Image: Red Ring of Death
Seth Rubenstein
Since its release in November 2005, the Xbox 360 has been plagued with general hardware failures, otherwise known as the "Red Ring of Death." Some users have received not one, but several of these failures.
By Games editor
msnbc.com
updated 12/17/2008 9:31:18 PM ET 2008-12-18T02:31:18

Travis Williams drove around Louisville, Ky. for a week with a busted Xbox 360 in his trunk. It was his third console stricken by the dreaded “Red Ring of Death” — known as “general hardware failure” in the halls of Microsoft.

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If you look online, you’ll find lots of people like Travis. Really angry people. Every game enthusiast site has multiple forums dedicated to the Red Ring problem – home remedies on how to solve it, condolences for people who’ve just experienced it, and gamers claiming to be on their fourth, sixth or ninth Xbox 360.

It’s been almost a year and a half since Microsoft issued a big “I’m sorry” to consumers, extending the warranty on their Xbox 360s to three years and taking a $1 billion charge against earnings to pay for repairs and beefed-up customer service.  But still, the Red Ring of Death dogs the company.

Getting Red Ringed is almost a badge of honor now, like a crushing hangover after an epic night out. Everyone I know — myself included — has gotten at least one. But after three Xboxes in two years, Williams was sick of the tell-tale red lights on the front of his console — and the refurbished consoles Microsoft sent him as replacements.

“If I had any other type of appliance that went out this quick and this often, I’d be upset,” he says. “You wouldn’t expect to get a new refrigerator and have it go out on a regular basis.”

Many industry watchers, including Dean Takahashi, a writer for VentureBeat, have speculated that Microsoft, in its haste to beat Sony and Nintendo to market, pushed the Xbox 360 out too early.

Takahashi has written two books about Microsoft, including “The Xbox 360 Uncloaked: The Real Story Behind Microsoft’s Next-Generation Video Game Console.” In it, he references internal sources and documents that show Microsoft knew the console had problems — but launched it anyway.

“Microsoft had experience with this before, with the first Xbox where they showed improvement over time,” he told me. “They sort of assumed they could do the same thing (with the 360), and it hasn’t happened.”

The Red Ring problem isn’t the only one Microsoft faces with the Xbox 360. Jason Johnson, of Madison County, Ill., has filed suit against the company alleging that his 360 has destroyed three games by scratching the discs.

A deposition of Microsoft program manager Hiroo Umeno, revealed this week in an unsealed court document, indicates that the company was aware of the problem before its November 2005 launch, and following the launch, determined that tilting the console to the left or forward would cause discs to scratch. Umeno declined to comment on the lawsuit or his deposition.

On the subject of the Red Rings, Microsoft is a bit more forthcoming. Company spokesperson David Dennis told me, via an e-mailed statement, that the company has “improved (its) manufacturing processes to improve reliability and our repair process to accelerate turn-around time for repairs.”

However, Microsoft still can’t (or won’t) identify the reasons the Red Rings happen in the first place. Takahashi says the root cause is usually a graphics chip that is overheating inside the machine. Dennis declined to get specific, saying only that “we identified a complex set of various factors and interactions that can cause the three flashing red lights error message on the console.”

It is true that Microsoft has gotten better about keeping gamers informed about the whereabouts of their busted consoles. Williams, from Louisville, got an e-mail from customer support just this week confirming the receipt of his console — complete with an apology – from “Caleb.” And from here on out, he can check the status of his repair at support.xbox.com — something Microsoft instituted in August 2007 to help earn back some of the goodwill it lost from gamers.

Chad Lawhon, from St. Joseph, Mo., is one of those gamers. He’s had six Xbox 360s Red Ring on him — and he’s plenty steamed about it. He says he and his friends, who he keeps in touch with via Xbox Live, think Microsoft is lucky that their console is “really where the games are at, and that’s where the best online experience comes from.”

“With any other consumer electronic device, there’s no way I would get another one, or even come back to that product again,” he says.

Lawhon is no fair-weather fan. He owned the first Xbox, and participated in the Xbox Live beta. He stood in line on launch day to get the Xbox 360. And he’s the owner of — get this — four of them, one for each of his family members.  He loves the games for the system —it’s the hardware that’s let him down, over and over again.

“If the 360 hardware was as reliable as the PS3, I’d be a happy camper all the way around,” he says.

Speaking of Microsoft’s rival, Lawhon is expecting his new PlayStation 3 to arrive on Friday — but is mainly excited about the console because it can play Blu-ray DVDs, he says.

As for Williams, he wants his Xbox 360 back, but he’s also leaning toward a PS3. The only problem, he says, is that none of his friends have a PS3. Like Lawhon, he spends a lot of time on Xbox Live, playing games online with his friends.

“I have a friend I went to college with who lives in Chicago — we talk more on Xbox than we do on the phone or we do in person,” he laments.

Without his Xbox 360 since Nov. 28, Williams says he hasn’t “officially gone crazy yet. “ He does miss his buddies, and playing “Gears of War 2.”

“But I found out about this thing, and it’s called, like, talking to your wife,” he says with a laugh. “It’s amazing.”

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