The PS5 worked fine with the slowest compatible SSD we could find

© Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

If your PS5 is already running out of speedy solid state storage, there’s a fix. Sony’s new update for the PS5, released in full on September 14th, allows you to expand your paltry 667GB of usable space by popping in the same sort of M.2 SSD stick you might slip into your laptop or desktop PC. My colleague Mitchell has a PS5 SSD buying guide right here that meets all of Sony’s recommendations, such as speeds of at least 5,500MB/s. That might leave you wondering, though: what about slower SSDs?

That’s why we tracked down an ADATA XPG Gammix S50 Lite, one of the slowest compatible PCIe Gen4 drives we could find at 3,900MB/s reads and 3,200MB/s writes, and stuck it into a PS5 in August. And this week, Digital Foundry corroborated our findings with an even slower 3,200MB/s SSD. The short version: today’s games don’t need all the speed.

© Image by Sean Hollister / The Verge Yep, that’s a 3900MB/s drive all right.

We compared the S50 Lite against both the PS5’s internal SSD and a 5,000MB/s Sabrent Rocket 500GB in a battery of tests, including load times for games like early PS5 showcases Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart and Spider-Man: Miles Morales. We also measured how long it takes to back up games to each kind of drive, throwing in a Seagate external HDD for comparison, since Sony now allows you to archive PS5 games and play PS4 games from an traditional hard drive.

The verdict? Surprisingly, even the slowest compatible SSD we could find had near-identical load times to the one Sony includes in the box. Sometimes it’s a second slower, sometimes a second or two faster, but basically it’s a total wash. Hopping through dimensions in Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart, I saw no appreciable difference with the slowest SSD in gameplay, either. Stepping through pocket dimensions was instantaneous, and when there was a slight pause during a boss fight, I saw the same pause on the internal SSD as well.

I also didn’t necessarily see a huge difference between the drives when it comes to transferring games back and forth, but there was one big surprise: at least in this beta, it appears that Sony may be throttling the write speed of the PS5’s own internal drive. It took only 2:26 to send both PS5 and PS4 copies of Final Fantasy VII Remake to the Sabrent SSD, for instance, but 12:47 to go back to the PS5 — over five times longer.

On average, I saw write speeds of around 1,100MB/s transferring my five test games to either of my add-in M.2 drives, but just around 220MB/s sending those same games back to the PS5. Both of those are far better than the 141MB/s average transfer speeds I saw sending games to the Seagate HDD and the 97MB/s I saw beaming them back — it took over half an hour (31:24) to transfer the Final Fantasy games’ 176.5GB back to the internal SSD. But the slower internal SSD write speeds are weird, and Sony didn’t have a comment when I asked.

In late September, Digital Foundry tested an even slower drive: the 256GB version of Western Digital’s SN750 SE, which is capable of just 3,200MB/sec reads. And yet, the results were the same. Even with a drive that only offers 58 percent of the speeds Sony asks for, there was effectively no difference in today’s games — and Sony appears to be artificially limiting transfers back to the internal drive for some undisclosed reason.

So the big question is this: if not today, will game developers fully optimize tomorrow’s games for the incredible speeds a top-tier SSD can afford?

For instance, take a look at our load times for Final Fantasy VII Remake in our original chart above. Regardless of drive, the PS4 version takes over four times longer to load! It’s the difference between waiting through a loading screen filled with gameplay tips to keep you occupied, and — at 10 seconds flat from the time you leave the PS5’s home screen to the time you can move Cloud Strife in your save game — barely seeing a loading screen at all. The latter is incredible to behold.

Also, see our Spider-Man: Miles Morales numbers? The game doesn’t always load as quickly as it could. Sometimes, you’ll boot up the game to see Marvel, Insomniac, and PlayStation Studios intros that eat up a whole 26 seconds, making the game take more like 43 seconds to load in total. But other times, it’ll mysteriously bypass those, loading in more like 17 seconds, and I couldn’t figure out why. I’d love to have a toggle to turn off those intros, and here’s hoping more PS5 games skip them as well.

Would I run out and buy the slowest PCIe Gen4 SSD I can buy for my PS5? I’m not so sure, because Sony picked its recommended SSD spec for a reason — even if today’s games and today’s PS5 aren’t taking full advantage, developers may need that additional headroom in the future. They’ve been promised 5,500MB/s to deliver instant game worlds, and I’d hate to find out I bought the wrong drive years down the road.

Plus, there might already be some moments in Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart where you’ll notice a difference, says Insomniac technical director Mike Fitzgerald:

We tried some below-spec Gen4 M.2 drives as well and saw up to 15% slower loading in the most SSD-stressing areas of the game. Not too shabby, but keep a close eye on technical specs if you’re making an SSD purchase, as our game does rely on high-quality storage.

— Mike Fitzgerald (@fitzymj) July 29, 2021

Then again, Microsoft also uses an SSD in its Xbox Series X, but one with sustained raw performance at 2.4GB/s, compared to the PS5’s listed 5.5GB/s read speeds. So even if developers do take advantage, it’s possible many next-gen games never see the full benefit if they’re targeting both Xbox and PlayStation instead of PS5 specifically. You’ll likely see the most benefit from Sony’s exclusive PlayStation Studios titles, though Square Enix’s speedy Final Fantasy VII Remake Intergrade load times gives me hope for more.

Either way, for a list of SSDs that actually meet Sony’s requirements and recommendations, here’s our buying guide.

Update, 2:08PM ET: Clarified that we tested Ratchet and Clank gameplay, not just load times, and that the Xbox Series X’s 2.4GB/s is a sustained performance metric.

Update, September 21st at 12:55PM ET: Added Digital Foundry’s tests with an even slower 3,200MB/sec drive.

© Photo by Tom Warren / The Verge

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