The Illusion of Safety

January 12, 2010, Author: Trent Pyro

I feel like I’ve been conned. Cheated. In all fairness, I probably have, but that fact doesn’t stop feelings of rage, despair and misery flooding in. I have become the latest in a very, very long line of broken Xbox 360 owners. And it feels awful. Worse than that, I’ve been shunted from pillar to post by dodgy fixers, YouTube videos and even the Almighty himself, Bill Gates. I am seething with uncontrollable fury. To help you understand my position better, before I tear the sleazy trade of Xbox 360 ‘support’ a new one, I’ll take you on a guided tour of…

My gaming hell
I bought an Xbox 360 in May 2008. I was overjoyed. HD gaming. Xbox LIVE. Gears of War. Sunshine beamed in my chest every time I saw that little spinning globe and heard the ‘woomp’ sound as the black box whirred into life. For a time, it was good; the problems started when I went on holiday. In July 2009, after a lengthy Halo 3 session, I jetted off to sunny Amsterdam for a week. Upon my return, withdrawal symptoms setting in, I hastily jabbed the power button and snatched up my controller with glee. Only, wait, what’s this? No picture? No sound? NO XBOX?!?!? To my utter bewilderment, somehow over the course of my away time, my Elite had decided to stop showing me pictures and playing me sound.

Distraught, I rang the Microsoft Xbox 360 Support Hotline like a good little consumer. To my dismay, after battling through a swathe of automated menus, voiced by some Z-list American actress/robot, I got talking to the quietest man in the world. Straining to hear him, I put my handset on SPEAKER and put it back to my ear and still he was like a whisper at the other end of a football pitch. Barely managing to follow his overly complex instructions, I tried some messing about with RT and Y and failed. His last words were “Send it to Microsoft for repair” and he hung up. Unfortunately for me, being a UK consumer, I only got a 1 year warranty on my console and, now living in the dangerous ‘no warranty’ zone, had no choice but to seek alternative means of repair.

I set to work Googling my arse off and found a friendly, local Xbox 360 repair ‘specialist’ to aid me. Although I’d love to smear this company’s name across TIMJ (for reasons you’ll discover later), they will remain nameless for legal reasons and that. Anyway, I ventured across to the next county and handed over my black box of joy. No more than a week later it was back in my hands, and for a poultry sum I had regained my addiction. And for a time it was good.

Thence began my saga of pain and exasperation. In November 2009, during a mammoth Oblivion run, I came careening headfirst through the windscreen of the Xbox world; I got the Red Ring of Death. Jaw hanging somewhere by my knees and my heart lingering in my stomach, I frantically turned the console on and off and on and off in disbelief. Soon feelings of loss and desperation gave way to resolve and logical thinking. I dialed my friends at the repair shop and they accepted my challenge. It was here I made my first mistake; I posted them my Xbox. After picking it up on the wrong day, the post people (also remaining nameless) took two weeks to deliver it to the repair shop, who then took another week to fix it. Then, another week to send it back.

So after a month or so and considerably more cash, my pride and joy returned to me. For about forty five minutes. After a minuscule browse on the marketplace, a quick crack on a few demos and a two hour rest, my Xbox 360 died. AGAIN. I had paid a decent chunk of my dwindling coffer and waited a whole month for forty five MEASLY MINUTES OF GAMEPLAY?!  This was not on, and I was furious. I felt like crying and exploding at the same time. I felt like doing a Barry Pepper in Twenty Fifth Hour, the scene where he bashes Ed Norton’s head in so he won’t get done over in jail. I love my Xbox 360, but that day I was ready to smash it into shiny, plastic pieces. Twice. Logical thinking again got in the way, and I instead returned it to the shop (in person this time) who fixed it for free in accordance with their warranty policy, only for it to work for only about 3 times as long as before. The same Xbox with the same problem, fixed TWICE and STILL BROKEN. Those feelings of despair were only inches away, creeping in like those dodgy shadows in Ghost. I was well and truly defeated by the system.

Would you believe it, the old girls back again! Saved by the oldest trick in the book, the one you’ve all heard of but most have never tried. You might think it’s fake or crude or just plain stupid, but there’s a reason it’s so well known. The one all the experts say will wreck your Xbox forever, if that’s even possible at this stage. You got it; The Towel Trick. Twenty five minutes wrapped in mum’s fluffy towels and my Elite is running like she was never broke. It’s only guaranteed for a few days mind, but at least it’ll last longer than the expensive ‘expert fixes’ I’ve had to endure.

It looks stupid but it saved my arse...

It looks stupid but it saved my arse...

The machine that Microsoft threw together
So now you know. Hopefully you can now see my unbridled rage at the system, and the so called world of support. So let’s take a look at the best and worst console ever created by man. For those new to the world of gaming, a quick history lesson; the Xbox 360 was launched in 2005 to rave reviews, but also its fair share of criticism. Most naysayers cited the consoles’ chronic overheating and noisy ventilation as the key issues. Most people told them where to shove it and bought one anyway. They were stylish, quick and fun to use. The games were brilliant and varied, and the 360 was seen as the hip and cool alternative to Sony’s serious noir beast, the PS3, and it still is. Despite the issues, the Xbox 360 shifted 1.5 million units before the year was out. Only after the initial buzz of excitement did said issues begin to cast a shadow over Microsoft’s box of fun. Huge numbers of owners reported overheating and the aptly named Red Ring of Death, an indication of a critical systems failure. Thankfully, Microsoft had a friendly warranty, lasting three years in the US and one in the UK and Europe, which many of the troubled consumers took full advantage of. So far, so good. Why then were the consoles breaking so early into their projected lifespan, and what could Microsoft do about it? The answers were simple; bad design and nothing, respectively.

When developing the Xbox 360, Microsoft boffins came across two huge problems; the Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) were overheating to the point of meltdown and there was no room for the disc drive. Unable to come up with a fix for both, they instead made an astounding decision; dupe the world and cripple the Xbox 360’s lifespan. In order to fit the DVD drive in, they reduced the size of the heat-sinks – little pads that suck the heat out of the GPUs – to half their original size. So by solving one problem they worsened another exponentially. Epic fail Microsoft boffins. Despite this, the console shipped on a whistle and a prayer and sold shedloads. But the fact still stands; they conned us. We thought we were buying a lovingly crafted, painstaking R+D wonder when in fact we were being tossed a thrown together, faulty piece of shit. A compromise. A beta model. Worse still, regardless of how many upgrades and new processors they’ve installed and how much money they’ve throw at it, Microsoft still have a sub-standard console on the shelves. Not exactly top form for the world’s number one home computer manufacturer; which brings my nicely to my next target; the support system.

Supporting themselves
Support lines are there so that, in the unlikely event a problem arises, consumers can call the experts for help. Most of the time, they work fine. The prime example of this, the shining white knight of customer service, is Microsoft. PC broken? Windows throwing up random error bollocks again? Have no fear, Microsoft Support is here! Swooping in like some crooked superhero, the man on the end of the phone chirpily takes you through, step by step, clear as crystal how to fix your sick PC and gets you tapping away on Excel or slaying stuff on Diablo again in no time. If you own a PC, Microsoft’s customer support is second to none. Too bad for us Xbox 360 owners then eh?

It seems the computing giant has given about as much development time to the Xbox 360 Support service as it took me to write this (about an hour then.) Shoddily constructed, confusing to navigate, automated, button-mashing menus give way to weak, cheap phone lines connected to dodgy call centers somewhere half way across the world. The guys on the end of the line simply read a script, with the last line telling you to send the console to Microsoft and then hang up. The polar opposite to their outstanding PC support, it’s galling that Microsoft have let it get this bad.
Customers with console problems, and as we’ve seen there are plenty of them, are left feeling unappreciated and alone. A little galling, considering an Xbox 360 Elite will set you back around £170 and after a few wily game purchases your new bundle of joy will cost you well over 250 smackers. This is not including the wireless adapter (necessary for wireless connection to Xbox LIVE), extra controllers, yearly subscription to Xbox LIVE, Microsoft Points to buy XBLArcade games and downloadable content… the list is endless. Considering Microsoft has raked in millions from 360 sales, the way they treat their loyal customers is a disgrace. But we put up and shut up, because there’s no other way. Most of us know exactly nil about how a console works, how to fix it without breaking it, or the complexities of electronics; I know I don’t. So what are we to do when the white knight rides off into the sunset, leaving us muddy and wet in a ditch? Well, we turn to the cowboys for help of course…

High Ho pocket lining!
So we reach the Alamo. The final option for broken 360 owners; the independent fixer. Commonly referred to by TV morons as ‘cowboys’, these cheery fellows will take away your woes with a flick of their magic screwdrivers and blast those blues away with their heat guns. For a price.

Unfortunately, cowboys don't look like this anymore...

Unfortunately, cowboys don't look like this anymore...

Now don’t misunderstand me; there are hundreds, possibly thousands of good, skilled, honest tradesmen who will fix you Xbox for good and for a reasonable price. They’re probably very nice people too, and I mean in no way to put you off going to them for help. As disenfranchised, downtrodden consumers for whom the support system means nothing, these bastions of independent trade and spirit are our only hope. No, the people I’m referring to here are the ones that perform quick fixes and patch jobs on your precious boxes in order to rake in your cash and leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth, hiding behind warranties and smiles.

I don’t want to get too ‘Rogue Traders’ here, but I feel it is my duty as an observant and well-placed victim of these jokers to at least attempt to help you spot the wolves in sheep’s clothing so to speak. Firstly, if your Xbox 360 is under warranty, for God’s sake send it back to Microsoft. I know I’ve just spent half this article shredding their support system like dodgy tax returns but they’ll fix it for free and in light of the fact they built the thing, they might just get it right. Failing that, make sure you find a good dealer. Check the website, if it looks nice, chances are they’re ok. I’m not saying if the site is flash then part with your cash, but cheap websites are a good indication of sub-standard service. These days throwing a nice website together is easy; I have little web knowledge and can’t program HTML to save my life and I managed to make my blog look pretty nice in a matter of minutes. If they haven’t even bothered to do that, chances are they won’t bother to fix your Xbox properly. A good business will want to have a good presentation, so watch out for that. Also, don’t rule out PC repair shops. A desktop or laptop computer is infinitely more difficult to repair correctly than an Xbox 360, so if they can fix PCs the console will be a simple job they are unlikely to botch. From what I’ve heard, anyone with a 45 minute lesson and a how-to guide in front of them can patch up a 360, so getting someone who knows computers and electronics is a must.

Finally, make sure they’re local. I made the fatal mistake of using a place an hour’s drive from my house, and it was a nightmare getting my console back to the shop for re-fixes and the like. If they’re local you can return any unfixed things quickly and easily, and get them sorted. Hell, you can even give it a go yourself if you’re feeling lucky. There’s plenty of cheap guides floating around the net that could save you lots of money in repairs… or brick your console. All of this is, of course, my opinion and mostly basic advice, so follow or ignore at your whim.

I hope you have better luck than me
Well after all that I suppose you’ll be feeling depressed, paranoid and little sick; but don’t throw out you Xbox 360 yet! Many people have had working consoles for years with no problems; a friend of mine has a first generation Xbox 360 and it’s never had any issues. Maybe you’ll be one of the lucky ones. Maybe you’ll be unlucky like me. Whatever happens, remember you’re not alone, and the Xbox 360 is still a fantastic console. The game are still great, Xbox LIVE still rules the Internet gaming roost and you’ve got that ‘woomp’ at start-up to make you smile. Just don’t get too cosy, because at any moment it could blow up in your face! Just kidding, I’m sure you’ll be fine… no, really…