Op-Ed

Op-Ed
Red Ring of Death

Russ Pitts | 21 May 2007 17:00
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Redmond, we have a problem.

Not long after the Xbox 360 launched in November of 2005, early adopters began to suspect that the machine was more than a little unreliable. DVD drives failed in some cases, hard drives in others, but the most common occurrence of failure seemed to be an overheating issue, often related to one or more games.

The following year, after a round of denials from Microsoft, the truth came out: The company had cut a number of corners in the manufacturing process, in order to rush more units off the assembly lines and, one assumes, to save a little money.

This was not unexpected, nor was it unprecedented. First-run game consoles are often unreliable. Game devices push the hardware envelope so regularly that the manufacturing processes (and even the components themselves) strain to keep up. Subsequent models of the same hardware, therefore, are often far more reliable - and better.

For the 360, Microsoft extended their manufacturer's warranty from 90 days to one year, and offered to repair consoles built in 2005 for free, suggesting they'd fixed whatever problem plagued their flagship gaming product, and that we could all breathe easy, assured our 360s would not spontaneously combust without warning (or abuse). Until recently, that is.

In spite of this conventional wisdom, and contrary to any reasonable expectation, Microsoft's problems seem to be getting worse as the 360 product line matures. Internet forums are clogged with tales of second and third replacement machine malfunctions and the "red ring of death" (describing the 360's unique error code display) has entered the gaming lexicon, harkening back to Microsoft's trademark failure screen for the Windows operating system.

Microsoft's Peter Moore, head cheerleader for the Xbox brand, waffled on the issue in an interview with The San Jose Mercury News, claiming that, although he was aware of the problem, he couldn't point to any specific numbers, claiming the failure rate of the device was a "moving target."

"Failure rates are only a moving target if they're not under control," says analyst and blogger Bill Harris. "Moore emphasizing post-failure response is a pretty dramatic concession that Microsoft has a significant problem."

Just what they intend to do about it remains unclear, but what the users are doing about it ranges from calling and complaining to taking matters into their own hands. I recently spoke to one user who's taken the latter approach, with ambiguous results.

"The Xbox 360 that I knew, and who was my friend, died on May 9, 2007," says Stephen Failey, who, after a quick search on the internet and a long search of his soul decided to try "The Towel Trick."

"I had [resigned] myself to just box him up in his tiny UPS coffin and send him on his way back to Microsoft," says Failey. "Like when they shot Spock into the Genesis planet. It took two days for my selfish greed to get the better of me."

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"From what I understand of the towel trick," he explains, "is that when they were making the motherboards for the 360, some of the solder points weren't done correctly, and sometimes they only make a very weak connection or not a connection at all. What the towel trick does is prevent a lot of the heat produced by the system from escaping out of the rear vents. If you build up enough heat inside the box, you are actually performing a half-assed re-solder of those cold solder points, expanding the metal with the heat to make a stronger connection."

Oddly, it seemed to work. After about 20 minutes, Stephen's Xbox sprang back to life, the red ring replaced with the healthy green glow of a normally-operating Xbox 360. His wife suggested it was somehow unnatural.

"[She] insisted that we had just brought a zombie, albeit a tiny plastic zombie, into this world, but even she couldn't hide her excitement at having the little guy back," says Failey, who's taken to calling his 360 "The Zombox."

But the towel trick isn't a permanent fix. Failey's Zombox failed again after seven days of normal use, and subsequent attempts to resurrect it via terrycloth and happy thoughts have produced less desirable results.

"Each time Zombox survives for less and less time," he says. "I've decided to try a system of keeping the towel on the 360 continuously while playing, lifting every 10 or 15 minutes. ... For now, I'll just continue to play the part of Fonzie hitting the jukebox."

Failey eventually broke down and purchased a new Xbox 360, having no proof of purchase for The Zombox and not wanting to spend the money to repair it. He's hoping the new batch of 360s are more reliable, and he's not alone. Microsoft now offers extended warranties on the machine, as do many retailers who sell them, and the fear of failure may be convincing some would-be 360 owners to take a pass - for now.

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Still, in spite of some claims of a 30-50 percent failure rate (Microsoft had previously insisted it hovered around 3 percent), for some people, the Xbox 360 has become indispensable. "We watch all our DVDs on the 360," says Stephen Failey, "and we are regular users of the Video Marketplace and have watched, just a rough estimate, more than four seasons of television on the 360 through the various downloadable shows. My wife also listens to her MP3s through the TV when she's baking."

If you do get stuck with a potentially dead Xbox 360, your first step should be to call your retailer. If your machine is still under warranty, they're your best bet for getting a replacement fast. If you're out of luck there, give Microsoft a call at 1-800-4MY-XBOX (1-800-469-9269). If, like some users, you find yourself on your second or third replacement 360 and still can't get one that works, the consumerist suggests checking your state's lemon law statues. And if none of these remedies work in your favor, it may be worth keeping tabs on the latest class action lawsuit.

As for the Zombox? "We still have him," says Failey, "but aren't going to be using him anymore."

Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. His currently unnamed, yet critically unrecognized column appears every Monday at The Escapist Daily. He also blogs at www.falsegravity.com.

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