In a week where Xbox 360 production boss Aaron Greenberg stated that Microsoft's hardware issues were "well behind us", I found myself finally facing up to the notorious unreliability of the older 360 consoles, and attempting to do something about it.
In many ways, this feature is an off-shoot of a personal story. Readers of the Digital Foundry Twitter feed will know that both of my retail Xbox 360s died of RROD in quick succession. While Microsoft was nice enough to send me a new PAL "Jasper" model, swapping out my prized NTSC 360 Elite, originally purchased for a Eurogamer hardware test would be much more difficult. Over and above the luxuries of having the ability to play region-locked games, the concept of binning off two consoles that cost me the best part of £600 was basically wasteful and unacceptable. Something had to be done.
Looking for a more permanent resurrection for my unit, I'd heard that the best fix involved the rather manly-sounding process of "reballing" the GPU - resoldering the joints from the motherboard to the graphics chip. That being the case, I found myself at my nearest independent console workshop, Colchester Computers, staring at their impressive BGA rework/reflow station. Working from an industrial unit just off the Essex town's bizarre Magic Roundabout, this was an interesting opportunity to find out from the experts first-hand why the average games console ceases to function, and how they are fixed. Upon arrival at the workshop, the vast stack of dead consoles up against one wall ("spare parts") was somewhat eye-opening.
Talking to the company's engineer, Darren Thickbroom, it instantly became apparent that many of the Internet truths surrounding the console failures were anything but, and that the heat dissipation issues that plagued every revision of the Xbox 360 up until the most recent Jasper version were hardly exclusive to the Microsoft console. Slowly but surely, just like its competitor, the issue of PlayStation 3 reliability is being brought into question.
While the scale of the so-called YLOD issue is difficult to judge in context of the all-pervasiveness of RROD, the fact is that what I learned on my visit was pretty shocking: whether you own a Microsoft or Sony console, it seems that the act of simply using our consoles for the job they were designed can cause cumulative damage, with the very real danger that our games machines may go "pop" after the manufacturer's warranty expires.
"Your Xbox might last two or three years - it's as much down to the environment as the hardware itself," says Darren Thickbroom. "You open up some machines and you can understand why it might have broken down or over-heated, maybe there's tons of dust or fluff that came in from the intake. It depends from person to person, we speak to some people over the phone who've been through three to five units since the launch period. If you're a serious player, I'd recommend you change or upgrade your Xbox after a year."
Thickbroom also deals with many dead Xbox 360s that have had the so-called "X-Clamp" fix and reckons that it is essentially a complete waste of time - something worth bearing in mind if your out of warranty 360 suddenly bites the dust and you fancy tackling it yourself. "The Internet" has decreed that the clamps, attached to the base of the motherboard and securing the heatsinks, do the job too effectively, causing the motherboard to warp in concert with the heat generated by the CPU and graphics chip. However, over four years into the lifespan of the machine and many hardware revisions later, the clamps remain in Microsoft's design, and Thickbroom will replace any of these homebrew fixes with the original securing mechanism. The blame lies elsewhere, he reckons.
"It's just the general design and the heat factor," he says. "Everything's combined into such a small space, the heatsinks on the GPU are relatively small, there's a lot of heat to dissipate and it can't do it. The trapped heat warps the boards and that's what causes the problems over a long-term period."
Based on Thickbroom's experience, it would seem that the entire X-Clamp replacement industry is effectively a waste of money. With the DIY procedure, the real "fix" comes from the process of reflowing the solder after the clamps are replaced. In effect, you remove the fans from the 360, and allow it to massively overheat. Let it cool down again and in most cases service, post-RROD, will be resumed. But unless you're particularly lucky, it is a short-term fix, if it works at all. Reflowing is a precision job requiring precision tools, and the DIY method is akin to attempting to paint the Mona Lisa with fingerpaints. Professional repair shops will use a somewhat more involved method to get the job done.
"We remove the heatsinks, clean off any thermal compound left on the boards, cleaning the GPU and CPU," says Thickbroom. "Then we apply a BGA-based gel flux around the GPU and pre-heat this under a dark infra-red base BGA re-balling machine, which pre-heats the boards up to a set profile temperature, keeps that heat, then increases it again to a uniform temperature that the solder reflows at. When the reflow occurs, the flux is introduced to it. When the flux gets to the point that it becomes active, it fixes the problem caused by the heat: dry joints and poor connections are resolved."
Et Voila, my black and white 360-shaped doorstops are back in action as fully armed and operational games machines, fit for whatever abuse I would care to put them through in the Digital Foundry lair.
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