Load time improvements

We spent some time this weekend testing a few different drive configurations on the new PS4 to see if load times improve. Do they?
This is PART 1 of our testing on the PlayStation 4 storage systems, with the stock hard drive, an SSHD hybrid and an SSD.  In PART 2 we take a look at the changes introduced with PSN downloaded games versus Blu-ray installed games as well as show boot time differences.  Be sure you read PART 2, PlayStation 4 (PS4) Blu-ray and Download Storage Performance, Boot Times.

On Friday Sony released the PlayStation 4 onto the world.  The first new console launch in 7 years, the PS4 has a lot to live up to, but our story today isn't going to attempt to weigh the value of the hardware or software ecosystem.  Instead, after our PS4 teardown video from last week, we got quite a few requests for information on storage performance with the PS4 and what replacement hardware might offer gamers.

Hard Drive Replacement Process

Changing the hard drive in your PlayStation 4 is quite simple, a continuation of a policy Sony's policy with the PS3.

Installation starts with the one semi-transparent panel on the top of the unit, to the left of the light bar.  Obviously make sure your PS4 is completely turned off and unplugged.

Simply slide it to the outside of the chassis and wiggle it up to release.  There are no screws or anything to deal with yet.

Once inside you'll find a screw with the PS4 shapes logos on them; that is screw you need to remove to pull out the hard drive cage. 

Sony even provided a little handle to pull the tray out so just slide it towards you and you'll see 2.5-in drive in all its glory.

Along either side of the tray you'll find four screws that need to be removed to take the hard drive out of the sled. 

Installing the new hard drive is easy as you just take the same steps and reverse them.  From a software perspective, if this isn't a brand new HDD you'll want to make sure to backup your save game data in order to restore it after the fact.  Sony has put up a pretty good guide for that already, again showing their acceptance of the DIY user. 

You will also need to configure a USB drive with the latest PS4 system software (1.50 as of this writing).  You can find the instructions for downloading the OS files right here

On the USB storage device, create folders for saving the update file.
Using a computer, create a folder named "PS4". Inside that folder, create another folder named "UPDATE".

Download the update file, and save it in the "UPDATE" folder you created in step 1.
Save the file with the file name "PS4UPDATE.PUP".

Turn off the power of your PS4 system completely.

Check that the power indicator is not lit. If the power indicator is lit up in orange, touch the power button on the PS4 system for at least 7 seconds (until the system beeps a second time).

Connect the USB storage device that the update file is saved on to your PS4™ system, and then touch the power button for at least 7 seconds.

The PS4 system starts in safe mode

Select [Initialize PS4 (Reinstall System Software)].
Follow the screens to complete the update.

The Drives Tested

Our testing will revolve around three different drives.  The stock 500GB hard drive, a Seagate 1TB SSHD hybrid drive and a Corsair Force GS SSD.  The PS4 accepts most 2.5-in drives including 7mm and 9mm units.

Our PS4 was shipped with an HGST (Hitachi Global Storage Technologies, now owned by Western Digital) 500GB 5400 RPM traditional spindle based hard drive.  This drive currently sells for $50 or so on Amazon and is what I would generally consider a "slow" drive.  It is a SATA 3.0 Gb/s drive (SATA II) though the PS4 chip likely does support SATA 6.0 Gb/s (SATA III) based on the platform specifications.

Next up is a Seagate hybrid hard drive that combines traditional spindle based technology with an SSD-based cache that is used to improve performance.  The SSHD tested here has an 8GB MLC cache that the drive attempts to keep filled with "often used" files to improve performance for the user.  Currently selling for $122 on Amazon.com, the Seagate drive has been shown in our previous review to provide tangible benefits for PC users.  Will that carry over to the PS4?

Our third tested drive is an SSD from Corsair, the Force GS 240GB unit based on a SandForce controller.  This drive is definitely the most expensive in a cost per GB reality, selling for $189 on Amazon.com as of this writing.  But in terms of raw access times and transfer rates, neither of the hard drives above will likely compete.  The real question of course will be how that translates into real world differences.

While I have mentioned cost, the cost per GB is also worth nothing on all three options. 

Both the stock HGST 500GB drive and the Corsair Force GS SSD are 7mm drives but the 1TB Seagate hybrid SSHD is a 9.5mm drive.  Even though the 7mm drive ships with the PS4 clearly the larger 2.5-in size drives are capable of being installed.

The Testing Process

After installing the hard drives and running the software installation process, we began our testing and benchmarking of the three different options.  The setup was pretty simple as we used a pair of PS4 games to test load times.

For NBA 2K14, I timed both the startup time of the game and the time it took to load a quick match.  All tests were run three times and we are reporting the averages.  Between each run we closed the application and restarted the PS4.

Assassin's Creed IV was timed for the loading of the first save game.  Again, each test was run three times, averages reported, and the PS4 was restarted between each run.

Performance Results

Let's take a look at the first results.

For the NBA 2K14 startup test, the change from the stock hard drive, to the SSHD and to the SSD didn't change very much, possibly indicating that much of the 30 seconds is still drawing from the optical drive to verify the game can start up.  The Corsair SSD is the fastest though by 11%.

NBA 2K14 quick game load times were affected more substantially.  Going from the stock 500GB drive to the Seagate 1TB SSHD saw loads improve by 4.5 seconds or 12%.  The Corsair Force GS SSD improves by 6.5 seconds, 18.5%

The most dramatic change was seen in the AC IV testing, where the drop from HDD to SSHD was 19% while the drop from HDD to SSD was an impressive 32%.  Clearly the SSD is the best option but we saw some interesting results in the SSHD benchmarks.

After running three different loads of AC IV, I saw some interesting data and wanted to investigate further, so I ran some more tests.  Clearly, a pattern is revealing itself with the Seagate 1TB SSHD.  After the first load, which we EXPECT to be slower with a hybrid drive as it loads data for the first time, the times decrease a bit in Run 2 and Run 3, but INCREASE again in Run 4.  Then drop again in Run 5.  And so on. 

It would appear that with only 8GB of flash on the hybrid drive we are seeing some "rolling" data changes, possibly because the load for AC IV plus the OS files are going over the 8GB point.  This effect might not show up in other games going forward depending on the amount of data required, or might be common across most games going forward.  We'll have to see how performance moves going forward but clearly the SSHD leaves some questions for us on performance.

Closing Thoughts

It appears that changing out the hard drive on the PS4 can indeed improve performance of the console load times.  Our NBA 2K14 startup time didn't really change but the quick game load times did see some substantial change with both the SSHD and the SSD.  Assassin's Creed IV saw a much more dramatic improvement in load times of saved games, loading 32% faster than the stock hard drive configuration. 

The real question is whether or not these differences are worth the switch.  While the Corsair Force GS SSD is clearly the fastest option, it is also 6-7x more expensive per GB than the SSHD or HDD.  And with only 240GB you are going to be limited to just 3-5 games, or be forced to step up to the 480GB model which will run you $364.  That nearly the cost of the console itself. 

Seagate's 1TB SSHD might make more sense though as you are able to double the included system capacity while also improving performance modestly.  Considering a traditional 1TB hard drive (without the SSD to make it a hybrid) will cost $82 or so, the up charge for the MLC flash is pretty minimal.  Even with the performance questions and the possibility of the data rolling out of the cache when it is needed, I think the SSHD offers a worthwhile performance improvement.

This is PART 1 of our testing on the PlayStation 4 storage systems, with the stock hard drive, an SSHD hybrid and an SSD.  In PART 2 we take a look at the changes introduced with PSN downloaded games versus Blu-ray installed games as well as show boot time differences.  Be sure you read PART 2, PlayStation 4 (PS4) Blu-ray and Download Storage Performance, Boot Times.