HDD vs. SSD for Modern Consoles - LevelSkip - Video Games
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HDD vs. SSD for Modern Consoles

Alistair has been playing games since the early 90's and still enjoys the newest tech updates.

PS3 launch model HDD bay

PS3 launch model HDD bay

Booting Up

There are dozens of reasons why someone would look to add an external or internal drive to their game console. Regardless of if it's a PS3, Xbox One or a PS5, inevitably the internal storage sector will become full of games, applications and random screenshots of heroic feats. That's the way of life, I do declare. Due to changes in the ways in which each modern console generation's media operates, I'll be splitting things up as follows:

  • PS3 and Xbox 360
  • PS4 (launch, Pro) and Xbox One (VCR, S, X)
  • PS5 and Xbox Series S/X

Before we begin, I'd like to point out that it may seem odd that the Nintendo's consoles are omitted here. That's because Nintendo doesn't seem to care for either HDDs or SSDs in terms of expanding your console drives. The Wii used memory cards or SD cards, while the Wii U allowed USB 2.0 drives, with finally the Switch doing SD cards again. Neat, but not really relevant to the purposes of this article. Okay, that's done then.

Xbox 360 E with HDD inserted inside standard enclosure.

Xbox 360 E with HDD inserted inside standard enclosure.

Should I Use an SSD or HDD for Xbox 360 or PS3?

Well, first, kudos on picking up either one of these stellar consoles and seeking to expand your storage with a ton more old but good titles.

Xbox 360

This is where things get a little hinky. Unfortunately, the 360 does not allow true external HDDs and SSDs to be used with their consoles. Only a maximum of 32 GB of external data using the FAT32 format is allowed, which is easily achieved with a 32 GB USB 2.0 compatible stick you probably have lying around somewhere. While that will hold a fair bit of indie titles via the Xbox Live Marketplace, you'll run out pretty quick with the likes of Dragon's Dogma or GTA V. Don't dismay, however, as you have one more trick up your sleeve. You can mix and match hard drives from the various iterations of the console including the E series, S series, and original top-sliding hard drive model (you'll need to crack open that top loading hard drive enclosure to access the inner SATA drive, however.) These drives may come with a drive bay enclosure adapter or they may not, but regardless, you can still insert the drive as it just uses your standard old SATA motherboard connection when you get down to it.

Additionally, don't try connecting a bootleg hard drive, however, as all you'll get is an error inside the OS. I'm ashamed to admit, but I totally tried. There are ways to get around this, but it's ethically gray. Just go find an official 250 or 500 GB HDD from a reputable source. Ebay has quite a few unofficial alternatives but you'll have to learn to spot which Microsoft official sticker is real and what text is supposed to appear on the topside of the drive.

Verdict: Upgrade the internal HDD with a bigger official version and buy a cheap USB 2.0 compatible 32 GB thumb drive. You simply cannot use SSDs here.

PlayStation 3

This is where things get fun. While the PS3 shares the same malady as the 360 insofar as you cannot have an external game drive attached via USB. This being as a result of the slow-as-dirt transfer rates of USB 2.0. What you can do, however, is upgrade the internal drive with pretty much whatever you want. No official requirements exist, except that the maximum officially supported drive size is 1 TB, so don't go buying a 6 TB SSD for your aging console.

Now as to whether you should bother with an SSD versus an HDD for your PS3, that's an entirely different dilemma. Here's a 2013 Eurogamer article featuring the Digital Foundry team where they tackle this exact equation. Their conclusion came down to a good-better-best scenario with HDD taking the "good" slot and a true SSD taking in the "best" designation.

What I would add to that is much has changed since 2013. Hybrid drives are not plentiful nor necessary anymore, since they were only really a stopgap while SSD prices raged in the hundreds of dollars for even a small drive. Another issue is that smaller 2.5" form factor HDDs haven't progressed a whole lot since then. And in the ways in which they have progressed are not so great. There's an issue of getting a potential shingled magnetic recording (SMR) instead of the preferable perpendicular magnetic recording(PMR) drive. PMR writes and reads faster than SMR and I've found that there's sometimes no way to tell which type of drive you're buying which has, by the way, led to lawsuits aplenty. Do your research before buying a recent small form factor HDD.

On the other side of the debate, SSD prices have come down dramatically as all technologies do. A sort of crappy internal SATA 1 TB SSD will run you about $60 which is to say, not a whole lot. Do not, however, buy an SSD that requires an M.2 connection, as those are specifically only meant for PC motherboards. In buying an SSD for your PS3, you'll get marked improvements in the load times and even framerates in your games. I'm looking at you, Skyrim and Rage.

Verdict: Grab a cheap internal SATA SSD.

An SSD and HDD for your PS4

An SSD and HDD for your PS4

Should I Use an HDD or SSD for My PS4?

Let's keep the rhythm going with a foray into which storage medium you should be using for your PlayStation 4. It's a great console, especially the Pro model, so let's figure out which drive will work best for our trusty companion.

There are more than a few SKUs of PS4 flying around out there, from the OG fatter model, to the Slim and finally the PS4 Pro. The drive that comes stock on each model is always a 5400 RPM hard disk drive which is somewhat sad. I know the tech landscape in 2013 was vastly different than today and hard disk drives still dominated the overall percentage of gamers' computers, yet there's no earthly reason why later revisions during 2016 of the Slim and Pro still kept this aging internal drive.

That being said, there are few forces at play here. Firstly, you can, like the PS3 before it, use any hard drive you'd like. The system will find it, format it, and use it appropriately. Why, even a 7200 RPM drive would surely speed things up, especially with the fact that the Pro uses a SATA III controller rather than the SATA II found in the other models.

In my own research and experimentation, a 7200 RPM HDD does hold modest improvements in texture streaming and loading times over that of a 5400 RPM. It's pretty small, but still a gain. This doesn't actually access that SATA III interface, sadly. Even so, my load time on Witcher 3 into Novigrad from a cold boot-up dropped 3% with the 7200 RPM. Keep in mind, this is my own research, but it does seem to parallel what else I've found in my external research.

Switching out to a mid-range SATA SSD, one with DRAM cache yields a startling 43% decrease in load time for the same Witcher 3 load. It is important to note that while the Pro console has that SATA III controller, this makes very little real world difference in throughput, as that six gigabit per second transfer threshold isn't really a factor. Similar results are had, give or take a few percent, on other titles such as Bloodborne, Gran Turismo Sport, and Horizon: Zero Dawn. Games with larger, open environments benefit the most from the decreased loading times and texture streaming capabilities of an SSD.

Alternative Options

On the other side, you can find a thin (so as to conform to the internal dimensions of what is acceptable in a PS4 drive bay) 5400 RPM 2 TB HDD for pretty dang cheap these days. If you're fine with load times and occasional graphical hiccups as textures are still loading, you'll have yourself plenty of extra space.

In addition, if you're not super wanting to crack open your console's drive bay, you can always opt for an external USB HDD or SSD. You'll find that the cost of an external drive is usually a little higher than an internal, though that's the price you pay for convenience, eh?

It's just nice to have more options compared to the previous generation. Oh, but please do remember to get a USB 3.0 drive. You're not going to be able to do anything meaningful with a USB 2.0 interface external drive. It'll be even worse than the internal drive.

Verdict: If you want to feed your faithful console with only the best hardware, get a SATA SSD. It doesn't even have to be a super great one. If you're into having oodles of extra space for your entire PS Plus library, you can always go get a nifty giant 7200 RPM external USB HDD.

Example game drive for Xbox One S

Example game drive for Xbox One S

Should I Use an HDD or SSD for My Xbox One?

Pretty much everything said about the PS4 also applies here. The two consoles really aren't all that much different on a hardware level, after all. Sure, the Xbox One X has the highest graphical potential of the generation, even if Ghost of Tsushima looks drop-dead gorgeous on a PS4 Pro. Even so, where does the Xbox differ as far storage mediums go?

Well, for one thing, the Xbox One supports up to 16 terabytes when connected via USB 3.0 externally. Sure, that won't mean a whole lot to most people, but that means you can fit the entirely of the Xbox Game Pass library onto your external drive. That's not nothing.

Other than that, I would just strongly, strongly, most emphatically recommend an SSD for your Xbox One X. It's not as super important for the VCR model or the S, but for the X, you have 6 teraflops of raw horsepower that can and will and does get held back by the internal hard disk drive. That's a fact. Why else do you think the Xbox Series S/X and PS5 have blazing fast NVMe SSDs? Bottlenecks suck.

If, for example, you are only wanting to play indie titles or backwards compatible titles including original Xbox or 360 titles, then you'll do just fine with a decent quality HDD. This really does all come down to your play style and your game library. The final addendum there is that backwards compatible titles that are "One X Enhanced" do their best with SSDs at the helm.

Verdict: SSD for Xbox One X and open-world graphically intense titles, and HDD for backwards compatible or indie titles.

hdd-vs-ssd-for-modern-consoles

Should I Use an HDD or SSD for My Xbox Series S/X or PS5?

Yeah, so this generation flips the script entirely on everything we've had going on since the original Xbox back in 2001. No more actuator arms and magnetic platters, it's all about DRAM flash and hugely improved read and write speeds. What does this mean for games? Everything. No more planned bottleneck hallways while the adjoining area loads its assets. No more limiting the panning speed of the camera to save the poor HDD from having to load so many assets to memory at once.

In essence, these incredibly fast SSDs act similarly to how systems use your random access memory. Let's get started on the differences between the two.

Xbox Series S and X

Both these SKUs come with the same velocity of solid state drive, but the X comes with twice the initial storage, at 1 terabyte versus the Series S' 500 gigabytes. This is incredibly important, as Series S owners are absolutely going to want to expand their storage eventually. That is precisely why Microsoft came out with the expandable Seagate PCIe storage cards. For a cool hefty price of $220, you'll get yourself another terabyte of storage. While many have scoffed at the price, that is actually the proper going rate of NVMe SSDs at this given read/write capability.

Thankfully, should you not want to spend all that dough, you do have one more option. You can take that spiffy game drive that you had for your Xbox One and simply swap it over. No formatting or hijinks necessary. The caveat there is that it will only work with Xbox One, Xbox 360 and original Xbox games, not newer Series titles. This is because the speed of the internal drive on the Series consoles are at a factory designed speed that game developers legitimately need to be able to count on. External drives can be both slower and faster which would undoubtedly create some headaches for game developers.

What this means, is that you can save the external drive for all your backwards compatible titles that you've amassed, whereas the internal drive can be solely for Series-only titles.

So, like the Xbox One X and PS4 Pro above, you're not going to want to bottleneck it with a standard external hard disk drive. Please don't do that. You won't, right?

Verdict: Get a decent, cheap-to-mid-range external SSD for your older games.

PlayStation 5

Now, here, Sony. Let's have a little talk. There are few things you've yet to tell us about how your storage protocols work. Yes, Mark Cerny so aptly told us of how the internal SSD is faster than God at the Olympics but they have not yet made mention of how we can get more of that space for our PS5-native titles. Expansion cards in the vein of the Series S/X have not been announced.

Thankfully, both the disc-based and digital editions of the PS5 come with 825 theoretical gigabytes of storage with 768 GB effective usable space. It's not 1 TB, nor have they admitted if there will be a game swapping function that works like Xbox's Quick Resume feature.

Another thing that hasn't been announced is if you can simply take your PS4's game drive and connect it to the PS5 like you can between the Xbox One and Series consoles. Crucial features like this that will help steer the popularity and usability of a next generation console are simply not being talked about yet. That's sad and equally disconcerting.

Verdict: Too limited information. Here's hoping we get some answers soon. Check back in here closer to launch for more information.


Stadia streaming from the cloud

Stadia streaming from the cloud

Until the Cloud Swallows Us All

While my cloud gaming article elucidates how things are changing as far as how we play our games, we are still currently firmly rooted in the land of physical, local storage of games. Both the Series X and PS5 even have the option of disc drives, which is pretty amazing in 2020, as are their SSD capabilities. You can still pop in a game disc and install that to your game drive just as you did ten or even twenty years ago. So, that still means we have to budget our storage space and pick a medium that will benefit us the most. I trust you to make the final decision here, as it's important to be able to play your games in a way that makes you happy.

Hopefully you've taken away a few nuggets of information and can easily make a decision of how to store your hard-earned games for these three amazing generations of gaming.

© 2020 Alistair Torrance