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Microsoft’s ‘red rings of death’ to be ‘very unlikely’ with the Xbox One

We can all breathe a sign of relief. Microsoft’s Xbox One is very unlikely to encounter the same overheating problems that led to the “red rings of death” problem with the last generation Xbox 360 video game console.

Marc WhittenThe machine isn’t shipping until November or so, but Microsoft’s Xbox chief product officer Marc Whitten (pictured right) disclosed additional details that should give consumers more confidence that Microsoft will ship its new game console in sufficient quantities this fall and at a much higher quality level than in the past. The company predicts the Xbox One is less likely to have overheating problems, nicknamed the “red rings of death” in the last generation because it prompted three flashing lights on the console. And that also means Microsoft is less likely to have a major recall and less likely to repeat the mistakes that led to a $1.15 billlion write-off in 2008.

The importance of having better product quality this time around cannot be understated. Microsoft lost a lot of customers in the last generation because it was perceived by gamers as not caring about the quality problems. Even after heating issues were discovered, Microsoft denied the problems for months and then finally acknowledged that it needed to replace failed Xbox 360 consoles at no charge. The failure rates turned out to be huge, based on surveys of gamers, and the problem was perhaps the worst defect problem in the history of consumer electronics. We know that because we ran a 10,000 word investigation of the problem in 2008.

“The red rings of death are considerably less likely,” said Kevin Krewell, a chip analyst at the Microprocessor Report, published by the Linley Group. “The last chip was hot. It had power cycling problems and a specific issue with packaging. You can expect that in this case, that is not going to happen.”

In an interview, Microsoft’s Larry Hyrb, a spokesman known as Major Nelson, said that the company has moved from its theoretical expectations for how the console will perform to having hardware in its hands. That’s why Microsoft is upgrading the performance rating of the combo chip — which puts a processor and graphics in a single chip — to 853 megahertz, up from the expected 800 megahertz.

Microsoft now has a good idea of how the chips coming back from the manufacturer are performing, and so it can make more precise assessments. The engineers know “what the yield is going to look like, the thermal envelope” and whether or not early estimates were conservative or aggressive. The driver for the Xbox One has been rewritten, stripping it of PC-only features so that it is optimized for the Xbox One.

Krewell said that Microsoft “pushed hard last time” to get the machine’s performance higher and get it out the door. In August 2005, Microsoft was beginning production on its machines. But we verified with an engineer at the time that the yield on the boxes coming out of the factory was only 32 percent. That meant that only 32 of 100 machines came out of the factory in a functioning state.

At least one engineer asked Microsoft to shut down the line and delay the launch. Upper management decided not to do so, since it was strategically important to beat rivals to the market and to launch in time for the holiday season. Back then, Microsoft was using an unproven chip architecture based on designs created by IBM. The result was the red rings problem. This time, the Xbox One is using chips from Advanced Micro Devices that use components from proven PC chips. The tools for testing, the factory process for making the chip, and the understanding of how to make a better product  are known.

In August 2013, the signs are all much better. If Microsoft is increasing the megahertz rating of its chip now, then that means that the “yield is better than anticipated,” Krewell said.

Whitten said that the final development kits are in the hands of game developers, who can use them to make games that will run at the speed of the final machine. That should result in games that function properly and have fewer bugs at the outset.

This news also means that Microsoft will likely be able to product many more working machines than it did for the initial season of sales for the Xbox 360. But Krewell said the actual number of units will depend on how much manufacturing capacity Microsoft reserved ahead of time with its vendors.

“The AMD APU that will be in the Xbox One (and PS4) has been designed to run cool, and operate in constrained packages like a tablet (without a fan). In an open, and probably fan driven box such as a console, the probability of a failure due to excessive heat is quite low,” said Jon Peddie, analyst at Jon Peddie Research. “Having said that, it is also possible that some clever gamers will figure out how to overclock the APU, drive the heat up, and marginalize the chip/box. Of course MS would not honor the warranty of a compromised box so it would be at your own risk to try it. Nonetheless, some will.”


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