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Switch loading times tested: MicroSD vs carts and internal storage

Unexpected results: flash memory beats game cartridges.

It's the Switch storage face-off - internal vs external vs cartridge.

With just 32GB of onboard flash, it's fair to say that storage - or rather the capacity of it - wasn't the number one priority for Nintendo when designing the Switch. It's a moot point however, as the system does come with a MicroSD card slot, allowing for storage upgrades up to 2TB. But in the era of ever-increasing loading times, we had to wonder: does your choice of MicroSD card impact loading times at all? And how does user-side expansion performance compare to the internal storage, and indeed physical cartridges? The results are in, and there are one or two surprises in there.

What's clear is that if you're looking to rack up purchases from the eShop, sooner or later you're going to require a MicroSD card. With just 25.9GB available to users, that space is going to fill up quickly; a game like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild uses 13GB on its own before patches, while Nintendo offers developers Switch cartridge options with a max 32GB capacity. Unless you plan to stick solely with carts, you will need to add extra storage at some point.

According to Nintendo's Japanese website, Switch supports up to UHS-1 standard SD cards, in theory giving us bus speeds of 104MB/s. To test that, we bought a bargain basement 16GB Sandisk Ultra, a UHS-1 card that offers up to 80MB/s transfers. The chances are it's not the upgrade you'd go for (we bought it simply for transferring screenshots in the press preview days before the SDXC firmware update was available), but it's a cheap 8 SDHC - a format that doesn't go above 32GB in size. Crucially, however, it gives us an example of Switch's support for UHS-1 speeds.

At the opposite end, we went for a 43 SanDisk Extreme Plus, a 64GB SDXC card, designed to read and write 4K video and rated as one of the fastest MicroSDs on the market, if not the fastest. It's worth noting that support for SDXC cards like this, which can go above 32GB, requires a free Switch firmware update to work. But once you have that, the console can in theory take MicroSDs as large as 2TB in size, though realistically 256GB is the biggest capacity we can find right now. This Extreme Plus is also faster overall, with up to 90MB/s read and 60MB/s write. A UHS-3 category's top speeds aren't supported on Switch of course, but it's fair to expect throughput on this card to be better than a UHS-1 SanDisk Ultra. [UPDATE 16.3.17 11:05pm: Correction: The 64GB Extreme Plus is also a UHS-1 SD card, though with faster read speeds than the 16GB Ultra model. Apologies for any confusion!].

Games that actually utilise a lot of data are relatively thin on the ground at the moment, so The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is our primary testing point for loading times, and the key takeaway is fascinating. Take a look at a Switch cart and you'll see plenty of connection pins, suggesting a meaty interface capable of very, very fast transfers. Meanwhile, with our Extreme Plus MicroSD, we were fairly sure we'd have a contender there as the loading time king. However, the end results are dramatically conclusive - it's the 32GB of onboard NAND within the Switch that is clearly the fastest storage interface in the system.

Time to show our working: Tom Morgan presents a video demonstration of our Switch loading time tests.

The first test is near the Temple of Time, an open area with lots of assets to load in one go. We measured loading times by capturing the process of loading into the game, cutting each load to the exact frame - where in this case Switch's built-in storage takes just 30 seconds until we get to gameplay. That's a lengthy wait, but still 14 per cent faster than a cartridge, shaving off five seconds by comparison. It even beats the 34 second results on both MicroSDs, including the extreme 64GB model. Another curious point is that both of our MicroSDs measure within split-seconds of each other in this like-for-like test.

This isn't a one-off either. The order of these results is exactly how all later tests play out. If we load another complex area like Kakariko village, Switch's internal storage is once again in pole position. Likewise, the 16GB MicroSD is always in second place, the 64GB MicroSD in third, and then Zelda played from a cartridge is always last. Whether it's the giant tower in the Great Plateau or a small shrine with a much shorter loading screen, Switch's built-in storage always wins in loading speeds, though to varying degrees.

The same goes for areas with a smaller data footprint for geometry and textures; the Owa Daim Shrine is much like any other, in that it takes barely ten seconds to load regardless of where the game's installed. But still, Switch's internal 32GB storage wins out here by a second. Loading a saved game is one thing though, but what about Breath of the Wild's instant travel between towers and shrines? It's a crucial part of the game design given the scale of the world, big enough to be divided into regions. Pulling up the map, fast traveling again takes 27 seconds for the internal storage to warp us to the Great Plateau Tower. That still saves five seconds over the cartridge time at 32 seconds, and the MicroSDs, fall in-between the two. In other words, fast travelling gives the same speed differences as loading a save.

It's a conclusive win for Switch's limited 32GBs of internal storage. These results play out again and again, but that's not what we expected to discover, given this NAND partition is completely fixed in place, and non-expandable. 32GB is all you get, but Nintendo has at least made sure its direct bus connection to the chipset hits decent speeds. Less impressive is the fact cartridges fall behind every time. It's a five second difference at worst in Zelda, but down the line we can't wonder how other big Switch games like Skyrim might be affected.

Zelda/Switch Load Times Cartridge Internal Storage Sandisk 16GB Ultra SDHC Sandisk 64GB Extreme SDXC
Temple of Time (Initial Load) 35.7 30.7 34.1 34.4
Kakariko Village (Initial Load) 27.0 24.1 26.3 26.6
Owa Daim Shrine (Initial Load) 9.5 8.7 9.3 9.3
Great Plateau Tower (Travel) 32.6 27.7 30.9 31.2
Dueling Peaks Tower (Travel) 20.5 18.8 19.8 20.1
Shrine of Resurrection (Travel) 24.2 21.8 23.0 23.8

There's also the matter of the SD card speeds. The fact neither of these Sandisk SDs can overtake Switch's on-board storage suggests there's a speed cap. Also, it doesn't matter what the rated read bandwidth is on the SD package. Whether that's 80MB/s on the 16GB model, or 90MB/s on the 64GB model, it's clear Switch isn't making the most of either. As long as it's a minimum of UHS-1, you get roughly the same loading times, or even slightly better, as a much faster rated card.

So overall, for anyone hoping to upgrade to a MicroSD, our advice is to invest in the largest UHS-1 card you can. Surprisingly you can buy 128GB for just 37 or $40, and 200GB is up for grabs for just under double this price. It's not quite the fastest method, but you're still hitting better speeds than a cartridge, with loads of breathing room for future downloads. As a heads up, there are a few points worth covering for people looking to upgrade.

Firstly, if you've already downloaded games to Switch's internal storage, right now it's impossible to transfer them directly across to a MicroSD - a big oversight on the part of Nintendo. Once you've put in a new SD card, you have to re-download all that data over again to the new destination. It's strange there's no basic copy function on the Switch right now, and for game data, all you can do is delete. Alternatively there's the archive option, which also deletes that data, but keeps an icon on the main screen with a link to re-download. It's a bizarre system that makes little sense, and we really hope Nintendo adds a way to move games easily between locations.

Also worth mentioning: once you've installed a MicroSD into the Switch, all games automatically download to that location. Unlike screenshots, you don't get to decide where game data is installed - another point of minor irritation in light of our results here. Only when the SD card fills up completely does the Switch then start using the internal storage. So, let's say you want just one game on the built-in NAND memory - to enjoy the faster loading times. In this case, you've got to remove the MicroSD first, install the game to the NAND, and then reinsert that card again. Again, it's a very odd setup, but worth knowing in advance.

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Nintendo Switch MicroSD expansion recommendations:

* UK prices correct at time of going to press.

Fortunately, for those already using a MicroSD card but fancy upgrading to a larger size model, we have some welcome news: there's no need to re-download everything. The good news is that you can actually transfer between your two SD cards using a PC. The game file names are presented as a long string of numbers and letters, but you can get an idea of which game is which by highlighting the folder, selecting properties and checking out the file sizes.

A 16-bit tech showcase The SNES mini is more than an emulator. A 16-bit tech showcase

This way, you can just drag and drop the SD card's contents from one to the other, and all games will work on the new card - as long as you're using it on the same Switch console, of course. Also very useful is that this offers an easy way to backup all of your Switch data; SD cards are known to fail sometimes, after all.

That about wraps it up. In terms of best performance, it's a shame that the fastest interface Switch offers - its internal storage - can't be upgraded. And beyond that, the potential to cut loading times is limited. Investing in a super-expensive MicroSD won't bestow you with the fastest loads, but at least you are not penalised with longer waits compared to a physical cartridge.

If you're in the market for more storage space on your Switch, the purchasing decision is fairly straightforward. Bearing in mind the amount of lesser quality products and fakes on the market, we would recommend buying from a respected outlet and sticking to an established brand. However, the big takeaway from our testing is that spending your money on capacity rather than ultra-fast read/write speeds is the way to go.

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