The Halo tests are interesting in that now, finally, we see loading times faster than running the game from DVD, although clearly the fact that caching is still going on explains why the speed gains over running the game from disc are barely noticeable. There's bad news for those looking to repurpose a MicroSD card though. The limited bandwidth effectively kills performance here. If it isn't obvious by now, in most applications, you really should be looking to buy a dedicated USB flash drive at a cheap price that offers good, but not spectacular read and write performance: our 16GB ByteStor drive does the trick nicely.
Now from the nadir of HDD performance, let's move onto the game where we noticed the biggest performance gains: The Orange Box. How does it perform on our range of USB devices up against the original game on DVD and 360 HDD?
The Orange Box: Game Loading Tests
|Section Tested||DVD||360 HDD||8GB MicroSD Card||16GB ByteStor||40GB USB HDD||128GB SSD|
|Loading Half-Life 2||00:44.5||00:25.5||00:39.9||00:23.5||00:27.5||00:22.5|
|Loading Episode 1||00:38.0||00:22.0||00:34.7||00:20.5||00:23.9||00:20.5|
|Loading Episode 2||00:40.5||00:25.0||00:39.7||00:24.5||00:27.8||00:24.5|
Some interesting results. First of all, while the MicroSD's awful 4MB/s read speed made it a poor performer in terms of straight file copying and installations, during actual gameplay it fared reasonably well, still providing a small performance boost over the game running from optical disc - an interesting turn of events after the disastrous showing in Halo 3.
However, check out the performance of our 16GB ByteStor drive. In most benchmarks it outperforms both hard drives, and at one point, even the SSD (probably down to the variance in overall speed when the USB bus is being maxed out). The tests also demonstrate that using a conventional mechanical HDD gives very close performance to the official Microsoft drives that plug into the top of the console, albeit with somewhat reduced storage potential.
The fact that USB and Xbox 360 HDDs are so similar in performance might well suggest that the 360 isn't even using SATA at all for its connection. However, a quick look at the internal interface and how it interfaces with the motherboard, and also the fact that USB to USB copying is significantly slower puts the kibosh on that particular theory.
So what about peripherals that do use the USB port then? A quick round of testing using a wired controller suggests no difference whatsoever to the performance level. It's also interesting to note that in some Microsoft instruction manuals they talk about the back USB port being the preferred slot for peripherals like the ill-fated HD-DVD drive. Again, comparisons of front and back ports produce no difference whatsoever, suggesting that the recommendation is mostly for tidier wiring... and perhaps to remind users that the port is actually there.
We do have concerns about the potential performance with Natal though. The forthcoming motion control peripheral is entirely USB based in terms of its interface to the Xbox 360, so the question is, will there be enough bandwidth to run an installed game from a flash drive while using Natal itself? It's something we'll be sure to test out when we get the kit, but in the mean time, it may well be that the 16MB/s top-end limitation on the USB ports is kept artificially low, with the other 50 per cent of apparently "missing" bandwidth being reserved for Natal. It's something that we won't be able to test until we have the requisite hardware, and a game that streams data while the camera is in use.
In the here and now, it's fair to say that there's a definite sweetspot for price and performance when it comes to choosing a flash drive. Our 16GB ByteStor drive offered tremendous performance for the price. The drive is available for £25 now on Amazon, but we bought our months ago for a mere £17.99. Flash RAM prices vary radically, and the weak UK pound isn't helping matters right now. Cheaper 16GB drives are available (the Sandisk Cruzer for example), but chances are that while the reading speed will be decent, the write speeds will be very, very low in comparison, resulting in prolonged installs and laborious copying.
In short: price is obviously important, but don't lumber yourself with a drive with low write speeds, you'll regret it later. Google is your friend: use it to get the spec of the device before committing to a purchase. If you find a good deal on a 16GB flash drive with read speeds that exceed 16MB/s and write speeds faster than 8MB/s - ie. you can beat our price/performance threshold - let us know via Twitter and we'll publish the link.
It's worth pointing out that there are a number of "performance" flash drives out, designed to offer read and write speeds in excess of 30MB/s - in short, devices designed to max out the real life throughput of USB 2.0. They'll work with Xbox 360 of course, but the premium you're paying for that speed becomes irrelevant when the host device limits you to 16MB/s of bandwidth.
An alternative would be simply to repurpose an existing laptop drive you might with a USB enclosure - which is exactly what we did for the alone and unloved 40GB PlayStation 3 HDD we had lying about. So long as it's a fairly recent SATA drive, you should see overall performance very close to the standard 360 hard disk, and while there may well be a ton of unused space, you can still make use of that for PC or Mac files you'd like to ferry about.
Obviously, utilising a £200 128GB SSD as we did is sheer lunacy, but for us it was useful in establishing the limits of the interface and seeing how close we could get to the bleeding edge, while staying on a reasonable budget! SSDs may be hugely pricey, but they serve their purpose: a decent Samsung, Indilix or Intel-based drive will radically transform the performance of your laptop; the speed is truly sensational there.
In the final analysis, this upgrade is a definite step in the right direction for Microsoft. The ability to cheaply upgrade a Core or Arcade unit into a machine more than capable of running installed games from flash, while maintaining a truly portable Live profile with mobile DLC is a cool option to have available. It's also worth bearing in mind that the upgrade can be used to backup content on your PC (albeit in a highly limited fashion), and more than that, flash drives can also work in concert with the main HDD. There's nothing to stop you adding three 16GB flash drives on top of the regular HDD if you really wanted to and have them all connected simultaneously.
From a consumer perspective, PS3 still offers far cheaper means to substantially upgrade onboard storage (even if the portability options there are somewhat limited for the full range of functions like game installs) and while Microsoft is clearly being protective of its bespoke HDD revenues, this upgrade is clearly a substantial step in the right direction...