Friday, July 6, 2007

Form Over Function? Not always a good idea...

...for technology, architecture, relationships...anything, really - but let's concentrate on technology for a second.

Don't get me wrong - if you can design something to be practical and beautiful, do it. If you can't - go with the practical. And, no, this posting is not about the iPhone for a change.

Microsoft's XBox360 is really a gorgeous device. I own two of them, and they are not only amazing game consoles - they are purportedly capable of generated all the graphic effects for the first "Jurassic Park" movie in real time. They are excellent media center extenders, allowing me to place high definition television throughout my house (relatively) inexpensively. The machine itself is small and svelte - looks good underneath a plasma screen - and, via wireless controllers, does not clutter up the living room.

It is also a runaway hit - with 10 Million units sold by end of 2006, and a projected additional 15Million to be sold by, well, right now. By any standards for any consumer electronic device - it wins.

The internet, however, gives us a bit of a darker picture. XBoxes (or XBoxen, for you Brian Regan fans) are flaming out. A lot. 30% failure rate. Again, that's a lot. For anything. Really. I can't stress it enough.

So what's going on? To produce these stunning graphics and high definition, 30fps video playback, the XBox360 employs a high-end GPU (Graphic Processing Unit) and a specially designed CPU (Central Processing Unit), and each one is on almost continuously. For folks who don't know how this all works, its ok - but you just have to remember a simple rule: to move an electron through a gated operation in a chip requires energy. That electron gets moved whenever there is a calculation to be done - which, for high end graphics, happens a lot. Each chip generates between 110 degrees and 150 degrees when running on all cylinders...which, again, happens a lot.

All of this would be fine, if the heat was managed properly...and attempts were made, but within the constraints of the beautiful form of the case. The machine is air cooled, with two small fans at the back of the unit - and a heat pipe (a piece of heat conducting copper tubing) runs from the CPU to the back of the unit. Well thought out...

...the GPU, on the other hand, has a traditional heat sink (a large, metal mass with metal fins to allow for passive air cooling) attached to the motherboard. Because the heat from the heat sink is contained by a narrow cooling channel (again, because of the design), the heat has nowhere to go. The heat is, unfortunately, transferred directly to the motherboard, causing warping and reflowed solder.

Did this information come from Microsoft? Nope. It came from a man who bought 8 of these things due to failures, and took them apart to determine the cause. (In fairness to Microsoft, although they were slow to respond with an explanation for what happened, they are going to take a 1 billion dollar hit - that is billion with "B" - and extend the warranties of the XBox360 owners by 3 years to make up for the design defect.)

How did so obvious a design flaw make it into the wild? The desire to make it pretty first overrode the desire to make it dependable. Apple has been - rightfully so - driving the consumer electronics world towards making devices that have a sex appeal that people want to own, not just need to own. It's not just marketing, it aesthetics - and it makes sense. We have to live with toasters, televisions, music players and computers - so make them look good, feel good, and operate intuitively. However, think through the consequences and don't rush to market without examining all the possibilities. Could MS have put out a device this gorgeous and not had the heating issues? Absolutely. Want proof? Someone did it - here's a modified XBox that is liquid cooled, nullifying the heat issue. It still looks just as cool - actually, it looks cooler.

Form and function on equal footing. There's an idea.

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