Cranking up Crimson Canyon with Optane!

When I reviewed the Crimson Canyon NUC, I found a lot to like, but one thing I didn’t was the use of a hard disk drive for storage. I’ve become so accustomed to solid state drives that using Windows on an HDD became an exercise in my lack of patience.  Booting took forever, opening apps was sluggish, and Windows lagged when it shouldn’t have.

Initially I thought the best option to speed things back up to “normal” was swapping in an SSD. But that brought up the old storage conundrum; was I willing to sacrifice the 1TB of storage the HDD gave me for the speed of an SSD? SSDs are much more expensive, so going that way would likely mean something in the 120-240GB capacity range. Nothing to sneeze at, but still a huge step down space-wise.

Luckily, Intel offers another solution: Optane. I’d played around with Optane only once before, on the ‘enthusiast’ Baby Canyon NUC.  My Baby Canyon came with the Optane module pre-installed and already configured. I ran some tests on it, then removed the Optane module, re-installed Windows, and ran the tests again.  For a full breakdown, you can read my review, but suffice it to say Optane made a huge difference.

The Module

With Crimson Canyon I’d be working in reverse.  The NUC team was awesome enough to send me an Optane module to test with Crimson Canyon.

IMG_20180921_191642356

This was a 16GB module, as opposed to the 32GB module that came with my Baby Canyon. That makes sense, as the Baby Canyon had a 2GB HDD.  Full specs on the module can be found here.

The Hard Drive

In my Crimson Canyon review, I neglected to provide details on the HDD included. It’s a 1TB  Seagate ST1000VT001:

IMG_20180921_162332366

It’s marked with “video” on the label.  Seagate makes some great hard drives, and this one is pretty good too. It just can’t compete with an SSD. When a NUC comes with non-Intel parts, I sometimes hesitate to include specifics only because what’s included might potentially change over the life of the NUC model. But this is what was included with my Crimson Canyon.

Hardware Installation

Installing an Optane module in the NUC is exactly the same as installing an m.2 SSD. You just pop it into the slot, install the set screw, and you’re done. Unlike an SSD however, once the module is installed you’ve got some extra work to do.

IMG_20180921_191757381
That NUC on the left is a story for another day

Note: I’d like to personally thank whoever decided to include an aluminum
set screw for the m.2 slot. Having the screw not stick to my magnetic screwdriver made installation so much fun. Seriously, I’d like to thank them…in person…in
a dark room…with some pliers…and maybe a blowtorch.

IMG_20180921_191810380
Seriously…thanks soooooo much for that aluminum screw

Software Installation/Optane Configuration

While working with Baby Canyon, my assumption was in order to add or remove Optane you needed to wipe your drive and reinstall Windows. It was my first experience with Optane and I treated it like a RAID array. I was wrong. Intel provides an Optane memory utility that allows you to not only add Optane to an existing Windows setup, but also remove Optane should you need to.  This comes in handy for someone like me who has to test the system with and without Optane.

If you’re new to Optane, start here. It includes a decent video overview of the process.  That page links to the actual installation process, which then provides a link to download the Optane software.  Those three links should be all you need to get Optane configured.

The process is a lot simpler than it looks. You install the utility, then just click through the screens. Your system will reboot a couple of times, but the tool automatically starts after each reboot and tells you where you are in the process. I

You may be aware using Optane requires a change to the BIOS setting for your drive. Luckily the tool handles that for you. Once everything was installed, I thought I’d made the BIOS change myself and just forgotten, but the tool actually does it as part of the process, and I love that.

Installation error

The first time I tried to install the Optane software, I got the following message:

Optane error

A quick Google search took me here. I have a bit of a gripe about this.  That page says it’s a known issue, and to fix it, Intel recommends you download a third party partitioning tool to resize your last partition. But here’s the thing; I just rebooted the Crimson Canyon and the installation worked normally after the reboot.  Come one guys, you can do better. Wouldn’t you think the first thing to suggest would be a reboot? Instead of jumping straight to partitioning?

Anyway, once that was out of the way, the software worked exactly as it was supposed to.  Keep in mind, this installation is going to take a while…a long while. To see the installation and configuration, watch my video on it, which is both fascinating and well-produced:

 

Performance

In my Crimson Canyon review, I commented that the boot time was slow. That may have been an understatement. When comparing boot times with and without Optane, the difference is a factor of ten. No, I’m not exaggerating. Observe:

Quite a difference.  And the improvements didn’t stop there. Everything was noticeably faster. Opening apps, navigating, testing. Optane is cache, so when I clicked on something for the first time, it was a little faster. When I clicked on it again, it was a lot faster.

Of course I wasn’t about to rely on my own perceptions. Benchmarking was called for, and I once again turned to Performance Test and PCMark.

First the Performance Test disk results:

 

Yeah, that’s kind of insane. Optane took the drive from “why bother” to “hey, this ain’t bad!” The detailed results tell a similar story:

 

PCMark results are intended to give an idea of everyday workloads:

pcmark chart

Not so dramatic a boost here.  An improvement overall, but as disk performance is just one part of the picture, it’s a more modest bump. The biggest increase is in essentials, while the smallest is in digital content. This makes sense, as a faster disk will help more in everyday applications where you’re opening and closing apps.

Conclusion

Optane made a huge difference in disk performance, no question. It didn’t quite bring things up to the level of a high-speed SSD, but it brought Crimson Canyon’s HDD out of the basement and made for a responsive, pleasant Windows experience.  You should set aside a good 30 minutes for the software to run, just to be safe. It’s a long wait, but it’s worth it.

I didn’t have to pay for this Optane upgrade, but retail prices for this module are in the $30 range. Not bad at all, when you can get near SSD speeds while still keeping your big storage.

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I'm a self-described technology nut, as well as a writer. That means the only thing I love more than learning about and playing with new technology is writing about it! Techster means "one who techs", and that's me!

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