Unfortunately, like most new technology, the Optane 900P is here well before you can use it to the fullest. Hard disk drives continue to stifle progress because they are still used in high-volume OEM systems. Like it or not, your shiny new operating system was designed to run on an old hard disk drive.
That doesn't mean you aren't missing out. The Intel Optane SSD 900P delivered the best user experience we've ever had. We built a new system to test the drive in BAPCo's SYSmark 2014, and that required a fresh install of the operating system, drivers, and a few pieces of software. I'd say the installation process was truly magic, but that sounds too cliche.
You will see and feel a performance benefit just by using the Optane SSD 900P as your operating system drive. The feel of the system changes even if you’re replacing a high-performance NVMe SSD. You will notice the increased responsiveness immediately and then gradually become accustomed to it. In our experience, you will take the performance for granted until you work on a slower PC. Then you'll wish it had an Optane SSD.
There is a difference between seeing a performance improvement and actually using the drive to its full capabilities. We will never use the Optane 900P to its fullest in a desktop PC. We can say the same about NAND-based NVMe SSDs like the Intel 750, Samsung 960 Pro, and even the 960 EVO. Your initial reaction to this is rational: if I can't use a 960 EVO to its fullest, why should I pay more for an Optane SSD 900P?
With Optane, the difference is the type of performance you gain. The Intel Optane 900P is fast at low queue depths, and that is where you need the performance the most.
Many users complain that the latest NVMe SSDs perform similarly to the SATA SSDs they replaced. If you don't push a complex workload to the drive, you will likely only see a small performance boost when you step up to a faster NAND-based SSD. The chart above shows why many users feel this way. The move from disk was a leap, but the improvements have been relatively small between SSDs.
Since SSDs debuted, companies have used hero numbers to market them. For instance, Intel touts Optane's 550,000 random read IOPS even though you will never tap that level of performance in a normal desktop environment. Samsung is the only company that routinely markets queue depth 1 random performance, which is one of the most critical factors that impact the user experience.
We usually see a 2,000 to 3,000 random read IOPS improvement when a new best-in-class NVMe SSD comes to market, but those gains come at unrealistic queue depths. In fact, over the last three years, 2,500 IOPS increases have driven the upgrade market.
In comparison, the Intel Optane SSD 900P beats the next best drive by nearly 44,000 IOPS at queue depth 1, and that's performance that matters.
Can The Competition Catch Up?
This question should be on everyone's mind. Competition is good for the consumer because it helps reduce prices and spurs innovation. Thankfully, several other companies are also working on unique beyond-flash technologies. ReRAM, Spin Torque-MRAM, and NRAM Carbon Nanotube Memory are all potential competitors. Some are already shipping in limited quantities for data center products.
Intel managed to bring a new memory to market first because the company has all of the pieces in place. We think of Intel as a technology company, but Intel sees itself as a manufacturing company. It has the R&D, the manufacturing capabilities, a proven partner in Micron, and most importantly, the capital to execute a plan. Just imagine being a startup with an idea and trying to get funding. Then you have to find a manufacturing partner to make it real. Intel doesn't have those problems.
In time, 3D XPoint will have to compete with new innovations from competitors. Until that time comes, Intel is in a strong position to dominate the beyond-flash market. We can all survive Intel's lead. We lived with Samsung having the only 3D NAND on the market for three years. It's Intel's turn to lead and for the other companies to play catch up.
3D XPoint is still in its infancy. If the small size or high price put the Optane 900P SSD out of your reach, just give it a few years.
At one point we suspected the Optane SSD 900P 280GB would cost around $600, and we were fine with that price based on our experience with the drive.
If you are tired of buying a new SSD every year or two only to gain a small performance increase, the Optane 900P is a product you can invest in and slow your upgrade frequency. In the long run, even priced at $599, the 480GB is more than a worthy upgrade. The 900P 280GB has an obvious capacity issue that many can look past to access the large performance gains. If we were trying to choose between one or the other, we would choose the 480GB model for its increased capacity.
As for the technology, the release of a new memory class in our lifetime is the storage tech-world equivalent to living through the moon landing. This is an exciting time.
MORE: Best SSDs
MORE: All SSD Content