Even SATA SSDs can compete with next-gen consoles on basic load times

Valhalla SSD

The PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X are built on the promise of crazy fast SSDs—so fast, they can impact how developers design their games. Sony showed this off with Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, seamlessly jumping from one detailed environment to the next without a loading screen. 

It's too early to say how those SSD speeds will affect games over the next few years, but I had a simpler question for right now: are these new console SSDs way, way faster at loading into games than the cheap SATA SSD in my PC? And how do the consoles' custom architectures compare to the speed you get from a brand new, top-of-the-line PCIe 4.0 SSD?

Is there really a huge difference?

Based on some simple testing with Assassin's Creed Valhalla, one of the few cross platform next-gen launch games, it looks like there's actually not much of a gap at all. In fact, even without a fancy expensive SSD, your PC might be able to load into games just as quickly as a next-gen console.

I installed Assassin's Creed Valhalla on the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, then recorded loading from the dashboard to the title screen. I also recorded how quickly they could load into game after pressing Continue, loading into the same save file just after the introduction. Shout out to Ubisoft here—initially I grumbled about having to sign into Ubi's account system, but it automatically syncs cross-platform cloud saves, which is pretty rad if you game across PC and consoles.

Senior hardware editor Alan Dexter loaded Valhalla onto two SSDs: a SATA Samsung 840 Pro and a new M.2 PCIe 4.0 Samsung 980 Pro, the first off-the-shelf SSD with comparable performance to the new consoles.

Here are the basic specs from each SSD, compared to the new consoles: 

Swipe to scroll horizontally
SSDSequential Read speedSequential Write speed
Samsung 840 Pro (SATA)540MB/s450MB/s
Samsung 980 Pro (PCIe 4.0)6,900MB/s5,000MB/s
PlayStation 55.5GB/s | 8-9GB/s (Compressed)5.5GB/s | 8-9GB/s (Compressed)
Xbox Series X2.4GB/s | 4.8GB/s (Compressed)2.4GB/s | 4.8GB/s (Compressed)

The SATA drive is obviously significantly limited in read/write speeds compared to the newer M.2 drive, but in just loading to the main menu, that didn't prove to make a huge difference.

First, here's how quickly the new consoles got to the title screen. I timed the loading process from when I launched the game from the dashboard to when "Press A to Start" appeared on the screen. (I didn't include the time it takes to load all the way to the main menu, because Valhalla spends a few seconds "Checking for add-ons," and the time that takes seems inconsistent.)

Xbox Series X: 35 seconds to title, 13.5 seconds to game

There's something interesting about this result, which makes the Xbox look way slower to start up the game than the PlayStation 5, even though it's not. Despite booting the game multiple times, on startup the Series X version of Valhalla always flashes a warning screen, the Ubisoft logo, the Anvil engine logo, an "inspired by historical events" disclaimer, and then the autosave notification. That's not the case on the PS5, as you'll see below.

After pressing Continue, the Series X got into the game in 13 and a half seconds.

PlayStation 5: 13.5 seconds to title, 12.5 seconds to game

After I booted Assassin's Creed on PS5 the first time, it skipped all but one of those pre-roll videos to jump straight to the title screen. And that makes a huge difference! It really doesn't take long to load to the title screen, here. Those videos were just getting in the way. 

Loading into game, however, was much closer to the Xbox results. I measured about 12.5 seconds from pressing Continue.

PC SSDs: 16 seconds to title, 13-13.5 seconds to game

On PC, those same videos slow down the loading process. But what if they didn't? Thanks to the PC Gaming Wiki, we were able to remove the intro videos—something you can do on most PC games, by the way—to dramatically speed up the load.

Each of these numbers reflects how quickly the game booted with those videos deleted. 

980 Pro (PCIe M.2): 16 seconds to title, 13 seconds to game

840 Pro (SATA): 16 seconds to title, 13.5 seconds to game

Remarkably, the brand new PCIe 4.0 SSD and the older SATA drive performed basically the same here, showing there was no real bottleneck on the SATA drive. Maybe we'll see future updates to Windows or game architecture that make an impact here and show bigger gains for the 980 Pro, but either way, the results are very close to the PlayStation 5. Two and a half more seconds to hit the title screen, and another second to load into the game. Not bad.

One important point: Your CPU will matter here, too, not just your SSD. Alan tested on a Ryzen 5 5600X, RTX 3080, and 16GB of RAM, a new, high-end PC. The 5600X would be the big factor here—I'd expect loads on an older processor to be a few seconds slower. But this was without overclocking on what we'd recommend as the best gaming CPU for someone building a new computer today.

Without deleting the videos, the 980 Pro took 43 seconds to get to the title screen—slower than the Xbox Series X, but mostly because Ubisoft snuck in an AMD Ryzen video that added a few extra seconds.

PC SSDs are still plenty fast

I'm excited to see what game developers can do with the architecture of the new console SSDs—I hope we see games flex on their ability to load straight from the SSD rather than from memory, and Ratchet & Clank certainly seems like a promising sign of what's to come. But it's also encouraging that PCs don't have any catching up to do when it comes to the basics of simply getting into games right now—and we've long had the advantage of Alt-Tab, which is still faster than the (very) quick resume on the Series X or PS5.

If you still game on a SATA SSD, updating to a newer drive will ensure your PC is speedy for years to come—but at least when it comes to simply getting into a game, that old reliable drive is still getting the job done just fine.

First published November 20, 2020.

Wes Fenlon
Senior Editor

Wes has been covering games and hardware for more than 10 years, first at tech sites like The Wirecutter and Tested before joining the PC Gamer team in 2014. Wes plays a little bit of everything, but he'll always jump at the chance to cover emulation and Japanese games.

When he's not obsessively optimizing and re-optimizing a tangle of conveyor belts in Satisfactory (it's really becoming a problem), he's probably playing a 20-year-old Final Fantasy or some opaque ASCII roguelike. With a focus on writing and editing features, he seeks out personal stories and in-depth histories from the corners of PC gaming and its niche communities. 50% pizza by volume (deep dish, to be specific).