Why the online activation requirement for PS5’s detachable drive is an issue (opinion)
A screenshot of Sony’s marketing material for the upcoming PS5 “Slim” and its detachable disc drive has been triggering some strong reactions from the community.
Early images of the PS5 Slim Modern Warfare 3 bundle have been posted online, and people were quick to notice the following footprint:
Internet Connection required to pair Disc Drive and PS5 console upon setup.
Some people are getting really angry about this requirement, others don’t see the problem. I’m siding with the angry folks here, and I’ll try to explain what the issues are with this mechanism. Mind you, they are not “new” issues, and some people might not care about the implied restrictions. But that seems to be the bulk of the arguments defending Sony in this case: “it doesn’t impact me personally or it’s always been like this so why should it bother me?”
Oh boy, where to begin here. There are so many issues with this that I’m having a hard time collecting my thoughts.
What is the issue with
online pairing a disc drive for the PS5?
OK, let’s set aside the “online” requirement for a minute, and talk about “pairing” a drive to the console. What pairing a drive to the console does, is also known as “marrying” the console with the drive, means that the drive in question will only work with that specific console (and vice versa). They are “connected” through some specific encryption, and will refuse to work with any other combination (hence the word “married”).
I’m not entirely sure why Sony have decided to add this type of restriction to their hardware (possibly to prevent third party disc drives?), but as many folks have pointed out, it’s been in place on Sony consoles at least since the PS3.
And has it been an issue? Yes! A thousand times yes! Although I’m not super familiar with the impact on PS3, I know that BD pairing on PS4 has been the direct root cause of lots of issues. Not only will a drive refuse to work in a PS4 it’s not paired with, the PS4 itself will refuse to work if the BD Drive is incorrect. How much of an issue is it, you ask? Well if for any reason your PS4’s Blu Ray drive refuses to work (this can happen for such a minor thing as a damaged ribbon cable), the PS4 will refuse to update, forever.
Note that it doesn’t matter if you actually use the Blu Ray drive on the PS4. Many of us are content with mostly playing PSN-acquired games. But the folks behind the PS4 have decided that its Blu Ray drive is critical to its operation (it’s not) and it will refuse to perform the most basic operation of updating the Firmware if that drive is faulty.
And if you think a PS4 that can’t be updated to the latest firmware is still useful, you’re very mistaken (unless you’re into homebrew, obviously).
Imagine for a second if Windows refused to update the day you remove an accessory from your computer.
Sony have managed to craft a mechanism where it’s cheaper to buy a completely new PS4, than replacing a damaged Blu Ray drive.
Who comes to the rescue of the poor owners of fully functional PS4s with a damaged blu ray drive? The homebrew community and third party repair shops, of course, who, after countless hours of reverse engineering and DRM hacks have made it “possible” (not easy) to save a PS4 with a non functional Blu Ray Drive.
To restate, pairing a blu ray drive to the console is an artificial requirement that Sony have put into place onto their consoles. It leads to non trivial failures on the PS4, including the inability to update if the BD-drive is faulty. The goal for doing it is generally unknown, and there is absolutely no benefit to the customer. It turns an accessory (the blu ray drive) into a critical failure point of the console, for absolutely no benefit to the user.
If you’ve never ran into this issue, I can see why you’d think it’s not a big deal, but every single person I’ve talked to who ran into dreaded error CE-35888-2 when trying to update their PS4 has had the same reaction: “I never use the blu ray drive. All my games were bought on the PSN and are on the hard drive! Now I can’t update which means I can’t play new games and I can’t even play my existing games that have an online requirement!”. It’s not a problem, until it happens to you.
Damaged electronics that can’t be repaired, by design, is a massive problem, and that’s exactly what PlayStation drive pairing does.
What is the issue with online pairing a disc drive for the PS5?
Now that we’ve addressed the issue with pairing, let’s address the online requirement here, for the upcoming PS5 model.
Pairing until now was done at the factory. But with a detachable disc hardware, this obviously won’t be possible anymore. Sony could have come up with some internal encryption mechanism within the PS5, and they chose not to. We’ll never exactly know why, but it probably had to do with some fear that this pairing mechanism would be reverse engineered eventually. So instead, they’re going to go with some online activation mechanism, a system that will somehow “marry” the blu ray drive with the console by sending the right keys to the server. Because this activation only happens “once”, it is fair to assume that something then gets written on both the PS5 and the disc chips, to mark them as married.
My initial question was: is that pairing permanent? Is there a way to resell the PS5 Disc Drive on the second hand market, and to re-active it on a different console? I hope so. I also have to assume there is a way to “unpair” the console from a drive if it gets damaged, letting us use it “again” as a Digital edition console. If anything, the “online activation” system needs to bring these benefits to the table, “fixing” some of the issues I discussed above with the pairing concept.
At least this would mean a PS5 with a damaged blu ray drive could still be used as a digital edition, and that’s a good thing. (But honestly knowing Sony I wouldn’t be surprised if somehow they mess that up).
With that being said, the choice to use an online service, instead of doing the pairing “internally” with PS5’s own encryption, brings a problem down the road for “future” retro gamers.
Not everybody is a retro gamer, but there is no denying that it is a big market. You can see a lot of people nowadays enjoying games on original NES, GameBoy,, Genesis, or even Atari 2600 consoles. We are talking about consoles that were released almost 40 years ago. And they still work!
There is very little chance that 40 years from now, the online activation server for Sony’s PS5 Blu Ray Drive will still be up and running. After all, they had no issue abandoning online support for the PS Vita less than 10 years after its launch, and now you can barely do anything with the portable console (unless you hack it of course).
If, in 2063, you’re one the market for a detachable disc drive for your PS5, by default all you’ll get is an unusable plastic piece of junk.
I have no doubt that the hacking community will do their best over the next decades to fix this kind of issue, but once again we’ll hear people say “see, it’s not a big deal, there are tools to deal with it”. There are tools to deal with this kind of situation because it is so annoying in the first place, that some people spend decades reverse engineering that ***!
Someone told me “it’s just like installing a driver for your Blu Ray drive, most OSes do that online nowadays, and it’s only done once”. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what a DRM does, versus what a driver does. If, 40 years from now, I want to build a retro PC with an old Blu Ray drive, I will be able to find the drivers for that drive online, most likely. That’s because those drivers are widely distributed for the major OSes of their time, and it’s possible (and allowed) to keep copies of the drivers. By contrast, a DRM online activation mechanism is, intentionally, hidden from you and cannot be replicated anywhere. Without that service up and running, it will literally be impossible to install and use the drive.
Sony have introduced drive pairing to their consoles a long time ago. The mechanism brings no benefit to their users, and has been a major pain point to any PlayStation owner who had the misfortune to ever run into any issue with their Blu Ray Drive.
Blu Ray drive issues turn fully functional consoles into paperweights, unless you get help from the hacking community. Although the detachable disc drive on the PS5 could alleviate some of these issues (keeping in mind that the problems come from their own decision to have pairing in the first place), the “online activation” mechanism chosen by Sony ensures that these external drives will be useless pieces of junk within a few years, leaving it to the homebrew community once again to fix the problems when they inevitably arise.