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Seeing Red: A History of the Xbox 360's Red Ring of Death

by Ozzie Mejia, May 20, 2013 1:00pm PDT

Microsoft will announce their next Xbox console tomorrow and Shacknews will have live updates. All day today, we'll take a look back at the Xbox 360 and discuss what the future holds.


Microsoft is on the verge of unveiling its entry into gaming's next generation and fans are starting to compile memories of the Xbox 360's eight years on the market. Not all of those memories, however, are positive. In fact, some Xbox 360 owners will come away from this generation with one lasting image from the last eight years--the infamous Red Ring of Death.

In 2008, Venture Beat released a damning expose on everything wrong with the original Xbox 360 models. Consoles were showing a staggering 68 percent defect rate, resulting from overheated graphics chips, cracked heat sinks, underperforming graphic memory chips, and other issues. IBM and ATI struggled to meet Microsoft's stringent deadlines and had created defective hardware that would wind up becoming a key part of the original 360's architecture. Microsoft could have postponed their 2005 launch until the defects were fixed. Instead, they opted to rush the Xbox 360 to market, choosing to fix "latent" defects as they arose.

The harbinger of those latent defects was three red rings that would blink repeatedly along the Xbox 360's power button. It meant the console was no longer playable, essentially turning it into a giant brick. It's a problem that stemmed mainly from faulty manufacturing. The original Xbox 360 was designed in such a way that it was prone to overheating. Weak fan placement and a gargantuan 203-watt power brick often led to a fried motherboard. Worse yet, obstructions like dust and pet hair could cause a blockage of airflow, making the fans entirely useless. In addition to that, other faulty parts, such as bad solder joints and misapplied heat sinks, would lead to GPU or CPU failure, also resulting in the dreaded Red Ring of Death.

The Xbox 360 came with a 2-year manufacturer warranty, but there were dozens of instances in which the console died after the warranty's expiration date. Customers were outraged. One of them was Chatty's Thornfist, who notes two separate instances where his Xbox 360 red ringed. The first case happened just after the 2-year warranty lapsed, though he was able to get a replacement after a bout with Microsoft customer service. His second console didn't last much longer, having bricked after the same amount of time. (EDIT: Thornfist has since indicated that both of his consoles were replaced at his own expense and not replaced by Microsoft.) Others like Chatty users mancide, Degenerate, and ThomW were able to get their bricked consoles replaced in a timely manner, but with multiple cases like theirs popping up each day, Microsoft's customer service department was quickly getting stretched thin and a PR disaster was on the horizon.

The Red Ring of Death became so widespread that it spawned memes and became the punchline of many jokes. It was a disaster for Microsoft, one that extended beyond the PR realm. Ill-functioning hardware led to losses of well over $1 billion in 2007, stemming from repairs, replacements, labor, and class action lawsuits. After issuing multiple public apologies, Microsoft worked to actively eradicate this problem in 2008 by shipping thousands of new hardware units, codenamed Jasper, to retailers around the world. Jasper units shrunk the Xbox 360's GPU to 65nm, reducing the internal heat and consumption that most often led to the Red Ring failure.

The number of Red Ring cases reduced significantly following the Jasper set's release, but a new problem was suddenly on the rise. Error E74, in which consoles would crash and show a multi-language error message, started popping up on the new Jasper units. Several outlets reached out to Microsoft for answers regarding this new problem, to which Microsoft responded that it was the result of a "general hardware failure." Once again, Microsoft's customer service was called into action and warranties had to be extended. Another solution was required and Microsoft, once again, had to delve into a new hardware model.

The E74 error was followed up by the E68 error.

In 2010, Microsoft unveiled Kinect, but also revealed a whole new Xbox 360 model, colloquially known as the 360 Slim. Coming in a sleek black design, the new Kinect-ready Xbox 360 came sporting 45nm chips and a 135 watt power brick, a vast improvement from the 175 watts the Jasper required and the 203 watt monstrosity that came packaged with the original. The new hardware also allowed for the optical DVD drive to run far quieter than its predecessors, thanks to a new fan design. The "general hardware failure" conundrum that led to E74 also appeared to be solved.

Unfortunately, there was yet another problem that Xbox 360 owners ran into with the new Slim models. Error E68 resulted from a faulty hard drive connection, requiring console owners to open up their Slim console (which operates on an internal hard drive, rather than an external one) and attempt to rewire their hard drives. Compared to the problems the Slim's predecessors faced, however, e68 was more of an annoyance than anything else.

This leads to the question of whether Microsoft has learned anything from the Red Ring fiasco. On the surface, it appears that they have. The next Xbox is said to use x86 architecture, as opposed to the specs of the original Xbox 360. However, the RRoD problem originated from Microsoft rushing its hardware out to market and one has to wonder whether the new console is truly ready to release. It's fair to assume that Microsoft's hand may have been forced following Sony's PlayStation 4 announcement. After all, it was just two years ago that Xbox VP Chris Lewis said that the Xbox 360 was "about halfway through" the console's life cycle.

With their competition preparing to launch later this year, Microsoft needs to avoid expediting their manufacturing process just to keep up, so history does not repeat itself. Microsoft is a different company than it was when the Xbox 360 launched, so the odds are in its favor that it learned from its mistakes. Its target audience may have forgiven, but they have not forgotten, so a clean launch is imperative for the company’s console reputation.




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