Millions of homes have an Xbox 360 sitting in the living room, but if you're only using your 360 to game, you're missing out. With some free tools and a little elbow grease, that compact, networked PC sitting under your television can offer a whole lot of useful media functionality. The fact is, your 360 is capable of so much more than just gaming. Let's take a look at a few ways you can get more from your Xbox 360. (We covered some of this territory in our recent guide to what to do with your new cheap Xbox 360, but there's plenty of extra goodness to be had.
I'm a casual gamer who bought his Xbox 360 a solid two years after its release. I've built a dedicated DVR PC for my living room and am no stranger to incorporating computers with my home theatre. Once I bought my 360, however, I've been able to get rid of my home theatre PC, my DVD player, and even my cable box, so that my entire entertainment system runs through my Xbox 360. It's convergence at its best. The 360 is not perfect by any means, but it's the best multimedia device I've ever used. With that in mind, let's start souping it up.
Turn Your Xbox into a Media Center
Installing a dedicated home theatre PC under your TV is overkill for most people, especially if you don't want a big, noisy PC in your living room. But if you've got a Windows computer capable of running Windows Media Centre (that includes either Windows XP Media Centre Edition or Vista Home Premium and Ultimate) and an Xbox 360 that's already in your living room, you can use your 360 as a Media Centre extender. That means that you get virtually all of the goods available in Windows Media Centre on your living room TV through your Xbox. If you install a tuner card on your PC, your 360 becomes a full-fledged DVR. Even if you don't take the TV route, your 360-as-extender can play back music and stream video from your PC as well as provide access to other online content.
Microsoft has full details for connecting your 360 to your Media Centre here.
Your Xbox controllers work just fine for controlling your Xbox in extender mode, but if you're willing to throw downfor the Xbox 360 Universal Media Remote you can get a more family-friendly remote. I went all out for my Xbox and bought Logitech's Harmony Xbox 360 Remote, which integrates your 360 with the rest of your home theatre beautifully.
Hack Your Network Connection
When it comes time to connect your Xbox 360 to your home network (which is a must if you're looking to squeeze more functionality from it), not everyone is keen on snaking hundreds of feet of ugly Ethernet cable through their living room to get connected. On the other hand, the official Xbox 360 Wireless Network Adapter lists around a hefty $150. If you're looking to take your 360 wireless without the added cable clutter, you've actually got a few cheaper options, and you may already have all the tools you need.
DIY Wi-Fi Adapter: We highlighted how to build a Wi-Fi adaptor for your 360 on the cheap using an inexpensive router or bridge, but Gina's more recent guide to wiring your living room over Wi-Fi with a wireless bridge goes into the specifics. Alternately, if you've got an extra Wi-Fi router sitting around the house capable of running the open-source DD-WRT firmware, you can just use DD-WRT to build a wireless bridge.
Use Your Laptop as a Wi-Fi Adapter: Perhaps even better, if you don't have the goods on hand to build your own cheap Xbox 360 Wi-Fi adaptor but you do have a laptop, you can use your laptop as a free Xbox Wi-Fi adapter by enabling Internet Sharing and connecting it to your Xbox (works on both Windows and Mac laptops).
Play Back Any Media Over Your Network
Even if you haven't set up your 360 as a Media Centre extender, you can still use it to play back media over your home network through the Xbox Dashboard. Media support used to be fairly limited (and still could use expanded support), but after a much anticipated update to the 360 at the end of last year with support for DivX and Xvid videos, setting up media sharing for your 360 is a must.
The Windows Solution: If you're running Windows, all you need to do is enable sharing through one of a number of avenues—either using Windows Media Player 11, the Zune software, or Windows Media Connect. Microsoft offers detailed instructions for setting up media sharing with your Windows PC.
But I've Got a Mac: If you're not running Windows, sharing media over your home network isn't so easy. In fact, unless you want to run one of the Windows solutions in a virtual machine like VMware Fusion or Parallels and you've already bought those programs, there's no free solution. However, if you're willing to lay down $20 or so, applications like Connect360 and Rivet provide arguably better functionality than the default Windows solutions, including on-the-fly transcoding of several unsupported file formats so you can play back even unsupported media on your 360. Both apps have demo versions that limit the amount you can stream but work if you only need to stream a video or song every now and then.
But I've Got Linux: If you've got an Xbox despite your commitment to free and open source software, you're still not completely out of luck. One fellow Ubuntu user has detailed how to stream music from Ubuntu to your Xbox 360 by spending a bit of time in Terminal. Unfortunately these methods won't get you video streaming, but a little music is better than nothing. (Original post)
UPDATE: As several readers pointed out below, Linux users can set up access to video, audio, and photos for their Xbox 360 with the free, open-source uShare.
Silence Your 360 with a New Fan
Like I said above, a 360 in your living room is much quieter than just any PC under your TV, but that doesn't mean that it's silent. On the contrary, the Xbox 360 can be quite noisy. I've never noticed significant noise issues, especially when the DVD drive isn't spinning (for example, when I'm using the 360 as a Media Centre extender), but if your Xbox is a touch too noisy for your tastes, you can silence your Xbox 360 with a new fan. Keep in mind that cracking open your Xbox will void its warranty, and this hack could get you kicked off Xbox Live, so if either matter to you, you may want to skip this one. (Original post)
A Couple of Xbox 360 Loose Ends
There's still plenty more you can do with your Xbox.
- DIY VGA Output: If you'd prefer to send a higher quality signal to your TV but don't want to pay $40 for a VGA adaptor, weblog Engadget details how to roll your own VGA cable mod for around $7. (Original post)
- Transcode 360: If you prefer watching video on your Xbox as a Media Centre extender rather than through the Xbox 360 dashboard, there's a catch: Windows doesn't support Xvid and DivX playback on the 360 as an extender—despite the fact that the Xbox 360 itself can play back those formats just fine. The freeware application Transcode 360 automatically transcodes those videos for your 360 extender so you can get the same video support in the interface you prefer. (Original post)
How you make your Xbox 360 sing? Let us know in the comments.
Adam Pash is a senior editor for Lifehacker whose Xbox 360 is a media centre first, gaming console second. His special feature Hack Attack appears every week on Lifehacker.