Quick Look Review: Intel Optane Memory H10 with Solid State Storage

Manufacturer: Intel Quick Look Review: Intel Optane Memory H10 with Solid State Storage

For the first time Intel is offering their Optane memory coupled with traditional NAND storage in a single package, which makes it an ideal candidate for space-constrained applications such as the thin-and-light HP notebook our review sample arrived in. Yes, Optane Memory H10 with Solid State Storage is here, and while we have already covered the benefits of Optane and its faster-than-lightning 3D Xpoint memory technology the unique pairing of this ultra low-latency cache and larger QLC storage in a single M.2 package is worthy of a fresh look.

The Optane Memory H10 with Solid State Storage module is available in 256 GB, 512GB, and 1TB capacities, with the onboard Optane memory at 16GB for the 256GB model and doubling to 32GB for the larger capacities. Rather than bridging the two different technologies on the package itself Intel has left them as discrete devices and created a bifurcated storage product as a result; internally separate, the Optane and QLC NAND storage devices split the external PCIe Gen3 x4 connection. A compatible system will see these as two separate PCI Gen3 x2 drives, and the Optane cache is handled completely in software.

Product Specifications
  • Model Number: HBRPEKNX0202A
  • Interface: PCIe 3.0 x4 with NVMe
  • Form Factor: M.2 2280 Single Sided (2280-S3-M)
  • Capacity: 32GB Intel Optane Memory + 512GB Storage
  • Endurance Rating (Lifetime Writes): 150 TBW
  • Warranty: 5 Years
  • Performance
    • Sequential Read: up to 2300 MB/s
    • Sequential Write: up to 1300 MB/s
    • Random Read (8GB Span): up to 320000 IOPS
    • Random Write (8GB Span): up to 250000 IOPS
    • Latency – Read: 7 µs
    • Latency – Write: 18 µs
    • Power – Active: 5.8W
    • Power – Idle: L1.2 : <13mW
Pricing

Pricing Unavailable (OEM Only Launch)

Manufacturer Description

“Introducing the new Intel Optane Memory H10 with Solid State Storage which combines two breakthrough technologies, Low-latency Intel Optane technology and high-density Intel QLC 3D NAND in a single M.2 2280 form factor.”

3D XPoint Revisited

So what exactly is the advantage of Optane in a consumer storage device like this new Optane Memory H10 with Solid State Storage product? The key is Optane’s use of Intel’s 3D XPoint memory media, and while we have dived deeply into the topic of just how this technology works in the past it is worth briefly examining how it differs from conventional SSD storage, which of course makes use of NAND flash.

In fact, 3D XPoint memory is fundamentally different from NAND, and acts like phase-change memory (PCM) though it has not specifically been advertised as such. Still, the similarities are such that in 2017 our former storage editor Allyn noted:

While we were initially told at the XPoint announcement event Q&A that the technology was not phase change based, there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and it is likely that Intel did not want to let the cat out of the bag too early. The funny thing about that is that both Intel and Micron were briefing on PCM-based memory developments five years earlier, and nearly everything about those briefings lines up perfectly with what appears to have ended up in the XPoint that we have today.

Quick Look Review: Intel Optane Memory H10 with Solid State Storage - Storage  1

So how can PCM (or PCM-like as Intel refers only to the “cross point structure” of 3D XPoint memory media) affect real-world storage performance? It allows each memory cell to store a single bit of data which can be accessed individually. Consider the implications: The ability to address individual bits means that single-bit overwrites are possible without disturbing adjacent cells, so set/reset operations can be made in-place – literally bit-by-bit. This is a completely different process compared to NAND, which must be written in pages (containing kilobytes) and erased in larger blocks (containing megabytes).

Such precise control of bit-level data is what contributes to Optane’s high random read and write performance compared to NAND, as well as its high performance at low queue depths. But the advantages don’t stop there, as Optane can also provide high read performance under write load (more on the practical application of this later), and it doesn’t need large capacities to offer its high performance characteristics as we have seen from the 16GB and 32GB consumer Optane modules.

The Optane Advantage

Optane Memory excels at small random access at very low latencies, and as noted in our 32GB Optane review that is a primary contributor to things like system boot speed. The gains from an Optane cache have been shown to accelerate a HDD-based system to speeds approaching that of a fast NVMe SSD, and in cases of Optane Memory accelerating a SATA SSD it can be even faster.

I won’t reprint the original article here, but one of the slides in particular shows one of the situations where NAND SSDs alone cannot compete:

Quick Look Review: Intel Optane Memory H10 with Solid State Storage - Storage  2

Note that the first 90% of the requests are serviced *faster* by the 32GB Optane Memory module. The NAND SSD (gold line) doesn’t even register when zoomed in this far!

It all looks very impressive, but does it translate into a real-world performance improvements from this new hybrid storage product? To find out I used the provided HP Spectre notebook for a couple of weeks, running some tests (mostly of the low-tech stopwatch variety) against a couple of other NVMe options to see how much of a measurable difference the Optane-enabled H10 could make.

Testing Real-World Performance

When coupled with a hard drive Optane makes a tremendous difference, bridging the gap between spinning storage and modern solid-state drives, but how much of an impact does such a cache have when augmenting an already-speedy SSD? Part of this will rely on how fast the SSD in question is, and part of it depends on what type of workload is being executed. But first, the Optane cache must be enabled, and this Optane Memory H10 with Solid State Storage module is initially picked up as two separate drives in the Windows Disk Manager. Enabling Optane is a simple matter using either Intel’s SSD toolbox or the separate Optane software, and once the process has been completed and the system restarted we are ready to begin.

Test Platform – HP Spectre x360 13t Laptop
CPU Intel Core i7-8565U
Memory 16GB DDR4
Storage Optane Memory H10 with Solid State Storage – 512GB Intel 760p NVMe SSD – 512GB WD SN750 NVMe SSD – 1TB
Driver Intel RST 17.2.0.1009
Operating System Windows 10 Home 64-bit (build 1809)

And finally some results, with these coming from application startups from typical scenarios: loading a game, opening a project in GIMP, and opening a large Excel spreadsheet using Office 365. Normally such stopwatch tests would be more an exercise in human reflexes than anything as the loading times for applications on any of the SSDs tested are mere seconds, so to make things interesting and showcase just how an Optane-enabled drive can make a noticeable difference an identical background file copy was going on during all of these timed runs.

Quick Look Review: Intel Optane Memory H10 with Solid State Storage - Storage  3

The Optane-enabled H10 is the fastest of the group, showing that an Optane cache can boost a mainstream QLC SSD to levels above even the high-performance WD SN750 (which at 1TB is also double the capacity of our H10 sample). I initially puzzled over the poor showing from the Intel 760p, which was slower than the H10 without the Optane cache enabled, but one area where the H10 holds an advantage is an SLC portion of the NAND similar to what we have seen from Samsung’s EVO family in the past. So in addition to the Optane memory onboard the NAND itself has a portion that operates in SLC mode rather than its native QLC for much higher performance – until the cache is exhausted, of course.

I also ran PCMark 10 on the test system with each of the drives, averaging the results from three separate runs. The numbers are not hugely different, not surprising considering these tests were all conducted using the same HP Spectre x360 notebook under identical conditions, but even this system-dependent benchmark sees some improvements with a faster storage option.

Quick Look Review: Intel Optane Memory H10 with Solid State Storage - Storage  4

The Optane-enabled H10 is again on top, leading the overall score and easily besting the other drives in the “essentials” sub-category – which includes app startup times.

Final Thoughts

There is no denying the ultra-quick response time of Intel’s Optane memory, which sits far below that of NAND flash at under 10 microseconds thanks to its 3D XPoint memory technology. Its impact on real-world usage habits with a laptop becomes more subjective, though in my experience the cache did intelligently boost the performance of frequently-accessed files (and a “pinning” option is also available if you choose to manually assign files to the Optane cache). Not everything will benefit as much from the performance capabilities of Optane memory, and with this hybrid product larger data transfers will eventually become dependent on the raw performance capabilities of the NAND itself as the Optane cache (and the SLC-mode portion of the QLC NAND) is exhausted. But with the shorter workloads associated with standard usage patterns there was often a noticable difference with the H10 and its Optane cache.

A couple of common scenarios one might encounter on a laptop, such as copying files and opening applications, helped demonstrate the advantage of 3D XPoint memory in action with the Optane H10 device in our brief testing. The full benefit is really only obvious when we combined the two actions, which not only take advantage of Optane’s high read performance under write loads mentioned above, but also the unique composition of this Optane/NAND marriage using Intel’s software. In some respects Optane Memory H10 with Solid State Storage is like having a RAID setup using a single M.2 slot, and with its unique design of two separate storage devices sharing a single PCB you really are getting two drives in one.

Quick Look Review: Intel Optane Memory H10 with Solid State Storage - Storage  5

As this has yet to be released as a standalone consumer product if you’re interested in adopting this technology you will need to be on the lookout for an Optane Memory H10 with Solid State Storage configuration when shopping for a system, with laptops like the HP Spectre x360 from our review soon to be available. Naturally we don’t have pricing for Optane Memory H10 with Solid State Storage since it will only be offered from OEMs, but from what we’ve been able to determine laptops equipped with H10 storage should start at $799 with a 256GB model, climbing $150 to the $949+ range for the tested 512GB version and the 1TB apparently limited to high-end devices in the $1499+ category.

Generally any new piece of computer hardware has to be evaluated on both performance and price, but for a product like this the OEMs will be setting the total price and thus will make direct performance-per-dollar estimations a little more complicated. The expected prices for notebooks sporting the new H10 storage option seem pretty standard for modern thin-and-light laptops currently, and if adoption of this new Optane-enabled storage doesn’t end up coming at a significant pricing penalty then what’s not to like? It will doubtless be a selling point for equipped systems, and from what we have seen so far the concept does provide enough of a performance uplift to make it an interesting alternative to conventional NAND storage in small form factors with a single M.2 slot.

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About The Author

Sebastian Peak

Editor-in-Chief at PC Perspective. Writer of computer stuff, vintage PC nerd, and full-time dad. Still in search of the perfect smartphone. In his nonexistent spare time Sebastian's hobbies include hi-fi audio, guitars, and road bikes. Currently investigating time travel.

5 Comments

  1. razor512

    For SSDs like this, I wonder why they don’t just allow the user to configure the SSD in firmware to change how the NAND is used to improve endurance and performance. for example, suppose you don’t mind your SSD becoming a 256GB drive, then allow you to configure the entire drive to just be a 2 bit per cell MLC drive, and if you upgrade in the future, and no longer need the SSD for a demanding work, you can then wipe it and configure it for QLC mode, and use it bulk storage or as a game drive where it will mostly be reading.

    • Sebastian Peak

      That would be ideal. It would be the ultimate power-user concept for SSDs.

  2. carlot

    Hi Sebastian,
    do you think that Intel will use Optane memory also in their future Xe graphics card? Perhaps in the datacenter variant ?

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