System Failure: Why PS3 and 360 drop dead for the same reasons • Page 2

Digital Foundry meets the man who fixes your consoles.

Whether you have RROD or its single-light variant, E74, it's the same root cause that is responsible - poor heat dissipation from the GPU - and the same fix is applied. What is intriguing however, is that it does appear as though the initial release of Xbox 360 has proved to be - on average - more reliable than some of the later models.

"From my personal experience, having seen so many machines come through, the original release machines from 2005 to 2007, before they brought out the HDMI revision - they tend to be more solid a unit," says Thickbroom. "They tend not have so many recurrences on the recall rate if it doesn't fail after 6-7 weeks after it's been put through the reflow process."

As the heat damage is seemingly cumulative, Microsoft's RROD woes may have been amplified by newer machines dying at the same time as the older ones. Certainly in my case, my vintage PAL November 2005 Xbox died within weeks of the NTSC Elite I bought that was 17 months younger. This is in spite of an addition to the heatsink in the newer units that pipes air into a vacant chamber elsewhere within the unit, and also with the introduction of packaging designed to hold the GPU in place and help prevent motherboard warping. It suggests that the quality of the Xbox 360 motherboard itself declined even while cooling potential was increased.

The core problem remains however: too much power crammed into too small an area.

"I just think that with all of these machines, the power and the heat they produce have long-term effects on the units," says Thickbroom, referring to both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. "It's also down to the solder being used on the units: it's a lead-free based solder. The consistency and quality of the joints with lead-free isn't as good as a proper lead-based solder. It's the law now, huge companies manufacturing these machines need to use lead-free, so the long-term reliability of the connections isn't so good."

While Xbox 360 in its earlier iterations has a pretty terrible reliability record, it is swiftly becoming apparent that the same core issue is also affecting the PlayStation 3. It is perhaps not surprising. While the Sony console has a whopper cooling system, the design of the RSX, especially in its original 90nm form, is to put it frankly a beast. Under the metallic heat spreader on the motherboard, you'll find not only the GPU, but also the 256MB of GDDR3 RAM. The 90nm RSX is much larger than the 90nm Xenos - indeed, it appears to be marginally larger than the Cell CPU in the launch units. The cooling challenge, especially in the launch units, is going to be considerable. Additionally, the GPU itself has remained on the 90nm fabrication process right up until the release of the new PS3 Slim, so assuming the problem is GPU-centric, it could potentially affect all the current "fat" models.

There's also the fact that both consoles are deployed in a huge range of different environments in gamers' homes. That being the case, it is almost impossible for the platform holders to ensure that the systems stay cool enough in all scenarios, especially bearing in mind the dust and fluff build-up that can occur over time. Certainly though, if you stick your console into a closed cabinet, you won't be doing it any favours. Smokers are more likely to end up with dead machines too - the tobacco finds its way into the console, making the innards sticky and thus more attractive to dust and debris that comes in through the intakes.

In terms of the scale of the problem, and failure ratios versus the Xbox 360, it is very difficult to put a number on just how many PS3s are malfunctioning. In the case of a relatively small-scale operation like Colchester Computers, working on average, they'll get 20 dead consoles to fix each day - 12 of them will be Xbox 360s, eight of them will be PlayStation 3s. But that's an average. As Thickbroom says, "sometimes, in a hectic week, we can have entire palettes of consoles coming in."

In terms of failure rates, the 60/40 split between Xbox 360 and PS3 they experience is remarkable in that it does prove pretty conclusively that both consoles are having exactly the same issues, especially when the methodology for fixing them is effectively identical. But beyond that, the figures are too isolated to tell us much more as many additional factors need to be taken into account: the installed UK bases of both systems, the fact that the damage is cumulative over time (and Xbox 360 is a year older, remember) and also the fact that 360 has a three-year warranty, while the PS3 is limited only to one year. We can assume that machines under guarantee will not arrive at Thickbroom's establishment, which specialises in extended warranty work with the likes of Argos and catalogue companies, in addition to dealing with the public directly.

"We really do see a lot of the 60GB launch PS3s which are a couple of years old now. Generally I think the faults there are down to wear and tear," he says. "We see a slightly smaller ratio of the newer 40GB machines with the smaller motherboard, but they still suffer from the same issues."

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