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Taking a hard look at Microsoft's Xbox 360 hard drive

01 Jul 2010

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A 120GB, 2.5-inch hard-disc drive costs $44.99 at So why did Microsoft charge $99.99 for the 20GB hard-disc-drive accessory to its Xbox 360 game console, and why did it sell the 120GB hard-disc-drive successor, which a 250GB replacement recently supplanted, for $129.99? A failed unit provides a tempting motivation to answer these questions.

1. Measuring 8 × 3 × 1 inches and weighing less than 1lb, the Xbox 360 hard drive clips onto one side of the console's enclosure.

2. The unit's back side contains the proprietary hard-drive-to-system connector, along with four screws, one of which lies underneath a Microsoft-labelled metallic sticker, that you must remove for disassembly.

3. Removing four small Torx-head screws exposes the interiors of the two sides of the case. The top half is all plastic, whereas the bottom half contains the latch assembly and the hard drive.

4. Removing the hard drive from the chassis reveals a seemingly conventional Seagate ST920217AS storage device with 5,400rpm rotation speed—better for both lower power consumption and less noise generation than its 7,200rpm counterparts—and 2MB integrated RAM cache. But as "modding"—that is, modifying—enthusiasts have discovered, they can neither access the Xbox 360 hard drive through their computers nor replace it with an off-the-shelf drive of similar or greater capacity.

5. A thin metal shield covers the hard drive, presumably to suppress EMI (electromagnetic interference). Removing four larger Torx-head screws exposes it and its mated standard SATA (serial-advanced-technology-attachment) data/power cabling for inspection.

6. Hard drives for the Xbox 360 contain custom firmware. Microsoft wants to prevent Xbox 360 hard-drive tethering to computers as a means of counteracting hacking attempts to manipulate game content on the drive, for example, or to circumvent DRM (digital-rights management) for rented or purchased music and video material. In addition, game consoles follow the well-known "razors-and-blades" marketing model: First sell the console at a loss and then make up the fiscal difference—and perhaps turn a profit—through subsequent sales of lucrative accessories. Such accessories include not only games and other digital data but also hardware devices, such as controllers, cameras, flash-memory storage units, and... hard drives. The 20GB hard disc targeted use with the initially no-disc Xbox 360 Arcade variant, whereas the 120GB version acts as a means of upgrading consoles and thus comes with a USB-interface data-transfer cable.

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