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  (Source: Kristopher Kubicki)
Dean Takahashi delves in to the causes of the Red Ring of Death

In a meticulously researched 11,000 word article, Dean Takahashi of Venture Beat has written about the chronological series of events that led to the hardware failures faced by the Xbox 360. Often called the “Red Ring of Death”, it is a condition that describes when three flashing red lights light up the front of an Xbox 360 indicating hardware failure.

The article describes how the business need to be first to market influenced all decisions resulting in compromised hardware quality. Early warnings were ignored as Microsoft was determined to launch their console first. According to Takahashi, Microsoft’s engineers started working on the Xbox 360 at least a year after Sony’s engineers began work on the PlayStation 3, yet Microsoft wound up shipping a year ahead of Sony. Although we were repeatedly assured all was fine it was thanks to gamers and the media Microsoft was dragged kicking and screaming in to admitting there was a problem.

Takahashi reports in August 2005 during the early stages of the Xbox 360’s development warnings were already being raised but were ignored. An engineer raised his hand and said, “Stop. You have to shut down the line.” This wasn’t just a brief moment. The engineer spoke up repeatedly. According to the article that engineer, who remains anonymous, had deep experience in manufacturing. When production results were really off kilter, stopping a line and tracing a problem back to its roots was the answer. Managers and executives, higher-ranking engineers ignored the warnings and decided to go forward. At the time, 68 out of every 100 Xbox 360s made were not working. Worse still, when the first batch of the system's three-core CPUs rolled off the line, only 16 percent worked.

Microsoft mandated the Xbox 360 had to be smaller, if only to fit in the smaller homes in Japan, a key target market. There was a constant tug of war between the industrial designers, who wanted something small and the engineers, who wanted to pack a lot of performance into the Xbox 360. The more powerful the system was, the bigger the box had to be to provide air flow for heat-sensitive components. Incremental changes to a finalized design appear to have caused many problems. According to the article, Microsoft decided late to add a hard disk drive. They also came up late with a plan to add wireless controllers. Many of these decisions resulted in reduced airflow causing the overheating that caused so many Xbox 360s to fail.

On November 22, 2005 the Xbox 360 launched and the consoles began to fail immediately. In July of 2007, Microsoft publicly admitted there was a problem and took a corresponding financial hit of more than $1 billion to fix it. Prior to that acknowledgement, Takahashi reports that Microsoft had taken returns on 1.2 million of the roughly 11.6 million shipped Xbox 360s.

According to Takahashi, there was no single reason for the failures. Many of the problems could be blamed on the ATI graphics chip, which could overheat so much it warped the motherboard. This put stress on bad solder joints, causing them to fail early in the machine’s life. Sometimes the heat sinks on top of the GPU were put on the wrong way, resulting in heat problems. Finally, games would sometimes crash because of sub-par memory.

The implications of the “Red Ring of Death” issue are being felt to this day. In Takahashi’s own words:

The Xbox 360’s defect problem will go down as one of the worst snafus in consumer electronics history.

Microsoft argues being first to market was worth the compromises. Microsoft’s top game executive, Robbie Bach, president of the Entertainment & Devices group, said at a dinner in July that Microsoft’s own research shows that gamers have largely forgiven the company for defective Xbox 360s. Bach also said in July 2008, “It has given us a leg up in a number of places that are super important. It has given us a leg up with game developers. It has given us a leg up from an economics perspective. It helped us expand Xbox Live quickly.”

What Microsoft sacrificed was the good will of consumers, who are critical for establishing a lasting platform. It remains to be seen whether the benefits of launching the Xbox 360 first will exceed the consequences of releasing a faulty product.

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RE: majority of consumers forgive them?
By Staples on 9/8/2008 12:36:06 PM , Rating: -1
Me too. The article says that research shows that most gamers have fogiven MS by now. I have not. I had to buy another one for $350 because my launch one broke.

I love how ever article I read portrays this warranty they have as something great but guess what? If you console broke in the first 14 months, you had no warranty and you either had to pay to get it fixed (and you probably would get a broken one back like most of the refurbs) or you had to buy a new one as I did. MS supposedly refunded people who paid to get their boxes fixed but I would like a trade in program, I send in my old broken box and they send me $350. Buying their first revision cost me several hundred dollars and I am not likely to do it again. Both the launch Wiis and the PS3s have shown to be very reliable.

RE: majority of consumers forgive them?
By tential on 9/8/2008 12:50:57 PM , Rating: 2
I forgave them. My family lives in Nigeria so my dad buys consoles and then when he flies over there (he does a lot of business there as well) he brings a console too. Out of the 5 consoles we bought ONE has broke so far. One word to describe Nigeria of course is HOT. Surprisingly the one that broke was in my basement the coolest place in my house. Still it was easy to replace it and I got through the whole process pretty fast. Will I rush out to buy the next box? Yes I'll be first in line to ebay them and wait to here how reliable they are before I open the box.

I think the big problem though is that companies now figure they can release sub par products and update them over time. I think it's unfair to have to "clear the cache" on an xbox 360 and other types of maintenance. The iphone 3g as well with his poor quality worries me. Then you have nvidia with their gfx cards. It no longer matters to companies it seems to me to release products that work as long as they will work eventually. I have to update the firmware on my TV now and soon I'll have to do it for a microwave I bet. The future troubles me.

By Alexvrb on 9/8/2008 11:36:46 PM , Rating: 2
I've never had to clear the cache. I suspect most people won't. Its not really regular maintenence for the typical user. Besides, as a troubleshooting step its better than what Sony tech support has told people to do (GTA IV comes to mind). "Clear the cache" is way better than "format your hard drive".

RE: majority of consumers forgive them?
By sweetsauce on 9/8/08, Rating: -1
RE: majority of consumers forgive them?
By zerocool84 on 9/8/2008 6:21:04 PM , Rating: 2
So it's ok that it took them almost 2 years to correct the mistake? That's ridiculous IMO but hell people still bought the console. The public showed that you can release buggy hardware and people will still buy it. Hell look at the iphone. That sucks for the future.

By robinthakur on 9/9/2008 5:51:38 AM , Rating: 1
Believe me, I'd take my iPhone 3G at launch (which worked fine) rather than my Ex Box 360 which imploded before the "extended warranty" came into effect. I didn't replace it then and I won't be buying another one when the successor is launched. They compensated with the warranty because they HAD to, not out of the generosity of their little hearts. The situation online was making them look bad and lose sales. The best way to voice your protest at MS's less than stellar quality control is simply to not buy it. Such a cynical company, judging from this and other articles, does not deserve your support.

By wempa on 9/9/2008 12:26:52 PM , Rating: 2
He was NOT stupid. The original warranty was only 90 days. It wasn't even extended to 1 year until after the consoles had been out for a while. They did not "go out of their" way to fix the screw up. They denied the failure rate was so high for 2 years before the evidence was overwhelmingly against them. Only when they were back against a wall did they finally admit the flaw and extended the warranty. Comparing your PS2 failure to this one is asinine. No previous console has had such a horrible failure rate. Your PS2 was obviously in the small percentage of failures that is expected with any electronics device.

"We can't expect users to use common sense. That would eliminate the need for all sorts of legislation, committees, oversight and lawyers." -- Christopher Jennings

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