Hands-on with Xbox USB storage update
Microsoft released its latest Xbox 360 firmware update yesterday; this was the one that lets you extend your Xbox's capacity via USB flash drives (aka flash drives). As the owner of an original Xbox 360 with a puny 20 GB hard drive, I was only too happy to put the update through its paces.
The first order of business was selecting the right flash drive. The Xbox requires the device to be at least 1 GB in capacity and it will only recognize 16 GB max. You can use a larger device but the 360 will only "see" the first 16 GB. Microsoft has SanDisk selling Xbox branded flash drives in both 8 and 16 GB capacities, but the pricing is ridiculous: $34.99 for the 8GB, $79.99 for the 16GB (granted they throw in a free month of Xbox Live Gold service, but they're still overpriced). You can find 16GB flash drives for $30-$35 online without much searching at all. I was in a hurry so headed to the local Best Buy and paid $47.99 on a non-Xbox branded SanDisk drive. The one thing to keep in mind is that the USB ports on the 360 are recessed behind a spring-loaded flap. Don't get some oddly shapped drive or it may not physically fit through the opening in the 360's outer case and into the port.
The first time you plug in the flash drive the Xbox will need to prepare it; this will wipe out any data on it. Microsoft is really careful here and you'll have to confirm twice that yes, you really want to prepare the drive. You can choose to partition the drive so that some of it acts as Xbox storage and the rest can be used for other purposes, including storing video or photos for viewing on the 360. This could be a good choice if you have a flash drive larger than 16 GB that you want to use; 16 GB for gaming stuff, the rest of music, photos and video storage. Keep in mind Microsoft reserves 512 megs of space for housekeeping, plus these drives always have some kind of internal overhead that eats into the number printed on the package. In the end I wound up with 14.4 GB of usable storage space on my 16 GB flash drive. That's a sample size of one flash drive from one manufacturer though.
Once that's done, you can use the flash drive in the same way you do your Xbox's hard drive. My first test was to install a game (the original Mass Effect) to it. This worked in the sense that it kept the DVD from spinning while playing, but the speed increase didn't seem all that significant. Now this is a hard thing to quantify, and I was 'measuring' it by observing elevator transit times (Mass Effect players will know what I mean). The bottom line, though, is that the USB 2.0 port is going to be a bottleneck; this won't be as fast as your internal hard drive in most cases. Still, silencing the noisy DVD drive on the Xbox was definitely a benefit and there was at least some speed increase.
Next I tried downloading an Xbox Live Arcade game directly to the flash drive; the game played fine and showed up in my Games Library right alongside games on the internal drive.
Last, I tried moving some previously downloaded games and videos from my internal hard drive to the flash drive. Once again the experience was seamless: while the drive was plugged in the content on it appeared in the library listings (game or video) with no indication of where it was stored. Remove the flash drive and the titles on it vanish from the listings.
So essentially my report is that there is nothing to report. Everything just worked. If, like me, your existing internal drive is cramped but you aren't ready to upgrade to a larger hard drive, slapping in a USB flash drive is a great short term solution. In fact even if you are upgrading, you could use a flash drive (or drives) to help transfer data off the old hard drive and onto the new, without shelling out $20 for a "Transfer Kit" if you don't get one with your new drive (Microsoft includes a Transfer Kit in their new 250 GB replacement drives).
After testing was finished I couldn't resist sticking the flash drive back into my PC to see what I could and couldn't read. The drive shows as full with a single Xbox360 folder at root level. Drilling into that I found a series of binary files, Data0000 through Data0016. I'm sure there'll be plenty of Xbox hackers ripping into these files with their hex editors to see what they can find. One of the concerns with this most recent update is that it'll make it too easy to hack Xbox Live Profiles in order to change Achievement Scores and wreak other mischief. Hopefully Microsoft has locked this stuff down really well.