We don't know everything about the next console battle between the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X, but as the months wear down to release, the blanks are slowly getting filled.
Microsoft's aggressively anti-consumer stance has been to limit expandable storage to custom hard disks (solid state drives, or SSDs) only, while the latest from Sony is that you will be able to plug in mostly any consumer drive if you want more jibblybits to keep your games on.
What's Microsoft's thinking?
Microsoft have come up with the usual piss-poor marketing speak that they're requiring the use of custom expandable storage because "it needs to be able to handle the super mega amazing speeds of the new console" (paraphrasing).
It's easy to shield yourself behind marketing bullshit, and Microsoft have had decades of practice, honing the art to a finely-chopped word salad of well-seasoned cow excrement.
For those in the know, that doesn't add up. There are certain situations, such as open-world games, where "streaming" world data from the disk makes sense. Games won't typically load the entire world into memory, mainly because that would use more memory than there is available. Instead, they will load new areas as the player enters them. This requires some degree of bandwidth in the device being used to store the data, but let's think about that for a moment.
The read performance of Microsoft's drives is reported to be 2.4 GB per second. This compares with about 0.1 GB/sec (100 MB/sec) from a middling magnetic drive, the kind you'd see in the Xbox One.
How much map data do you actually need to load, and how quickly? Let's remember that exclusives are few and far between when you include PC in the equation, and Microsoft have already made a large commitment to releasing Xbox games on the PC as well.
PCs need to be able to run games on a range of hardware. There is, currently at least, no game that won't work at all without an SSD inside the PC. This means there's one conclusion we can take from this.
The only way that an Xbox Series X game will require the use of a custom high performance SSD is if...
- It's exclusive to the Xbox Series X (and never released on PC)
- It requires consistent real-time loading of data faster than 2 GB per second
There's one other possibility: Microsoft is bullshitting you. They want your money, and will invite you to ride free on the bullshit hype train.
Ask yourself which one of those two possibilities is most likely.
What's Sony's thinking
Importantly, Sony have been clear that while the PlayStation 5 will support off-the-shelf NVME SSDs, there might be some issues playing games on low-performance models. I think this is a fair point, but even the worst ones will support speeds in excess of 0.6 GB per second.
Sony has made the point that until PCI-e 4.0 SSDs become more mainstream, there might be a few issues, because of the raw performance difference, handily benchmarked here over at Techspot (it's quite a technical article).
However, Sony's playing the same game as Microsoft in this regard: there are only very limited situations in which games will need the sheer horsepower of the PCI-e 4.0 port's performance, and using a lesser (such as PCI-e 3.0 or earlier) drive will simply result in slightly slower loading times.
Winning is not about numbers
It's tempting to declare "winners" and "losers" in this ever-evolving world of tech fanboyism (fangirlism). The only real winners and losers are the people buying and using this technology, and that's worth remembering.
With the initial capacity at 1 TB for Xbox Series X and 850 GB for PlayStation 5 (that's 0.85 TB), it's clear that every measure has been taken to cut costs of the initial entry price to these consoles. It's also clear that's simply not enough.
Given that Microsoft have revealed the ability to save the state of multiple games, to instantly resume them at any time, and that this will work even after the console has been powered off, this requires that the state of the game is saved to the console's storage. So that 1 TB figure is not accurate, given that some of this space is going to be reserved to store game save states.
In any case, with many games creeping closer to the 100 GB size these days, a console that can store 7 to 8 games before you need to delete some, just won't cut it. This means expandable storage is not an option for most gamers; it's a requirement.
Microsoft are posing an important question: would you rather spend an undisclosed amount to buy a custom expandable storage unit from us, or would you rather back up your Xbox Series X games to a USB hard disk, where you won't be able to launch them until you copy them back?
I think all but the hardest Microsoft fanboys would agree that Sony's question is more elegant: which external storage SSD do you want? It's your choice.