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Is it worth upgrading PS4 Pro with an SSD?

Sony's new console has a high-bandwidth SATA 3 interface - but does it make a difference?

Can PS4 Pro's upgraded SATA tech cut into extended loading times?

Long loading times are one of our biggest issues with current-gen consoles. Games are getting bigger, more complex, with ever-increasing levels of details in art assets - but the fundamental basis of storage technology is unchanged since the Xbox 360/PS3 era. Solid-state storage drives are the future, and the question is, can PlayStation 4 Pro - with its brand-new, high bandwidth SATA 3 interface - finally take a good-sized chunk out of the extended pauses between gameplay that are often part and parcel of modern console gaming?

We've been here before of course, having carried out extensive testing of the improvements an SSD makes to both Xbox One and PS4 gaming, and we still retain the backup archive we used previously to put various drives through their paces on Sony's platform. This offers up an interesting opportunity - the ability to compare the performance of the base PS4 500GB hard drive (an HGST model from a launch unit) with the 1TB equivalent in the Pro. And on top of that, we still have the OCZ Trion 100 SSD we used for our testing back then, meaning that the exact same data can be run on both PS4 consoles - the best we can hope for in SATA 2 vs SATA 3 head-to-head comparison.

OCZ's Trion drive does not represent the fastest technology on the market by any stretch of the imagination, but the point is that it doesn't need to be. We simply need to see appreciable gains in like-for-like testing to ascertain that the PS4 Pro's SATA 3 interface is capable of getting more from solid-state technology. The OCZ unit is certainly capable of delivering more. On the base PS4, the Trion 100 hosting The Witcher 3 loads up a Novigrad City save in a yawn-inducing 69.2 seconds (and this is still an improvement over the stock HDD's 92.5 seconds). The PC version installed on the OCZ drive loads up the same area - with ultra-level textures no less - in just 28.4 seconds. It's over twice as fast and the drive is clearly much more capable. The question is, can the PS4 Pro more fully utilise it?

This first test offers up a pretty conclusive answer straight off the bat, with the Pro only offering up a two second advantage over the same drive hosting the same data on the standard PlayStation 4. The supposed advantage of SATA 3's higher data throughput is clearly being cut short by a bottleneck elsewhere in the system. The chances are that game loading speeds are still limited by a set cap on data transfer throughput. It ensures that other background processes - like installing, downloading, and the recording features - can all run at once on whatever mechanical hard drive Sony can acquire in bulk volume for its latest production run. SATA 3 is offering up an advantage of sorts, but the reductions are hardly game-changing. The bottom line is that in this case, loading up a Witcher 3 save game still takes over one minute.

Tom Morgan gets in front of the camera to present his SSD testing results - can PS4 Pro fully utilise solid-state technology?

However, this test does throw up an interesting result - the Pro's 1TB stock drive loads in Novigrad City faster than the standard PS4's 500GB stock drive. That's 78 seconds versus 92 - cutting 14 seconds off the clock with the PS4 Pro's default drive. It's an improvement we see in almost all scenarios and is clearly a welcome boost. While the 2.5-inch mechanical hard drive technology may be getting a little long in the tooth, maintaining the same 5400rpm rotation speed with a drive offering double the data density may see some improvement. Additionally, the seek times on the Pro's new 1TB HGST unit may simply be much faster.

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The Witcher 3 results serve as a template that carries over into several other games. Fallout 4 is a great example; we picked a saved game in Concord town - one of the longest initial loads we've found, at 55 seconds on the base PS4's stock drive. When it comes to the SSD results though, again, we're staring at similar, slight margins between base and Pro models, with just a three second advantage on the new console. However, once again, we're getting a more tangible gain when comparing the stock mechanical drives - a seven second boost on the Pro.

Just Cause 3 offers up some differing results too. Loading a new game puts the PS4 Pro at just one second ahead on SSD, next to the standard PS4. However, this is one title where the older PS4 HDD is actually faster than its 1TB successor, offering a seven second advantage. It's unusual compared to most of our other tests, but it shows there's some variance when it comes to mechanical drives with large tables of contents.

Loading Time (Seconds) PS4 500GB Stock Drive PS4 OCZ Trion 100 SSD PS4 Pro 1TB Stock Drive PS4 Pro OCZ Trion 100 SSD
Witcher 3: Novigrad City (Initial Load) 92.5 69.2 78.1 67.5
Witcher 3: Woesong Bridge Fast Travel 46.8 35.5 44.5 34.1
Fallout 4: Concord Town (Initial Load) 55.5 29.1 48.9 26.6
Fallout 4: Exiting Vault 101 25.7 17.2 24.2 15.9
Just Cause 3: New Game 69.9 43.8 76.6 42.4
Just Cause 3: Mission Respawn 28.9 21.1 33.4 17.8
Project Cars: Azure Coast (31 Cars) 50.5 40.4 43.9 41.0
Project Cars: Quit To Menu 21.4 20.5 21.6 20.5

Of course, not every title has such long loading times. Take Project Cars as a final case study; starting up the Azure Coast circuit with 31 cars takes 40 seconds on SSD regardless of the PS4 hardware you're using - but again, the only meaningful differential is between the stock PS4 drives. If we look at shorter loading times, like returning to the main menu, we get a near-identical readout from all four tests. Whether it's mechanical or solid-state, base PS4 or PS4 Pro, it's always in reaching distance of 20 seconds, with barely anything between them

With base PS4 titles covered, the next question we need to tackle is whether running in Pro mode offers up any advantages. In theory, the idea seems unlikely, but we did consider the idea that the PS4 Pro's southbridge may be underclocked in base mode for compatibility purposes. There may actually be some weight to the theory overall based on these results. The titles are different of course, but the differential between the same OCZ drive running on the base PS4 and the Pro opens up - the newer console reduces load times by anything between 12 to 20 per cent depending on the test. It may well be the case that Sony increased the ceiling on data throughput on PS4 Pro. It's still in no way exercising the potential of the SATA 3 bus, but at least it's faster than the standard PS4. Fallout 4 is apparently receiving a Pro patch - we'll be sure to re-test the results above when it drops.

As things stand, the Battlefield 1 test results in particular highlight why so many console users consider paying a hefty price premium for a solid-state storage upgrade. The base PlayStation 4 is getting perilously close to two minutes in loading the Through Mud and Blood campaign level, while moving to an SSD cuts off 56 per cent of the loading time. The Pro gets a very similar reduction in loading times too. Skyrim doesn't have anything like the same level of waiting, but in percentage terms, moving to SSD again shows tangible benefits.

Loading Time (Seconds) PS4 500GB Stock Drive PS4 OCZ Trion 100 SSD PS4 Pro 1TB Stock Drive PS4 Pro OCZ Trion 100 SSD
Battlefield 1: Through Mud and Blood 109.6 47.7 95.3 41.2
Battlefield 1: The Runner 70.2 31.5 60.0 27.8
Skyrim: New Game 22.1 16.7 19.0 13.7
Skyrim: Helgen Save Game 27.9 20.9 24.5 16.9

The verdict isn't what many of us wanted, but here's what we're left with. The first point: games do run faster on PS4 Pro with an SSD, but we're talking about a saving of one to three seconds compared to original hardware on the same drive, with some evidence that there are further time-savings for Pro-enabled titles - up to six seconds, albeit on an abnormally long load.

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There's no doubt that this is better than sticking to stock, but the margins of improvement aren't that much better when comparing to the launch PS4, when moving from stock to SSD there. You're not getting the most out of a solid-state investment, bearing in mind that running the same drive on PC offers dramatic improvements that aren't replicated on any home console.

But there is some good news, albeit unexpected. We're seeing some games load faster in general on the 1TB 5400rpm drive that the PS4 Pro ships with. There are some exceptions but overall, most games load faster than base PS4, and no drive replacement is required. It's not just in these titles where we see an improvement - we saw specific Uncharted 4 loading time reductions in the 26 per cent area. This may well be down to a combination of increased data density on the drive itself, but an increase in bandwidth on the new console.

But while there are some improvements to the loading time experience, the bottom line is that the SATA 3 interface in PS4 Pro still doesn't really make the most of an SSD upgrade - these drives just perform so much better on PC, and bearing in mind some of the loading time results seen on this page, that's a real shame.

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