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Should you upgrade Xbox One with an SSD?

Loading times are getting out of hand - can solid-state storage reduce waits on Microsoft's console?

Having seen the worthwhile results of SSD and hybrid drive upgrades on PlayStation 4, it's now Xbox One's turn in the test seat. With its stock 5,400rpm drive turning in loading times of well over a minute in certain titles - such as Just Cause 3 and Grand Theft Auto 5 - Microsoft's machine thankfully has plenty of options to speed up the downtime. One of its trump cards is the ability to connect to any external drive via USB 3.0, making the upgrade path much more fluid than it is on PS4. That is, provided you have one specific tool for the job.

Now, it's possible to buy an external SSD and be done with it - but there's a more affordable path to the same results. For all our tests below, we rely on a simple USB enclosure device that costs in the region of £10-15, allowing us to connect any spare 2.5 inch laptop drive you like to the console. As long as it has a SATA interface, you can even slot in SSD or hybrid drives, and this combo comes in at a significantly lower price. Once connected, there's no lengthy 'backup and restore' process on Xbox One either; you simply copy a game over from the internal to the attached drive, and reap the rewards in faster read speeds.

As a test process, this has made putting this article together much easier than on PS4, but the key hardware is otherwise the same. As before, we're pitting the Xbox One stock drive against a 1TB Seagate hybrid SSHD that relies on a small cache of fast NAND memory to boost access speeds, coming in at around £70. As an upgrade option it doubles the storage space over the console's standard 500GB drive, but also vies for read and write speeds with to a pricey SSD. To show the real deal at work though, we also have a full-fledged OCZ Trion 100 drive that falls around the £100 mark for its 480GB model.

Xbox One benefits hugely from an SSD or hybrid drive upgrade in open world titles like Grand Theft Auto 5 and Just Cause 3. Tom and Dave run through the test results to highlight the pros and cons for each game.

So let's get to the tests, and where better to start than Dead Rising 3 - an Xbox One exclusive that built up some notoriety for its long loading screens at launch. With all patches applied to date, the initial load of 29 seconds on a stock drive isn't the most radical of waits these days - and a possible sign of optimisation since. However, the frequency of loading screens is more the issue here when selecting chapters, and moving to an SSD only shaves eight seconds off its prologue (while a hybrid saves five seconds).

In other words, the upgrade isn't substantial enough for Dead Rising 3 fans to be swayed here. The cumulative gains might stack up for each loading screen by the game's end, but it's one of the smallest gains overall compared to the rest of our tests. Meanwhile, titles like Grand Theft Auto 5 fall on the opposite end of the spectrum - and this brings out the biggest improvement of any game we've seen in moving to an SSD or hybrid on console.

Indeed, there may only be one initial loading screen to it, but the savings are big in Rockstar's blockbuster title. Both solid state and hybrid drives come in at circa 25 seconds for this first load screen - in our case, spawning at O'Neil Way on each to keep the test fair. This shaves over a minute off the Xbox One stock drive's one minute and 28 second wait, and makes Grand Theft Auto 5 one of the main benefactors of an upgrade. Of course, the RAGE engine simply streams assets as we move around the world from here, but it's a clear saving nevertheless.

Xbox One game performance generally sees little or no improvement by using an SSD, outside of improved loading times. The exception to the rule is Fallout 4, which still has a horrible stutter bug on the Microsoft console, solved by copying the game to an external SSD.

The story so far is that a hybrid does a close enough job for a lower price - but that's not true in all cases. Notably, The Witcher 3 favours a shift to a full SSD solution, where the game's massive 40GB install can be read with minimal seek times. Novigrad City is our first test here, and for good reason: such a bustling hub provokes one the of the longest waits from the main menu. The initial load comes in at one minute and 39 seconds on Xbox One's stock drive, but the SSD cuts this down to 56 seconds, while our hybrid tails behind at 1 minute 7 seconds.

The crucial point here is that the Seagate hybrid drive is some seconds off the SSD result. It's a similar story for Just Cause 3, an open-world title that continues to frustrate on Microsoft's stock drive, with initial loading times nearing two minutes. The OCZ solid state drive is a clear winner of the trio, of course, cutting that down to 57 per cent of the wait, at just over a minute when first loading into Baia. But the hybrid drive comes surprisingly close in practice, with respawn times here only three seconds off the SSD's recorded time.

Just Cause 3's initial load times remain woeful regardless of your chosen option, but it's still a massive cut - and the stock drive's respawn times are chopped down by a third on SSD and hybrid. This is what we signed up for, and even other open-world projects like Fallout 4 show similar gains. In particular, NPC hubs like Concord town and Diamond city get the biggest mark-up in speed, and the high volumes of data in each spot seemingly gives these faster drives an opportunity to show off faster read speeds. Here, it's a direct 50 per cent halving on the SSD when compared to stock (note: each is loaded from the main menu), while the hybrid trails behind only by 2-5 seconds in these areas.

Loading Time (Seconds) Xbox Stock Drive Seagate 1TB SSHD OCZ Trion 100 480GB
GTA 5: Initial Load at O'Neil Way 88.6 26.2 24.2
Dead Rising 3: Initial Load 29.0 23.9 21.6
Dead Rising 3: Chapter 0 19.5 15.9 15.0
Fallout 4: Vault 111 33.4 30.9 20.9
Fallout 4 - Exiting Vault 111 27.8 25.7 17.6
Fallout 4 - Concord Town 55.5 31.8 26.2
Fallout 4 - Diamond City 47.7 25.1 23.7
Just Cause 3 - New Game 107.4 71.8 67.6
Just Cause 3 - First Mission Respawn 45.0 31.1 29.2
Just Cause 3 - Baia 110.4 83.1 63.2
Just Cause 3 - Baia Respawn 32.0 25.9 22.3

For CD Projekt Red's superb action-RPG, The Witcher 3, the upgrade makes a more tangible difference than in most games. The choice to segregate its world into different regions forces the use of fast travelling, cuing up more loading screens along the road than your typical open-field design. Shifting from Novigrad City to Woesong Bridge, for example, incurs a 47 second wait that drops to just 26 seconds on SSD, while the hybrid falls directly between the two. It's a solid saving either way, but the price of each drive starts to scale with the speed benefits in this case.

The one snag is that dying and respawning in The Witcher 3 remains a patience-testing experience on an upgraded drive. Even with all the data presumably loaded in, both hybrid and SSD take around 50 seconds to respawn into Crookback Bog - a similar timeframe as this area's initial load. This proved an issue on PS4 as well, and it's a shame no common information is reused on reloading the last save nearby.

Project Cars mixes up the formula a bit, relying on a single load per race. Times vary based on the track and number of cars set up beforehand, and in a scenario of 44 AI racers on Le Mans 24 Hours, we hit 50 seconds on the stock drive. On SSD, however, we cut an impressive 14 seconds from that time, which again puts Project Cars among the better cases in terms of the overall percentage we're clawing back.

Loading Time (Seconds) Xbox Stock Drive Seagate 1TB SSHD OCZ Trion 100 480GB
MGS5: Phantom Limbs 34.6 22.4 15.9
MGS5: A Hero's Way 25.1 11.4 10.6
MGS5: C2W 24.4 12.0 11.7
Project Cars: Willow Springs (16 Cars) 40.6 31.3 26.6
Project Cars: Azure Cost (31 Cars) 48.3 35.9 33.3
Project Cars: 24 Hour Le Mans (44 Cars) 50.1 39.4 36.5
Project Cars: Quit to Menu 20.1 17.6 16.6
Witcher 3 - Novigrad Town Centre 99.2 67.7 56.3
Witcher 3 - Fast travel to Woesong Bridge 47.4 33.5 26.6
Witcher 3 - Crookback Bog 68.0 54.0 49.6
Witcher 3 - Crookback Bog Respawn 68.6 51.0 50.6

Rounding out the tests is Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, where regular trips between missions and the command centre can tally up the loading times. Judging by the three missions tested, a hybrid gets a near match for SSD results on this game too - making which to go for a moot point. At under 50 per cent of the wait on stock, it turns out upgrading to either drive is well worth it, and it chops a considerable chunk off that 25-35 second loading screen.

Should you upgrade your Xbox One with an SSD? The Digital Foundry verdict

Overall, there are three lessons learned from our Xbox One tests. The first is obvious; an SSD is a premium, costly solution that gets the job done better than any alternative - especially for data-heavy titles like The Witcher 3. However, the hybrid drive makes a very comparable return on the likes of Dead Rising 3 and Project Cars, and at a lower price point that still offers twice the capacity. For a catch-all improvement across all games, the SSD is the fast track to the best results, but if space on Xbox One's stock drive is a more pressing issue, then a hybrid upgrade may kill two birds with one stone.

The second point is directed at the elephant in the room. Unfortunately, while these drives are much faster than Xbox One's stock solution, the full potential of both the SSD and hybrid isn't being tapped into at all. On PC, this OCZ SSD can hit peak read rates of up to 550Mbps via a direct SATA 3 connection - but Xbox One's peak transfer rate is capped significantly. Even with this bottleneck though, the improvement is clear, and benefits come mainly through the minimal seek times with solid-state tech.

Loading Time (Seconds) Xbox Stock Drive Xbox SSHD Xbox SSD PS4 Stock Drive PS4 SSHD PS4 SSD
Average (like-for-like tests) 54.1 36.9 31.8 43.9 38.3 31.6
Total 1138.0 701.6 605.0 835.3 728.6 601.5

Last but not least, it's interesting to compare the upgrade experience with that on PS4. Simply put, it's a far easier process on Xbox One, where rather than replacing the console's internal HDD (where PS4 demands that you back up all your data in advance), this is a simple plug-and-play route. It does involve a USB enclosure, but it means we can still use the machine's existing stock drive in combination with the external - doubling up the space, and letting us choose which drive to use per game.

As for the net gains in loading speeds, Xbox One benefits more than PS4 in its move to an SSD - for the simple fact its stock drive has proven slower on average than Sony's chosen unit. To explain this, Xbox One takes 19 minutes in total to run through all the above tests on its stock drive in on go. Meanwhile, PS4 achieves the same feat in 15 minutes across all the very same games. In upgrading to an SSD on each though, this total figure becomes almost identical at ten minutes for both PS4 and Xbox One.

Overall, it makes the question of whether to upgrade your Xbox One drive much easier to answer. The benefits are greater on Microsoft's machine, and it's also much easier to implement. Given the sheer size of game installs so far this generation as well, where the stock 500GB limit doesn't cut it for convenience, it's quickly becoming a necessity to have that second pool of space at the ready. The only question remains: how fast do you want it?

About the Author
Thomas Morgan avatar

Thomas Morgan

Senior Staff Writer, Digital Foundry

32-bit era nostalgic and gadget enthusiast Tom has been writing for Eurogamer and Digital Foundry since 2011. His favourite games include Gitaroo Man, F-Zero GX and StarCraft 2.

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