Western Digital breaks silence on Xbox’s restrictive Expansion Cards

Master Chief from Halo Infinite next to two Western Digital WD_Black C50 Xbox Expansion Cards

Master Chief from Halo Infinite next to two Western Digital WD_Black C50 Xbox Expansion Cards

While all current-gen consoles have access to an internal SSD, the Xbox Series consoles do something different with expandable storage - they offer memory card-like Expansion Cards to increase storage. Early on, only Seagate was able to produce Xbox Expansion Cards, but the release of the Western Digital WD_BLACK C50 is the start of a new era of Xbox’s external storage.

Released earlier this year, the WD_Black C50 is the first time a company other than Seagate has been able to manufacture Xbox Expansion Cards for Microsoft’s current-gen consoles. Usable across Xbox Series X and S, the plug-and-play external storage is small, fast, lightweight and supports Xbox-specific features such as Quick Resume and the Velocity Architecture framework.

Stealth Optional sat down with Head of Project Marketing Ruben Dennenwalt to discuss the creation of Western Digital’s first Xbox Expansion Card.

The creation of the WD_Black C50 comes as part of Western Digital’s push to have products available on all available consoles at the same time. For the Nintendo Switch, Zelda and Mario Sandisk cards are part of the company’s umbrella, on PS5 there are specific variants of the WD_Black SN850, and on Xbox there’s the new C50 Expansion Card.

A Western Digital Black C_50 expansion card in the back of an Xbox Series X
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However, getting to work on an Xbox Expansion Card is now easy. As Dennenwalt tells us, Microsoft’s proprietary technology is closely guarded, and only specific trusted partners are allowed access to the information that allows them to create accessories.

“The C50, like the Seagate [card], features a proprietary interface. It’s not a kind of industry-standard interface like the M.2 [on PC and PS5,” they tell us. “It requires some work; it's a Microsoft-owned interface, you cannot just turn and build a product for it. You have to partner with Microsoft to be in a position to be able to offer that kind of product. And then the other thing is there are obviously very clear requirements in terms of performance the product needs to hit.”

Unfortunately, Western Digital isn’t able to tell us exactly what requirements Microsoft demands of Expansion Card developers. We know that the custom internal drive on the Xbox Series consoles hits 2.4 GB/s of raw I/O throughput, we know there are temperatures it needs to avoid, and we know that it must support the DirectStorage API. Other than that, it’s a closely guarded secret.

Dennenwalt explains that, in comparison to the PS5’s NVMe storage, the Expansion Card system is more appealing to a lot of gamers. Unlike the PS5, you don’t have to open your console, it’s a plug-and-play system, and while the system currently lacks the breadth of choice available with PS5’s industry-standard M.2 slot, every Expansion Card is guaranteed to work.

“Assume you’re a gamer who’s not that much into technical detail,” Dennenwalt explains. “Having a product that’s officially licensed gives you a guarantee that it’s going to work. There are people there, especially in console gaming, that are not that tech-savvy. Plus there are people who want to give it as a present to their partner or to their children… it takes away those pain points of “will it actually work”.

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However, as a developer of a product currently relying on a proprietary interface, Western Digital is currently going up against Seagate’s original, proven Expansion Card, and there are clear differences.

For example, the Seagate Expansion Card is, at the time of writing, listed at £179.99 for 512GB, £284.99 for 1TB and £534.99 for 2TB on the manufacturer’s official website. While these cards can certainly be found significantly cheaper elsewhere, such as Amazon, they’re still more expensive than Weestern Digital’s £89.99 512GB card and £149.99 1TB card.

Store listings for the Seagate Xbox Expansion Card showing exorbitant prices
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Nevertheless, the similarities between the two Xbox Expansion Cards do make it hard — even for a trained marketer — to explain why a customer should go for any one card. Dennenwalt explains that Western Digital’s history of reliability and high-quality storage speaks for itself, but for a product with specifications so deeply rooted in mystery, it all comes down to price and aesthetics.

Despite the issues, Dennenwalt believes all Xbox gamers need some form of external storage for their consoles. With games like Baldur’s Gate 3 hitting 150GB, Starfield being over 100GB and Call of Duty games being over 100GB every year, everyone will run out of storage. With Xbox having Game Pass as an easily accessible service, Xbox gamers are likely to have more of an issue with this.

“[Whether you need external storage], that to me is a simple question,” he explains. “The answer will obviously be yes because you are limited if you only have internal storage. When you purchase a new game or download a game from Game Pass, you can delete stuff and free up space, but is that what you really want?”

Two WD_Black C50 Xbox Expansion Cards next to each other, one in a heat sink cover, the other bare.
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“It becomes even more [of an issue] for casual gamers,” he continues. “If you use these services and you use your console on a frequent basis, it will fill up. We have all the data and statistics on that, and it’s relatively quick, less than a year [to fill up storage] even if you’re a casual gamer. It’s one of the most essential accessories you can have.”

With huge games like Alan Wake 2 only being available digitally, the need for more storage is paramount. While increased internal storage would be nice, that makes the price of getting a console go up, and with a major lack of price cutting — especially on the Xbox side — external storage does seem to be the popular option for manufacturers and fans.

At the time of writing, Western Digital and Seagate are still the only manufacturers who are allowed to make Xbox Expansion Cards. With games getting bigger and bigger every year, will more companies get in on the tech?

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