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Issue #607: March 10-16, 2019

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Q: I’m a Florida snowbird from Minnesota.  I attended your appearance at the NW Florida State College Computer Tech Expo, and asked you a question about this issue.  You asked me to submit it to your column, so here it is.

I’m thinking about buying a new computer.  I’ve run into a new type of memory on one manufacturer’s website.  Dell talks about “Optane memory” in specs of units it has for sale. I’ve found some information using Google search, but I’m still uncertain about how Optane works, and how it supplements RAM.  I’d appreciate your thoughts.  Does Optane memory make a computer with 8GB of RAM operate as if it had 16 GB of RAM?

– Bob S.
Champlin, Minnesota

A:  Readers, Bob is referring to the annual Computer Tech Expo that takes place at NWF State College in Niceville each January.  This is a seriously under-attended event that I think would be right up the alley of anyone who enjoys reading It’s Geek To Me.  There are dozens of seminars on various topics across the technology spectrum. I did two seminars at this year’s Expo: a live Q&A session, and one called “Introduction to 3D Printing”.  Watch for the Expo again in January 2020.

On to your question, Bob.  I had to do a bit of research myself to answer this one (hence, why I couldn’t answer it during “Meet the Geek” and asked you to write in).  Optane is an Intel trademarked name for a technology that, according to the manufacturer, “is a unique combination of 3D XPoint memory media with Intel’s advanced system memory controller, interface hardware, and software IP.  This innovative technology is offered in several form factors to unleash vast system performance in a range of products.”  Well that ought to clear it right up.  No?  Drat.

Optane seems to be a type of memory module that works in conjunction with hard drives and traditional RAM to provide substantially increased system performance through predictive caching of commonly used files.  Now, I said it works with them.  Optane itself is neither RAM nor hard drive, however it is non-volatile, meaning that it retains its contents even when power is removed.  Intel’s literature says that Optane “massively boosts system responsiveness.”  Based on the accompanying tables, that “massive” increase varies.  They claim 2x for “everyday tasks” and “Boot Time”, 4x for “Windows File Search” and up to 58x for “Game Level Load” (high-performance, 3D gaming being one of the most taxing things modern PCs are tasked to do).

The whole thing sounds to me like a rather large, semi-intelligent, hyper-fast drive cache.  As for your direct question about an 8 GB system operating as if it were 16 GB, Optane isn’t going to magically make your RAM appear double sized.  However, Windows memory is virtual, and Windows implements that by maintaining a swap file, which is a dedicated block of space on the system’s hard disk.  As memory demands exceed the physical amount of RAM in the system, Windows swaps memory contents into and out of the file as needed.  Optane could speed that process up substantially, increasing the speed of the virtual memory cache from that of a hard disk transfer to that of much faster Optane Memory.

The overall appearance of the Optane package was – to me at least – very reminiscent of an Isolinear Optical Chip from Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Not that Optane is made from transparent polymer, but unlike a contemporary DRAM module, the circuit interface is on one end, rather than along the circuit card’s long edge.  This specialized interface means that Optane can only be used in motherboards that have been designed for it. So, unless someone designs some sort of adapter card, you’ll need a new PC to include this technology in your arsenal.  Intel says that pairing Optane memory with a mechanical hard drive (as opposed to a solid-state drive) provides the best combination of speed and cost – something to keep in mind when you’re pricing out that new PC.

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