Last month I repaired the E74 hardware error that cropped up on my Xbox 360. I was quickly informed by someone who had tried the same fix that the repair was only temporary, and that I’d be lucky if my Xbox survived into summer. That same person admitted to trying something called “the oven trick”, though, so I took the warning with a grain of salt.
I was still waiting for my Xbox to fail again, though. Part of the repair involved screwing the heatsink into the motherboard using washers instead of the bend-y x-clamps that came with the unit, and the instructions I was following cautioned me that if the screws weren’t tightened properly contact between the chips and the heatsink wouldn’t be even. Thus, the Xbox would function for a while but inevitably go out again.
And this was indeed the case. Last week during a Rock Band 3 session I noticed red lines appearing across some of the in-game visuals. Last night the Xbox failed to boot at all, instead giving me a single flashing red light. So I cracked ‘er open again, with the intentions of tightening the screws.
I’m pleased to report that my thermal paste was still in good shape. My own amateur handiwork hadn’t devolved into a mountain of grey glop the way the stuff from Microsoft’s factory had. Still, I cleaned all the paste off and applied a new layer. I then took extra special care to tighten the heatsink screws in such a way that an even amount of pressure was being applied to the CPU and GPU. I plugged the disc drive back in and hoped for the best.
…dammit. One flashing red light.
I had already budgeted to replace my Xbox last month when I did the first repair, so I wasn’t actually too upset about this. Still, there are lots of other things I’d rather spend $300 on, so I decided to try one last-ditch fix: I’d purposely overheat the GPU.
See, the E74 error deals with the Xbox’s graphics chip. That’s why the first thing they suggest you do to fix it is check all your cables; something as simple as faulty connections can trigger it, and the fix can be as easy as unplugging everything and plugging it all back in. However, the error message encompasses everything up to and including complete and irreparable GPU meltdown. It’s impossible to tell exactly how serious the problem is without calling Xbox support, and all they’re going to do is tell you to mail it in.
The thermal paste was a good idea, and so was replacing the x-clamps. Without hardened chunks of paste jutting out everywhere, and with proper pressure applied from the heatsinks, there was really only one last fixable problem I could have had: the solder holding the GPU to the motherboard. To fix this, repair guides suggest trying a “reflow”. The idea is to purposely overheat the GPU so the solder melts somewhat, then let it cool down into a more functional state.
This is how bad ideas like the “towel trick” and “oven trick” are supposed to help. And if you’re lucky, they actually might!
The way I did it, though, was just to remove the cooling fans from the Xbox and power it on. This would cause both chips to eventually overheat, which is the final step in letting the new thermal paste settle. After that, I plugged the fan back in and laid it on top of the disc drive so it was blowing cold air on the CPU. This set-up would allow the CPU to remain cool (and therefore avoid the automatic shut-down triggered by an overheating CPU) while letting the GPU get as hot as Satan’s fiery nipples.
This step was actually suggested in the repair guide I followed last month. I decided against it for two reasons. First, it sounded dangerous. Letting a piece of computer equipment sit there and get hotter and hotter is exactly the opposite of everything I know about computer equipment in this wide world! And second — well, the fix had worked. Why use a tourniquet when a band-aid will do?
At this point, though, I pretty much had nothing to lose. Either overheating the GPU would do the trick, in which case my Xbox would be back in working condition, or it would damage the GPU beyond the point of repair, which… well, I was already in that boat, wasn’t I? So I left the Xbox running for about 90 minutes, CPU cool as can be, GPU steaming and fuming. All the while the box cheerfully droned away at me with its single taunting red light.
By about 4am I was tired and ready to give up. I went to bed.
When I woke up today, I was 100% prepared to make the trip out for a replacement Xbox. I’d already budgeted for it, after all. I had breakfast, I took care of my Mafia business, I played a few days’ worth of Persona 3. I checked my bank account balance, because I’m anal like that, and I can’t make a big purchase without being quadruple-positive the money is actually there.
The one thing I didn’t do was try to turn the Xbox back on. Not until I was just about to head out the door. I hadn’t even bothered to put the box back together. It looked sad and vulnerable, sitting there naked on the table in my game room. Just a motherboard exposed to the elements, surrounded by screwdrivers and Q-tips.
When I hit the button, it gave me green lights.
I ran a few more tests, then re-assembled the case. It recognized the HDD instantly. It asked if I wanted to play Rock Band.
Why, yes. Yes, that sounds good.
So now I have a working Xbox again. I rocked for a while, played a little Deadly Premonition, ran through the Limbo demo for the fourth or fifth time. (I keep telling myself I’ll buy it, eventually.) The old man chugged away diligently. No red lights, no mysterious graphical glitches, no freezes or crashes or warning klaxons.
I don’t know whether my 360 is on its last legs, and that I’ve just extended its life support, or if overheating the GPU was the final piece to the puzzle. I won’t be doing any hard gaming on the machine until L.A. Noire comes out this summer, so it’s possible the question won’t be answered until then.
In the meantime, I admit I am slightly disappointed that I don’t have an excuse to go buy one of those sexy new black Xboxes that come packed with a Kinect. I will, however, keep that $300 in reserve… just in case.