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The PlayStation 'Time Bomb' - What is a CMOS Battery?

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A LittleBigPlanet entrance checkpoint glowing red against a green circuit board background
Cover image created by ShadowLeviathan

The ultimate fate of legacy PlayStation consoles that take advantage of PlayStation Network online features - namely, the PS3 and PS4 - has been uncertain for a while, especially since the launch of the latest PlayStation 5... But, why? Many worry that a fatal flaw, the CMOS battery, may spell the end for PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 consoles. What is a CMOS battery, what can you do to keep your PlayStation alive, and is this the true end for classic gaming hits like LittleBigPlanet?

PlayStation Network: All Good Things Come to an End

Ever since Sony announced back in March of this year that they were planning to shut down PlayStation Store services for the PS3 and Vita, there's been huge backlash from many different authorities on the web. Taking a look at this whole issue at face value, turning off the PlayStation Store would prevent players from purchasing new games or PlayStation Classics titles online (though previous purchases on a PSN account would still be accessible via the Download List on each console).

This isn't particularly bad, and from Sony's perspective, maintaining legacy PS Store infrastructure costs a lot, and the service is likely being woefully underutilized by a huge majority of players.

In 2021, there's not much point in using the PlayStation Store on these older consoles - especially as physical game collections continue to grow, thanks to the proliferation of second hand consoles and games as newer platforms come out. You can still buy LittleBigPlanet 2 and other PlayStation titles from Amazon for cheap if you search through the used product listings.

A list of used copies of LittleBigPlanet 2 on Amazon. The lowest price listed is $3.67.
Games that sold for $60 years ago are now worth less than $5 USD.

With that said, Sony has decided to reverse their position and will continue to maintain the PlayStation Store on these older platforms until further notice. Crisis averted, right?

Not exactly.

Shutting down the PlayStation Store on these older consoles wouldn't have much of an impact on most players. Games would still have the ability to receive full updates over the Internet, and other online features like friends and trophies would continue to work as normal.

The problem here is the infrastructure that keeps these services running - PlayStation Network. If Sony is comfortable discontinuing the PlayStation Store for these legacy consoles, then it's obvious they don't intend to invest in their older platforms forever. Online services cost money, and if they're not helping the manufacturer turn a profit (usually in console or game sales), then there's not much reason to keep dumping money into maintaining these servers.

Keeping Time: PlayStation CMOS Battery

And this is where the much more serious issues arise - and the root cause of the entire 'Time Bomb' issue. Most consoles, and even computers for that matter, have small coin-shaped batteries built-in, designed to power the clock inside the device.

A CR 2032 watch battery on a circuit board.
A picture I took of the CR2032 CMOS battery inside my PlayStation 3!

These batteries (usually known as CMOS batteries) help the device keep accurate time and store other volatile firmware data, even if the device isn't plugged into wall power. Unfortunately, while batteries are a technology that have been perfected for decades, they still have one fatal flaw;

They die.

Usually, this isn't a huge issue - and in most devices, the batteries are actually pretty easy to replace. If you have a dead CMOS battery, all you have to do is replace it, turn on the device, and connect to the internet so you can get the most accurate time possible. Specifically, on a PS3 or PS4, you just need to sign into PlayStation Network so the system can verify the current time from Sony's servers.

A screenshot from a PS3 asking the user to set the time and date.
You'll see this screen when your CMOS battery dies.

The Fatal Flaw: Clock Sync and PSN


What if PlayStation Network doesn't exist for the PS3 or PS4?

This is a very real possibility and may happen sooner than you'd expect. As users of legacy platforms, it's important to consider the consequences of these real scenarios. At this point, it's a matter of when - not if - Sony takes these actions.

If you're on a PlayStation 3 system - and Sony decides to one day discontinue online services for that console - you'll be fine for a while. Your console will work as normal, aside from obviously not being able to access PlayStation Network.

As soon as the CMOS battery dies, however, you'll run into a big issue. If your PS3 can't verify its time with PSN, you won't be able to play any digitally downloaded games from PSN. If you don't have a physical copy, the game will not run.

If you're on a PlayStation 4, and Sony shuts down online services (which likely won't happen for several years, especially with the amount of work that Sony has put into PS4 game backward-compatibility on the PS5), you won't be able to do... anything.

Imagine one day your CMOS battery dies on PlayStation 4. You have digital and physical copies of LittleBigPlanet 3. You try to start up your digital copy of the game, but it gives you an error message. You insert the disc instead. It's a physical disc, it should work, right? To your surprise, and perhaps horror, the same error appears.

Both disc-based and digital games will stop working completely on PlayStation 4. Without the ability to play any games, your console will pretty much become a brick... at least, that would have been the case if Sony hadn't silently fixed the timebomb issue on PS4 systems with a firmware update.