It's no secret that the Xbox 360 has had a dismal failure rate, with the fabled "red ring of death." The current estimates point to over 50% of Xbox 360s having been afffected this issue and it eventually forced Microsoft to extend the warranty to three years for this problem. Recently, BBC1's Watchdog presented a PS3 article highlighting the 'yellow light of death,' prompting Sony to respond even before the program was aired. Is the PS3 destined for a similar level of failure as the Xbox 360?
What causes a yellow light error on the PS3?
The yellow light on on the PS3 indicates simply that something has gone wrong with the hardware and is not specific to any particular fault.
If the PS3 is terminal and won't boot up after a couple of hours, it might be likely to be a fault with the solder points between the PS3 mainboard and either the Cell processor or the RSX graphics card. The BGA (Ball Grid Area) packaging used by the PS3 parts is more vulnerable to breaking under thermal stress, although it's a minor disadvantage as BGA technology is in widespread use with low failure rates.
Is there is a design flaw with the PS3?
Sony are currently claiming 12,500 PS3s have been affected by this issue, which when measured against the total number of PS3s sold, is a low failure rate.
Currently, the original 60GB model appears to be more commonly affected than later models although the later versions can also suffer this type of failure. When Sony removed backwards compatibility and some other features to produce the 40GB PS3, they also changed to a new version of the processor (a 65nm version of the Cell, the original uses a 90nm Cell). This version uses less power and generates less heat, which should reduce the chance of this type of problem.
Similarly, the new PS3 slim uses a newer 45nm version of the Cell which again lowers power and heat allowing the console to use a smaller cooling system without increasing the possibility of overheating. Currently the two 60GB models here are both working fine despite one of them running noticeably hotter than the other. Based on unscientific anecdotal evidence, a failed blu-ray drive appears to be a more common cause of failure.
How can the problem be fixed?
It is possible to repair the fault in a similar manner as shown on Watchdog by disassembling the PS3 and using a heatgun to reflow the solder points. There are online guides for this type of thing, for example here on youtube. This is only a temporary repair though and it's likely after applying this fix the problem will occur again, within a few months.
Sony are currently charging £128 for the repair, claiming that unlike third party repair services they are repairing the fault and not simply heating up the two processors. However, they are only offering three months warranty on the repair.
Some people have reported success with Sony repairing "out of warranty" consoles for free, but there's no sign of a similar service for the RRoD fix from Microsoft. Given that the original PS3 was the most expensive and bought by many of the most loyal fans, it looks much better for Sony to repair these consoles out of warranty for free.
It's worth bearing in mind that Sony do offer excellent back up tools on the PS3 allowing the entire console to be backed up, or individual items to a standard FAT32 formatted USB drive. Putting this specific fault aside, it's never a good idea to rely on a hard drive for all those precious saves and any other data being kept on the hard drive. To back up the entire PS3 hard drive, browse to System->Settings->Backup Utility and then Backup choosing where you want to back up the data. Alternatively if you only want to back up certain files such as game saves then browse to the game tab, choose game saves, press triangle and choose the copy option to back the game save up to an external device, the same procedure can be carried out for most of the data stored on the PS3.
Update: Watchdog have given this issue a brief mention on tonight's show (25th September) mentioning the high cost of a Sony refurbishment again , an additional 400 complaints they've received from viewers who have had this type of failure and a brief mention of the limited legal options as currently the cause of the failure has not been demonstrated to be an inherent fault with the design. Despite also referring back to the successful repairs made to viewer's PS3s, no mention was made that the repair was almost as expensive as the Sony option and was only temporary.