XBox 360: nearly great

Unhappily, I have joined the ranks of those who have suffered more than once from the XBox 360 red lights of death. It’s a known design fault, so hardly surprising, but annoying none the less. Mine was a launch console, and lasted over a year before succumbing. Ten months later, and it’s failed again. I don’t blame the repairer; it’s even a different error code (0103 vs 0020).

The 360 story resembles that of a Greek hero: great, but tragically flawed. I love the console and would hate to be without it. Pre-launch, there was much debate about whether a narrow disadvantage to the PlayStation 3 in graphic power would damage it; Microsoft said that the quality of the software was more important, and has proved its point. Few complain about the 360’s graphics. There are plenty of high-quality games; XBox Live is a strong service; the downloadable arcade games are compelling and good value; it does a decent job as a media center; it has the best wireless controller; and now you can even purchase movies through XBox Live.

But the flaws. Most notably, the fact that you know the thing will fail prematurely. Well, the current crop is said to be better, but how much better? It is unknown, though I guess I’ll find out because I’ve just gone out and bought an Elite at the new reduced price, tempted by HDMI, a larger hard drive, and the hope of longer intervals between red illuminations. Good money after bad? Not really, because the console has delivered value. It is just flawed, that’s all.

There’s also the noise of the fans and DVD drive, and I must mention a third problem, which has caused me some aggravation. This concerns the DRM. If you purchase a game from Live Arcade, it is fully unlocked for all the profiles on that console. However, if the console breaks and is replaced, and you re-download the game, it is only unlocked for the profile which made the purchase. Sounds a small point; but if you replace your console and have a family member who enjoyed playing a particular game under their own profile, it is annoying to find that it is now only a trial.

I thought I should check my facts, so I called Microsoft’s customer service and asked if I could transfer the licenses from my doorstop (formerly a 360 Premium) to the new Elite. No, I was told, the games were tied to the doorstop. Rubbing salt into the wound, the service representative said she would have helped, but I had violated my terms of use by tampering with the machine. In other words, it was my fault.

My crime, it turns out, was in sending my 360 (which failed before Microsoft extended its warranty to three years) to a third-party for repair. Not only did this void the (then-expired) warranty; it also meant that Microsoft would not help me recover the full rights to my purchased games.

I am sceptical about how much difference this actually made, since my understanding is that Microsoft never transfers licenses to those upgrading to an Elite.

Fortunately there is a workaround, discovered not from customer service but from my own research. If you have several controllers, it is possible for each controller to be signed in under a different account. Just press the XBox button on the controller and select a profile. Provided that one controller is signed in as the profile which made the purchase, other profiles can play the unlocked arcade game. Not ideal, but better than nothing.

It is interesting to speculate just how much the 360’s quality problems have cost Microsoft. There is the cost of constantly and repeatedly fixing consoles; even more serious are the sales lost to those reluctant to purchase a machine likely to break prematurely. I would likely be one of them, except there is a row of 360 games on the shelf. It’s called lock-in.

We like the Elite. The graphics seem a little better; it is quieter and even feels slightly more responsive than the old box. A great console. But flawed.

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