Hacked Xbox

A general purpose PC is in many ways the ideal client device for playing DivX movies. The problem is just that a desktop PC is not really cut out for life in your living room. If only someone made a cheap PC that had enough power to play movies, connected directly to your TV, could operate without a keyboard, ran silently, and had some decent playback software.

Well, as it turns out, there is is such a device. It’s your garden-variety Xbox, made by Microsoft, after just a few very minor alterations performed by you at your kitchen table.

The Microsoft Xbox

The Xbox is currently priced at $179, and has nearly all the attributes I rattled off as key requirements for my movie jukebox client. It’s just missing one thing: the ability to execute any third-party software.

The problem is that Microsoft has locked down the Xbox by shipping it with a BIOS that will only execute code with Microsoft’s digital signature attached to it. If you’re a game vendor and want to ship programs that work with the Xbox, you have to climb all the way into bed with the mighty menace from Redmond. And when you leave for work in the morning, you are definintely required to leave a few bills on the nightstand.

None of this would be a problem if Microsoft would license some nifty media software for the Xbox, but so far that hasn’t happened. In order for Microsoft to make a profit on their way-underpriced hardware, they need you to buy games. Lots of games. If that Xbox just sits on your shelf so you can watch “Just Married” every night, they’re going to have to eat a couple hundred dollars of lost revenue, and that business model is so 1998 it hurts.

But fortunately for you, the world is full of hackers (in the traditional sense) who have made circumventing the Xbox BIOS their life’s mission. In a nutshell, an Xbox mod chip allows you to replace the BIOS in the Xbox. Once you can replace the BIOS, you can load software of your own.

Xbox Media Player Main Menu

There are scads of programs that can be loaded into a modded Xbox, but the one I’m interested in is called Xbox Media Player (XBMP). This is a free piece of software that has a really nice mix of features for music, photos, and movies.

Probably the best part about using XBMP is that it doesn’t require any server-side software. The XBMP team ported SAMBA to the Xbox, so they are able to browse shares on your server. This is really great for a multi-client setup as it adds very little load to the server.

You can set up arbitrary menuing systems for your movies using folders on your server and entry points on the Xbox. Organizing things is a bit labor-intensive, but there’s no limit to how far you can take your configuration.

XBMP even has some menu niceties, such as the ability to pull thumbnails down from the Internet Movie Database. It lets you set bookmarks in a movie, see exactly where you are in the film, and so on. It has a complete set of controls for adjusting image formatting, audio playback delay, the works.

XBMP access to the Internet Movie Database

If you could buy Xbox Media Player as a commercial Xbox app for under $100, it would be the hands-down winner for my video jukebox client. Unfortunately, you can’t, so putting together an XBMP system is only suitable for the serious hobbyist.

A typical setup screen in XBMP

I don’t know the legal status of Xbox mod chips, but they are fairly easy to purchase. Installing one is not for the faint-hearted, and a misstep or two in the process can result in you being the owner of $200 of scrap electronics. You can buy a pre-modded Xbox for less than $300, and perhaps that’s the best path for the cautious to take.

Once you have your modded Xbox, acquiring and installing the software is another adventure all in itself. Authors of programs such as XBMP are apparently legally prohibited from distributing binaries of their programs. These programs have to be built with Microsoft’s Xbox SDK, and you can be sure that said SDK has specific prohibitions against software that requires a modded Xbox.

Still, it’s worth noting that the Xbox solution currently offers the best set of features for a low-end device. If you’re the adventurous type you might have some fun getting the Xbox up and running as a media player. (Just don’t come to me for support, please!)