Intel's Optane: What users can expect in PCs and when it will ship

Here's a lowdown on what users can expect from Intel's superfast Optane storage

Intel is known for cranking up PC speeds to new highs, and it's doing the same for storage with the super fast Optane.

Optane, which Intel claims will replace today's SSDs and DRAM, is exciting for many reasons. Game play, PC booting, and productivity applications will be much faster with the new class of storage and memory.

Intel has said Optane could be up to 10 times faster than conventional SSDs, but real-world tests on the storage have yet to be done. The first Optane storage was announced at CES, but it's only in the form of low-capacity 16GB and 32GB units to be used as cache and not as primary storage.

The initial Optanes will not have a meaty capacity, but it will be a good start to test and play with the storage, said Pat Kannar, marketing director for Precision desktops at Dell.

"You are going to see it roll in higher densities and capacities over the next few years, and different form factors too," Kannar said.

Optane still remains a bit of a mystery, but here's what we know based on data gathered from Intel and PC makers.

What is Optane?

Optane is based on a technology called 3D Xpoint, in which memory cells sit in a three-dimensional mesh. Intel and Micron -- which share many memory manufacturing resources -- cooperated on the development of the technology.

The first 16GB and 32GB storage will work only on PCs with Kaby Lake chips. It won't work on PCs with older Intel chips like Skylake or Broadwell or on PCs with AMD chips. While the new Optanes are exclusive to Kaby Lake, that could change in the future. 

Ultimately, Intel will ship large-capacity Optane SSDs, which will replace conventional SSDs. Intel will also ship the versatile Optane as a DRAM replacement that could plug into DIMM slots. The Optane memory will be denser and retain data, unlike DRAM, which deletes data once a PC is turned off.

When will Optane ship?

Intel says the low-capacity Optane storage will ship in the second quarter of this year, and PC makers indicated it could be a while before large-capacity Optane SSDs are available. The large-capacity Optane SSDs will likely be installed in servers before coming to PCs. Facebook and IBM are already testing large-capacity SSDs in servers.

Like any new storage technology, Optane won't be cheap. Optane technology is still being produced in limited quantities in a factory in Dalian, China. The production will ramp up over time, reducing the cost of making Optane. Intel is projecting a quick switch to mass production, when prices will start dropping.

What systems will Optane be used in?

Many PCs that will get the 16GB or 32GB Optane storage installed were announced at CES this week. The storage initially will go into sockets on motherboards. Ultimately, you'll be able to plug in large-capacity Optane storage into m.2 or 2.5-inch slots.

The first laptop announced was Lenovo's ThinkPad T570, with a price starting at US $909. It'll have an optional 16GB Optane PCIe M.2 2242-S3, but the laptop's price will shoot up if you select that storage option. The laptop will ship in March, though the Optane option may be available later.

HP's revamped Envy Curved All-in-One 34 with Kaby Lake will get Optane during the spring update to the product, said Mike Nash, vice president of product management for consumer PC and solutions at the company. Nash declined to provide a specific timeline, but it is in line with Intel's planned second-quarter release of Optane.

Dell plans to install Optane in some of its Precision laptops and OptiPlex desktops around June. Intel's new "tall" NUC systems -- the NUC7i3BNH with 7th Generation Core i3, NUC7i5BNH with Core i5, and the NUC7i7BNH with Core i7 — will support Optane.

Supermicro also announced new SuperO motherboards for gaming and business PCs with support for Optane.

Optane could make hard drives relevant again

For Dell's Kannar, Optane will make it feasible to put traditional hard drives into laptops or desktops, especially if you are on a budget.

A PC with a hard drive as primary storage and an Optane cache could load the OS and applications faster than an all-SSD system, Kannar said. The trick is that Optane -- which is closer to the CPU -- would need to hold images of the OS and key applications.

"It's cheaper to do that in some cases than having an all-SSD system," Kannar said. 

But, of course, having Optane alongside SSD as primary storage will be much faster, but more expensive.

Optane is plug and play for Windows

There are also questions of how Optane will work with various OSes. Intel has said software will need to be adjusted to effectively work with Optane.

PC makers said its likely Windows 10 will be aware of Optane, thanks to Intel drivers and technologies like the chipmaker's RST (Rapid Storage Technology), which will harness the speed of Optane. Questions still remain on whether Linux and MacOS will have similar plug-and-play capabilities. Linux is notorious for being late on adding support for new technologies.

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