Transform Your Classic Xbox into a Killer Media Center

xbmc-header.jpg Don't ditch your classic Xbox just because you can't play Halo 3 on it: nowadays it's easier than ever to transform that old neglected console into a Unix-based media command center. While early Xbox hackers had to pry open the black box to solder on a modchip, today a software exploit lets you replace Microsoft's crippled dashboard and run the incredible, open source Xbox Media Center (XBMC) software. You don't have to be a hardcore gamer or Unix hacker to get your XBMC on. On Wednesday Adam showed you how to reach media nirvana with Windows Media Center and the Xbox 360, but today we're kickin' it old school with a classic Xbox softmod.

Why do you want an Xbox Media Center?

Because underneath your television there's a powerful little black computer gathering dust ever since you finished Halo 2, and it's got a sizable hard drive, fast processor, and most importantly, an ethernet port that can do a hell of a lot more than connect you to Xbox Live. Your modded Xbox running XBMC will be networked with the rest of the computers in your house and let you:

  • Play videos, music and photo slideshows located on any shared drive in the house displayed on the television in your living room
  • Watch Apple movie trailers, YouTube videos, Launch.com videos and see RSS newsfeeds dynamically loaded from the internets
  • Transfer files to and from your Xbox's hard drive
  • Rip DVDs to a shared network drive to play later or backup
  • Watch DVDs sans "dongle" (no more DVD Playback Kit required!)

Plus all your games and saved games work as usual (EXCEPT for Xbox Live—see more below.) For more details on file formats and other capabilities, here's exactly what XBMC can do.

Warnings, disclaimers and the main catch: Once you've modded your Xbox you can no longer use Microsoft's Xbox Live online gaming service. Xbox mods are not endorsed or supported by Microsoft—in fact, they void your warranty—so you do risk bricking your box and winding up the creek without a paddle. That said, I've just softmodded my Xbox using these very instructions so I can vouch for 'em. Finally, this looks like a lot of work but in reality, once you've gathered your hardware and software, the actual modding is very quick. Plus it makes you feel like a freakin' ninja. These instructions don't require you be as smart as Cortana, but you should be comfortable with networking concepts like IP address assignments on your home network, FTP and IRC.

Let's get started.

Gather the materials

The softmod takes advantage of a game exploit using a saved game you'll download and move onto your Xbox, so it requires a few specific items.

xboxmod-materials.jpg

Here's what you'll need:

  • A classic Xbox (duh)—Those of you without an Xbox but interested in building a media centre on the cheap, you could easily score on on eBay for under $US100.
  • An original (not a copy) of Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell game.—(Not the Pandora's Tomorrow or Chaos Theory versions.) Other games work, like Mech Assault and 007: Agent Under Fire, but I used Splinter Cell (the Platinum Hits edition) so that's the only one I can vouch for. (I had the game already, but there are a tonne for sale at Amazon, many for under 10 bucks.)
  • The Action Replay kit—Action Replay is a USB interface to an Xbox memory card that lets you load pre-saved, unlocked games and cheats onto the card. You see where this is going. I snagged one on Amazon for about $40.
  • A home network router with a free Ethernet port and a network cable. Chances are you've already got one of these. Plug one end of the cable into your router, and the other into your Xbox.

Install the softmod and Xbox Media Center

Once you've got the materials together, you're most of the way there. Onto the modding.

  1. Determine the location of the softmod installer and XBMC downloads. Never in my online life have I had to go through such a rigamarole to get ahold of files. These Xbox hackers are careful people: in short, you have to log onto an IRC channel, issue a command to query the FTP server location, and get temporary login details in order to acquire the files (the equivalent of finding hidden door and using a secret knock). So, using your favourite IRC client (I went with the Chatzilla Firefox extension), type:

    /server irc.efnet.net

    Once connected to EFNet, type:

    /j #xbins

    Then:

    /msg xbins !list

    You will receive a private message with 2 sets of FTP login details. One is for the softmod installer, the other is for XBMC. xbinsircchat.png

  2. Download and extract the softmod installer and XBMC. Whether it's FileZilla, FireFTP, SmartFTP or Transmit, use your favourite FTP client to hit up the first file location you got from xbins and download the softmod archive, which is located at: /XBOX/Console Based Applications/exploits/Packages/Softmod Installer Deluxe/Softmod.Installer.Deluxe.v2.0.Xbox-Hq.rar Then, disconnect and login to the second FTP server to grab the XBMC archive, XBMC-2.0.1-FINAL-FAT-T3CH.rar. Using your favourite RAR extractor (I recommend 7-Zip), extract the files to your PC.

  3. Move the saved game exploit onto a memory card with Action Replay. Now, break out the Action Replay software that comes on CD in the package and install it on your PC. Plug in the USB cable and the 8MB memory card that came with it. From your Softmod.Installer.Deluxe.v2.0.Xbox-Hq folder, drag and drop two files into the "PC Database" column of the Action Replay software: the one named SID.Splinter.Cell.v2.0.NTSC.Xbox-Hq.zip, and the one named SID.Splinter.Cell.v2.0.Xbox-Hq.zip. (Note: If you're in the US, you'll need the NTSC version of the first file; UK folks, go with the PAL version.) That will add a "LINUX_Profile" saved game to the Splinter Cell folder, as well as a "Linux Installer" folder. Drag and drop the Linux Installer to the Memory Card column, as shown (click to enlarge): http://lifehacker.com/assets/resources/2007/09/dragsplintercelllinuxgame-thumb.png

  4. Transfer the Linux Installer to your Xbox hard drive. Pop the memory card out of the Action Replay kit and plug it into one of your Xbox's controllers. Make sure the disc tray is empty and start up the 'box. Go into the Memory area and drill down to the controller's memory card. When you see the Linux installer saved game, hit the right button pad once to select the game, then select "Copy" from the menu to copy it to the Xbox's hard drive, as shown.

    copyexploittoxbox.jpg

    Shut down your Xbox and head back to your computer. Repeat the same process with the Splinter Cell LINUX_Profile: copy it to your Memory Card (you'll have to delete the Linux Installer first, the card isn't big enough to accomodate both), then plug the card into the Xbox controller, boot up the 'box and copy the saved game to your Xbox's hard drive. Turn off the Xbox. Now the magic happens.

  5. Use the Splinter Cell exploit. Insert the Splinter Cell game disk into your Xbox, and start the game. When it comes time to choose the profile, underneath your regular aliases, you'll see a new one named "Linux":

    loadsplintercelllinuxprofile.jpg

    Select Linux and then select "Check points" (not "Levels"). After a few seconds, Your Xbox will display an UnleashX intro screen and control panel. This is the Linux-based Xbox dashboard, which will look like this:

    xboxsoftmod-header.jpg

    Before we hit that magical menu item—Install Softmod—do two things first. Hit up the "Create MS Backup" item first, and when that's complete, hit the "Create Mod Backup." (Better safe than sorry.)

    Finally, the moment you've been waiting for: select the "Install Softmod" menu item. Don't turn off your Xbox during the process, and when the status bar completes and disappears, you're all good.

    Now choose "Install UnleashX" from the menu to replace the standard Microsoft dashboard with UnleashX permanently. Restart your Xbox and pat yourself on the back. UnleashX will boot up instead of the Microsoft dashboard, and it's got all sorts of goodies in store for you:

    unleashxbetter.jpg

    Using only the UnleashX dashboard and its default apps, you can watch DVDs using your controller, and under Applications, you can rip DVDs to your Xbox's hard drive. But what we're really interested in is its FTP server.

  6. Configure the Xbox's network settings and start the FTP server. The first order of business is to get your Xbox talking to your PC so you can start transferring files. First make sure your Xbox is plugged into your working, online home network router. Then, using the soft pad to navigate UnleashX menus and the green A button to select items, go to System > Settings > Network. There make sure Enable is set to Yes, Type set to DHCP and FTP Server is set to Yes, as shown:

    unleashxnetworksettings.jpg

    Note: These are the most common network settings, but yours may differ depending on your home network.

    Restart your Xbox to save your settings. When you boot back up into UnleashX, you should see your Xbox's new IP address appear on the lower right hand corner of the screen. Take note of it.

  7. Install XBMC on your Xbox. Back at your PC, fire up your favourite FTP client and log into your Xbox. The server location will be the IP address shown on the UnleashX screen, and your username and password will be in the Xbox's network Settings (xbox/xbox, by default.) Navigate to /E/Apps/ folder. Back on your local machine, extract the XBMC archive you downloaded, and from the XBMC-2.0.1-FINAL-FAT-T3CH folder you unrar'ed, grab the entire XBMC subfolder and FTP it to the Xbox's /E/Apps/.

    copyxboxmediacenter.png

    Restart your Xbox. When it's up, navigate to the Applications section, and you'll see Xbox Media Center listed. Select it to launch.

    unleashxappsxbmc.jpg

Revel in how much you rule

From here you get treated to XBMC's beautiful and (mostly) intuitive interface for navigating your Videos, Music, and Pictures.

xbmc-header.jpg

To access your media library, you can either move files onto the Xbox hard drive itself (which has its size limits), or browse and play media on a shared drive on your network. Using Windows built-in sharing (or Mac OS X's Windows Sharing), you can use XBMC's SMB (Samba) support to play videos that you record with your PC's capture card in the den or download via BitTorrent from the Mac in the bedroom. As you'll see, XBMC is very configurable and full of useful features.

Check out a quick screenshot tour of XBMC goodness below:

My XBMC has only been online for a few hours so I've only scratched the surface here.

References and thanks

This has to be the zillionth Xbox softmod tutorial that's ever been posted online, and I have to thank all the forum users and prior tutorial writers for providing the information I needed to get the job done. However, the two best references that finally got me off my duff and really held my hand through the process include:

  • Modding the Xbox in 10 minutes [Techfreaks] —great, thorough howto that only lacked information on using ActionReplay.
  • XBMC Wiki—the comprehensive resource for working your XBMC. I'm still pawing through this wiki customising my new media center.

Thoughts, questions and tips about modding the Xbox and XBMC? Hit us up in the comments.

Gina Trapani, the editor of Lifehacker, just fell in love with her Xbox all over again. Her weekly feature, Geek to Live, appears every Friday on Lifehacker.


Comments

    Thanks for this informative article.

    A friend of mine has Xbox Media Center already installed on his box, but its an older version of the one that you showed.

    Could you write a tutorial on how to 'upgrade' your box to the latest version of XBMC please?

    Thanks

    Instead of buying an Action Replay kit for $40, you can buy a XBox to Female USB adapter for around $9.

    You can then plug any USB flash drive into the adapter. Seeing XBox memory cards are hard find if you don't have an old one, while old USB flash drives are worth next to nothing. I have an old 128MB USB flash drive.

    To format the USB flash drive start your Xbox before plugging in the drive. Then when you plug it in, it will reformat it.

    I know many people who buy refurbished old XBoxes just to get a cheap Media Center.

    Refurbished XBox - $109 Ebgames
    Powerwave XBox Remote - $24 - Gamehead
    Splinter Cell (2nd hand) - $8 Ebgames
    USB Device to Xbox Adapter Cable - $9 Ebay

    Total for Media Center - $150 (not including shipping)

    you know rather then going through all the work of building this usb device i hot swopped the drive and just put the geme exploite in using xbrowers that way you dont need to build a usb device or buy a action replay device and getting that action replay to do anything is imposable !

    Everything was going ok until I got to the part where I had to connect my xbox to to my pc via filezilla/flashfxp. A message comes up saying that it is connecting to the ip address but the connection keeps failing. My pc is on a home wireless connection but the xbox is plugged directly into the wireless hub thingy with a data cable. I've tried pinging the xbox too but to no avail. I'm currently running an evoX dashboard. If anyone can help me out I'd really appreciate it.

    I don't know if you have done a reference to this link before, but this link can walk you through doing all this for only the cost of a blank cd. There are potential risks to doing the hotswap method that this walks you through, but you can assess the risks yourself.

    http://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-softmod-your-xbox...for-FREE/

    try using smartFTP, can be downloaded for free, google it. just make sure you put in the right ip address for the xbox(bottom right of the dash) and the right user and password(default for both should be xbox). it worked first time for me.

    is there something that you have to do other than what is listed to be able to play the backup games? I am actually not using the original ones as they are becoming harder to come by -- I bought 4 copies of star wars battlefront 2 - so I am a legitimate backup user? I know that sounds funny, but i did step by step above got it all working and the dvd drive does not seem to see the game? I used ios builder -- ? not sure if there is some other step?

    thanks

    When I go into the memory card on the xbox, it does not have the option to copy (only delete). Am I doing something incorrect?

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