Intel's Optane technology has held the promise of revolutionising computer memory and storage since mid-2015, when the company announced that it had developed an all-new kind of flash memory. The technology, named 3D Xpoint, was developed in a joint venture with Micron and was promised to be the most significant disruption in PC architecture in 25 years.
At the time, it was claimed to be as fast as RAM without losing its contents when power is turned off. Speed and endurance were claimed to be 1000x that of the common NAND flash memory used in SSDs, and data density was supposed to be 10x. By promising to replace both memory and storage, effectively merging them into one, the companies tantalised us with visions of a whole new way to design and use computers.
We imagined never having to wait for anything to load from a spinning hard drive (which was the norm in 2015). You could have all your data immediately available to the processor as if it was all in RAM. For home users, that would mean instantaneous booting and never having to pause while a game loads. For professionals, it would mean being able to work on gigantic databases all at once, never pausing to retrieve or store information. Huge video edit projects, 3D models, and complex data sets were supposed to become lightning fast.
It's now 2019, and we aren't quite at that place yet. Intel has released a few products based on 3D Xpoint under its Optane brand for data centres as well as consumers, and they haven't had a huge impact yet. We're getting there, with Optane Persistent Memory DIMMs and the Optane SSD DC series finding their ways into specific applications that can take advantage of them, but capacities are low and prices are high.
On the consumer front, the first push for Optane was strangely in the form of Optane Memory; 16GB and 32GB modules meant to be used to accelerate reads and writes to a slow spinning hard drive. We reviewed Optane Memory when it was launched and found that it was not necessarily better than a higher capacity, lower cost SSD. Since then, it has become more versatile with support for non-boot drives, and with a push for OEMs to build it into laptops, the cost is somewhat less of an issue.
We also have consumer SSDs — the Optane SSD 800p and Optane SSD 900 series, and very recently, the hybrid Optane SSD H10. While the 900 series models are extremely expensive, they are capable of extraordinary speeds and are available in capacities of up to 1.5TB. What we have with us for review is the Optane SSD 800p, a model that slots in slightly lower with more approachable prices but not all the benefits. Read on to see what exactly this device is, and whether your PC really needs it.
The Optane SSD 800p has more in common with the lower-end Optane Memory series than it does with the Optane SSD 900 series. It's available in two capacity options, 58GB and 118GB, which seems quite low compared to today's 1TB-4TB consumer SSDs. It's also only available in the M.2 module form factor.
A close look shows us that the PCBs of the Optane Memory and Optane SSD 800p are virtually identical, down to the placement of each individual component. Also, the connector edges of both have two notches, meaning that they both use only two lanes of PCIe bandwidth rather than four, unlike all of today's NVMe SSDs.
With only 58GB or 118GB, chances are that you won't want an Optane SSD 800p to be your PC's only storage option. It's a lot more space than the Optane Memory modules at 16GB and 32GB, but it's still barely enough to install Windows 10 on and have room for lots of documents, videos, and games. As anyone who's used a laptop with a small SSD will attest, the 118GB option might suffice, but only if you have very light needs and/ or use a combination of cloud storage services and external hard drives.
Optane Memory modules can be formatted to be used as fast SSDs, but Intel doesn't exactly encourage this because it doesn't make sense. Interestingly, Intel's documentation states that the Optane SSD 800p can be used as an Optane Memory cache using the same software and drivers as you would with Optane Memory, but it isn't recommended for exactly the same reason — it just isn't an optimal use of the technology.
So why should anyone be interested in the Optane SSD 800p? First of all, its performance. Optane SSDs do not behave like standard SATA or NVMe SSDs based on NAND flash memory. Fundamentally, the difference is that the structure of the storage medium allows for each cell to be addressed individually, rather than in blocks that must be read (and erased) as a whole before individual bits can be changed. This has a massive impact on latency, or the amount of time it takes to retrieve specific information from an SSD. In turn, it allows queues of operations to be sped up.
Optane SSDs also benefit from extremely quick random reads and writes, where standard SSDs (and even spinning hard drives) only achieve their maximum theoretical performance ratings when dealing with neatly ordered sequential data. Moreover, hitting the drive with lots of reads and writes simultaneously shouldn't affect performance at all.
According to Intel, Optane SSDs can demonstrate far better results at low queue depths than NAND SSDs — as we've seen in our benchmarks countless times, SSDs typically post great scores when tested at QD32 and decent ones at QD8, but don't seem terribly impressive at QD1. However, it's at the lower end of that scale that nearly all consumer workloads occur; the average user will rarely if ever be in a situation with a queue depth of 32.
One of the most intriguing differences between the 3D Xpoint flash used by Optane products and standard NAND flash is its rated endurance. Even prosumer NVMe SSDs boast of 0.3 — 1 DWPDs, or drive writes per day. That means their flash cells could begin to physically wear out if the drive is used so much that it is filled to its full capacity at each DWPD interval, continuously for the entire duration of its warranty; usually five years. The Intel Optane SSD 800P is rated for around 1.6 DWPDs.
Endurance can also be expressed in terms of TBW, or the total Terabytes Written over the course of the warranty period. This usually scales with capacity, and we've recently seen ratings of 150TBW for the 250GB Samsung SSD 970 Evo Plus, 200TBW for the 250GB WD Black NVMe SSD (2018), and 240TBW for the 240GB Corsair Force MP510. The Intel Optane SSD 800p comes in at a much higher 365TBW for both the 58GB and 118GB capacities.
Active power consumption is 3.57W and at standby, the drive will still sip 8mW of power, both of which are quite good for SSDs. There's no mention of hardware encryption in Intel's spec sheet or within the SSD Toolbox software. The drive's warranty period is a generous five years.
With so much hype, we're eager to get to our performance benchmarks to see just how different the Optane SSD 800p is from the usual SSDs we review. We used the same test system that we've used for several recent high-performance drives — yes, unlike Optane Memory, Optane SSDs will work just like any other SSD on a PC with an AMD processor. We applied all the latest drivers and Windows 10 updates before testing.
Our test bench consists of an AMD Ryzen 7 2700X CPU, Gigabyte Aorus X470 Gaming 7 Wifi motherboard, 2x8GB of G.skill DDR4 RAM, a 1TB Samsung SSD 860 Evo boot drive, XFX Radeon R9 380X graphics card, and Corsair RM650 power supply. It's just as easy to install as any other M.2 module, requiring only one tiny screw to be fastened on most motherboards. Windows reported the formatted capacity of our 118GB review unit as 110.28GB.
Our first stop was CrystalDiskMark, which shows sequential and random read and write speeds, most interestingly at multiple queue depths. The huge surprise here was nearly identical scores in the sequential and random (queue depth 8) tests — 1455.6MBps sequential reads vs 1455.5MBps random reads, and 640MBps sequential writes vs 608.6MBps random writes. This is truly unprecedented for SSDs — sequential and random performance is never this similar. It's also impressive for a test score to so closely align with a company's rated speeds — 1450MBps sequential reads and 640MBps sequential writes.
However, that immediately throws up an issue — if those are the rated speeds, or in other words the manufacturer's stated best-case-scenario performance, they don't look good compared to today's best NVMe SSDs. The Samsung SSD 970 Evo Pro promises 3500MBps and 3300MBps respectively, for example, and other manufacturers also deliver performance in the same ballpark. The Optane SSD 800p's write speeds are particularly unimpressive by that standard, coming in at just above what the average SATA SSD might manage.
Digging deeper, we see that the random read and write speeds at a queue depth of 1 are 150.6MBps and 124.3MBps respectively. That read speed is a lot better than what NVMe and SATA SSDs can post — usually in the neighbourhood of 40-60MBps — but the write speed is on the lower end of the usual 120-160MBps range.
This completely upends our expectations of SSD performance. The Optane SSD 800p can't easily be compared to standard SSDs. It seems to excel by an unfathomable margin at random reads, that too in a synthetic test that is designed to simulate everyday real-world consumer workloads. However, writes are way below par.
We then moved on to the Anvil benchmark, which shows composite read and write scores. The Optane SSD 800p achieved 7494.17 points for reads, which is by far the highest of all high-performance SSDs we've tested recently, including the Samsung SSD 970 Evo Plus, WD Black NVMe SSD (2018), and Corsair Force MP510. The write score of 3,821.02 was the lowest, at around half or two-thirds of the others.
Next, we decided to see how the Optane SSD 800p might fare as a boot drive. Installing Windows 10 from scratch off a USB 3.0 thumb drive took just under seven minutes, from the first click in the process to the moment we saw the Windows 10 desktop for the first time — including slight pauses when options needed to be selected. We shut down and cold-booted our test PC a few times and it took less than 15 seconds each time to get to the Windows desktop.
Intel offers its SSD Toolbox software as a free download for Optane SSD 800p users. The UI is quite dated, compared to what we've seen from other manufacturers recently, but there are useful features. You get to see your drive health and estimated endurance, and there are quick as well as full diagnostic scans. You can also secure erase the drive and check for firmware updates with a few clicks.
The Intel Optane SSD 800p isn't the holy grail we were shown glimpses of in 2015. It doesn't come anywhere close to reinventing the PC. However, it is a tantalising taste of how that vision might play out over the next few years. Intel's SSD 800p series is for early adopters who know exactly what their workloads are and how they might benefit from very low latency and incredible random read speeds. That really doesn't fit the profile of the average PC user, or in fact even the average PC enthusiast.
Now, we finally come to what matters most — the price. The Optane SSD 800p was launched in India a few months ago and is priced at Rs. 8,799 for the 58GB model, and Rs. 18,999 for the 118GB model. That's extremely unfortunate, because a general downward trend across the SSD segment means that today's top NVMe models cost around that much for 500GB and 1TB respectively. If space matters more to you than speed, Samsung's new entry-level SSD 860 QVO promises 2TB for Rs. 18,749.
The Optane SSD 800p models are both far too expensive, considering that their performance isn't universally better than that of drives with just under ten times the capacity. Neither one is big enough to be the only storage device you'll need in your PC. The value equation just doesn't work out. Even if you consider this the price of being an early adopter, it's hard to see how it makes sense.
We'd wait for second-gen or third-gen Optane SSDs to come out, because the technology is exciting and we can see how a large enough Optane drive might one day work for a gaming PC or content creation workstation. Even in a few years' time, it's unlikely that NAND flash will develop to the point where it can match the advantages of 3D Xpoint. By then, Intel might be able to deliver a balance of cost and performance that works for most users.
58GB: Rs. 8,799
118GB: Rs. 18,999
Ratings (out of 5)