Random Thoughts

HAL Visits my 360

May 6th, 2007

HAL 9000Since the introduction of the Xbox 360, the Internet has been awash with discussion around the failure rate of the latest Microsoft console.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m platform agnostic, owning all three of the major consoles (360, PS3 and Wii), and enjoying the various benefits of each.

Unfortunately, about a month ago my 360 started acting up. It started innocuously enough, with the occasional lock up. It started getting worse, with it locking up more frequently and then sometimes freezing on startup (while displaying the boot animation), and finally ended with the dreaded “red ring of death” showing a hardware failure (three blinking red lights, with the top right quadrant not lit).

Now, having read enough about other people’s issues with the 360s, I knew the failure rate on this machine was pretty high. It was certainly Red Ring of Deathsignificantly higher than the 3 – 5% failure rate Microsoft was claiming, although probably not as high as the 30 – 50% that some Electronic Arts’ sources were claiming (or else the failures would be all over the news by now, and the articles would be describing class action lawsuits).

First generations of consoles inevitably experience some growing pains. The Playstation 2 was notorious for having its laser go out of alignment (the first laser mechanism which could read CDs and DVDs without two separate pickups), and the original Playstation suffered from a relatively high failure rate. Even Nintendo’s Wii suffered from a short bout of bad publicity related to broken wrist strats at launch. Still, I’ve never seen anything as bad as the 360 situation.

Thankfully, Microsoft has taken a few (baby) steps in the right direction. Extending the warranty from 90 days to a year (and doing it retroactively) is certainly a step in the right direction, and reverting to their policy of providing shipping containers and shipping for systems being repaired is also a good thing.

Having said that, there is the core issue of the 360 failure rate itself. This machine has obviously not been tested thoroughly enough, and after 18 months in release, the failure rate does not appear to be improving. These issues should have been identified and corrected quickly, but even the Xbox 360 Elite appears to suffer from these problems due to it being built around the same core architecture, with no significant changes in how it is manufactured. One thing they’ve changed is that the GPU and CPU are now held down with epoxy, but what kind of solution is that, really, on a piece of high tech electronics?

The extension of the warranty and increased customer service support from Microsoft feel like reactionary measures designed to head off class-action lawsuits.

Red Ring of DeathCertainly once the 65nm GPU and CPU are available for the 360, the failure rate will improve, if only because the box will run cooler and the lower temperatures will probably help reduce the failure rate, but what about the millions of people out there using a machine which is a ticking time bomb, waiting for failure day?

The day after my Xbox finally died, I received word that another person I know had their Xbox die at the same time. When the Purolator Courier driver dropped off the empty shipping container for me to return my Xbox, he said to me (unsolicited), “so, you have a 360, eh?”

I told him that I did, indeed, have an Xbox 360, and that it was broken. He told me that he rarely has a day when he doesn’t have at least five of those Xbox cartons on his truck (and it was a concern to him as an Xbox 360 owner, as well). This is one driver in a city of a million people.

There’s no easy way out of this situation for Microsoft. A recall on the Xboxes that have been shipped is a massive expenditure, and would cause them to lose even more money on each XBox. Still, huge numbers of failing Xboxes is a huge PR nightmare considering that Microsoft is still trying to build the Xbox brand. If “Xbox 360” becomes synonymous with “hardware failure”, how does that help Microsoft to build their gaming brand?

Ironically, the word about failing 360s is spreading so quickly in part because Microsoft has done such a good job of building an online community. People chatting in games are talking about the failure of their Xboxes, and their experiences with Microsoft’s repair depots.

So, what’s the answer for Microsoft?

There’s really only one solid answer. Once Microsoft has the engineering issues with the 360 worked out, they’ll likely need to do a massive recall. They’ll need to either repair or replace the units, depending on the nature of the specific design issues. If the issue truly is that the board is warping because of poor mounting, causing the GPU and/or CPU to separate from the board, then the epoxy solution may work – as clumsy as it is – to repair the units in place. They should fix the manufacturing process ASAP, though, because every unit they send out which isn’t fixed is another potential return down the road.

The reality is that by ignoring the issue and pretending that the 360 failure rate is within consumer electronics norms, Microsoft is simply delaying the inevitable. In the early days of the flaming Dell laptop batteries, Dell and Sony denied there was a problem. How many videos of exploding laptops had to show up on the Internet before they decided to take action?

Certainly the 360 isn’t as visually spectacular as a flaming laptop, but based on what I’m seeing so far, they’ll more than make up for the lack of fireworks with the shear quantity of failed units.

The next move is yours, Microsoft, what are you going to do?

A quick update. I originally wrote this post prior to receiving the shipping carton from Microsoft. I have since shipped my XBox 360 to them and received a refurbished replacement unit in return. The replacement unit is signficantly older than the original unit I sent them, and now I have the issue of not being able to play XBox Live Arcade Titles on it unless I’m connected to XBox Live (since the games weren’t purchased on this console).

This replacement unit has also already locked up on me once, so I’m not holding my breath on this being a “permanent” replacement. Maybe it’ll last long enough that the next time it fails it can be replaced with a 65nm model.

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