Is it time for a PS4 SSD upgrade?

With ever-increasing loading times, a radical solution is required.

The nuclear option in storage terms.

It was the straw that broke the camel's back. In testing Just Cause 3 on PS4 and Xbox One, we found ourselves slumped in front of our screens, waiting for interminably long load times to finally complete. At its worst, Avalanche's open world title chalked up a remarkable two minute wait, even with the day one patch installed. Similar to Bloodborne last year, it required later patches to address the issue, but regardless, we had to do something - anything - to mitigate this issue. And as things stand, I've gone for the nuclear option: I've installed an SSD.

The price of solid state drives has crumbled remarkably in recent years, and today, even a 480GB SSD can be had for around 100 (or 80 in a good sale). For PlayStation 4, upgrading its stock 5400rpm hard drive to something better is a relatively easy process, and in some cases a growing necessity. Loading times are painstakingly long in certain games - notably Just Cause 3 and The Witcher 3, where the stock HDD takes over a minute to start a new game, or load a save.

So, cards on the table: we've pitted the PS4's stock drive against a 480GB Trion 100 SSD from OCZ, and also a hybrid 1TB Seagate SSHD - a 5400rpm mechanical drive backed up with an 8GB cache of SSD-like NAND. The thinking here is that, while solid state technology will trump a mechanical drives every time - and in fact, it comes out first in all six games tested - is it always the best value upgrade for the money? Or does it simply depend on the title at hand?

Involving an SSHD gives us a middle ground between the two technologies. In the case of our test 1TB hybrid drive, we're getting double the capacity at a lower price point overall. The hybrid's combination of a mechanical drive with a solid state cache has benefits for PS4, boosting loading times across all games while sidestepping the need to constantly juggle game installs. The downside? It always falls short of a full-blown SSD, where data is read and written directly to flash memory, rather than locating data on a spinning platter.

To the tests, then. But before we kick off, it's worth noting that in-game performance is generally unaffected by storage upgrades. Frame-rates are identical from what we've tested, while object draw distances remain fixed in place, regardless of the drive - only Trials Fusion's virtual texturing tech tends to see any genuine improvement. Last-gen machines were a different beast of course, with software at the mercy of streaming from disc or a partial HDD install, incurring asset pop-in. But today, it's far simpler. In other words, all eyes are on how SSD and SSHDs benefit loading times, and what that means for the playing experience.

From Bloodborne to The Witcher 3, we break down some of PS4's biggest titles, and how loading times benefit from an SSD upgrade.

First up, immense frustrations with the launch version of Just Cause 3 first sparked the question of whether an SSD might be a game changer. Launching with load times in excess of two minutes (shockingly, even for retries) Avalanche Studios has since improved the game's loading times in patch 1.02. Even so, it still takes over a minute to boot a saved game, where an SSD chops this figure down to 43 seconds (and 59 seconds on an SSHD).

That's fairly impressive stuff. Essentially, an SSD chops 37.3 per cent off the stock HDD's wait - easily the biggest single saving across all six games tested below. However, with the game fully loaded, it's irrelevant to the actual playing of the game. Dying and retrying from a previous checkpoint doesn't take so long now thanks to Just Cause 3's latest update. And while Rico is something of a bullet sponge, these waits are still a factor given the rising difficulty of the game - where an SSD shaves seven to eight seconds off the stock drive's 23 second wait in most cases.

It's a pretty big saving, and Just Cause 3 is easily one of the biggest benefactors of an SSD upgrade. By comparison, you get around half the gains in time saved by opting for an SSHD instead. But regardless of the drive you're using, it's curious to note that load times improve by 10 seconds across the board when this game is played offline. To enable leaderboards, we kept all our test sequences online (in line with most users), but it's clear there are huge advantages either way in moving from the PS4's stock drive, and switching off features.

By dint of having one major initial load sequence, open world titles like The Witcher 3 and Fallout 4 also fall into this high band of improvement. In each case, load times are cut radically by around 15-25 seconds on an SSD (while the SSHD achieves around 40-60 per cent of that saving). But, ultimately, this isn't the issue. The main frustration stems from retrying after a death, where these drive upgrades come to the recue to varying degrees.

Loading Time (Seconds) PS4 500GB Stock Drive Seagate 1TB SSHD OCZ Trion 100 480GB
Bloodborne - Central Yharnam 30.8 23.4 16.9
Bloodborne - Great Bridge 26.1 16.2 15.0
Bloodborne - Old Yharnam Respawn 30.7 23.9 15.4
Bloodborne - Return to Hunter's Dream 10.7 9.1 7.4
Fallout 4 - Vault 111 31.7 28.8 17.4
Fallout 4 - Exiting Vault 111 25.7 24.1 17.2
Fallout 4 - Concord Town 55.5 39.7 29.1
Fallout 4 - Diamond City 49.0 40.4 28.6
Just Cause 3 - New Game 69.9 55.6 43.8
Just Cause 3 - First Mission Respawn 28.9 25.4 21.1
Just Cause 3 - Baia 65.6 59.7 43.7
Just Cause 3 - Baia Respawn 23.4 23.2 16.2

The Witcher 3 is something of a disappointment in this aspect. While an SSD shaves 23.3 seconds off the stock drive's one minute 32 second wait on booting Novigrad City, the real test of patience is in areas like Crookback Bog. Regardless of the drive in use, dying and retrying in these danger zones incurs a loading screen that takes longer than that section's initial load. For Crookback, this means a respawn takes 65 seconds on stock, while the initial load takes a round minute. Moving to an SSD, the gain is only adequate at just eight seconds cut off this total, and only three on the hybrid.

Ultimately, no matter which drive you use, the waits are still long in Witcher 3 where it affects the experience most - and for those who frequently perish, no upgrade really helps with the wait that follows. PS4 is understood to use a SATA 2 bus that doesn't utilise the full bandwidth of a SATA 3 spec drive, and this means the high speeds usually possible on an SSD are wasted. However, the game's handling of memory is also partly to blame here, as we're apparently getting a completely fresh reload of all assets, despite respawning in the exact same spot.

On to better news; Bloodborne is an interesting scenario for the SSD upgrade. You'll be pleased to know that since our last round of testing on patch 1.03, From Software has actually improved load times even further on 1.09. The net result is, areas like Central or Old Yharnam now take a maximum of 30 seconds to initially load on PS4's stock drive - while respawning takes 16 seconds.

The SSD experience is of course much better, halving the initial load of each area to around 15 seconds. Bloodborne is a notoriously tough game, and so we were more interested by the game's respawn times here. In practice the savings weren't as huge as we'd hoped, and reviving at a lantern checkpoint takes 14 seconds on an SSD and SSHD, sparing us just two seconds compared to the stock drive. However, for those frequently jumping between locations via the Hunter's Dream hub will definitely enjoy the benefits of each area's faster initial load.

Loading Time (Seconds) PS4 500GB Stock Drive Seagate 1TB SSHD OCZ Trion 100 480GB
MGS5: Phantom Limbs 22.3 19.2 15.1
MGS5: A Hero's Way 19.0 12.4 9.4
MGS5: C2W 19.4 12.7 9.5
Project Cars: Willow Springs (16 Cars) 38.1 34.5 31.9
Project Cars: Azure Cost (31 Cars) 50.5 43.6 40.4
Project Cars: 24 Hour Le Mans (44 Cars) 49.6 48.5 45.8
Project Cars: Quit to Menu 21.4 21.2 20.5
Witcher 3 - Novigrad Town Centre 92.5 79.5 69.2
Witcher 3 - Fast travel to Woesong Bridge 46.8 40.7 35.5
Witcher 3 - Crookback Bog 63.5 57.9 50.8
Witcher 3 - Crookback Bog Respawn 64.6 61.5 56.3

To mix things up, we also put Project Cars through its paces. Here there's a correlation between the number of cars set for a race, and the length of the load time. From 16 to 44 cars, the stock drive ranges from 38 to 50 seconds - with the SSD reducing this to a spread of 31 to 45 seconds. Again, the SSHD falls directly in between the other two drives in terms of speed - though the overall frequency of these loading screens isn't a huge issue for the game. It's a neat bonus for those that have it, especially in career mode where you're taken on a tour of different tracks.

The last of our tests is Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain. Loading times are only a bother here when switching missions, incurring a 20 second wait on stock. Fortunately, you save 10 seconds each time when booting a mission on SSD, and typically seven seconds on an SSHD. It's a halving of the downtime, though by comparison to other titles like Bloodborne the loading screens don't take too much time overall. Crucially, retrying missions isn't a nuisance here either, and the Fox Engine throws you back into the action within seconds on any drive. Once again, an SSD or SSHD is an inessential upgrade for this game, but the advantage is still clear.

There's another factor to consider too. Just Cause 3 and Bloodborne have proved to us that sometimes optimised load times are not on the developer's list of priorities at launch, only addressed via patches after vociferous user complaints. The table below illustrates the issue, comparing Bloodborne's launch loading times with their standing in the current 1.09 code - you can see that the developer has made substantial improvements, but during those early days, an SSD provided a transformative experience - huge time-savings overall bearing in mind how often you die.

So as sad as it may seem, there is another reason to consider investing in an SSD, but it's a compelling one - it's the best way to mitigate these loading time issues before the developer eventually gets around to addressing them. It would certainly help if Sony could support external USB storage as an option too, allowing for solid state storage to be attached and detached at will for 'problem' titles. It's something we've found useful for playing Fallout 4 on Xbox One, which otherwise suffers from occasional, crippling stutter running from the stock drive.

Loading Times (Seconds) Stock PS4 500GB HDD (Patch 1.01) Stock PS4 500GB HDD (Patch 1.09) Sandisk Extreme Pro 480GB SSD (Patch 1.01) OCZ Trion 100 480GB SSD (Patch 1.09)
Bloodborne - Central Yharnam 41.1 30.8 29.8 16.9
Bloodborne - Great Bridge 35.1 26.1 26.8 15.0
Bloodborne - Old Yharnam 45.8 30.7 31.0 15.4
Bloodborne - Old Yharnam Respawn 53.5 16.8 36.8 14.6
Bloodborne - Return to Hunter's Dream 12.1 10.7 9.6 7.4

SSD upgrades for PlayStation 4 - the Digital Foundry verdict

The worth of an SSD upgrade mostly boils down to which games you play. It's a winner for a Bloodborne fan, where the cumulative time spent looking at loading screens can certainly add up by the end - and every saving helps. But for titles where quick restarts are on hand (such as Metal Gear Solid 5), the value of an SSD upgrade is lessened somewhat. But even here, we do shave seconds off the clock when booting into a mission, almost halving the process of a stock drive.

To put these stats into perspective, loading times across all six games tally up to 15 minutes and 50 seconds on a stock PS4 drive. By comparison, an SSD jumps through all the very same hoops in just 11 minutes, 10 seconds overall. The savings on a solid state drive can't be questioned here, but the idea of cumulative gains is an interesting one - an upgrade that means we cut 28.6 per cent of the wait across a breadth of titles in our library. The length and frequency of loading times varies per game, but it's something that clearly tallies up over the course of a year.

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The SSHD option pales in comparison, but it still gives PS4's loading times a respectable speed-up. Calculated the same way, all loading times on the hybrid drive add up to 13 minutes and 30 seconds, saving 13.2 per cent of the time taken on the stock drive. Factoring in the doubling of space, and the cheaper price tag, it's a more economical path to take overall, if not one that delivers the premium experience in the speed stakes.

All of which points to the issue of budget. SSD prices are tumbling faster than we had anticipated, and with larger capacity drives on the horizon, we suspect the lower end 480GB models - and even 1TB - will soon hit more reasonable price points. Right now, the SSD upgrade option on PS4 remains a luxury and our 2TB upgrade path remains preferable overall, but for die-hard fans of certain games looking to squeeze the most out of their console time, there's simply no better path.

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