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Can't stand the heat? It might be your Xbox

Temperatures are rising and electronic gadgets are failing as more and more power is crammed into less and less space.

August 04, 2007|Dawn C. Chmielewski and Alex Pham | Times Staff Writers

Michael E. Flynn owns one of the hottest entertainment systems around.

How hot is it? After two cable boxes failed from the heat his electronics gear emitted, the Newport Beach lawyer stationed a 3-foot-tall oscillating fan in front of his stereo cabinet to keep his gadgets from suffering heat stroke.

"We blew it all day long and all night long for four years," said Flynn, who ultimately hired an audio-video specialist to craft a customized ventilation system.

Flynn's fan was a low-tech solution to a high-tech problem that's vexing many consumers: The coolest electronic gear is often scorching.

Game consoles, digital video recorders, cable boxes and other gadgets in the living room are throwing off tremendous amounts of heat as manufacturers seeking more power cram them with circuitry, experts say.

As a result, home entertainment enthusiasts are reporting a variety of symptoms -- rising room temperatures, malfunctioning gadgets, even warped wood and peeling paint in stereo cabinets.

The heat intensifies when consumers stack the devices in enclosed racks, choking off air circulation.

It's a growing problem for manufacturers, too. Some experts believe that overheating is a contributor to the wave of Xbox 360 malfunctions that last month prompted Microsoft Corp. to set aside more than $1 billion for repairs and extended warranties. Analysts estimate that as many as 25% of the consoles are faulty.

Microsoft won't say how many are failing or what causes the "red rings of death" that signify a system crash. But design consultants and electronics repairmen say the powerful console's wide temperature swings -- from the supercharged heat of game play to overnight cool -- is causing the solder to crack, fracturing the tiny electrical connections that allow energy to flow between the circuits. Eventually, one or more of the 1,700 components or 500 million transistors overheat and fail.

The desire for more powerful home electronics gear is fueling the rise of heat-spewing gadgets.

The Xbox 360 consumes three times the power that its predecessor does, while Sony Corp.'s PlayStation 3 console guzzles eight times as much energy as the PS2, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group.

A top-of-the-line cable television box that displays and records high-definition video can consume more energy in a year than a microwave oven or standard 32-inch TV.

The gadgets need that power to perform advanced functions, but it translates into heat. It's a problem that is exacerbated by the desire to cram ever more muscular components into thinner, more elegant packages. There's simply not enough room inside for the heat to dissipate.

"It's serious enough that consumers need to be aware of the issue," said Roger Kay, a technology consultant and president of Endpoint Technologies Associates.

Consumers and professional installers are coming up with creative ways to handle the heat.

Gary McLane of McLane Builders Inc. in Trabuco Canyon got an unexpected lesson in thermal dynamics when he tried to accommodate a client's interest in home media.

The 20,000-square-foot house he built in Irvine's Shady Canyon featured a separate room to house all the electronics that controlled the audio, video, Internet and security systems.

McLane thought he had adequately ventilated the room, but the components sent the temperature inside soaring to 110 degrees.

The builder worried that the intense heat might trigger the sprinkler system or start a fire. So he installed a dedicated cooling system to keep the room at 72 degrees -- at a cost of nearly $50,000.

Component manufacturers once used internal fans to cool electronics, but the noise bugged consumers. Now most makers rely on the process of convection cooling; like an outdoor barbecue, the device lets heat dissipate through vents in the top of the box.

But when devices are stacked, the entertainment cabinet can become ovenlike.

Victor Moniz, 23, of Ontario, Canada, converted his component rack into a makeshift refrigerator to protect his entertainment system, which made the room noticeably warmer whenever he watched a movie, listened to music through his surround-sound system or played a video game.

He added a Freon coolant pack -- a smaller version of what's used in car or home air conditioning units -- and fans to blow chilled air over the nine devices in the cabinet.

It wasn't enough to save his Xbox 360s. Moniz said he had replaced six of the game consoles so far. "I lived in fear of it breaking every time I'd turn on the console," he said.

The Xbox's failure problem has generated more than 1,100 complaints to, an online publisher of consumer news and recall information.

Adam Carpentieri, who said his online repair site,, had fixed more than 2,000 systems, surmised that the culprit was the lead-free solder Microsoft used to comply with European Union standards for reducing hazardous materials in printed circuit boards.

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