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Reality check on Xbox 360

It didn't take long for some gamers to start griping about the new consoles. But just how widespread are the problems?

In the days following last week's debut of Microsoft's Xbox 360, video game fan sites and the mainstream press seemed to be in a race to outdo each other with reports of problems with the new consoles.

Quite a few postings, such as those appearing on game sites like Xbox-Scene, relate the experiences of some angry Xbox 360 owners whose new machines have already overheated or crashed.

But the good news for consumers--at least so far--is that the glitches appear to be isolated. Though it's still too early to quantify the problems or say for certain how widespread they are, most of the die-hard gamers who were able to get an Xbox 360 aren't complaining about their much-coveted new consoles, according to gaming experts and research analysts.

"I have 12 friends in (my) area who...purchased Xbox 360 units on launch day," said Michael Pica, a staff member at Xbox-Scene. "I had a number of them over to my house Sunday for some Xbox 360 LAN (Local Area Network) gaming. We talked about the reports of faulty Xbox 360s and all of them claimed to have experienced no problems at all."

No matter how many problems have actually cropped up with the new console, any glitches are big news after months of buildup to the Nov. 22 launch. Microsoft has billed the new Xbox as the best video game experience ever and hung a hefty $399 price tag on the "premium" Xbox 360 model that most gamers have bought--all building expectations of a flawless experience.

Microsoft admits that some of the consoles have had performance failures of one kind or another, but the company said complaints so far have not been overwhelming.

"The vast majority of folks" are not having problems with their Xbox 360s, said Molly O'Donnell, a spokeswoman for Microsoft's Xbox group. "We have received some isolated reports of consoles not working, and we're doing everything we can to take care of them."

O'Donnell told CNET that consumers who experience problems with their consoles should first visit the Xbox troubleshooting page. If the suggestions on the Web site don't solve the problem, she said, gamers can call 1-800-4MY-XBOX and receive an overnight box in which to return their console. If customers move quickly, she said, they should have their Xboxes repaired or replaced and returned within a week.

Still, some analysts say the glitches can't be that much of a shock in a product on its first run out of the factory.

"Clearly, Microsoft has been constrained in the number of products it has been able to get into the channel," said Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis at The NPD Group, "and so perhaps they've been pretty aggressive in terms of getting supply out, and it's quite common during an initial run of products to run into some quality-control issues."

"It's quite common during an initial run of products to run into some quality-control issues."
--Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis, The NPD Group

Similarly, reports of malfunctions with the newly released consoles have not surprised David Cole, an analyst at DFC Intelligence.

"It doesn't sound like it's that big a problem," Cole said. "One thing you always say about these new machines is that the first units (have issues). The manufacturing process, when you're just getting started--there's all these little bugs."

When Sony's PlayStation 2 first hit stores, he said, it had bugs, largely with DVD playback.

Rubin said that despite the widespread nature of stories about issues with the Xbox, there's no way to know how frequent the problems actually are.

"It's difficult because not only are there so few units out in the marketplace right now," he said, "but most of the reporting has been anecdotal."

But to an Xbox 360 user like Derrick Bodden, the bugs are hardly an anecdote. His particular glitch came in the form of "artifacts" that appeared on his screen days after he first got his new Xbox.

"I think the unit was only running for about an hour and a half when I started getting blue trianglelike artifacts. Then the unit froze," Bodden said. "After letting (it) cool down for a couple hours, I turned it back on. On the boot-up animation, it was (flickering) these gray boxlike things...When I would go to play a game again, it would do the same blue triangle thing, (then) freeze."

One Xbox 360 user, posting as ZNB on the blog Knowledgeultra, went so far as to title a posting, "Gotta Love my Lemon 360."

In the post, ZNB wrote: "After playing my Xbox 360 a bunch over the Thanksgiving holiday, I have realized one thing. It likes to freeze. When I pop in my ('Perfect Dark Zero') game, it wants to freeze up at random times. What started out as freezing once or twice turned into freezing every two minutes."

And other Xbox users have reported problems with the advanced remote control included in the premium edition of the console.

Pica, the Xbox-Scene staffer, said most of the Xbox problems reported on his site boil down to three categories. "Freezing or locking up of the console is the most common," he said. "Some experience this at (consistent) points in certain games. Others experience this randomly...Probably 75 percent of the reports claim this."

The other two main problems are error messages and artifacts like those experienced by Bodden. But for the most part, such problems are rare and have not hit the radar of some major retailers.

"It hasn't come to our attention that there have been a lot of returns," said Clara Miller, a spokeswoman for CompUSA. "We haven't noticed a large problem in our stores yet, but we'll continue to monitor the situation."

But Rubin said that because most retailers don't have any excess consoles to give customers returning problem machines, the real dialogue is going on directly between Xbox owners and Microsoft.

"It's Microsoft that's furnishing these replacement units," Rubin said, "because the retailer can't allocate replacement stock."

Still, he said, if retailers were having significant return issues with the Xbox, the companies' corporate offices would know about it quickly.

Meanwhile, Xbox-Scene's Pica said he's seen polls that suggest as many as 20 percent of new Xboxes have problems, but he says he doesn't buy such surveys.

"I'd say the actual error rate of the console hardware itself is probably closer to 2 or 3 percent," Pica said. "Errors are always expected with new hardware. The PlayStation 1 had overheating problems. The PS2 had laser problems. Xbox 1 had DVD drive problems...It's an expected evil with launch consoles."