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Three Rings to Screw Them All: Another Xbox Dies

Crap. My 360 died. Part Deux.

A long time ago in a not-so faraway land, my launch day Xbox 360 console bit the dust, killed by GPU failure. Tonight, the refurbished console that Microsoft sent me as a warranty replacement for that original unit also bit the dust, also killed by GPU failure. It was a new design, sporting a new chipset, a quieter DVD drive and, most importantly, an enormous heatsink inside. And it failed anyway.

Ironically, I turned on my Xbox tonight because my friend Forster suggested some online gaming. He was undoubtedly in the gaming mood, having just received his warranty replacement Xbox from Microsoft this week after his original console suffered the exact same problem as mine. So we decided to try some co-op in Borderlands, a pretty cool hybrid shooter/RPG that I just got my hands on last weekend.

On our first game, we got about three minutes in before my Xbox locked up hard. Forster was in the midst of telling me something over the chat headset when both he and the game sounds completely cut out. Most unnervingly, I could immediately hear my console’s cooling fans spin down, as if the system had been returned to the dashboard, but it was completely unresponsive and required that I press the power button on the console faceplate to turn it off.

Upon booting it back up, I once again fired up Borderlands and was about to start the game when it abruptly crashed again, this time displaying a solid screen of black and white vertical pinstripes. First tangible sign of GPU failure, CHECK!

Forster and I tried three more times to start a co-op game, and each time I encountered a hard lock a couple minutes in. I was starting to get a little pissed off, so I suggested we try another game — Forza Motorsport 3 — to see if the problem would manifest there, or if it was just something goofy with Borderlands.

So we started up Forza, got into a 5-lap competitive race, and proceeded to finish without any hiccups whatsoever. Hmm.

My other buddy Pooch was also online, so we invited him into our game and got some three-player races started. Everything seemed to be going fine, and I was beginning to wonder if maybe my copy of Borderlands was frakked up — when it happened again. The race froze up solid and the Xbox became totally unresponsive. I had to get up and turn it off once more, and when I booted it back up, the “Xbox 360” startup animation froze halfway in. The accompanying sound effect, curiously, continued to play, although it was marred with strange scratching sounds. Decidedly unpleasant and a wickedly bad omen.

After shutting it down for a couple minutes, I started the Xbox back up — successfully this time — and jumped back online to rejoin the races, hoping against hope for the best. Unfortunately, we weren’t too far into our next match when I again suffered a hard lock. And then one of the most telling symptoms of all appeared: A purplish checkerboard pattern superimposed over the dashboard. Exactly what I saw on my original Xbox the day it bought the farm in 2007.

Purpley checkerboard pattern GET!

At this point, I knew the console was dead — or terminally ill, at least, to the point where it was no longer usable for gaming. I figured I’d shut it off, let it cool for another couple of minutes and then sign on long enough to join my friends’ Xbox Live Party and tell them I was calling it a night (and a life, in the case of my console). Unfortunately this wasn’t possible either, because on my next boot-up attempt, the system threw the dreaded Three Red Rings of Death (pictured at the top of the post). Kills ‘boxes dead!

Xbox III: The Search For Jasper

Amusingly, the state of Microsoft’s Xbox console evolution is roughly the same as it was when my first unit failed. At that time, a newly-designed chipset and heatsink were making their way into Xboxes, and were said to drastically cut down on the RRoD failures. Although I did get two and a half years of service out of my warranty replacement that utilized these new parts, it did eventually fail in the exact same manner. Now, there’s yet another new chipset out there — the “Jasper” chipset — featuring a smaller manufacturing process with a smaller power supply, an HDMI port onboard, and numerous other revisions. Will Jasper spell the end of the RRoD? I doubt it, but perhaps — at the very least — a somewhat longer service life is in store.

Oh yes, I am getting another Xbox. With any other product, after having experiences like mine, many people would swear off that product (or even the whole brand) in the hopes of not getting burned again. However, Microsoft has built up a loyal following with its Xbox console, and they know it. All of my good gaming friends are exclusively Xbox players, not equipped with Playstation 3s. Perhaps more to the point, there are a number of must-have exclusive games like the Halo series, Mass Effect, Forza, Valve’s Half-Life / Portal series et al. that can’t be played on any other console. I’ve invested the last five years in building up my Xbox library, and I’m in too deep to dump it all now…to say nothing of the fact that I don’t even want to. I lost my Xbox today because Microsoft engineered a shoddy piece of shit with a near 50% failure rate (if the rumors are to be believed), but when I think of buying a new one, I feel only excitement at the prospect of getting the latest and greatest, an even bigger hard drive and the sleek black finish of the Elite. Am I nuts?

Perhaps, but perhaps not. For hardcore gaming is an enthusiast’s hobby, and the hardcore enthusiast puts up with the occasional crap from his equipment because the pleasure he derives from it otherwise is well worth the price of admission. Consider the gearhead who spends days wrenching on his car, or buffing and detailing its finish, only to have it break down on him at an embarrassing moment. Likely he’ll figure out the problem, fix it and keep going. Unless the incident was particularly catastrophic or costly, he likely won’t sell the car, his tools, his mods and everything else that he’s poured into it. He’ll shake it off and invest whatever is needed to fix the issue. And yeah, he probably knows that something else is going to go wrong at some point down the road — it’s the nature of a tuner car, a performance rod or even an restored classic to have issues.

That doesn’t excuse Microsoft for putting together a slapdash product and foisting it upon us all, but I’ll put up with it because the benefit I get from the experience — despite the occasional RRoD fuckups or thermal failures or whatever — is so great. The only bad thing about that is the fact that Microsoft will probably go right on designing slapdash hardware, knowing that we’ll buy it regardless. I guess they’ve got me there. But as long as the ratio of fun to failure is so heavily weighted toward the former, I can’t really bring myself to care. Frankly, I’m too old to stand on principle every minute of the day. With some things, I’m just going to do what I want.

Picking Your Poison

Now, the only problem is to figure out which Xbox console to buy, as they come in a few different editions. There are basically three options these days:

  1. Buy a $199 Arcade unit, the low-end one without the hard drive, and simply plug my old hard drive in. Continue as normal.
  2. Buy a $299 Elite unit, enjoy the double-sized 120GB hard drive and black finish.
  3. Buy a $399 Special Edition Elite, such as the Final Fantasy XIII edition with super-rare 250GB hard drive and extra wireless controller.

I was leaning heavily toward option 3, until I realized that the super special edition FFXIII console isn’t actually special at all. It’s just a plain-jane white Xbox 360 with a big hard drive slapped on it. Until now, these special edition bundles — always priced $100 higher than the regular Xbox 360 Elite — came with custom paint jobs that really set them apart. There was the olive drab Halo 3 console, for example, and the gunmetal gray Modern Warfare 2 console with the military markings on it. But the FFXIII console is just…utterly plain. I don’t even mind the standard white case, but I’d have wanted a cool airbrushed design on it, or a nifty faceplace, or some artwork or something somewhere. But there’s only a little bit of engraving on the detachable hard drive — and a custom faceplate you could only get if you pre-ordered a month ago, which I naturally did not.

Still, it can seem like an attractive deal when you consider that it comes with a free copy of Final Fantasy XIII itself, a $60 value — so you can think of the remaining $40 as going toward the price of the supermax 250GB hard drive. Still, the fact that the console itself isn’t particularly special makes this a hard sell for me. And considering that I don’t download movies, TV shows or more than a handful of Rock Band songs from Xbox Live, nor do I have a massive collection of Arcade games, the 250GB hard drive seems like overkill anyway. Sure, I could fill it up by installing every game I play, but seriously. This may all be a moot point, anyhow, because I can find no evidence on Gamestop’s website that the FFXIII bundle even exists anymore; perhaps they’ve already sold out.

In lieu of the special edition bundle, the $299 Elite looks like the sweet spot. I’ve still got a $100 Gamestop gift card that was a birthday gift from my parents, which I can use to knock the price down to $199. A recent side job payment will take care of the rest. For that, I’ll get double the hard drive space I have now and a new controller in a matching black finish, which I could actually use because my existing controller #1 has a wonky left thumbstick and controller #2 has a janky rumble motor.

The Xbox Hard Drive Migration Complication

Of course, whether I choose the 120GB or 250GB hard drive, I’ll wind up with the same problem: Getting my saved games and downloads off the old drive and onto the new one. Microsoft has historically made this process a lot more painful than it could be, in my opinion. First, the only sure-fire way to make sure you don’t lose all of your progress when you upgrade to a new hard drive is to use the (take a breath) Xbox 360 Hard Drive Data Migration Transfer Kit. These kits, unlike every other Xbox accessory, are not sold in retail stores. Nor are they included with new consoles. In fact, until recently you could only acquire one of these coveted items by:

  • Buying the 120GB standalone Xbox hard drive for a mind-numbing $150, or
  • Calling Microsoft support and begging for one.

Now, Microsoft has discontinued the 120GB standalone hard drive, so scratch that option. (I imagine they’re about to replace it with a 250GB standalone model instead, but you didn’t hear that from me.) Fortunately, you no longer have to call into their telephone queue and hope you can get some outsourced schlub to send you the right cable (after which you’d end up waiting 4-6 weeks for it). No; today you can order one right from the Microsoft Online Store. It’s still not as fast or easy as just picking one up at Gamestop when you buy your new console (to replace the one that just red-ringed on you!), but it’s better than nothing — and once you have the migration kit, you can use it for future upgrades, too.

So tomorrow I get to do something rare, coveted and fun: Buy a new fancy-pants electronic toy. Yes, it’s a toy meant to replace an existing toy that just took a dump, but at least I’m getting an upgrade while I’m at it (to a better chipset, a bigger HD and a newer controller). Which is why, incidentally, I don’t go with the most obviously cost-effective option: Buy the $199 Arcade unit and just attach my hard drive to it. Because if I did that, I’d really feel like I was just paying $199 to duplicate the exact setup I have now, and that makes me mad because it reminds me that Microsoft is the cause of that expense. If I choose a better Xbox while I’m at it, such as the Elite, I’m treating myself to an upgrade and justifying it with the fact that I needed a replacement unit (and what better time to step up to the next level?).

Conversely, I could never bring myself to just trade in a perfectly functional Xbox for an Elite, as it would feel wholly unnecessary. So this situation right here is literally the only one in which I can live with myself if I buy an Elite. The money’s in the bank, so I’m gonna take advantage. Aw yeah!

Tomorrow, in fact, is shaping up to be a pretty good day, all told. It’s Saturday, and I’m coming off a week of hard work in which I got a ton of things done — and got fairly well caught up after being on the road all last week, helping my boss shop for a house here in Florida. I’ll get to splurge on my new Xbox, chat with the husband of Apple’s Thai friend about more computer-related gadgetry, and then take the GTO out in the evening to grab some sushi for dinner. And then, of course, some gaming — perhaps that Borderlands adventure can finally get off the ground! Yeeeep, it’s going to be hard to go wrong with a docket like this.

But for now, I’m going to try to get some sleep. I hear it’s good for you.