Xbox 360 Storage Showdown: The Flash Factor • Page 3

USB is the new HDD in Microsoft's latest dash upgrade.

Arc System Works' one-on-one fighting game Battle Fantasia weighs in just 1.2GB, meaning it could easily fit onto all of our test drives, but with an added sting in its tail: the game comprises of exactly 2,140 files on the disc. Flash drives are notoriously bad for handling tiny files, so let's see how our test range fared, up against a standard Xbox 360 install onto the conventional hard drive.

Install Battle Fantasia from DVD (1,270MB, 2,140 Files)

Drive Tested Time Taken Average Speed
360 Onboard HDD 02:28.6 8.35MB/s
2GB Forza Stick 08:46.5 2.36MB/s
4GB Sandisk Cruzer Blade 07:34.9 2.73MB/s
8GB MicroSD Card 05:34.9 3.70MB/s
16GB ByteStor 02:52.6 7.19MB/s
40GB USB HDD 02:16.8 9.07MB/s
128GB Samsung SSD 02:28.6 8.35MB/s

It turns out that the test wasn't just a challenge for the flash drives, but also for the SSD too, with a surprisingly strong showing from the USB HDD. Regardless, bearing in mind that the size of the overall package was very close indeed to the Forza demo's, throughput was massively reduced. Perhaps the fact we were installing from DVD is a contributory factor, but clearly handling those 2.140 files produced an enormous variance in performance meaning that the USB devices themselves were the main bottleneck.

Note that the MicroSD card, designed for handling small files, easily out-performed two of the three USB flash drives, which suffered horribly under the load. Our favoured price-performance champion, the 16GB ByteStor, still managed to hold its own, easily thrashing everything but the SSD and the USB HDD, and still remaining within spitting distance of those more pricey competitors.

With that, it's time to jettison our 2GB and 4GB Flash drives, and instead move onto more prolonged testing with three carefully chosen games. In our original NXE DVD vs. HDD Face-Off, we found that Valve's The Orange Box produced extraordinary speed gains when installed onto the hard disk, and conversely, we discovered that Halo 3 performance was actually impeded significantly. So these two games, showing the best and the worst from hard disk installation, would form the basis of our next salvo of testing.

First up, let's see how the games stacked up in terms of the base installation times, factoring in size of the install and the amount of files, similar to the Battle Fantasia test.

Install The Orange Box from DVD (4,050MB, 384 Files)

Drive Tested Time Taken Average Speed
360 Onboard HDD 07:15.00 9.31MB/s
8GB MicroSD Card 17:58.3 3.76MB/s
16GB ByteStore 08:57.5 7.53MB/s
40GB USB HDD 07:14.00 9.33MB/s
128GB Samsung SSD 07:15.0 9.31MB/s

Install Halo 3 from DVD (5,835MB, 167 Files)

Drive Tested Taken Time Average Speed
360 Onboard HDD 10:47.00 9.01MB/s
8GB MicroSD Card 26:14.6 3.70MB/s
16GB ByteStor 13:04.3 7.44MB/s
40GB USB HDD 10:51.3 8.96MB/s
128GB Samsung SSD 10:44.0 9.06MB/s

So, fairly uniform write rates in these two games, with clearly faster transfer rates compared to the file-heavy Battle Fantasia. With that, let's take a look at Halo 3. In the original Digital Foundry NXE DVD vs. HDD Face-Off, this was the only game that didn't see any improvement over DVD loading speeds. Indeed, there was something of a notable increase.

We re-ran the tests on our standard 120GB HDD for the stats below, but it's worth pointing out that we also had the HDD attached as well as the flash drive (though the NXE HDD install was deleted when it came to testing the other devices). We'd have preferred to remove the HDD completely, but there appears to be a weird bug with Halo3: once you install the game, your save game data completely vanishes from the HDD. This meant we couldn't transfer our saves across from the HDD onto the destination devices, which might have made for a more interesting test - and one that would probably be fairer to the 360 HDD.

Halo 3 Level Loading Tests

Section Tested DVD 360 HDD 8GB MicroSD Card 16GB ByteStor 40GB USB HDD 128GB SSD
Arrival 00:22.9 00:24.8 00:48.2 00:21.9 00:23.3 00:21.9
Sierra 117 00:40.0 00:45.8 01:34.2 00:39.4 00:45.3 00:38.9
Crow's Nest 00:52.7 01:01.0 02:02.1 00:50.7 00:59.2 00:50.7
Tsavo Highway 00:43.5 00:49.2 01:42.6 00:40.9 00:47.7 00:40.8

Bungie's sophisticated caching system made heavy use of the hidden partition on the Xbox 360 hard drive. Installing to that same drive caused a whole bunch of unnecessary HDD to HDD transfers resulting in significant performance drops. With the inclusion of the USB devices, these multiple transfers still occur, but the data isn't being streamed to and from the same drive any more.

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About the author

Richard Leadbetter

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.


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