The Great PS4 Firmware Update Debacle

A nightmare experience sent me sprinting back to Microsoft

Game consoles present fun, seamless, easy entertainment experiences to their users.

In theory.

As a console gamer, you shouldn’t have to think about the way the system works, or where it’s storing your files, or how the operating system is designed. It’s just turn it on and go.

Sometimes, things can break. A component will die and it’s off for warranty repair. When my launch Xbox One experienced comical GPU death in the first week(complete with game worlds that would suddenly disappear), a quick trip to Microsoft’s web site was all it took, and a few clicks later I had a shipping label. I received a replacement within a week.

That was a great support experience.

But what if you’re a PS4 owner and your system software gets slightly corrupted in a way that doesn’t kill your hardware outright, but instead makes it into a ticking time bomb of eventual system failure?

That’s a big problem. And thanks to a weird arcane flaw in Sony’s software design, I went through just that scenario. It was so frustrating and lame, it made me never want to look at a PS4 again.

Photo by Gabriel Matula on Unsplash

Seven weeks ago, I sold my Xbox One X and Slim PS4 to Gamestop and bought a PS4 Pro instead. Now, I’ve run into a software failure I wasn’t previously aware of that has my machine forever trapped on firmware 6.50. I didn’t even know this was possible, but searching the internet, there are many threads stretching through the whole history of the PS4’s life where folks have this same problem.

For some, the official recovery methods work. But for others like me? It’s doorstop time.

On the PS4, some firmware updates are mandatory and some are optional. If you’re not on the most recent mandatory update, you’ll be kicked off the network until you update the console. Once you’re kicked off the network, a PS4 becomes a paperweight in today’s digital era as you’ll lose access to all digital content, patches, and online play.

Last week, Sony released PS4 firmware 6.51. I have automatic updates turned on, and I immediately got a “Could not Download Update” notification. “That’s weird,” I thought, “oh well, I’ll just delete it and try again another time.”

On Saturday, I finally recycled my PS4 Pro packaging that had been languishing in my apartment hallway for almost two months, and also my receipt. “I won’t need this anymore,” I said with haughty foolishness, “I’m well past the return window and the system works great!”

Sunday rolls around, and I turn the PS4 on to download some quality gaming content. Once again, the top notification in my pile is about how update 6.51 won’t download. I delete the file again, and go to the manual update option in the menu. I get error code “SU-30641-4.”

I hope for your sake you never receive this error code.

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I go into the download notifications and select the option for more info, and it makes a vague proclamation about how the software update is corrupted, and I should try the download again. Uh oh. I’ve already done that three times.

Clicking the “Search Playstation.com Support” option on that screen I captured above brings up a page saying that they have no additional information about that error in their system.

Oh no.

Working my way around the rest of the internet, I find several threads where folks have similar issues, sometimes with the same code and sometimes with a different one. The suggestions are all the same: Use safe mode to either install the update or reinstall the system software.

Both Sony and Microsoft rely on integrated flash memory hidden away inside their consoles to store the console’s operating system in case anything goes awry. In the case of Microsoft’s Xbox One, the flash memory functions similarly to a Windows recovery partition, holding a backup copy of the OS in case you need to reformat or reinstall. In extreme cases, you can use an official tool to install a fresh copy from a USB stick instead.

Sony’s system is similar…in theory. Their safe mode menu allows you to install system updates from the Internet, from a USB stick, or from disc, and also allows for a full reinstall.The USB stick options require you to navigate to their site on a computer and download a file. However, their download page is a little confusing, with different tiny links for updates and clean install packages that all look like they’re pointing to the same file even though they aren’t. And you’ll need a little knowhow about how to format a storage device and create a directory structure.

A tool that self-creates a backup stick would be better. But I’m getting off-topic.

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I boot my system into safe mode, which thankfully seems to be working as it should. I get excited, and I can’t wait to fix this and move on with my life. I click the “install update from internet” option. I download the file…and get the same error code.

Okay, let’s kick it up a notch.

I download the standalone update to a USB stick on my computer, making sure to follow all the formatting requirements for the stick’s file structure. I get the same error code.

Resigning myself to losing my game install data and having to re-download my saves from the cloud, I perform a quick initialization of my hard drive. Alas, the machine still won’t update.

So then, I do a full initialization. Hours later, I still can’t update my console.

I mistakenly thought that the hard drive formatting process would delete whatever corruption had happened inside my system software and lead to this error code. I was wrong.

It turns out that the error/corruption had somehow embedded itself into the system software copy contained on my PS4’s internal flash memory. Not even installing a “fresh” copy from that backup onto the now-super-clean hard drive had solved the problem.

Okay then, time to use that clean install option in the safe mode menu. The final resort. It was time to open the PS4’s equivalent of the nuclear football. Another trip to Sony’s arcane web page to download the different clean install tool, properly install it to the USB stick, launch safe mode and…SAME. ERROR. CODE.

Photo by @Matthew_T_Rader on Unsplash

Each time I receive the error in safe mode, I get a much less friendly message than the one in the normal version of the OS. It tells me something has gone really wrong and I should call support. The only selectable button says “Turn off PS4.”

Time to get creative.

If it won’t install a clean copy of 6.51, maybe it’ll install a clean copy of the OS version 6.50 that’s already on the machine? And maybe that copy won’t then have whatever software issue is permanently burned into the copy on my internal flash memory?

Finding a copy of 6.50 required a little leg work, as Sony doesn’t keep a database of old OS versions. This makes some sense, as they don’t want people downgrading their machines for security reasons. In fact, downgrading your firmware violates your warranty.

More on warranties in a minute.

I find a copy of 6.50 on a PS4 hobbyist site, and try the install…but receive the same error code.

At this point, I realize I’m officially stuck with a PS4 Pro that won’t ever update or reinstall any other version of the system software except the one it already has, in spite of the fact that it’s still totally working on the hardware side.

The flash memory itself is completely functional, because I was able to get through the standard hard drive reformat process twice without issue. But, thanks to some kind of software issue and the magic of whatever SU-30641-4 is, the system is not going to ever update itself again.

Photo by Aliyah Jamous on Unsplash

That’ll become a big problem down the road. At some point, systems running 6.50 will no longer be allowed to login to the PlayStation Network, and I’ll lose access to all of my digital content.

This is a crummy place to be in after I did precisely nothing to my machine except use it.

As I mentioned above, some internet searching reveals that this sort of problem has been happening since the launch of the PS4. Some folks have had luck with the different recovery options, but many others got hosed just like me. Too many of the forum threads disappointingly trail off with no solution for us folks stuck in the garbage bin. Other times, they end with people either selling their system, or having an endless and frustrating runaround with Sony support.

Ah yes, Sony support doesn’t always decide to fix this.

“What, that can’t be right, can it? Surely Sony would fix this through their warranty system?” Not always. It turns out they’ve given themselves a lot of outs so they don’t have to, if they don’t want to. And that’s silly.

Sony has two different warranties for the PS4. One for the hardware, and one for the system software.

Remember the beginning of the story where I recycled my receipt? Turns out that was a terrible idea. Sony requires a receipt in order to provide warranty service.

Unlike Microsoft, who knew when my launch Xbox One was purchased and had no issue providing me service thanks to their network infrastructure, Sony has given themselves an out if you don’t still have your original receipt. That’s not the most arcane thing in the world, but I’d hope for better in a digital world where all devices can be quickly registered online .

More egregious is the separate software warranty. Sony has an entire warranty dedicated to their PS4 firmware, and although I’m not a lawyer, I can sum it up for you like this: they take no responsibility for their software. At all.

Furthermore, a number of updates ago, Sony added a DRM check to their firmware software that checks every hardware component of your PS4 for “modifications.” When it first launched, it threw up a lot of false positives, and prevented people from updating or playing games.

Ugh.

“Modifications” also void your warranty, which I totally understand. But once false positives from software checks enter the mix, it creates a messy world where nothing prevents Sony from claiming I modified a system just to stop them from having to fix it.

You might think I’m being hard on Sony’s support, but they have a history. Just look at the torrent of replies on this old article I wrote about a common breaking issue with Sony’s 1000X headphones. It’s full of dissatisfied customers.

I’m left now with a fully functional piece of non-modified PS4 hardware that, for some software-related reason, won’t update anymore. Sony takes no official responsibility for their software, and I’ve got no receipt to prove that I bought it. The worst-case scenario is that I pay $100 and send it in for “out of warranty” repair in spite of it being seven weeks old, then they send it back telling me oh this is software-related sorry!

I say all of this in theory because I didn’t fully engage with that support path. Why? Once I got to this point, I’d had enough.

There’s no reason for Sony’s USB recovery tool not to work on fully functional hardware. There’s no reason for Sony to eschew responsibility for any system software related issues with a separate warranty. There’s no reason for a machine to have an error code that has no corresponding info available in their support system. Someone wrote that error code into the system in the first place, right? So how can they have no more info?

I understand that all things can’t always work for everyone, but the nature of this particular issue is uniquely frustrating. I didn’t even get an exciting hardware death or puff of smoke or anything. It’s incredible that an auto-installed update can “kill” a machine and render even the recovery tool worthless, in spite of no actual hardware damage taking place.

I’m sure that Sony has a better suite of tools on-hand that would allow them to overwrite my current OS and bypass this issue. But why isn’t that baked into their consumer-facing tool? Sony doesn’t want me to have to send in my system if possible, right?

Microsoft, in case you were wondering, has a much more reasonable warranty for the Xbox One, and no separate warranty for the system firmware that I could find. Thank goodness.

Photo by Alexandru Acea on Unsplash

They have similar language about console modifications, and that’s fair since to my knowledge they also aren’t constantly checking your disc drive to make sure it’s “right”. And again, my one support experience with them years ago on the hardware side was quite pleasant. It didn’t require me to provide documentation and I had full faith in the process. I’ve also had no issue reinstalling system software on any of the three Xbox Ones I’ve ever owned in my life, something I’ve done a few times over the years.

(Yes I’ve owned three Xbox Ones previously. I like to get new models, I can’t help myself).

Rather than continue to throw good money after bad, I gave my PS4 Pro to a friend who loves to rip things open and look at them, and I went out and bought a Division 2 Xbox One S bundle.

Before you jump into the replies to ask why I got an S this time instead of an X, it’s simple. I’ve always loved the aesthetic design of the Xbox One S. I’d been itching to play Division 2 (which has Atmos support on Xbox), and getting it in a bundle was a great way to do that. I still have my desktop Windows PC for that 4K supersampled goodness when I feel like a more tweak-filled/ “extreme” gaming experience. I use a 1080p monitor in my main setup, and in that resolution environment, the Xbox One S is more than enough.

Microsoft had exactly what I needed in my hour of major Sony disappointment.

I made a big mistake seven weeks ago. I got caught up in things that were just as much my own nit-picky issues as anything Microsoft had done. I’m borderline embarrassed about parts of that article now, but I’m leaving it up for posterity and honesty.

Sometimes you need to make a change in order to realize that you were right in the first place.

It turns out that having a console with a functionally-designed OS recovery system and a warranty that doesn’t give the hardware maker a million excuses to back out of things is important.

Maybe Sony will learn that lesson someday. Until then, they’ve lost me as a customer.