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September 16, 2004

XboxMediaCenter

While certainly not the easiest product to install, XBMC, an open source project developed for the Xbox, is an impressive product with a loyal following of developers and users.

With my expectations set that XBMC would be feature rich but somewhat unstable, I was really surprised by the maturity and quality of the software. Unlike other products both retail and open source, I have yet to crash the thing and regardless of the video I throw at it, it plays flawlessly. I keep asking myself why this isn't a retail product so that more people could use it.

Like other products that serve multimedia to your entertainment center, XBMC software will let you play music, video, pictures, and the weather report on your television. You can change the look by installing different skins, but I liked the default skin well enough to leave it alone. You can do all sorts of tweaks to calibrate the screen so it looks and fits right, and the configuration file lets you specify data from a variety of sources and locations. There is even a way to watch video from your Tivo, which I have used with success, but it takes a lot of finagling on both ends to get it working properly.

The enormous downside to XBMC is the amount of work it takes to set it up. It literally took me an entire weekend to get it up and running, even after some leg work to get the right parts ordered, and I felt a little shakey handing over my credit card info to parts vendors that may be on dubious legal ground.

First, you need to "mod" your Xbox. This generally means purchasing an Xbox Mod Chip from a third party and installing it yourself, or sending in your Xbox and letting them do it for you for an additional service fee. Installing a mod chip isn't all that difficult if you have soldering skills and really good vision and hand-eye coordination, but it means cracking open the case, adding a small daughter board, likely removing some soldering points and soldering some wires on to the board, and hoping that everything went smoothly because your warranty is now void. Depending on the mod chip, you'll also have to install some software on to the Xbox, which may mean using a DVD burner, finding compatible DVD-R disks that can be read by the Xbox, and burning the software on to your new hacked Xbox.

At this point, I thought I was home free until I went to the XBMC download page and realized there was no binary download for XBMC. You can download the source, but you'd need to have the Microsoft Xbox SDK and Visual Studio to get it to compile. This is just not an option unless you or a friend is a game developer.

After googling around, there are ways to find the binaries, but that requires some legwork and some additional software, and for legal reasons, I'll avoid suggesting how it is done. Needless to say, you have to REALLY want it to get the thing installed and it leaves you feeling like you may have violated some laws in the process.

From what I've read, modding your Xbox isn't illegal as long as you don't use it to subvert copyright protection. I have less understanding of the legal issues when it comes to downloading the XBMC binaries. Almost certainly the person building and distributing the binaries is breaking their license agreement, but I don't know what crime you've committed by downloading and using the XBMC binaries. Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong about this.

The legal issue explains my desire to see a retail version of XBMC so more people would use it. For the price of an Xbox, plus the ability to play games and DVDs, it wouldn't be a bad value to pay another $59 - $79 for the software title. I'm not sure the XBMC guys could get a license from Microsoft, but I'd certainly pay for it if it were available.

By the way, Microsoft is going to offer something similar this fall that will work with MCE. It's called the Microsoft Media Center Extender for Xbox. It sounds like it only works with MCE, which is understandable from Microsoft's point of view, but it's a shame you can't use your Xbox more generally to access all your multimedia content.

For more information on Xbox and "modding", I'd suggest XBox-Scene.com.

Posted on September 16, 2004

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Comments

*cough* xbins.org *cough* sorry i have a cold, i think i know where you get the binaries from though. Would be nice for people to have an idea other than "you have to download other software" even sites like xbins dont tell you all the information about how to connect but its a little more helpfull in finding the path :P

Posted by: Timmeh at August 5, 2006 02:49 AM

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