Thermal design expert pokes around inside an Xbox 360, finds badness

As a Brit, I’m genetically predisposed to being unable to deal with warm weather. The merest hint of sunlight breaking from behind a cloud forces our entire nation to excitedly run around shopping centres shirtless, pale and gelatinous, before spending the rest of the day wallowing around in paddling pools full of ice, adding to our terminal dehydration with tearful sobs of “I’m melting, I’m meltiiing…”

I feel then, only the deepest empathy imaginable for the overheating issues suffered by the poor Xbox 360. Those little fellas are probably the only things in the world less well-equipped for heat than myself, and their red ring o’ death is the glowing externalization of the August clobberings our broken weather system inflicts upon me every year.

Just how ill-equipped they are however, has always been a gray area. Of course Microsoft is more open about the problem these days and is taking steps toward dealing with it, but just how severe were the design problems in the first place? Japanese tech magazine Nikkei Electronics has given a late 2005 machine a thorough going over to find out, bringing in a thermal design expert to frown thoughtfully and make ponderous noises at all the right moments. 

Said expert’s findings? Definite problems with the running temperature and the sizes of both the fans and the heat sinks. Perhaps not surprising, but it’s very interesting to read a proper breakdown of exactly what’s going on in the machine to make it so prone to meltdown. Hit the jump for the details. 

The first problem found was the difference between ambient room temperature and the temperature of the 360’s exhaust air. With consumer electronics, a temperature gap of 10ºC is usually the target, but the 360’s exhaust more than doubled that, coming in at 22ºC higher than the air outside while running the console’s DVD equipment. The machine’s fan was also found lacking, with a maximum air speed one half to one third that of an average desktop PC, though given the 360’s smaller size, the amount of air movement was only considered “slightly in short”. 

Next up, the case was cracked open for an inspection of the heat sinks. Upon checking out the sink for the graphics LSI, the expert commented “The heat sink on the graphics LSI is so small, I wonder if it can really cool down the board”. The report speculates that an under-sized heat sink might have been used to allow Microsoft space for the DVD drive. 

After that, the testers rigged up a thermocouple to the microprocessor and graphics LSI heat sinks and closed up the box to get a reading for standard gaming temperature. After five minutes play, the graphics heat sink was at 70ºC, and then at 80ºC ten minutes after that. The microprocessor’s sink levelled out at 58ºC. While pretty hefty increases over the room temperature of 23ºC, the real fun comes when you consider the report’s suggestion that in mid-summer heat the graphics LSI could hit 100ºC or more.

To round off, the testers pulled open a second 360 which had been put in for repair in May of this year, to see exactly what had been done to fix its particular case of RRoD. While the machine had been fixed, it seemed nothing had been done to prevent the problem happening again, as the thermal design layout inside remained exactly the same as in the tested model. 

[Thanks Justin] 


David Houghton