For those lucky enough to make it through the queues and beat the scalpers to get a new Xbox or PlayStation this holiday, the horror stories don't necessarily stop once your online shopping cart is secure. Scattered reports of PS5 and Xbox Series X packages showing up with the wrong contents (or never showing up at all) aside, a person may open their box to wonder if their console even survived the trip.
I'm one of those people: my PS5 arrived after a cross-country trip via shipping by ground, showing up in a box with sparse packing material that could've let the actual console box slide and tumble the whole way. So far, I've mainly encountered issues that are common for many users—the console crashed a couple times on Miles Morales, and my DualSense wouldn't charge from the front USB port until Sony pushed a firmware fix. Apart from these early inconveniences, my console seems to be in okay shape (knock on wood).
While there are already sporadic reports of new consoles bricking for unknown reasons, the thought on my mind and surely many others' is whether or not the PS5 or new Xbox consoles have any major hardware issues that simply haven't presented themselves yet. Are early accounts of persistent PS5 coil whine or Xbox Series X disc drive issues a prelude to something on the magnitude of the "Red Ring of Death" or Joy-Con drift?
Some folks might want to hold off on buying a new console until we've identified problems like that, but there are others scrambling to upgrade ASAP. For the benefit of both kinds of buyers, I got in touch with console repair experts for their thoughts and tried to pinpoint when widespread issues with the Xbox 360 and Nintendo Switch really started to present themselves. With this information in mind, we can get a better idea of when we're likely to move past things like vaping hoaxes and into actual widespread failure territory.
Teardown Triumphs and Cooling Concerns
Even before the release of the PS5 and Xbox Series X, we knew a surprising amount about Sony and Microsoft's new consoles. Digital Foundry's Richard Leadbetter got to do a sort of reverse-teardown with a demo Xbox Series X way back in March; Sony, though much slower to reveal its console, published its own teardown of a retail device in early October. Even without seeing the insides of both flagship consoles, or that of the Xbox Series S and its distinctive intercom-like fan exhaust, it's easy to tell how much thought has gone into cooling these machines just from looking at their outer shells.
Craig Lloyd, Head of Technical Writing at iFixit, says he doesn't anticipate heating issues will be a problem with this batch of new consoles. "The public is really good at discovering flaws and defects fairly quickly, and consoles have been no exception," Lloyd says. "The Xbox 360's 'Red Ring of Death' and the PS4 Pro's heating concerns were both brought up within a couple months of release."
On top of advocating for Right to Repair legislation, iFixit produces free repair manuals for a wide variety of electronics and sells parts and repair kits online. Many independent shops will likely refer to iFixit's teardowns and forthcoming repair guides for the new consoles in the months and years to come. With one foot in the repair business and the other in repair advocacy, Lloyd and others at iFixit can speak to how the new consoles are designed and to the ways in which Microsoft and Sony try to discourage DIY or third-party repairs.
Both the PS5 and Xbox Series X have optical drives that are locked to the motherboard, Lloyd says, meaning they can't be replaced with new or different units (if you try, the "discs would not be recognized"). Already, iFixit is filing a Digital Millennium Copyright Act exemption for the locked drives. Both consoles also have screws that are "unnecessarily covered up with stickers," which Lloyd notes are unenforceable by law.
Still, on the grand spectrum of consumer electronics, consoles new and old are in a relatively good place. "Overall, game consoles have always been fairly modular, with parts that are easy to replace—we've constantly given consoles high repairability scores," says Carsten Frauenheim, another Technical Writer at iFixit. "However, consoles are naturally worse for repair than, say, an equivalent PC, since all of the components have specifically been tailor-made for the console gaming experience. They all work in seamless conjunction together, and it's not uncommon for things to be paired—either via hardware or software—in order to 'advance' this unification."
This pairing can be problematic and—as with the new optical drives—can warrant legal pushback, but even these newest consoles are a fair sight easier to break down into their component parts than many of their laptop or smart device contemporaries. Marcus Richardson, a longtime repair technician at Manhattan's 8 Bit and Up independent games store, says he was particularly struck by the simplicity and elegance of Sony's design while watching the PS5 teardown.
"I thought it was beautiful. I look at that stuff like art," says Richardson. "They're learning from their mistakes and their successes, you can just tell." With 20 years of repair experience dating back to the PS2, Richardson's seen the design sensibilities of Sony and Microsoft change overtime for better and worse—and to him, bigger is better on paper.
"The PS3s, for example, had three different body styles, and sometimes you're like, 'Why did they shrink this?' I don't think slim's the way to go." Back to the question of cooling, one issue Richardson cites with consoles from the past ten years are failures that come from heavy use. "I feel like what they've done in these new designs might be to make it more like a computer, where you could leave it on for four days straight and not hurt it."
We've Got a Good Idea of When Issues Will Present Themselves
Better cooling might remove some familiar failure points from recent generations of console hardware, but neither Lloyd or Richardson are bullish on the idea of these consoles being free of any common issues down the line. In Richardson's experience, he says it takes about six months to a year and a half for major issues to present themselves, and two high-profile examples line up with that timing quite well.
Some console issues are harder to trace in the public consciousness than others by virtue of them lacking common terminology, which can suggest that the issue in question isn't as wide spread. For example, issues with PS4 Pro cooling and fan noise are hard to tease out for a variety of reasons. Fan noise, to a degree, is variable: the fan speed can depend on ambient temperature, meaning folks with poorly ventilated setups are more likely to experience problems. Folks going online to talk about cooling and noise might even have the revised, quieter model and not know it.
Still, a Google Trends search for "PS4 jet engine" sees the common refrain about noisy PlayStation fans picking up substantially over the past year. Two other, stickier terms about console issues—"Red Ring of Death" and "Joy-Con drift"—better illustrate when those issues first stood out not just as possible problems for their respective hardware but highly common ones.
For the "Red Ring of Death," the term first picked up significant interest on Google in March of 2007, which is almost exactly a year and a half after the console's launch. The name stuck from early 2007-onwards, with interest climbing even after then-Xbox head Peter Moore announced the extended three-year warranty for the system that summer. Interest in the term spiked on Google in December 2009, the last holiday season for the original Red Ring-prone design before the release of the Xbox 360 S the next year.
A strikingly similar pattern played out with the Nintendo Switch. Joy-Con connectivity woes were noticed right out the gate, but analog stick issues became evident later. Former USgamer News Editor Matt Kim wrote about trying to find a problem-free pair of Joy-Cons in April 2019, noting that the stick drifting was already a serious issue—earlier search results for Joy-Con drift start cropping up about six months to a year earlier, placing the issue right in Richardson's expected failure window. The term then stuck to the issue in July of last year when Vice's Patrick Klepek reported on Nintendo's policy to repair Joy-Con drift for free, and has trended around the release of new Switch games and associated lawsuits ever since.
Richardson, who has seen repair requests for issues like stick drift and Red Rings start as a trickle that turns into a wave, says he thinks problems like these are generally exacerbated or accelerated by heavy use. If you're holding off on buying a new console now, it might be good to check in with anyone you know who has been using theirs a lot in about six months' time; in Richardson's estimation, they'd be likely to encounter any problems two to three times faster than an average user.
What We Don't Yet Know and What You Definitely Shouldn't Do
Former USgamer Reviews Editor Mike Williams ran into a persistent display flickering issue with his Xbox Series X within a day of the console's launch, necessitating a prompt return merchandise authorization [RMA] exchange. He tried connecting the console to various displays at different resolutions and with a selection of HDMI cables, with the flickering constant across all of them. His horror story has given me fears about my PS5, which has been prone to very occasional flickering. Is it the console? The HDMI cable? Something inherent to my early model 4K TV?
By aiming to run circles around their last-gen counterparts and adopting new technology in the process, we're in a position with the new consoles where the same advancements that make them blazingly fast also make them something of an enigma. We know the specs of individual parts and can start comparing performance across games, but we also just need to wait and see how these machines hold up over time.
Digital Foundry's John Linneman, as much an expert on these new machines as he is on the many kinds of consoles and throwback PC hardware featured in DF Retro, does have some concerns about the longer-term for these new consoles. To take just one example, the newness of the SSDs these consoles use may mean there are failure points lurking in the tech that simply haven't surfaced yet, even with PC drives that came to market a few years ago.
"We don't really know—we've not really had high-speed NVME drives like these for that long," Linneman says. "It's really hard for me to say now where we'll be. Back in the '90s with old consoles, we didn't know which parts would become fragile and troublesome because it was new technology."
Linneman shares similar concerns about proprietary designs and soldered-on components as the folks at iFixit, as specialization like that does tend to prevent or complicate potential repairs. He has had a PS4 Pro optical drive fail and, like the PS5 and Xbox Series X, that drive is wedded to the system in a way that prevents DIY replacements.
Having worked with so many retro consoles, though, Linneman can live with some issues so long as they aren't complete death knells for the machine. "Is a failure point a disaster, or is it an optional thing? If the optical drive dies in an old console, you can't play any discs, you're screwed. If the motors in a controller go out, it sucks, but so what? You can still use it. The battery's dead and you can't find a replacement—can you plug it in and run in USB mode? Yes, so that's good."
"It could be difficult to preserve the optimal experience long-term," Linneman says, "but I always try to look at 'is there a way to enjoy this even if these things fail?'"
In an ideal world, we won't be reading stories about burned-out DualSenses or failing Xbox memory expansion drives in two years time or even ten years time, but common sense says something like that is likely to happen. Even so, sometimes the most mysterious and vexing issues can end up being solved years later. On the PS3, Linneman points out, the so-called "Yellow Light of Death" was once thought to be due to a lead-free solder issue (similar to what Peter Moore floated as the Red Ring culprit after leaving Microsoft). Then, last year, folks discovered that replacing certain "NEC/TOKIN" capacitors on the PS3 motherboard actually fixed the issue.
"A cause that nobody guessed or thought of while the [PS3] was active," Linneman says, "seems like it's actually the reason why the systems were failing. There's always new discoveries being made."
In researching this piece, and also while anxiously putting my PS5 in its new home, my mind did wander back to the PS3/360 era and its hardware woes. I was not pleased to have to send in my Xbox 360 for a replacement the week Gears of War came out—but even back then, the exchange was fast.
A few years later, I watched as a friend repeatedly wrapped towels around his 360 in an attempt to fix its on-and-off Red Ring problem. I really hope we're past the days of sketchy homebrew fixes with these new consoles, but in case we aren't, it's worth listening to what an expert has to say on the matter.
"People probably shouldn't be trying these MacGyver'd solutions due to the risk of causing even more damage," says Carsten from iFixit, "but it's hard to deny them their ingenuity in lieu of Right to Repair." If you're a relative novice like me and you do find yourself with a malfunctioning PS5 or Xbox Series S/X on your hands, maybe that can serve as a way to get more interested in console repair, repair legislation, or long-term hardware preservation. Just don't let it become the way you inadvertently set a rug on fire, please.