How Microsoft avoids a 360 hardware lawsuit

Sam Hart

2007-09-10 20:56:56

Chances are, if you're reading this you've heard about my Xbox 360 hardware troubles. About a year ago I had the infamous Red Ring of Death problem. I had to send in my 360 for repairs. I remember it being quite painful as my 360 was out of warranty and I had to cough up the money ($140) to fix it.

A couple of months later, Microsoft extended their warranty from 90-days to 1 year and then 3 years. This warranty was apparently done retroactively and covered my 360. As a result, I was sent a refund for my $140 that I had spent on my system and a new warranty was tacked on to my system from the date when the console was returned to me. All of this was surely done to avoid (or maybe just to stave off) any hardware related lawsuits.

So a year goes by, my 360 is running fine and I'm enjoying all the amazing games that have come out for it.

Then, at the start of this last summer, some strange things started to happen...

The first thing I remember happening was when I played Crackdown I'd occasionally get audio glitches when getting into cars and trying to listen to the in-car radios. These audio glitches would actually be so severe that it would crash any multiplayer games of Crackdown I ever tried.

Next thing I noticed was a distinct whiny static sound in the music in many games. For example, the music in Burnout Revenge would actually be too painful to listen to; the high-pitched static in the music would actually send my dog running. I started having to play these games with no audio.

Then I noticed that every video I had ever downloaded from XBLA now either had the same whiny static audio, or no audio at all. Additionally, all of the music that I had ripped onto my 360's HDD no longer played without significant static.

The final straw was when Bioshock came out. Bioshock's audio was the glitchiest of all, and I was also having strange graphical glitches and crashes that none of my friends could reproduce. It was at this point that I realized something had to be wrong with it.

Sam's Diagnosis

Now, I may be wrong, but I think I know where the problem lies.

The 360 doesn't have a dedicated sound processor[1]. Instead, the audio is handled by the main CPU. The one exception to this rule is when it encounters an XMA (audio format) file. XMA files are compressed, and using the main CPU to constantly decompress them as games are going along would get expensive. So they put dedicated hardware for XMA decompression on the 360's southbridge. I made a diagram (a not entirely correct one) of this online here.

The problems I'm encountering relate mostly to the playback of XMA audio, and thus it seems logical that this southbridge XMA decoder is where my system is having issues.

Getting my 360 sent in for repairs... AGAIN

All of this has happened while my 360 is still under this new extended warranty, so I was able to convince Microsoft to let me send it in and get it repaired for free. Well, my experience this year couldn't be more different than last year's.

They told me they would send me an empty box with a prepaid UPS label. Basically, my only inconvenience would be having to drive the damned thing to the UPS store and getting a tracking ticket (well, and going without my 360 for 3-4 weeks, but we knew that would happen no matter what, didn't we?)

Here is my 360:

Poor, sweet, Lulabelle

Yes that is a Wiimote and a wireless PS2 controller next to it. Hey, they're family... they are here to see my 360 off.

Here is the box that arrived last week:

Blank, nondescript box

The box is intentionally blank and nondescript. Due to the potential of theft, they don't want anyone to be able to tell that this has an Xbox 360 in it. Of course, considering the estimated failure rate of around 30% for 360s, it's probably pretty easy to spot a 360 on its way for repairs. Really, just look for all of the white, Xbox 360 shaped boxes heading to the repair center in Texas.

Opening the box was hilarious:

There's goodies inside!

I was expecting some packaging material, and the UPS label for sure, but the rest of the stuff in this box is really quite telling just how severe this problem is for Microsoft.

First, and this was the funniest for me, we find a strip of tape for resealing the white, nondescript box:

Length of tape

Hah! They aren't even expecting people to find their own tape to tape this box back up with! The tape was approximately the right length for the box, and came on a bit of waxy paper.

Next up, we find the glossy instructions for packaging up your 360:

Xbox 360 Packaging For Dummies

Wow... How hard do they think it is to box this sucker up? Just stick it between the foam that's shaped like the ends of the 360, plunk it in the box, and re-tape. It's not rocket science. The funniest bit about these instructions was the high quality paper they were printed on. Seriously, it seems like the same high-gloss stuff that the best comic books are printed on.

Next, we have said foam shaped like the ends of the 360:

Protective cup for your 360

Then we have the packing slip (intentionally blurred):

Packing slip

Finally, we have the protective 360 sleeve/condom that your 360 goes into (complete with all the "Do not put this on your head and then run a marathon" warning labels):

Ribbed for her pleasure

Well, I followed their instructions, and here's the final package ready to ship off:

Safe journeys, spacefan

But seriously, what sort of looming threat does Microsoft perceive in order to make them go through these efforts? Every console I've owned in the last 15(ish) years has wound up having some sort of hardware problem at one point or another;

Yet none of these systems had anything like this unprecedented 3 year warranty extension or all this expense in making shipping them in for repairs as pain-free as possible.

When you consider this is Microsoft we're talking about here, one of the (if not the most) wealthiest companies on the planet, all of these efforts really do speak volumes as to how serious Microsoft thinks this is...