The prices of high-capacity hard drives have dropped so much recently that it makes sense to upgrade everything from desktop computers to laptops and game consoles. For iMacs, Mac Pros and MacBooks, my strong recommendation has been Solid State Drives (SSDs), which combine increasingly attractive capacities with super-fast speeds, but for game consoles, traditional hard disks are the right choice. Nintendo actively warns Wii U owners against using SSDs, while Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s PlayStation 4 provide little reason to prefer them.
Why the difference? Unlike Macs, where solid state drives deliver huge speed increases across OS X and apps, game consoles tend to achieve only modestly better loading times with SSDs — a few seconds here or there. Traditional hard drives also deliver much higher storage capacities, fixing an obvious issue with game consoles where 40-50GB patch downloads are becoming the new normal. A 500GB PlayStation 4 arrives with only around 400GB of free space, versus 360GB on a 500GB Xbox One, and a mere 25GB on a 32GB Wii U. Whether you’re updating Halo or downloading DLC for Mario Kart 8, you’re eating up a big chunk of your hard drive’s space.
What are the best hard drives for your console? Most of my top picks are currently available for $100 or less, and I tend to focus on great value for the dollar rather than cheap picks that will break quickly. I’ll run through the options below.
Microsoft Xbox One: Go External, Think Big And Fast
While it’s not impossible to replace the internal hard drive in an Xbox One, it’s not easy: even if you buy the right tools and follow this complex iFixit guide to disassemble it, Microsoft has made it difficult to format and put system software on an internal replacement drive. But unlike the Wii U, the Xbox One has a fast USB 3.0 port, and supports two types of external drives — completely portable drives without separate power adapters, as well as desktop drives with power adapters.
My advice: choose a portable drive if you plan to take your game collection over to a friend’s house — you can do that with the Xbox One, just logging in to access your games — but otherwise go with a desktop drive. The lifespans of portable drives tend to be lower than well-made desktop drives, but the prices are so low right now that you might not care.
Western Digital’s My Passport Ultra 2TB ($99 shipped, reg. $140) is a top portable hard drive, and the smaller 1TB version ($65, reg. $100) is Amazon’s #1 best-selling external disk. Since you’re not going to be replacing the Xbox One’s existing 500GB drive, you can go with either of these choices, but the 2TB version will have much more room to grow for only $34 more.
If you’re going to pick a desktop drive, be careful: failure rates on popular 2TB and 3TB Seagate drives have been relatively high. Western Digital’s My Book 2 ($98, reg. $140) also comes in a 3TB ($119, reg. $170) version and has a better reputation for reliability.
All you have to do to get one of these drives to work with your Xbox One is to plug it in; the console will detect the drive and prompt you to format it. Alternately, hit the Menu button on the controller, pick Settings > System > Manage Storage, then select the new drive and Format for Games & Apps. It’s fairly simple.
Nintendo Wii U: Go External, Any Size And Speed
The Wii U’s internal solid state memory is soldered to the motherboard, and not capable of being upgraded. Moreover, its USB ports use the old USB 2.0 standard, and because some drives draw more current than USB 2.0 guarantees, Nintendo explicitly warns users to use an “external storage device with its own power supply.”
So rule out internal or purely USB-powered external drives: the right pick for a Wii U is a standalone USB 2.0 hard disk with its own wall adapter. (Nintendo notably doesn’t recommend drives that use both USB ports simultaneously for power.)
That’s actually good news: USB drives are cheap, particularly if you don’t care much about speed or capacity. Wii U games and downloads tend to be much smaller than on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, so you won’t need a giant hard disk to bulk up a Nintendo machine. There’s a 15:1 difference between the storage Microsoft and Sony include, and what Nintendo bundles with the Wii U. (You could even pop the old 500GB drive from an Xbox One or PS4 into an external enclosure and use it for the Wii U.)
Normally, I’d suggest that you consider one of Amazon’s best-selling external hard drives, but they’re arguably overkill for the Wii U: faster and larger than necessary, often sold without the wall power adapter Nintendo recommends. A very safe choice is the 2TB version of Western Digital’s My Book 2 ($98), which is a little faster than the Wii U needs but less expensive than buying an older, lower capacity drive. I would not recommend Seagate’s popular but more failure-prone Expansion, which sells for $20 less. Spend a little more up front and save yourself the misery of a hard drive crash later.
Once you’ve connected the drive to the USB port on your Wii U, you go into the System Settings, Data Management section and format it, at which point it will only work with the Wii U unless you fully reformat it for another console or computer. That’s it — easy.
Sony PlayStation 4: Go Internal, Think Thin
Because Sony designed the PS4 for easy hard drive upgrades, the process is impressively straightforward — Sony’s official instructions are here. The process requires nothing more than sliding a plastic panel off the top of the console, unscrewing and re-screwing five Phillips-head screws, then replacing the panel. That’s easier than any Mac hard drive I’ve updated.
With the PlayStation 4, you need a 2.5-inch internal drive that’s 9.5mm or slimmer, with a SATA interface. My suggestion would be the highly-rated Samsung Spinpoint M9T internal 2TB hard drive ($115 with Amazon Prime shipping, $110 without), which hundreds of Amazon users have rated with an outstanding 4.8/5 stars. It’s the world’s thinnest 2TB hard drive — at 9.5mm, just the right size for the PlayStation 4 — yet offers four times the storage capacity of Sony’s 500GB drive.
Once the drive’s inside the PS4, you reinstall system software using a 1GB or larger USB flash drive (or your camera’s SD card with a USB adapter). Just follow these instructions to download the software.
Great Console Guides and Deals
My past columns include guides to the best Microsoft Xbox One bundles, games, demos and accessories, the best Nintendo Wii U bundle, games, demos and accessories, including the awesome Super Mario 3D World, and the best Sony PlayStation 4 bundles, games, demos and accessories. Find other great game deals for Xbox One, Wii U, and PS4 here!