This is part 2 of “Media Center on a Shoestring Budget” – you should take a quick read through part 1 before continuing.

So you’ve decided to attempt to mod an Xbox to make a media center. If I’m successful then this series of posts should serve as a decent central location for one of the techniques (and there are several) that will get you from absolutely nothing, to a full fledged media center with only a slightly lighter wallet.

Credit and acknowledgments

There is nothing here that I did other than follow the lead and use the tools that were developed by others. Most of these people still hang out on the forums in Xbox-scene and if anything here helps you get your media center up and running, then please take the time to thank those that put the tutorials together and made the real progress and inovations that made it possible.

Of course, a modded Xbox is useless without something to run on it. The “homebrew” developers of “Xbox Media Center” (XBMC for short) deserve a huge thanks for one of the most amazing pieces of open source software ever produced.

Disclaimer:

Following this procedure will void the warranty on your Xbox. This probably means nothing since there no longer IS any warranty (at least from the manufacturer) on Xboxes since they have been discontinued since the release of the Xbox-360 and since you’re going to buy a used one anyway.

That said, the following is certainly pertinent:

I will not guarantee that you will not suffer any of the innumerable potential setbacks and/or failures that can occur when following these steps. These include, but are certainly not limited to: burning out the motherboard on your computer, permanently damaging your newly purchased Xbox, burning yourself or the items in the immediate vicinity with a soldering iron, cerebral damage from banging your head against a wall in frustration, personal humiliation and feelings of inadequacy from not being able to do something several 12-year old hackers have been able to do (unless, of course, you are twelve when reading this).

Please keep in mind also that once your Xbox is hacked you should not attempt to use it on “Xbox Live.” While there are modes that you can run it in that will make it “Xbox Live” safe, if you make a mistake your Xbox Live account can be cancelled, since it is a violation of the terms to use a modified Xbox on “Xbox Live.” We have two Xboxes. One is a Media Center and the other is a game console. Only the unmodified game console is Xbox Live enabled.

There are conficting views on the legality of a modified XBox, or at least one that is running unsanctioned software (such as the XBMC). If you’re concerned, consult an attorney (I am not one). The issue, as I understand it, is that the development of software that will run on an XBox requires development tools whose licenses are tightly controlled by Microsoft itself. This makes the legality of the distribution of “homebrew” executable binaries, which require the Microsoft licensed development tools in order to be created, questionable. XBMC, in the form that it will run on your XBox, is one of those binaries.

Now, if after that you’re willing to give it a try, here are some words of encouragement. First, unless you opt for a replacement DVD drive, this doesn’t actually require a soldering iron. Second, it’s much easier than my former project to convert Super-8 movie film to a DVD, which I think only myself and a relatively small number of others have attempted, and even fewer with decent results. Third, like I did, you’re likely to learn something. Fourth, other than hardware failures, if you take a few precautions, there isn’t too much that’s not reversible. I managed to lock myself out of my Xbox several times in the process of the mod and still got it up and running eventually.

What you will get

If you opt for the minimum and purchase only an Xbox and a DVD Remote Kit, you’ll end up with a fully functional media center (minus any recording capability) that will, among MANY other things: play any digital video or audio format (I haven’t found one that it doesn’t play though I doubt that it will play DRM protected media), stream audio and video from another PC over a home network, play DVDs, display a photo slideshows while playing music, get weather over the internet, organize audio libraries, and .. Oh! … I almost forgot, it will actually play XBox games also … :-)

What you can get – optional components

Following is a list of optional components you can add to your media center. Keep in mind you don’t need to commit to any of these prior to getting it up and running.

HDTV support – By adding a component AV cable (IMO, a MUST for anyone that intends to hook this up to an HDTV), available for about $15 from Gamestop.com, you will get Hi-Def support up to 1080i (480p, 720p, and 1080i) (if these numbers don’t mean anything to you then click on the link; it’s a good introductory article on HDTV resolutions). *NOTE: please see the section “What you wont get” below for a clarification of HD support within the Media Center

HDTV support w/ 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound – Instead, you can opt for an even more functional AV cable with Hi-Def support and 5.1 digital surround sound available for $35 to $50 from Amazon (I bought one off of eBay). *NOTE: please see the section “What you wont get” below for a clarification of HD support within the Media Center

More Internal Storage – Another highly recommended option is a bigger hard disk. The native Xbox hard disk is only 8 or 10 Gig, which isn’t nearly enough to store any media. My modest CD collection, which is mostly ripped at 96 kbs (most rippers don’t go that low these days), is nearly 10 Gig itself. You certainly don’t need to upgrade the hard drive if you simply want to stream media from a computer somewhere else on you local network, but if you want to use the Xbox to actually store the media, you will need to upgrade the drive. This is done after the Xbox is modded and I will link to the appropriate tutorials in a later post.

Better DVD support – The Xbox comes with a minimally functional DVD drive. It doesn’t (typically) handle DVD-home recorded media (DVD-R/+R/-RW/+RW). It’s nice to have a large selection of content on home burnt data DVDs that you can pop into the Media Center and play directly, however, in order to do this you will most likely need to replace the DVD drive. This is NOT AN EASY TASK as it requires a very specific replacement drive (Samsung 616T or 616F – NOTHING else will work) and some significant soldering iron work.

There are several other options for playing DVD-R/+R/-RW/+RW recorded media the details of which I will provide in a later post.

Wireless game controller – Finally, I’d recommend a wireless controller. The remote that comes with the DVD kit works, but the game controller actually provides a much better (IMO) user experience and ease of control of the Media Center. Before you make up your mind, you can experiment with the wired controller that comes with the Xbox and compare it to the experience using the remote, and then make your own decision.

What you wont get

As I mentioned several times, what you wont get is the ability to record television as the Xbox doesn’t have the necessary hardware.

Also, and in my opinion more importantly, the Xbox CPU at 733 MHz is incapable of handling true HD source material. It works great upconverting 480p/i source to 1080i for output to an HDTV, but if the actual source is HD (for example, 720p), then the CPU cannot keep up and repeatedly drops frames.