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

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.

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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 ConsumerAffairs.com, an online publisher of consumer news and recall information.

Adam Carpentieri, who said his online repair site, xbox360-pros.com, 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.

As the solder repeatedly heats and cools, it cracks away from the circuit board’s tiny copper connections -- causing them, in turn, to separate and fracture.

When the current moves across these fragile connections, it produces more heat -- just as a thin extension cord overheats when connected to a major appliance, said Richard Doherty of researcher the Envisioneering Group. This process worsens over time, leading to eventual failure.

Microsoft declined to respond to specific questions about the Xbox and heat problems. However, Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices Division, said there wasn’t a single cause of failure, but rather a design flaw that became apparent over time. He said Microsoft had made changes to prevent problems from recurring.

The hottest devices of all, experts say, are cable and satellite boxes with built-in digital video recorders. That’s because even when the TV is off, the box’s internal hard drive is recording so viewers switching on their sets in the middle of a program can “rewind” to the beginning if they wish.

Heat-affected gadgets don’t always completely seize up -- sometimes they just act strangely.

Televisions can display images at half their size. Cable or satellite boxes refuse to change channels. Surround-sound systems stick on a single setting.

In extreme cases, the heat grows so intense that it leaves a telltale scorch mark on the furniture.

“Once in a great while, you see door warpage or peeling off of the veneer,” said Murray Kunis, president of Future Home in West Los Angeles, a custom home entertainment system installer who counts the Hollywood elite among his clients. “Usually, if we do have problems with installations we’ve taken over, there hasn’t been given any thought at all [to ventilation]. The cabinet’s red hot.”

dawn.chmielewski@latimes.com

alex.pham@latimes.com

Times staff writer James S. Granelli contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Keeping it cool

Components are designed to operate in well-ventilated areas. But when several components are crammed into close quarters without an adequate air flow, overheating can shorten the life of equipment or cause other problems. Here are some steps to take to avoid gadget heat stroke:

* Keep the components out in the open where natural ventilation is not impeded. Gadgets need fresh air.

* Allow elbow room for components placed in a home entertainment unit. Provide at least 4 to 6 inches above and below a flat-panel TV, and 1 or 2 inches around the cable set-top box, DVD player or amplifier. Think of the home entertainment unit as a crowded party -- leave some extra space or the room will get stuffy.

* Remove doors from the home entertainment cabinet, or at minimum leave a large opening in the back and avoid pushing the cabinet against the wall. This will improve air flow -- but it’s often impractical because many homeowners choose built-in cabinets that are flush against the wall.

* Invest in proper ventilation. Don’t just install a fan to circulate the same overheated air. (“You turn an oven into a convection oven,” said one expert.) Instead, improve the air flow throughout the cabinet by cutting an opening low and in front to allow fresh air to come in, and high in the back with a fan to blow the hot air out.

Source: Active Thermal Management


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