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XBox 360 disc scratching

Herein I've collected links and information related to the notorious XBox 360 disc scratching problem.

Overview | The Facts | Analysis | Recommendations | Help with scratches | Fixing scratches with toothpaste | Permanent fix | Links | Videos | YouTube comments

UPDATE: 2015-Apr-14

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle has overturned a 2012 decision by U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez in Seattle, which dismissed claims against Microsoft based on a 2009 ruling that was later overturned as well. The upshot is that the class action against Microsoft for knowingly selling defective consoles will continue.

This is encouraging news, but the fight is far from over. Still, it's a step in the right direction. Even if nothing else ever comes out of this process, I'll be satisfied if Microsoft admits the defect and its subsequent failure to provide appropriate relief to affected customers.

UPDATE: 2012-Jan-06

It seems clear that Microsoft still has not modified their production specifications for the 360 - not even for newer models. Several comments on my related Youtube videos are from people who bought recent 360s and are seeing the typical long, axial scratches associated with this problem. Here's a recent example: "Purchased a 250GB slim model for xmas 2011. Barely 2 weeks old and yesterday noticed a circular scratch around a game disk, rendering it unplayable. xbox is laid horizontal right next to my ps3. never moves. Desk is not flimsy either and fixed to the wall for stability. i assumed that the issues that plagued earlier 360's would have been fixed in the new model. How foolish of me to assume this. Are MS still blaming consumers for this?" -- purplepulser


Overview

For those of you unfamiliar with this issue, here's a summary: from its introduction onwards, users of the XBox 360 (hereafter 360) have reported incidents of game discs being scratched during game play. These scratches are unusual in that they occur while the disc is in the 360, as opposed to the more typical scratches we see on all optical discs that occur when the disc is mishandled or not stored in its case. Further, while handling-related scratches are random in appearance, these 360-specific scratches appear as arcs of varying length in the data area of the disc, with the arc centered on the disc's axis of rotation. Sometimes these arcs extend all the way around the disc, and in extreme cases a series of complete or partial circles is in effect cut into the surface of the disc. This gave rise to the often-used but misleading name "perfect circle scratch." Many of these scratches are quite deep, again setting them apart from the more typical handling-related scratches. Users report that even slight movement of the console during gameplay, especially if the console is set up vertically, produces a very nasty grinding sound, after which visual inspection of the game disc will show the typical scratches and the game, or parts of it, will no longer function.

I'll keep adding notes and links to this space, so stay tuned.


The Facts

  1. The XBox 360 is a consumer device, designed to be used in high-traffic, family areas of the household, by children of all ages. It was designed to be run in two orientations: horizontally and vertically, as evidenced by the rubber feet on the console and countless advertisements.
  2. The XBox 360 was designed to use standard COTS (Consumer, Off The Shelf), OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) DVD drives with custom firmware.
  3. Some COTS DVD drives are better than others. One way in which they differ is in the extent to which a loaded disc can move without coming into contact with some kind of padding. Some drives are designed to avoid this issue by clamping the disc into place firmly. Drives that do not prevent the disc from lifting out of the tray in some fashion or prevent discs from making contact with hard internal surfaces are 100% CERTAIN to cause scratches if the drive is rotated/rolled while the disc is spinning and the laser head is positioned over the disc.
  4. A disc spinning in a DVD drive can be made to lift or tilt out of the disc tray in a variety of ways. Clearly, rolling or rotating the drive is the most straightforward way to do this. But almost any type of movement has a chance to cause the disc to tilt slightly. Worse yet, many game discs have a lot of silk-screened graphics on their top surfaces. If the graphics are not distributed evenly across the surface of the disc, the disc will be slightly unbalanced. Spin such a disc up to full speed, and the result is wobbling. If the wobbling gets bad enough, the disc can tilt up high enough to come into contact with hard internal surfaces such as the laser head. My own testing shows that when one of these flawed DVD drives spins up to its maximum speed, as when a game starts, there is a very noticeable wobble. The wobble happens again when the drive spins down from higher speeds to lower speeds. This is made even worse by the fact that DVD drives are constantly changing speeds when in use. The drive has to do this to maintain a constant read speed as the read head moves back and forth from the inner part of the disc to the outer part. So it appears that the layout of the data on a disc may affect its likelihood of getting scratched!
  5. Some 360s were manufactured with DVD drives that do not properly limit the movement of discs. Products like the 360 are manufactured in batches, with parts (like DVD drives) purchased from other manufacturers in large lots. For each given manufacturing run, the manufacturer and model of DVD drive used depends on current availability and price, so it tends to vary.
  6. When an XBox 360 game is running, the game disc is always spinning. The main reason for this is that the 360 must load game content from the game disc during play, and if the disc was allowed to spin down, there would be long pauses in game play while the disc spins up whenever new game content is loaded. Just how often game content is loaded from the disc depends on the game, but it's typically frequent. So rather than allow such delays, Microsoft decided to keep game discs spinning. This situation finally changed with the November 2008 XBox 360 update, which now allows users to copy a game's content to the 360's hard drive, allowing the game to load game content from the hard drive instead of the DVD during play, which in turn allows the game disc to spin down during play.
  7. The COTS DVD drives used in the XBox 360 were and are used in other computer products, most commonly desktop computers.
  8. A DVD drive without sufficient disc movement restriction, if used in a desktop PC, nevertheless has only a small chance of scratching discs, compared with an XBox 360. That's because: a) desktop PCs are much less likely to be moved during use than game consoles; and b) there are very few desktop PC applications that require a disc to remain spinning for extended periods of time. PC games do not run from the disc but are installed onto the hard drive, so they spin for perhaps five minutes during installation, then for a few seconds each time the game starts after that. Even burning a large amount of data to a DVD is likely to keep the disc spinning for only 10 to 20 minutes at the most.

Analysis

Put all this together and what you have is an unfortunate but understandable mistake on the part of Microsoft that led to some 360s - when moved or used with certain game discs - scratching discs. I was unlucky enough to purchase one of those 360s and although I never used the 360 in a vertical position and was extremely careful not to move the 360 while it was running, it scratched several of my discs badly. The worst scratches were on a sports title from EA that has heavy silk-screening on the upper surface, mostly on one side of the disc. These scratches occurred within a few hours of purchasing the game. When I contacted Microsoft, the person I spoke to was sympathetic, but clearly she was following a script that did not allow her to admit any culpability on the part of Microsoft. She simply kept reiterating that I must have somehow moved the 360 during use. I sensed her discomfort, and after repeatedly insisting that I had done no such thing, I eventually felt sorry for her and gave up. Clearly, Microsoft felt that to admit that this problem was somehow their fault would be very expensive for the company. But was it the right thing for them to do? From my perspective, certainly not. From Microsoft's point of view, given how little money they were making on the 360, it made sense in the short term. In the long run, however, this decision may end up costing Microsoft more than if they had simply done the right thing in the first place.

What should Microsoft have done? First, when they discovered the problem, they should have changed their manufacturing standards for the 360 such that drives without adequate disc movement restriction would NOT be used in future manufacturing runs. Second, they should have owned up to the problem and offered free or even low-cost DVD drive retrofits for affected 360s. Third, they should have provided some form of compensation or at least much more useful assistance to users with scratched discs.

Instead, what Microsoft did was: a) deny that there was any problem with the 360 hardware; b) insist that any scratches are due to user mishandling of the disc or the console; c) add text to the console and documentation warning users not to move the console during operation; and d) FAIL to modify their production specifications to eliminate the use of DVD drives that do not prevent the disc from making contact with the laser head. None of these actions or failures to take action reflect well on the giant corporation, but that last one is the real kicker for me. It would be a very simple matter for Microsoft to modify its production specs in this regard. They made other changes because of the Red Ring of Death problem - why not this? The answer seems to be that at some level, Microsoft still does not understand the true nature of this problem: some of the DVD drives in 360s are not appropriate for use in a game console. When you manufacture a game console, it should be fairly robust. Microsoft knows this already, as shown by the 360 controller, which is very solidly built (despite other problems). If you discover that game discs are being scratched in normal use, you have a problem; analyze it fully and modify your production specs accordingly. Sadly, despite having made other changes to their manufacturing process, Microsoft is apparently still using inappropriate DVD drives in some XBox 360 production runs. (2010-Nov-13: A commenter on one of my Youtube videos says he just bought one of the new slim 360s and it scratched one of his discs. Sadly, Microsoft is apparently still not listening.)


Recommendations and Preventative Measures

Test your console with a demo disc

One source of confusion has been the fact that not all 360s cause these scratches. For example, my first 360 definitely did scratch discs, while my second does not. When I bought my second 360, I foolishly assumed that Microsoft had at least recognized that the problem could be reduced by improving their production standards for DVD drives. I was aware that they had made similar changes in relation to the RRoD problem, so I was optimistic. As it turns out, the new 360 was quieter, ran cooler and more reliably, and - fortunately - it does not scratch discs. I confirmed this with a simple test: using a demo disc included with a gaming magazine, I started one of the demo games, and with the game running and disc spinning, I rotated the console from side to side and back and forth. No grinding noises occurred and the game continued playing. Ejecting the disc revealed no new scratches. Performing this test on my first 360 resulted in the disc lifting out of the tray and hitting the laser head, causing loud grinding noises and, of course, major scratches on the disc. This is an inexpensive way to determine for certain whether your 360 is one of those which will cause scratches. Some time after I performed this test, I learned that I had simply been lucky, since other recent 360 buyers were finding that their discs were being scratched by the new console. Clearly Microsoft is still building 360s with inadequate DVD drives.

The only way to know for sure whether you have one of these 360s is to perform a similar test. Several things may occur during the test: if you're lucky, nothing will happen; the game will continue to play and no scratches will be made. The disc may come unseated, causing the drive to stop, but no scratches to be made, which is also a good result. And of course, you may hear that terrible grinding noise, and see new scratches on the disc.

If you're unlucky enough to have a disc-scratching 360, you may find the following recommendations helpful.

Horizontal orientation

Position the 360 horizontally, not vertically. This will not prevent scratches from occurring, but since in a horizontal orientation the console is more stable, the chances of scratches occurring will be reduced.

Place padding under the console

Again, while this will not prevent scratches, it may help. Testing has shown that ever fairly small vibrations can cause enough movement in the disc to bring it into contact with the laser head. Be careful to avoid plugging vent holes since that could cause the 360 to overheat.

Keep it away from the subwoofer

If you have a home theatre system with a subwoofer, the low frequency vibration from that speaker could cause enough disc movement to lead to scratches. Keep the 360 as far from the subwoofer as is practicable.

Install games on the hard drive

If you play a particular game for extended periods, consider installing it onto the 360's hard drive. You'll still need the disc to be in the DVD drive to start the game, but it won't be spinning while the game is playing so it can't be scratched. Unfortunately, most 360 configurations include fairly small hard drives, which limits the number of games that can be installed to two or three, but hard drive upgrades are available.

Don't leave games running

If you're not playing a game, don't leave it running. The longer a game runs, even if it's paused, the longer the disc spins, and the greater the chance that some kind of bump or vibration will cause the disc to be scratched. Unfortunately, not all games include a reasonable save mechanism, which might tempt you to leave such a game running to avoid losing your progress. This is not recommended.


What to do if a disc becomes scratched

  • If it's a game published by Microsoft, they will replace it for $20. Not a particularly attractive option.
  • Some game stores will replace damaged discs. Check the store where you bought the game.
  • Some game stores provide disc repair services. Check the stores near you.
  • Buy a disc repair kit, such as the Memorex Optifix Pro. These kits are available for about $20 and do a fairly good job of polishing out or filling in scratches.
  • Use toothpaste or another mild abrasive like Brasso to polish out the scratches. WARNING: for this to work, you must do it properly! See my video on this subject, linked below, as well as the full procedure, also below.

Repairing scratches with toothpaste

When I started looking for solutions to this problem on the web, I immediately started seeing a lot of weird home remedies for disc scratches. Many of them seemed bizarre, to say the least. However, since Microsoft was no help at all, and the game I most wanted to play was in fact unplayable, I figured I had nothing to lose. I decided to try toothpaste. I reasoned that since toothpaste is usually mildly abrasive, it might polish out the scratches. I also knew that axial scratches - the ones that go around the disc like the ones caused by 360 drives - are extremely difficult for an optical drive to read through, and that radial scratches (from the center of the disk outward, like spokes) are much easier to read through. This I had learned from the excellent NIST articles related to optical discs (warning - PDF). Imagine my surprise when the toothpaste actually worked! Some time later, I posted a video and instructions showing how to repair discs with toothpaste. Here's the procedure:

I use regular white Crest. The toothpaste must be abrasive; it should feel slightly gritty between your fingers. Put a small amount on your fingertip and rub from the center of the disc outward over the scratch towards the outside edge of the disc. Repeat many times. Eventually you will see the scratch fade. Where it was you will see lots of light scratches where you were rubbing. This is normal. Rinsing the toothpaste off between each rubbing helps. If you have lots of scratches or they extend all the way around the disc this can take a while; work on the ones that show up from several different angles as they are typically the deepest.

I've heard elsewhere that Brasso works. I may try it if the need ever again arises. I should caution you, however, against polishing the disc in circles. Any axial scratches have the potential to cause read errors, and polishing in a circular motion will cause fine axial scratches to be created. Everything I've read on the subject says to use radial polishing motions only (from the center outward).

I work on fingertip-width sections (about a centimetre long arc), rubbing fairly vigourously from the inside to the outside only. Each application and subsequent rubbing takes about 30 seconds, then I rinse and repeat. I usually have to do that 5 to 10 times for each section. If you only have one small scratch, you're done after one section, but if a scratch goes all the way around it takes a lot longer. You'll get better at judging how hard to press with your finger as well.

Don't leave the toothpaste on the disc. That won't do anything useful. The toothpaste is used as a rubbing compound. You literally rub the scratches out. IMPORTANT: the rubbing action should ONLY be from the center of the disc outward, never around the disc. Just use your fingers.

When you're ready to test, dry the disc off with a soft cloth. If it doesn't yet work, work on the disc some more.


Permanent fix

If you have the stomach for it, you can permanently fix a disc-scratching 360 by installing pads into the DVD drive. I say that because doing this will almost certainly void your warranty, since it will typically involve physically opening the console. I have heard that there are pad installation kits that work without opening the case, but I've never seen one so can't comment on them.

When I realized that my 360 was going to keep scratching discs - especially my favourite games (!), I decided to bite the bullet and install pads inside the DVD drive, as described on llamma.com. So I opened the 360, voiding my warranty in the process, removed the DVD drive, opened its lid and had a look. What I found confirmed what I had been reading: there was nothing in the drive preventing a spinning disc from coming into contact with the laser head. I had some strips of adhesive padding used for furniture, so I cut it into short strips and stuck four pads under the drive lid where they would do the most good, put it all back together, fired up the 360 and tested it with a demo disc. I rotated, twisted, shook and spun that 360 around like crazy, and all that happened was that - eventually - the disc came out of the tray and the drive stopped. No grinding sounds, and NO NEW SCRATCHES. Yay!


Links


Videos


What I've learned from my YouTube videos on this subject

As you can see from the number of views and other stats for these videos, this is a popular subject. How many people would search for, find, watch, favorite, rate highly or comment on a video of an old dude complaining about his game console unless they had experienced similar problems. I'd say close to zero. And there are plenty of similar videos on YouTube and elsewhere. Now consider this: for every annoyed XBox 360 owner who posted a video about this, there are probably a thousand others who experienced this problem but are not inclined to bitch about it in public. Now you can start to see the magnitude of this problem.

Summary of comments for the toothpaste repair video (as of Sep. 2009):

  • Helped (disc fixed!): 70
  • Didn't help: 62

Many of the negative comments were from people who apparently didn't perform the procedure properly. Some probably had scratches that were just too deep to fix. At least, that's what I tell myself. A few people recommended dumping the 360 and getting a PS3. And of course there were the usual random insults and gibberish. And a few declarations of love from satisfied viewers!


Update: September 16, 2009

My second 360 just died of Error E74, which is related to the Red Ring of Death problem. I'll be sending it back for repair. See my separate post about this.

Last Updated: Monday, February 27 2017 @ 09:10 AM PST| Hits: 67,801 View Printable Version