PlayStation 5 game storage will apparently continue to be a nightmare

What's missing from this console profile shot in April 2021? A compatible expansion drive for next-gen game storage.
Enlarge / What’s missing from this console profile shot in April 2021? A compatible expansion drive for next-gen game storage.
Sony Interactive Entertainment

On Monday, Sony posted a bulletin to PlayStation 5 fans letting them know about a sweeping new system update, meant largely to touch up the game console’s menu interface. The blog post includes a long-winded notice about one update that, for some players, won’t seem like much of an update at all: “cold storage.”

As a result, PlayStation 5 is now five months out from its launch while continuing to lack something kind of important in a game console: a way to add functional storage space, which is required to play any PS5 game you own.

Call of Duty, call of download

Last year’s new consoles, the Xbox Series X/S and PlayStation 5, have a ton in common as far as hardware is concerned. As just one example, they lean on a new generation of internal storage—rated PCIe 4.0 and connected via the NVMe protocol. With this jump, read and write speeds increase dramatically, and that has been part of the latest next-gen gaming sales pitch.

The trouble begins once you install games on these new consoles, at which point you’ll learn that the NVMe storage size listed on their boxes isn’t quite accurate. Thanks to system files, each promised amount is usually a bit smaller, and in the PS5’s case, its “825GB” dwindles down roughly 20 percent to 667GB.

That’s still a lot of gigs, but as anyone who has accumulated a family of software on last-gen consoles will tell you, anything less than 1TB can fill up dramatically fast, with individual triple-A games regularly exceeding 50GB. Sometimes, even that large figure is conservative; the Call of Duty family of games has been a regular offender on storage space, and its 2020 PS5 title, Black Ops: Cold War, exceeds 200GB as a “full install.”

On the Xbox Series X/S, anyone in a storage conundrum can currently buy a proprietary expansion card to add 1TB of storage. At $219, these aren’t cheap, even if they’re in line with pricey NVMe drives that work on modern-day PCs. The PS5, conversely, has a built-in slot that, in theory, supports those very NVMe drives—which should create more price competition for game storage space.

But right before the PS5’s retail launch, Sony admitted that it hadn’t enabled that NVMe slot for the public yet. That would come in a future update, and it would only work with “compatible” hardware when it did, the company said.

Cold storage: More like cold comfort

This week, Sony still isn’t ready to turn on PS5’s NVMe add-on storage. It’s also still not ready to tell us which drives will be compatible or exactly what minimum spec they’ll need to work as PS5 storage.

Instead, Sony has toggled on a function it’s calling “cold storage,” which will let PS5 owners transfer their PS5 downloads to an older SSD. You can’t play PS5 games saved to a last-gen SSD, since they expect higher read/write speeds by default. But now, you can at least choose not to delete some of your precious next-gen downloads to make space for new games (which will help anyone trapped between a monthly ISP bandwidth cap).

Yet even this isn’t necessarily good enough news for some PS5 owners. Because its internal memory is so scant, the PS5 needs a last-gen SSD just to store PS4 games that you might continue playing on the new console. But thanks to PS5 security measures, you can only have one SSD connected to a PS5 at any given time. A 2TB drive will already burst at the seams to store years of PS4 hits, which you may have accumulated through retail purchases, PlayStation Plus giveaways, PlayStation Now subscriptions, or even Sony giveaways like Play At Home.

And now Sony is letting us squish 200GB of “cold storage” data dumps into that precious backup space? Without a way to cheaply add a second, old 1TB SSD lying around? Thanks so much, Sony.

From SD to SSD

Since the beginning of the digital-download era, consoles have had an uneven track record with expandable storage. Replaceable hard drives on the original Xbox were a cinch, although those gave way to a proprietary connector for the Xbox 360’s drives (thankfully, Microsoft caved soon after and added USB drive support). The Nintendo Wii needed two and a half years to add full-fledged support for SD card storage, which became imperative as its WiiWare and Wii Virtual Console options exploded.

But the PlayStation 5’s storage conundrum seems different, as it relates to a product far into the era where lots of game storage is a requirement. Disc-based games don’t really help matters, since they still require direct installs to that NVMe storage; you can’t rely on a library of discs in 2021 to ease the storage burden. (Especially if you buy the $399 “all-digital” PlayStation model.) And maybe Sony would have gotten things done faster if it had gone the proprietary route—though, as any PlayStation Vita fan will tell you, we’re probably better off without another proprietary, Sony-branded memory stick.

I’m not shocked that the console’s default internal storage is small; both PS5 and Xbox Series X are utter bargains at their default $499 price point, not just in terms of sheer power but also niceties like high-speed loads and incredibly quiet fan systems. Shaving some bucks by shrinking the drive is a fair business choice. But keeping players locked out of expanded storage options, with zero hint about how exactly they might remedy that, is pretty brutal.

It’s the part of the PS5 ecosystem that feels the most like Sony has put its customers through a beta-testing period—especially since we still don’t know which drives will work! Not even a hint of which ones we can preorder, since those will likely sell out as soon as they’re confirmed, Sony?

As more PS5 exclusives begin emerging this summer, from May’s Returnal to June’s Final Fantasy VII Remake Retrograde and Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart, it seems like dedicated PS5 fans will continue having to play the most annoying game of them all: uninstallation Tetris.