Introduction

A few weeks ago, we started investigating the possibility of putting Linux on an XBOX. We played with some ideas in our heads, a render farm, a cheap office computer or a distributed crypto platform, just to start. The idea required a little bit of elbow grease, a mod chip, Linux and a bunch of free time.

All XBOXes are locked into only booting the Microsoft BIOS. That is, if you buy a new XBOX, it's basic IO does not let you do all that much, except read DVDs, and XBOX games that have special keys encoded into them. A mod chip is a computer chip with another BIOS that physically overrides the Microsoft BIOS. Since the chip is now in charge of how the XBOX should bootstrap itself, it will allow the XBOX to recognize more discs and operations than for what the XBOX is specifically designed. Thus, backup games or entire operating systems can be loaded onto the XBOX hard drive and run from there.

People have been modifying their XBOXes to run Linux for a long time now. The main factor behind the XBOX modification scene sprung from some extremely gray markets that began selling mod chips for backup games. However, after several years now, the XBOX Linux community has grown very stable. XBOX runs on virtually off-the-shelf components; ergo, porting Linux to the XBOX was a no-brainer after the BIOS issue was resolved. Microsoft dropped the price of XBOXes a few months ago and BMMods approached us about the possibility of checking out Linux on an XBOX. With refurbed and used XBOXes as cheap as they have ever been right now, the stage was set for us to abuse as much XBOX as possible.




Click to enlarge.


The goal today is to see if we can modify an XBOX successfully to do something useful that we can't do for the cost of the modification (aside from play XBOX). We will look at a media center, a basic PC and finally, a lot at the possibility of setting our XBOXes up in some sort of cluster, with detailed steps all along the way.

Costs
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  • Nepsir - Thursday, November 11, 2004 - link

    I was just wondering if you will do a test with mental ray on the cluster (I think you mentioned something about Mental Ray in the article). It would be really interesting to see the results of that since me and a couple of friends got modded X-Boxes and I have a 3dsMax6 license (Mental Ray is included). Reply
  • gibson042 - Thursday, November 11, 2004 - link

    You might want to look at the "mini-cluster" project (http://www.mini-itx.com/projects/cluster/) when planning/designing/building your EPIA cluster. It's a 12-node (originally 6) cluster developed by Glen Gardner, and appears to be the same size or a little smaller than a stack of an equal number of XBOXes. Of course, the frame is custom built and the hardware is exposed to the world. Reply
  • Aikouka - Thursday, November 11, 2004 - link

    I can say that I love having a modded xbox, because the capabilities are so much greater. As discussed earlier, a software mod can be a great way to do it (although it usually requires a game unless you want to take your HDD out, which is NOT a fun method unless you love swapping IDE cables.)

    It's also good to note that you should be careful when modding these or even make a backup of the hdd on your system, because things can go wrong, and if you like to fiddle with things, then your chances will be a lot higher. I know at one point I was stuck in error 16 and had to pull the HDD out and unlock it using the IDE swap method.

    Are there plans for an article on modding something such as the PS2? I just recently tried a no-solder modchip in the PS2, and it doesn't seem to be going along too well. Maybe it's time for a flip-top.
    Reply
  • Scarceas - Thursday, November 11, 2004 - link

    "We crimped our own cabling as you can see in the image below."

    I'm still looking for the image, I know its there somewhere!
    Reply
  • bleugh - Thursday, November 11, 2004 - link

    If anyone wants their xbox motherboards upgraded to 128 megabytes of memory, I can do it

    I'm UK based and use BRAND NEW samsung memory chips

    I can upgrade your existing motherboards, sell you ready upgraded boards, or even just the chips!

    if one of the anandtech team wants their xboxes upgraded i'll happily do it at cost, please contact me to discuss

    Dean
    Reply
  • LotoBak - Thursday, November 11, 2004 - link

    First, XBox live banning....

    Basically this is how it used to work. When your on live it does a hash of your bios. A mod replaces your bios. If you bios is not the retail ms bios the serial (eeprom) is blacklisted. NOW since halo2 has been released it appears that MS has changed a while bunch of shit on us. Preliminary information indicates that MS is banning by hard drive serial+model numbers, xbox serial, and flagging the gamertag as 'potential pirate'. Thus to unban the xbox both a new hdd and eeprom are needed. Then you must cancel and create a new xbox live account. There are more details about how it all works but bottom line is we dont know how it works now. They can throw new stuff at us anytime now. Rumors are flying that hdd capacities are being scanned as well. For all intents and perposes xbox + modded xbox's do not mix.

    Yes there is a PS1 emu for xbox. That said xbox DVD drives do not read cd-r (or retail ps1 games) Therefor all games must be transfered to the xbox hdd in bin/cue or iso format

    When comparing mods remember, the mod contains no modded bios stuff. They are useless in them selves. You will need to aquire a modded bios for your xbox (online, free). What this means is that every mod can contain the same bios's. Therefor they all contain the same base features (mostly booting unsigned code). Hardware features and support is where you want to base your decision on. If you want cheap + no manufacterer support there are 10$ solutions around for you(enabled/disables with power button). If you want support with a mod with a few extra hardware features (2 bios's, external switch) that'll cost around 30-40. Fancy Shamcy lcd support, 8 bios banks, blah blah blah fancy external thing thoes are up to 75ish. But in the end they all allow you to run the same software on the xbox.

    if you want to learn read some beginner tutorials at http://tutorials.xbox-scene.com
    Reply
  • Omega215D - Thursday, November 11, 2004 - link

    After seeing Halo 2, it makes me wonder if they really need Pixel Shader 2.0. Its pretty cool that I can play old games on the XBOx through emulators though but i wanna see when the next XBOX kicks off before spending $200. Reply
  • ViRGE - Wednesday, November 10, 2004 - link

    #12, probably not. The Xbox's GPU is a GeForce 4 class GPU - the lack of Pixel Shader 2.0 features can really be limiting. Reply
  • euph - Wednesday, November 10, 2004 - link

    is there any way to use the gpu for the pov-ray rendering? Reply
  • ukDave - Wednesday, November 10, 2004 - link

    Little quote that sums up the SmartXX XBL saga:

    Q: just bought a Smart XX mod and I still don't know if i'll be able to play xbox live so please somebody tell me if i'll be able to play it.
    A: There is no easy way to answer this question. First of all, it all depends on circumstance. Have you upgraded your hard drive? Has your Xbox ever been banned before? And, for newbs, are you thinking about playing on live while using a bios from the chip.

    If you answered yes to any of these questions you've won a lifetime ban from Microsoft!


    Sleep time :) And i don't even use XBL :D
    Reply

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