Gigabyte i-RAM review
We’ve been promised solid-state storage for years now, ever since RAM chips became relatively cheap to make. The advantages are lightning fast speed, silent operation and less power drain; the only disadvantage is keeping a trickle of power going through the chips so they don’t forget what they’re storing. And cost.
As you can see, the i-RAM looks nothing like a hard disk, being instead a PCI card with four DDR RAM sockets and a Serial ATA header. The PCI bus is never powered down, even when your PC is turned off, and so is ideal as a constant power source. There’s also a backup battery that lasts around ten hours should you suffer a power outage or disconnect the power cable from your PC. The slots can take up to 4GB of DDR RAM from PC2100 to PC3200 speeds (we recommend you use the same speed throughout).
Even the slowest RAM gives more than enough memory bandwidth to saturate the 150MB/sec over Serial ATA. However, PC3200 may prove cheaper as it’s more widely used; we used 4GB from Crucial (www.crucial.com). With none of the mechanical constraints involved with read heads finding data tracks on platters, the i-RAM should come close to the theoretical 150MB/sec transfer speed.
Shifting large files around is much easier for a conventional hard disk than moving many small ones, but even then the i-RAM proved around five times faster. Our 740MB file was copied in only 13.4 seconds compared to the Western Digital Raptor’s 69.9 seconds. That’s a read/write speed of 111MB/sec to the Raptor’s 21MB/sec despite its 10,000rpm spindle speed. Small files really showed up limitations in the mechanical device, the i-RAM maintaining its 111MB/sec transfer speed to the Raptor’s 10MB/sec when copying our 808MB of small files and folders. If only Gigabyte had made the i-RAM Serial ATA 2 compliant (with its 300MB/sec bandwidth), we might have seen even more speed.
Solid-state storage was always going to be faster at these direct-transfer tests, though. We wanted some real-world examples of the benefits, so we installed a copy of Windows XP onto the RAM drive. However, we had reservations about the stability of this installation. First, we weren’t too keen on the idea of an operating system vanishing (necessitating a reinstall of all our applications complete with Registry entries) after a power cut. Second, we encountered numerous minor errors and Registry corruptions, which wasn’t particularly reassuring.
The final problems are the most damning, though. We didn’t experience much evidence of the super-fast transfer speeds. Windows loaded three seconds quicker from the i-RAM than from the Raptor. Reformatting the i-RAM and installing Far Cry on it saw level load times of 39.1 seconds instead of 40.4 on the Raptor. We didn’t feel as though Windows was working much faster, if at all. And then there’s the price. The card alone costs £230; add to that another £400 or so for four 1GB sticks of RAM and you have a £650 4GB hard disk that gives limited benefit over a £70 36GB Western Digital Raptor. It’s hardly money well spent.
We couldn’t find much reason to use the i-RAM, especially since you can download RAMDisk applications to convert spare system RAM into a logical hard disk for a page file or scratch file. If you’re determined to get solid- state memory, companies like MemTech (www.memtech.com) and M-Systems (www.m-systems.com) might be of interest. These enterprise-level flash-based hard disk manufacturers have up to 128GB drives but charge enterprise-level money for them. The rest of us should wait until solid-state memory significantly decreases in price.