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Xbox Enthusiasts Uncover Its Versatility

By Daniel Greenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 30, 2005; Page F07

For something sold for $150 in big-box stores, Microsoft's Xbox video-game console is turning out to be a surprisingly versatile machine -- with a little unauthorized help.

As designed by Microsoft, the Xbox can already perform some non-game functions: A $30 remote-control kit turns it into a DVD player, and the recent $80 Media Center Extender kit enables a networked Xbox to play music, photos and video stored on a PC running Windows XP Media Center Edition.

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But Xbox enthusiasts, taking advantage of such computer-derived Xbox components as its hard drive and network adapter, have taken this green-and-black box far beyond its maker's intentions.

Other game machines, like the PlayStation 2 and Nintendo GameCube, lack such PC resources, though determined hobbyists have been able to tweak those as well.

The most successful such effort may be XboxMediaCenter, or XBMC. This free program (www.xboxmediacenter.com) lets an Xbox connect to a wired or wireless home network and perform many more media-sharing tricks than Microsoft's Extender add-on allows.

Those kinds of capabilities normally require spending $250 or more for a separate wireless media receiver from such firms as D-Link Systems Inc., SlimDevices Inc. and Roku LLC.

For software created by hobbyists in their spare time, XBMC is surprisingly capable. As a music box, it plays a wide variety of music, including Web radio broadcasts as well as MP3, Windows Media, AAC, RealAudio and many other file types -- excluding the copy-restricted files sold at such stores as iTunes, Wal-Mart and Napster. Pop a CD into your Xbox, and XBMC can even copy its tracks to the Xbox's hard drive in the format of your choice.

If you use Apple's iTunes, XBMC ties into that program's own sharing feature, providing access to all of your custom playlists.

Switching to video, XBMC supports an equally broad range of computer formats, including MPEG-4, DivX, QuickTime and RealVideo. If you have a ReplayTV digital video recorder on your home network, this software can even stream recorded shows from it for watching on the TV plugged into the Xbox. But although XBMC can play DVD movies, it can't display their menu screens. If you have a computer monitor or high-definition TV connected to the Xbox with the right cables, this software will also upgrade the Xbox's video output to high-definition resolutions.

Last, you can plug a standard computer keyboard and mouse into an XBMC-endowed Xbox (after you plug a $10 adapter into the Xbox's controller port) and browse a limited menu of Web content -- not much more than weather forecasts and Internet Movie Database lookups -- on your TV.

This program isn't for the technologically faint of heart, though. You can't load XBMC on a standard Xbox -- you must modify one to accept this new program, either by soldering or plugging in a new chip inside the case or patching its software through arcane routines.

Such an Xbox "mod," if you don't perform it yourself, will cost from $50 to $100 when done by a firm such as FriendTech Computer Ltd. (www.friendtech.com) or the private individuals who market the service on local forums such as Craigslist (www.craigslist.org).

More to the point, it will void the Xbox's warranty. Subscribers to Microsoft's Xbox Live service may also find themselves banned from it if their modified machines are detected by Microsoft's servers.

The company has frowned on these adaptations in part because they are often used to play pirated copies of games. "Microsoft investigates and makes case-by-case determinations as to whether specific mod chips enable piracy," said Molly O'Donnell, a Microsoft spokeswoman.

That risk, however, hasn't discouraged Xbox tinkerers from experimenting. Among other odd achievements, they've managed to craft multiple Xbox versions of the Linux operating system that turn an Xbox into a full Internet PC. And for those who just want to play video games on an Xbox, another add-on lets it play titles for older game consoles such as the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company