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Friday, December 23, 2005

Xbox 360: Back to the Drawing Board

Xbox 360: Back to the Drawing Board


After a month with the Xbox 360, I'm ready to talk about all the mistakes that the Microsoft Xbox 360 team made in developing their console. The feedback is designed to be constructive.

Mistake #1: Overheating CPU or GPU

Anyone could have seen this one coming. With today's high performance GPUs and multi-core CPUs drawing more and more power, thermal management has become a critical element of modern systems. In the Xbox 360, either the GPU or the CPU is to blame for most of the overheating problems. As our esteemed colleague and FiringSquad alum, Tuan Nguyen showed, the bulk of the Xbox 360's heatsinks are focused on cooling the IBM PowerPC CPU. This either means that the PowerPC runs too hot and needs all that cooling, or that the GPU is not being cooled well enough. Although there were initial rumors of the power supply overheating, we can find no evidence to support this claim other than the repeated story of "holding the power supply up by a string." It's either the CPU or the GPU’s fault. After making a modification to my console to boost the flow of air to the exhaust fans, the system has been exceptionally stable even in an enclosed environment such as my entertainment center.

There are several approaches that Microsoft could have taken to solve these problems. Obviously, a higher level of quality control was necessary. These system crashes are prevalent and I have yet to encounter a single Xbox 360 owner living in a temperate climate who has not experienced at least one system crash. Although Microsoft could have improved cooling through the use of better thermal paste, the fundamental problem is the inadequate flow of the two exhaust fans. In an effort to keep the system quiet, Microsoft is overly aggressive with running the fans slowly. The best approach for Xbox 360 stability is placing a small exhaust fan to augment the existing solution. An enterprising entrepreneur could probably make a small fortune selling an added exhaust fan for the Xbox 360 powered by the rear USB port. The Xbox 360 just needs a little extra boost – that's all.

With time, improvements in yield and manufacturing advances should produce cooler running PowerPC CPUs, minimizing the likelihood of crashing. In Microsoft's position, I would have run the fans at a more aggressive rate – again the difference is minimal, the fans just need an extra 20% boost or so." [more]

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