Is Intel’s ‘Turbo Memory’ really turbo?

  • San Francisco (CA) - Flash memory is great for portable USB drives and cameras, but does it belong on your motherboard?  In San Francisco today, Intel officially launched its Santa Rosa mobile chipset which touts, among other things, using flash memory to speed up computing tasks.  Intel calls this ‘Robson Flash’ memory and to show off its speed, company representatives ran a technology demo which had the Robson-equipped notebooks running more than 100% faster than a traditional computer.  But are those numbers too good to be true?

    Using side by side laptops, Intel’s Chief Mobile Technology Evangelist (how would you like that title?) Mike Trainor showed us a benchmark which took pictures from Google Earth and then processed them through Photoshop Elements.  The Robson flash memory-equipped laptop finished the test in about 71 seconds which was more than twice as fast as the non-flash laptop.

    Such an increase is definitely impressive, but does the benchmark accurately simulate how a regular person would work?  The benchmark appeared to slam several pictures at lightning speed into Photoshop, something that would play to the strengths of flash memory because the pictures would already be stored in flash for fast opening by Photoshop.  Realistically though, we think the average user wouldn’t capture dozens of pictures and then open them all in Photoshop in one fell swoop.

    Trainor said that Robson Cache gains the most benefit when the regular system memory is stressed and overloaded, something that almost certainly happened in the benchmark.  Users that never stress out their laptop memory would presumably see little or no gains in performance.

    Early performance tests of Robson Cache even show a startling reduction in performance.  Anandtech, a popular hardware enthusiast website, tested a generic whitebook Santa Rosa laptop and found increased boot and system hibernation times.  The laptop also scored lower in the PCMark system benchmark.  You can read their review here.

    Trainor told TG Daily that benchmarks don’t show the entire picture and added that new benchmarks focusing on entire system performance may need to be invented.  “In recent years, benchmarks have focused mainly on CPU speeds,” said Trainor.

    At first glance Turbo Memory shouldn’t be slower since it uses flash memory to buffer reads and writes from the main system memory and the hard drive. In Trainor’s demonstration, the Santa Rosa-equipped laptop had a 512 MB worth of real flash memory, but that amount is effectively doubled because of Vista’s ReadyBoost compression.

    The memory was on a Mini-PCI card, but Trainor said that future motherboards could have integrated flash memory.  He added, “We started with the cards because most notebooks have an available Mini-PCI slot.”

    But what about the inherent write cycle limitation in flash memory?  The new Santa Rosa laptops will have wear leveling technology that will spread out the write cycles – think of it as tire rotation for your memory cells.  Trainor said the flash memory in a Santa Rosa laptop should last around five years with “no problems”.

    According to Trainor, Robson Cache isn’t supposed to be just faster, but that it could help notebook manufacturers save money by providing an equivalent amount of extra “memory” for lower cost.  Trainor told us that a laptop equipped with one gigabyte of regular memory and one gigabyte of flash memory could have “60 to 80 percent” the performance of a computer with 2 gigabytes of real RAM.  “You get most of the performance for significantly less money,” said Trainor.

    But how significant is significant?  Several Internet retailers sell one gigabyte sticks of SO-DIMM DDR2 RAM, the memory typically used in laptops, for around $100 to $150.  Intel CEO Paul Otellini recently said adding flash RAM to motherboards would cost about $25.  Of course laptop vendors would salivate at saving a hundred dollars per laptop, especially when margins are already razor-thin, but if you flip around the numbers, we think power users wouldn’t care about saving some bucks for a 20% to 40% decrease in performance.

    Despite the disappointing performance numbers, Intel reps vow to continue tweaking Robson cache to boost speeds.  Mooley Eden, head of Intel’s mobile group, summed it up by telling TG Daily, “Maybe MobileMark doesn’t show any improvement, but we still believe in the technology.”