The "An SSD is an SSD is an SSD" Myth
Games already reap the benefits of leaving mechanical drives behind, but how can consumers future-proof their systems?
As the PlayStation5 and Xbox Series S|X are having their first-year anniversaries and media outlets all over the Web are doing their 12-month re-evaluation of both systems, one thing becomes readily apparent: more than their faster processors and powerful graphics subsystems - even more than unique features such as the capabilities built into the DualSense controller - what made the biggest difference while using the new PlayStation or Xbox day in/day out was actually the SSD drive offered by both. PC gamers are justifiably getting a kick out of this, of course, as they have been enjoying the benefits of SSDs for almost a decade now. But, in the context of gaming in particular, it's not just that a new Xbox or PlayStation "feels" faster in operation: it's the possibilities that SSDs open for modern gaming in general, possibilities that should interest PC gamers too, that matter most.
The problem is that - just as not all processors are the same or graphics subsystems are the same in the PC market, often making the right choice between them complicated - SSDs are offered in almost as many different forms and types nowadays. The PS5, the Xbox Series S|X and the PC are all SSD-upgradeable. How can their owners, tens of millions of them, make sure that they'll be getting an SSD which will not hold their system back when games making full use of this kind of storage are eventually released?
The Xbox Series S|X is the platform offering the most future-proof solution to this problem because... well, because Microsoft chose to deprive consumers of any choice on the matter. Whether that was wise or not remains to be seen, but upgrading the SSD of a new Xbox model is the very definition of simplicity: there's only one way it can be done without taking the console completely apart (and even when going down that road there's no guarantee that a different SSD of the same type will work). No, Microsoft never had that intention for the new Xbox models' internal storage: it's offering proprietary external SSD "cards" instead, which are inserted in a special port at the back of the machine, like cartridges. That's it.
The good news: these "cards" are guaranteed to work at the same speed as an internal SSD, so consumers will not have to do research about compatibility or performance. Not now, not ever. They are just designed this way. The bad news: these are only manufactured by Seagate, they are not cheap and chances of them becoming much cheaper in the future are slim, as there are no third-party competing products to drive prices down. So these SSD "cards" are a blessing and a curse, depending on how you see it: they are foolproof, they will work with any game that will ever be released on the Xbox Series S|X (no matter how demanding that is) but they are quite costly. The price of convenience, of sorts.
The situation with the PlayStation5 could not be more dissimilar, as Sony made a different choice - and whether it was the right one remains to be seen too. The company built an expansion slot for expanding the internal storage of its system via SSD disks of the type that anyone can buy for PCs from many different manufacturers. The internal SSD is non-removable, so that slot is the only way to expand the PS5's storage. Sony, in an effort to offer that flexibility and choice but also ensure that all future PS5 games will work as intended with the added storage, mandates that any SSD inserted into that expansion slot should match the internal SSD's speed of 5.5 GB/s of raw data reading/writing speed and do it at all times - so that SSD drive should definitely come with a heat spreader (in order to not take a hit in performance when used for long).
Leaving the choice of that SSD to consumers - Sony is not officially recommending specific models - is a double-edged sword. On one hand, they have plenty of options within the PCIe 4.0 specification the SSD must adhere to. A couple of dozen different ones in fact, not just two (0.5 TB/1 TB) as is the case with Xbox Series S|X. On the other hand, not all PCIe 4.0 SSDs are created equal: of those 20 or 25 SSD models that are PS5-compatible in size, only the fastest (and more expensive) ones match or exceed Sony's speed requirements. The fact that there is no PS5 game yet that needs those 5.5 GB/sec - based on testing by various media outlets even 3.2 GB/sec SSDs work fine with current PS5 titles at the time of writing - does not mean there won't be one in the future. The temptation to just buy a considerably cheaper SSD now, and count on PS5 games never actually requiring the 5.5 GB/sec speed Sony insists on, is great. Whether the price difference is worth that risk is up to the consumer.
Surprisingly enough, the SSD situation is simpler on the PC than on the PlayStation5... with a few caveats. Owners of gaming PCs have more options at their disposal than anyone else: they can use SATA-type SSDs, PCIe 3.0 SSDs, PCIe 4.0 SSDs or even more exotic solutions. It all depends on what a PC gamer's requirements are, rather than what a manufacturer's or game developer’s are: even some of the cheapest SATA SSDs (offering speeds of around 0.5 GB/sec) are fast enough for most types of PC titles, while many benchmarks prove that even dramatically faster PCIe SSDs (offering speeds in excess of 3.2 GB/sec) do not make that much of a difference in many games. There are so many different models and capacities available, that PC gamers are spoilt for choice no matter what architecture their computer is built around.
What PC owners should be keeping an eye on when choosing an SSD for gaming is some of the latest developments in this space. For instance, a function that Xbox Series S|X employ - also coming to Windows 11 - is DirectStorage, which transfers data from an SSD directly to the memory of a graphics card. This function requires a fast PCIe 3.0 SSD at the very least in order to work as intended on the PC (it works over PCIe 4.0 on the new Xbox models). It's quite probable that Microsoft's own development studios will be using that technique in the future - all their games are officially made for Xbox and PC for a while now - so Game Pass subscribers might want to keep that in mind. Sony now making a number of its PS4 games available on PC means that it will probably do the same for PS5 games at some point - so a very fast SSD offers some futureproofing in that respect too. Upcoming game development platforms such as Unreal Engine 4 can also leverage fast storage in a number of scenarios, making a quality PCIe 4.0 SSD a worthy investment.
At the end of the day the issue of choosing the correct SSD in order to properly expand a home entertainment system's storage (in the case of PS5/XSX/XSS) or in order to make the most out of demanding games and be prepared for the future (in the case of the PC) could be resolved by just buying the fastest or biggest or fastest and biggest one available... no? Well, yes, but that's not the point. The point is making a choice that will not hold any of those systems back for some time to come and that - depending on one's needs in storage capacity - can be achieved without necessarily spending an awful lot of money. "An SSD is an SSD is an SSD" is definitely a myth, as even SSDs of the same type and specs are not created equal, let alone SSDs of different ones. That does not mean we should all be going for the most expensive SSDs just to be safe, though. It means that consumers should give a little thought to what they actually need out of an SSD - and that is always a good place to start.