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Xbox Series X proprietary expansion cards — the way forward or future curse?

Xbox Series X Seagate Expandable Card
Xbox Series X Seagate Expandable Card (Image credit: Microsoft)

Microsoft's early foundations for Xbox Series X show promise, positioning the console as a frontrunner in graphical horsepower and compiling a ton of cutting-edge technologies. And while only a fraction of the next-generation vision for Xbox One (there's still a lot to learn), it's a formidable underpinning for what could be the next decade of console gaming.

The Xbox Series X does a lot right, but there's still one component where mixed feelings have settled. Microsoft introduces an admittedly clean and straightforward solution to expandable storage, partnering up to deliver adorable, compact SSD cards that slide into a rear-facing port. But it's a proprietary solution, locking out a market of third-party manufacturers while resurfacing memories of the early Xbox 360 era.

Locking down Xbox Series X means performance benefits

Xbox Series X Storage Expansion

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

While the Xbox Series X boasts system-wide improvements, one of its most impactful comes with the introduction of an internal SSD. Where the Xbox One family fell short due to its sluggish spinning storage, Microsoft adopts a speedy NVMe solution, with up to 40 times performance gains over Xbox One X. The SSD utilizes a direct line to the CPU via PCIe 4.0, especially handy for high data speeds. It helps deliver upon Microsoft's promise of almost eliminating loading screens and enhancing asset streaming for next-generation titles.

That setup looks promising for launch, but its 1TB capacity only allows for a handful of games. While Microsoft has outlined technologies to reduce the space games occupy, installations continue to grow with graphical fidelity. That's where the Seagate Xbox Series X expansion comes in, translating the fundamentals of Microsoft's internal storage to a custom external card.

Microsoft justifies the proprietary storage as essential to Xbox Series X ambitions, designed to "seamlessly" match the internal drive's speed and performance. It understandably keeps hardware complexity transparent to the player, while guaranteeing consistency regardless of where games are installed. If Microsoft were to rely on third-party solutions instead, lesser drives could impact Xbox Series X performance, unless subject to a formal certification process.

The result is the tiny guy pictured above — a proprietary SSD solution with a cartridge-inspired form factor. It retains the same close relationship with the CPU, enabled by PCIe 4.0 connectivity, ensuring the speeds demanded by Xbox Series X experiences.

Related: What you need to know about Xbox Series X storage expansions

Xbox Series X Ports

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

That's a hugely different implementation to Sony, opting to support off-the-shelf M.2 SSDs for PlayStation 5 expansions. The approach allows for standard NVMe drives via an SSD-ready internal drive bay, shifting the focus away from first-party hardware and onto existing manufacturers. It boosts the perception of user choice, with pricing and availability determined by the open market, rather than the platform holder. And that all comes with higher demands, with the PlayStation 5 SSD's raw bandwidth around double of Xbox Series X.

But not all M.2 drives are created equal, with variances in size and guaranteed to confuse. The minimum performance requires PCIe 4.0, matching or surpassing the 5.5GB/s bandwidth slated for the PlayStation 5 internal SSD. Some M.2 drives may not even fit inside the chassis, with no fixed dimensions outlined under the specification. Sony promises to release a list of certified drives, likely on track for after launch, but adds confusion for the average player who just wants to simply add "more storage."

What Xbox Series X can learn from the Xbox 360

Xbox 360 E

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

While Microsoft has pledged compatibility with all existing Xbox One accessories, including current USB external hard drives, the console essentially demands the Seagate expansion card for extra storage. Drives connected over USB 3.1 or later come with hard limitations, only capable of running backward compatible Xbox One, Xbox 360, or original Xbox titles. While Xbox Series X games can technically be stored on generic USB drives to reduce data usage, they only boot on the internal SSD or expansion card. It means that for new titles or those upgraded for Xbox Series X — a vast majority of the experience for most — an expansion card is mandated when upgrading.

Proprietary storage isn't new in the console space, with several consoles cooking up custom solutions throughout the generations. But in a world increasingly supportive of eliminating closed ecosystems, the concept has generally fallen out of favor.

Xbox 360 Memory Unit

Source: GameStop (Image credit: Source: GameStop)

The Xbox 360 was Microsoft's previous foray into proprietary storage, although back in an era where drives held saves and profiles, over a full library of games. The console's early years saw two mainline units, one with a 20GB hard drive and an entry-level without, instead expanded via memory cards and drives sold separately.

While Microsoft's cards may have been better by design, its proprietary nature saw few challengers on the market. But unofficial third-party solutions hit with time, undercutting Microsoft's own storage devices. A Microsoft 512MB memory unit would fetch $30, while a 2GB Datel-branded alternative with microSD expansion cost just $40, as reported by ITWorld in 2009. The same went for Xbox 360 hard drives, inflated over your standard 2.5-inch SATA alternative.

Microsoft would eventually bar "unauthorized devices" via a system update, leaving them unrecognized by the console, with onboard data unobtainable. That fostered a landscape where Microsoft had full control, with proper storage exhibiting a premium over could-be open solutions.

Xbox Series X CPU

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

Microsoft treads familiar territory with Xbox Series X, likely to ask a high price for that expandable storage. High-performance NVMe SSDs already aren't cheap, and existing Xbox One-branded storage from Seagate comes at a premium, compared to unbranded products with identical internals. Don't expect these proprietary cards to diverge from the trend, destined to surpass $200 for the 1TB model.

The available storage capacities also remain unclear, and just like the initially limited Xbox 360 memory units, Microsoft only commits to a 1TB Xbox Series X expansion card. Seagate is an initial exclusive partner, too, with additional manufacturers essential to diversify those offerings and prevent a repeat of Xbox 360 days.

Microsoft's reasoning with Xbox Series X remains entirely understandable, presenting a fast and easy solution, accommodating seamless upgrades. But that comes with its costs, limiting your options as a consumer, and likely inflating pricing. The PlayStation 5's open approach isn't the cleanest, but for a top-tier device geared to enthusiasts, the final implementation of Xbox Series X leaves me torn.

Xbox Series X/S

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Matt Brown
Matt Brown

Matt Brown is Windows Central's Senior Games Editor, Xbox & PC, at Future. Following over seven years of professional consumer technology and gaming coverage, he’s focused on the world of Microsoft's gaming efforts. You can follow him on Twitter @mattjbrown.

17 Comments
  • Your article says my apprehension with these devices perfectly. Didn't they also release the Slim and totally abandon the memory cards on the 360 or am I just confusing that with them removing component cables with going with HDMI?
  • Yeah, the Xbox 360 Slim dropped the memory cards, and also switched over to simple 2.5-inch SATA drives, unlike the huge grey casing before — but still wasn't possible to easily use off-the-shelf drives :P
  • Wow, this comment didn't even show until I typed mine. It says you posted yours 4 hours ago.
  • Haha, no problemo - always worth having additional knowledge to back ;)
  • The S and E models of the Xbox 360 ditched the memory card slots and only used USB. Also the S and E models used a different form factor for the hard drives. You can switch cases on the hard drives and they will work fine in any model.
  • Omg remember MB?! 😂 It's laughable in the GB Era but now we're pushing onto the TB age...let alone the oncoming PB storm! 😅
  • I'm waiting for ZB.
  • Price will dictate the opinion on these cards, as will storage capacity. Some have suggested 1TB is the max (surely not). Couple of ways to look at the price, 1 is that it is a closed market, so lack of competition keeps the prices high; 1 is that the closed market and a definite userbase gives Seagate the option to limit their profit margin as they are able to potentially shift more units. Both Sony and MS have two valid approaches, with one able to guarantee consistency of experience, and the other able to offer a broad range of storage options. Neither will be cheap.
  • I don't think the proprietary high speed expandable storage is an immediate problem, at least not for the first few years of the Series X generation. Partly because of XBO/XB360 backwards compatibility, most Xbox One X optimized games will play off regular USB 3 mass storage as we have today. This will be the bulk of games in the library. For the few Series X games that actually require the internal SSD for performance, the built-in 1 TB will do for quite a few titles. Users can always swap games back and forth between cheap bulk storage USB 3 HDDs that offer several TBs at low cost and the internal 1 TB SSD to play them. I will rather invest in 16 TB of mass USB 3 external HDD storage where I load all 360/XBO games and even Series X games for storage. If I need to play a Series X game that requires the Velocity Architecture for performance, I move the installation to the internal high speed SSD.
  • can't wait until these things are in hand and opened up. It'll either be 100% proprietary or similar to the 360hdds where off the shelf components can be used with some work (and hopefully not blocked or causing bans from MS)
  • MS confirmed 2 and 4tb will be supported in future.
  • Because the Series X uses external SSD to assets stream and NPC data alike, there was no other choice to guarantee the same throughput. Sonys option is going to have ramifications in terms of using the SSD external the same way internal does. They can't control the 3rd party SSD. So how this may affect using the SSD for asset streaming etc for the external isn't controlled by Sony the same way. The SSD is uses in game development. And not having a controlled environment isn't ideal for developers. Also there is no SSD on thr market currently that Sony has in its list. And when they do arrive are expecting around £300 for a 1TB external drive for PS5. That's extortionate. I expect MS to be around £150 at launch.
  • Sony's (cheap) decision to use a "standard" M.2 NVMex4 interface and to allow user-installed NVMe drives, will be a Tech Support NIGHTMARE.
    You can plug just about ANYTHING into a "standard" M.2 2280 slot, including M.2 non-NMVe drives, much slower NVMe x2 drives, and lots of off-brand NVMex4 drives, some that don't even have an RAM Caching (and thus are MUCH slower.)
    Allowing end-users to access these slots and install "whatever fits in the slot" will be a disaster for Sony.
    This is why Microsoft went with "proprietary" interface and design. CONSISTENCY.
    You can only purchase their expansion drives, and they are 100% sure they WILL WORK AS ADVERTISED.
    No support nightmare there. Well worth the $$$ in a Consumer Product like this with lots (and lots) of non-technical end-users.
  • Didn't Sony say they will need to be certified?
    Not that I care in ever bought a Playstation and never will... God damn Sega killers 🤣
  • Yeah which basically means recommended. What he's saying is the slot takes any. And people will have nightmares if there speeds and design are different.
  • Better have the TBs I currently have a more than half full 8tb drive on my Xbox one x... So I'll need at least 6TB of the bat.... If they can provide the load I don't care the path they choose....
  • On the plus side all your One and earlier games can be run off the drive you have, it's only Series X titles that require the internal/proprietary.