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Red Ring of Failure

Is your Xbox 360 still working? You must be one of the lucky ones.

By Mike Smith

Over 18 million Xbox 360s have sold through since the console’s launch in November 2005, but just how many of those are still working? Squaretrade, a company that specializes in providing warranty support to purchasers of electronic goods from various manufacturers, claims 16% of Xbox 360s experience a hardware failure within six to ten months after a warranty purchase. Three out of every five failures were for the infamous “Red Ring of Death” general hardware failure error, a problem often linked to overheating.

The Xbox’s figures compare poorly to competing consoles, which have a failure rate of around 3% — and if anything, the Squaretrade figure underestimates the scale of the Xbox 360′s reliability issues. It’s a good bet that some buyers of Squaretrade warranties went straight to Microsoft after experiencing hardware issues and don’t factor into the 16% number. On its company blog, Squaretrade pointed out that failure rates are “certain to go up” as the machines in their study group grow older.

Microsoft is cagey about coughing up official failure rate figures, which has lead some commentators to speculate about the actual severity of the problem. Luke Plunkett, a blogger on respected games news site Kotaku, said in a recent post that if the real failure rate wasn’t in the 30-40% range, he’d “wolf down humble pie until his sides split.”

Plunkett’s sides are likely safe. Stories of 360 owners making their way through eight or nine consoles aren’t hard to find, but to its credit, Microsoft has been working with the affected individual in at least one of those cases to lessen the impact of the constant failures.

16 Percent of Xbox 360s Are Likely to Break, Report Claims

Even so, there’s a surprise lurking for consumers who return their 360s for repair. When you purchase content — arcade games, extra tracks, etc. — over Xbox Live, it’s playable by any user on the console you used to make the transaction. If you go to a different console and sign in with your gamertag, you can download the content and play it only for as long as you’re signed in. Once you move back to your main machine, it will no longer be playable. Sounds like a handy system to let you take the content you own from place to place, right?

But the trick with this system is that once a broken machine returns from its little vacation, it generally has sufficient internal changes to make it look, to Xbox Live, like a different console. So all your downloaded content — which, if you’re a heavy user, could amount to hundreds of dollars worth of purchases — are only accessible to one gamertag, and only when the console has a live internet connection.

Getting this situation resolved can be difficult. Affected users have reported having to make repeated calls to the Xbox support line, often to no avail. Some fortunate individuals were able to eventually convince the MS reps to refund all the points they’d spent so they could repurchase all the affected content, although they had to do it using a different gamertag.

How to Avoid Hardware Problems

  • Air it out. Many failures are attributed to the inadequate cooling system of early-model 360s, so anything you can do to give it an easier time will pay off. Make sure you put the console in a place with cool, steady airflow.
  • Move it and lose it. Don’t change the orientation of the console when it’s running. The DVD drive’s running gear isn’t as well secured as it could be, so knocking over a vertically-standing console can cause the machinery to collide with the disc surface. Characteristic circular scratches are the result and are generally fatal for the game.
  • Think new. Thanks to a well-publicized cooling system redesign, newer machines are less likely to suffer problems. Any console bought in the last six months or so should have much better chances of surviving.

Red Ring of Death: What to do

Is it a “real” red ring of death? Somewhat confusingly, the true red ring error only has three of the four quarters of the ring illuminated. If all four are lit up, you have a much simpler problem: your A/V cable is loose!

Enterprising 360 owners have discovered a homebrewed way to fix the problem, although it only works for a short period of time. It involves turning on your console, wrapping it tightly in a towel, and leaving it on for 20-25 minutes. This might void your warranty from Microsoft, so consider yourself warned.

If all else fails, hit up the Xbox web site to request a warranty repair. They’ll send you a cardboard “coffin” for you to return your console and send back a fixed machine in a few weeks. The official warranty was extended to three years for this specific problem, so even launch-day 360s are technically still covered.

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