Please be advised there is now a part two to this post. After about a month, his fix failed and I had to go back in for a tune-up. You can read about that by clicking here: Return of the E74. Don’t worry; if you follow these instructions you aren’t doing anything wrong and you won’t actually break anything… but you may have to do a little more tinkering in the future to get the repair to stick!
This is what the E74 error, and most everything you need to fix it, looks like.
I first encountered this fatal Xbox 360 error code when I was about to record some test videos of Castlevania: Harmony of Despair with my good chum, the venerable Nodal. Some light Googling on both our parts revealed that the E 74 error is related to the Xbox’s GPU (graphics processing unit), and can be caused by faulty cables. The first thing you’re supposed to do upon seeing this error is connecting your Xbox to your TV with a second set of cables, and see if that fixes the issue.
At first I thought this must be the problem. I use the standard Xbox 360 component cables when I’m playing on my TV, but in order to record video I have to plug it into my Hippauge capture card, which uses an S-Video input. Upon moving the Xbox back across the room, though, I continued to get the same error. Something was really wrong.
I purchased my 360 back in 2006, and though it has served me well in that time I have had to send it in once for repairs. I’m no longer covered by warranty, though, and it looked like the repair bill this second time around was going to be about $150. I figured if I was going to spend that much I might as well splurge and buy a brand new Xbox (did you know they’re making sexy black ones now?).
The problem, we determined, was improper application of thermal paste to the CPU and GPU on the Xbox, causing overheating problems to occur. Microsoft apparently uses cheap, poor-quality insulation on its processors, and commonly used way too much on Xboxes sent in for repair. This made paying for repairs even less attractive, since they had already fixed the damn thing once and apparently did so incorrectly.
Nodal and I poked around for repairs I could do at home. First we found some douchebags selling e-books about how to fix this problem, which is such a monumentally scumbag move I almost couldn’t comprehend it. We also found some YouTube videos of people wrapping their 360s in blankets and leaving them on for hours in hopes of purposely overheating the processors and causing the thermal paste to melt and spread out. Paying some asshat for a list of instructions wasn’t going to happen, and neither was lighting my console on fire. I wanted this problem fixed for good, and I didn’t want to risk further damage to the console. Most of all, though, I didn’t want to pay someone to tell me how to do it; if the task was so technical that instructions had actual value, it was going to be out of my expertise anyway.
There was another potential problem, though. Sometimes the overheating problems occur because the heatsinks inside the 360 are held at an improper distance or pressure against the processors. Too close or too far, or too much pressure or too little, and the heatsinks won’t work properly and the console will fail.
If you’re computer illiterate, here’s the breakdown: the processor in your computer and in your Xbox generates a lot of heat. The heatsink is a big metal block that sits against the processor and draws that heat out. Here’s a page explaining in more detail: How Heatsinks Work
I therefore had two goals: replace the thermal paste, and replace the x-clamps with something more reliable. Nodal gave me an Amazon shopping list consisting of a tube of decent-quality thermal paste and a Torx screwdriver set. In addition to those things I added an X-clamp replacement kit. Here’s what I bought:
- Cooler Master High Performance Thermal Paste
- Torx/Phillips/Slotted Screwdriver Set
- X-Clamp Hardware Replacement Kit
You need a Torx screwdriver to work with the star-shaped screws holding your Xbox together. This is not a tool most people have handy, which is precisely why Microsoft uses it.
The components were about $20. Thermal paste and Torx screwdrivers can be obtained at hardware and electronics stores. If you don’t want to wait for an Amazon order to show up, you might try your local Radio Shack. The x-clamp replacement kit is a collection of screws and washers, along with an instruction sheet. There are several different kits available, and it’s my understanding that all of them are better than the clamps that Microsoft uses.
The first step was, of course, disassembling the Xbox and getting the motherboard out. I was surprised to find this was the most difficult part of the task; Microsoft specifically designs these consoles to keep you the hell out. This isn’t like the systems of yesteryear, where you just took out some screws, popped the top, and there were your guts. Nor is it like your PC, which has an easily-removable case. The Xbox is a mighty fortress of plastic and exotic screws, and plumbing the depths of its secrets are not unlike working a Mayan puzzle-box.
Whenever I’m working with computer components like this, I take a picture of what the project looks like every step of the way. That way, if I get lost or confused at any step, I have a photograph to remind me what things are supposed to look like.
Fortunately there are really good instructions online explaining how to take it apart without damaging it. Here’s the instructions I followed: How to open/dissassemble a 360 case
The picture above is just the removed motherboard. The big square things that look like stacks of metal sheets are the heatsinks. These have to be removed before we can do anything else.
Flipping the motherboard over reveals the dreaded x-clamps. These are two big, flimsy metal crosses that hold the heatsinks in place. The heatsinks are not bolted down; rather, they’re fitted into metal studs which poke through the motherboard and latch on to these x-clamps. I guess the reason this particular component fails is because they can bend and flex, which causes variation in the distance between the heatsinks and the processors on the other side.
Whether you’re replacing the x-clamps or not, they have to be removed. This is the only part of the repair process where you are in any real danger of permanently damaging your Xbox. It looks like I’m prying the clamps loose with a flathead screwdriver, and that one slip will cause the blade of the driver to gouge into the motherboard. But that’s not what I’m doing.
If you look very closely you will see that each “arm” of the x-clamp actually ends in a little vertical bend. This means you can set your driver flat against the bend and twist the blade, forcing the top part of the clamp upwards. Eventually it will pop off the stud, just like the arm closest to the bottom of that photograph.
The important thing to remember, here, is to make sure all the pressure of your screwdriver is applied to the bottom part of the x-clamp arm, and not to the motherboard itself. Be patient and resist the urge to use your driver as a lever or a wedge.
Once I had two x-clamp arms popped off, it was pretty easy to remove the thing completely just by working the other two arms off with my fingers. The instructions that came with my replacement kit said the clamps wouldn’t come off easily until I’d released three of the studs. I believe my x-clamps were easier to remove because they had been taken off once before for repairs, leaving them already somewhat “loose”.
The disassembly process involved a lot of turning, shifting and rotating the Xbox. To Peanut’s horror, we discovered all this sliding and shifting was leaving gouges in the finish of our dining room table. Oops. To prevent further damage, we set everything on a paper folder. We probably should have done that in the first place.
Here I’ve removed the heatsinks from the motherboard and set them on the table upside-down. The grey gunk you see on the bottom of the heatsinks is the old thermal paste, inexpertly applied. You can see it just globbed onto the CPU and GPU on the motherboard, as well. (Those are the two small, square-ish things at the center of the motherboard.) This is way, way too much thermal paste. Whatever dopemonkey repaired my Xbox previously just sludged a huge pile onto the chips… so much, in fact, that it glommed out the sides as the heatsink was pressed down onto it.
Before applying the new paste, this old paste had to be cleaned off. I accomplished this with a hardy regiment of scraping combined with the healthy application of rubbing alcohol. This crap was tenacious. And it was everywhere. My fingers and thumbs were sore from applying pressure to cotton swabs and alcohol wipes long before this task was done.
It should go without saying, but you don’t want to directly scrape the thermal gunk off the motherboard… at least not with anything that could gouge or scratch it. The thermal paste I bought came with a blue applicator card that worked pretty well for scraping the old stuff off and getting into those tiny in-between areas near the processors. In fact, here’s what that looked like:
You can see grey gunk caked to the bottom of the card, where I had used it to scrape the bulk of the old paste away from the bottom of the heatsinks. Sitting on the card is a huge glob of old paste, which only represents part of what I had to scrub off. I think I snapped this shot after giving each heatsink only a brief once-over, before touching the motherboard at all. Scraping the bulk of the paste off was the easy part; after that, it was all about scrubbing off the residue that couldn’t be scraped.
You’re not supposed to use “too much” alcohol during this process, but honestly, I was far beyond that point. I rubbed and scraped and rubbed until all the grey sludge was gone and until the CPU, GPU and undersides of both heatsinks had a mirror shine. I made sure to dry everything thoroughly with a lint-free cloth afterwards. This was by far the most labor-intensive part of the entire process.
It’s also one of the most important parts, though. If you don’t get all the old gunk off before you apply the new gunk, the whole repair might be for nothing, and you’ll just find yourself back where you started next weekend.
Here’s my CPU and GPU, now coated with a layer of brand new thermal paste. The idea is: you put a dallop of paste on each chip, then spread it around. I used the applicator card that came with my paste, but if you don’t have one a credit card or something similar would be a good substitute.
You can see a little smudge of paste to the left of the CPU where my card slipped. I dabbed that off before reassembling my Xbox.
The thermal paste I bought came in a very easy-to-use application tube. My x-clamp replacement kit also came with a small blister pack with a tiny dallop of thermal paste. I ended up not using that, because I had my tube, but it gave me a good idea of how much to use.
I did a lot of research before attempting this part of the repair, because I wanted to make sure I got it right. You don’t want to use too much paste or too little. Here are the rules of thumb I followed for this step:
- Put only a very small blob of paste on each chip. Each blob should be about the size of a grain of rice.
- Spread the blob as evenly as possible, making sure to cover the entire chip. When you’re done, the layer of paste should be about as thick as a sheet of syran wrap.
- Resist the temptation to add more paste. If you have an even coating with no naked spots on the chip, you probably did it right.
When putting the heatsinks back on, there was no way this paste was going to leak out and slop all over the motherboard, the way Microsoft’s paste did. In my opinion, that’s what caused the E 74 error in the first place.
At this point, it’s time to put your heatsinks back on. You’ll either re-attach your x-clamps here, or you’ll use the bolts and washers that came with your replacement kit. If you bought the same kit I did, you have access to extremely detailed instructions on exactly how this is accomplished. If you didn’t buy a replacement kit, and you’re keeping your x-clamps, they should snap right back in place.
Once the heatsinks are back on, you technically have a functioning Xbox; all you have to do is plug the disc drive back in.
There was no way I was going to go through the whole disassembly process a second time in case the repairs didn’t work, so I just plugged the Xbox guts back into the TV and fired it up.
It was pretty cool seeing a stripped Xbox in operation. The little green dot you see on the front panel of the console is the Player 1 indicator LED. Doesn’t look so impressive when it isn’t hiding behind a wedge-shaped layer of clear plastic, does it?
Of course, even if you did the repairs properly, your Xbox won’t function like this for long. Without the fans in place, the processors will quickly overheat. When that happens, the Xbox will automatically turn itself off to prevent damage to the console. This will only take a couple of minutes. Letting the Xbox run that long will cause the paste you applied to melt and disperse a little bit, settling into place.
Once it shuts itself down, your heatsinks will remain too hot to touch for a long time. I waited for mine to cool enough that I could touch one without getting burned, then powered the system back on. Green lights again! Woo hoo!
At this point I put the fans back in, reassembled everything, and snapped the case back in place. I then powered on the console a third time. I had to leave for work at this point, so I told Peanut to just leave it running, and shut it off before she went to bed.
“Do you want me to call or text you if it craps out?”
“No. I don’t want to spend my night at work all angry and depressed.”
When I returned home the following morning, I learned that Peanut had fallen asleep on the couch without every powering the console down. It was, however, still churning away the naked menu screen when she awoke at about 5 a.m. The Xbox had been running smoothly for nearly eight hours without incident.
I plunked the HDD back in and got caught up on my Rock Band DLC. I had an Xbox again!
This repair was really easy and fun. Parts of it were frustrating and nerve-wracking, but on the whole I found that I was never in over my head, even though I know very little about computers and am always very afraid I’m going to damage them when I’m poking around in their guts.
If your Xbox breaks down and gives you an E 74 error, this is what you’re paying Microsoft $150 (plus shipping!) to do to it… not to mention you will be out of commission for several weeks while your console is traveling all over creation. And keep in mind, they’re not going to replace the bulky, unreliable x-clamps or take special care with their sub-par thermal paste. In all likelihood they’ll just glop it on and squish it down without any regard to your machine’s precious guts.
I would definitely recommend buying the materials to fix the console yourself. I only spent $20 on parts, and the bulk of that was a tube of thermal paste and a screwdriver set which I’ll now have for future projects. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get lucky and my PS3 will break next year!
Thanks for reading about my adventures in broken Xboxes. Now I need to scrounge Nodal back up and finally get those test videos out of the way.