The Optane 900P is a single PCIe drive with an x4 PCIe interface that’s available in either a 2.5-inch drive ($369) or a PCIe expansion card ($400). That makes it a better deal both in terms of price per GB and total capacity.
The flip side to this analysis, however, is that SSDs suffered from many of these weaknesses when they first shipped. We’ll have to see if Optane follows a similar trajectory, but there’s good historical precedent for expensive storage solutions that improve on previous methods but aren’t priced all that well. In the long run, Optane could evolve into the non-volatile storage medium of choice. For now, it looks like a targeted solution that could appeal to buyers who don’t need much capacity, but do need guaranteed reliability and steady performance.
Now read: How do SSDs work? and PCMag’s Best M.2 Solid-State Drives of 2018