The red scare

A story talking about the Red Ring of Death, which occurs in the XBox console.

What's behind the XBox's Red Ring of Death?

Many gamers have been reporting that Microsoft's Xbox 360 videogame console has serious malfunctions. ((Fred Prouser/Reuters))

A few weeks ago, the unthinkable happened. I plopped down on the couch ready to enjoy a session of the latest Star Wars game, The Force Unleashed, only to be greeted by one of the most horrific sights a gamer can experience: the so-called Red Ring of Death.

For the uninitiated, when things are good, the circle of lights around the Xbox 360’s power button is green. When things are bad – so very bad – the ring is red, indicating a serious malfunction. For gamers, it is perhaps the worst possible fate because, as the name implies, it means the death of their console. No more games, no more fun.

Like so many physical ailments and diseases, the Red Ring is something you hear about but don’t pay much attention to — until it happens to you. Such was my attitude. I read the stories, even heard them from friends, but quietly laughed on the inside: "Ha! That can’t possibly happen to me." How foolish I was.

As it turns out, the Xbox’s Red Ring is disturbingly common. Various news sources have reported Xbox 360 failure rates ranging from 15 per cent to 30 per cent, well above consumer electronics standards, which are in the range of three to five per cent.

One of my friends is on his third Xbox, while stories of gamers on their sixth or seventh are easily found on the internet. In July 2007, Microsoft acknowledged the dramatically high failure rate and extended the warranties on all Xbox 360 consoles to three years from one. The company also announced it was taking a $1-billion US hit to cover the cost of expected returns and it was making design changes to its console.

The failures stem from a number of problems. Various studies have pointed to system design, parts supply, material reliability and manufacturing issues, all followed by improper testing. The bottom line seems to indicate that the console, released a year ahead of Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Nintendo’s Wii, was rushed out the door in an effort to beat rivals to the market.

The Xbox 360's so-called "red ring of death." ((Lucas Jackson/Reuters) )

When the Red Ring hits, 360 owners are generally left with one of three options: ship the console off to Microsoft for repairs if its warranty is still valid; pay for it to get fixed if the warranty is up; or buy a new one. The second option often translates into the third, since the cost of repairing an out-of-warranty machine — complete with shipping — usually ends up being more than a new console. That leaves the first option, a process that generally takes about six weeks. To many gamers, that’s an eternity.

There is a fourth option: the towel trick. As many videos on YouTube show, there is a simple home remedy to the Red Ring. Simply wrap your Xbox in a couple of towels and leave it running for 20 minutes. Remove the towels, turn the console off for a few minutes and then power it back up. Voila! Against all laws of science, it magically works again — at least temporarily.

It shouldn’t, given that overheating is one of the oft-cited causes for the Red Ring, and that the towels only trap the heat the console gives off, increasing its temperature. The Red Ring is almost certain to recur after a while, but the towel trick might enable gamers to squeeze another week or two out of their console. I managed to pull off the towel trick three times before deciding to ship my Xbox off for repairs.

Microsoft says malfunctions have declined over the past year, but the company won’t release numbers to back up its claim. The subject is yesterday’s news, according to its public relations people. "This topic has already been covered extensively in the media," David Dennis, a PR manager for the company’s interactive entertainment unit, told me. "Xbox 360 owners love their consoles and continue to play more often, and buy more games than for any other current-generation console, and customer satisfaction remains strong."

Maybe, maybe not. When I brought my console, packed in a non-descript white shipping box, to a Purolator Courier office, the woman behind the desk said, "Xbox, huh?" How did she know? "We get a lot of those," she replied. It sure sounds like the Red Ring continues to plague Xbox owners. I wonder how many gamers will rush out to buy Microsoft’s next-generation console, whenever it is released, or whether they’ll opt to go with Sony instead.

Visitors try out the Xbox 360 at the Tokyo Game Show 2008. ((Yuriko Nakao/Reuters) )

Not that Sony is a saint. While the company has avoided widespread hardware problems, Sony ticked gamers off in 2006 when it insisted on adding a Blu-ray DVD player to every PS3, driving the launch price of the console sky-high. At $549, the basic PS3 cost $150 more than its Xbox 360 counterpart and significantly more than many gamers were prepared to pay.

The decision to incorporate Blu-ray was entirely driven by Sony’s desire to beat out Toshiba’s HD-DVD in the next-generation DVD war, a strategy that PlayStation fans were forced to pay for. Microsoft, which backed Toshiba, wisely kept its console price lower by offering an HD-DVD drive as an optional add-on. Blu-ray ended up winning out and PS3 consoles, now priced more reasonably, are a good deal.

In the end, though, Microsoft is selling less-than-reliable consoles and Sony is foisting supplemental products on gamers that they may not want. Is it any wonder Nintendo has sold so many Wiis?

Peter Nowak writes about technology for CBCNews.ca.