We spent more time investigating the hard disk game installation feature included with the New Xbox Experience. We pulled The Orange Box, Command & Conquer 3, NBA Live 09, and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed out of the GameSpot game library to measure installation times and to see how game load times improved with hard drive installations.
We found that installation time varies depending on the size of the game which isn't surprising because the installation process copies the data from the DVD to the hard drive--bigger games are going to take longer to rip. Installing the 4.7GB Orange Box disc took 6 minutes and 57 seconds while it only took 5 minutes and 35 seconds to get Command & Conquer 3's 3.6GB onto the hard drive. The Force Unleashed, weighing in at 6.6GB, extended out the installation time to 9 minutes and 47 seconds and it took 9 minutes and 7 seconds to install NBA Live 09's 6.3GB of data.
The load time benefits are fairly respectable, but you're not going to see anything close to instant game loads. Getting Orange Box from the dashboard to the game's start menu took 30 seconds when playing from disc, but only 25 seconds when launched from the hard drive. Command & Conquer 3's game launch time improved the most, dropping from 33 seconds to 17 seconds. NBA Live 09 only improved by 8 seconds, going from 45 seconds to 37 seconds. The Force Unleashed yielded a larger percentage drop, going from 33 seconds to 25 seconds.
We tried a few game-specific activities to see how the hard drive installation can help after we get through the initial game launch. The hard drive didn't seem to help much when we started playing Half-Life Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2. It took the same amount of time, 35 seconds, to load Episode 2, Chapter 1 from disc as from the hard drive, and getting into Team Fortress 2 only improved from 45 seconds to 42 seconds. Command & Conquer 3 wasn't much better. The hard drive only cut a second off the time it took to launch a new skirmish. Loading a saved skirmish was also only a second faster. The drive helped The Force Unleashed cut the time it took to load a saved game down from 25 seconds to 22 seconds, and NBA Live 09 needed the same amount of time to launch a quick play game from disk and from drive, about 27 seconds.
We can't make any definitive statements with such a small game sample size, but it looks like Microsoft's Albert Penello, director of marketing for Xbox, wasn't kidding when he told us that the main hard drive installation benefit will be reduced noise from not having the optical drive spin up. The hard drive did seem to make launching games faster, but in-game actions such as loading saved games our starting quick play sessions didn't improve much if at all. For all those kids wondering if they can play games from the hard drive without the game disc, sorry to destroy your pending Blockbuster schemes, but the console still requires the game disc to be in the system before launching the game from the hard drive.