Downloads to the PlayStation 4 from the PlayStation Store are objectively terrible. Hell, sometimes just a visit to the PlayStation Store can be fraught with delays and spinning progress wheels. The true causes of this may not be provable or knowable, but one network specialist has taken a long look at the issue and has some recommendations that may help.
The very short explanation is that closing all games and applications seems to work. Juho Snellman, a systems programmer in Zurich, Switzerland, cautions that there may be other reasons for a slow download that are specific to a user's network or internet service provider. (This is a great circular firing squad where Sony could blame your cable company which can blame your router and back and then no one ever has to be responsible.) But Snellman says he observed a jaw droppingly small "receive window" when anything was running in the background on the PS4.
"Receive window," in lay terms, is the volume of data the receiving device tells the sending device it's willing to accept. Snellman says he ran two tests, the first with the download running in the foreground but a Netflix application running in the background. When the Netflix app closed, the receive window increased significantly.
So Snellman began a second test that introduced all kinds of different background functions to see what would happen. In one, the game Styx: Shards of Darkness idled in its title screen. That shrank the receive window to 7 KB. Snellman stresses this the artificial limit "appears to only apply to PSN downloads" — i.e. something coming from the PlayStation Store. And, notably, running the console's built-in speed test will not reveal the reduced download capacity. For me, this is one of the most maddening things, to see a download is taking forever, to check what is wrong with my network connection and be told everything is A-OK.
A receive window of 7 KB "is an incredibly low value; it's basically going to cause the downloads to take 100 times longer than they should," Snellman explains. "And this was not a coincidence, whenever that game was running, the receive window would be that low." That said, some games affect this window much more, others much less, and active play in a game seemed to influence the speed, too.
Running an app such as Netflix or Spotify narrowed the receive window to 128KB, which is still "a 5x reduction in potential download speed," and playing an online match in a networked game closed it down to the 7 KB threshold. Putting the PlayStation 4 into its rest mode "had no effect," he writes.
Complicating matters is that the PlayStation 4 doesn't always make it clear what programs are running. Many users are accustomed to closing a game from the dashboard or being told the system is doing so when they boot up a new one while another is in the background, thinking that takes care of it. But other applications, like Spotify or a streaming video service, can keep on going. "To close the running applications, you'll need to long-press the PS button on the controller, and then select 'Close applications' from the menu,'" Snellman says, and that’s a useful reminder.
Whatever the blame, all kinds of anecdotal complaints and observations of the PlayStation 4's inconsistent download behavior have taken hold over the past four years. Does putting the machine to rest help? Why are my downloads faster after this firmware update? Snellman attributes the latter to an update closing every open application after the system reboot.
And Snellman posits that there are legitimate reasons for limiting the receive window. It’s a video game console, so a video game, particularly one with online features, should have priority over the console's resources. "If I'm playing an online shooter, it makes sense to harshly limit the background download speeds to make sure the game is getting ping times that are both low and predictable," he says. But that doesn't excuse the limitations enforced by secondary apps like Netflix, he argues. And since they can keep running with the user unaware, here you have the problem.
That is as close to a layman's explanation as I can make of some very intricate networking terms and concepts. I recommend reading the whole thing for yourself to get a better understanding. It makes no guarantees that it has the answers, but at least you'll come away from it knowing that you aren't crazy: PS4 download times do suck.