Liberating the Xbox

When Microsoft's Xbox game system came on the market more than a year ago, I wanted one badly. I'm not immune to the lure of consumer culture, and I won't pretend I remained somehow unmoved by the promise of fantastic graphics and all the capabilities of a typical PC. Whenever I saw ads for that black box with the glowing green X on it, I felt like I was meeting the chubbier, sexier younger brother of the NeXT.

Finally, a couple of months ago, my geeky roommates and I got a used one. Ah, the joy of the Matrix Reloaded game. The joy of Oddworld, and of Halo and Blood Reign.

But do you know what I really wanted to do with that Xbox? Get inside. I wanted to stick long screwdrivers into its casing and open it up. I wanted to look at the motherboard and the hard drive and the basic input-output system (BIOS), a chip that tells the computer how to boot up the operating system. Then, once I'd gotten quite deeply inside my innocent little machine, I wanted to start changing it.

The only reason the Xbox doesn't act like a PC is because the Microsoft software on it restricts the device to merely playing games, DVDs (if you buy a special kit), and CDs. Plus, it's packed with digital rights management software -- programs that keep the poor box from playing backup copies of my DVDs. The Xbox has been crippled by its corporate masters. But for Microsoft's meddling, this magnificent device could be a fully functioning computer with an operating system, applications, everything.

Imagine how much lovelier my Xbox would be if it ran GNU/Linux. I could rescue it, the way the prince liberated Sleeping Beauty, by removing the nasty Microsoft spell that kept its mind befuddled and enthralled. I could awaken it to full computerhood! I could use OpenOffice on my TV! And, let's face it, I could play that ROM of Centipede I'd copied from a certain friend who had copied it from another friend. You know what I mean.

I wanted the Xbox, but only if it could be liberated.

So my roommates and I declared last Saturday "nerd day," a time to relax and hack our Xbox. I encourage you to do the same thing. Ingredients for the perfect nerd day are the following: a less-than-new Xbox (the latest versions are a bit harder to hack); a couple of friends, especially ones who know how to solder electronics and have possibly hacked their own Xboxes; a modchip (more on this in a minute); a soldering iron and solder; bunnie's book Hacking the Xbox; a fast Internet connection for downloading odds and ends you might need; a DVD-ROM burner for transporting said odds and ends to the box; and as many pirated games as possible. I also recommend copious amounts of coffee and geek-inspirational music from Yo La Tengo.

Also, it's kind of fun to have a nongeek roommate who can wander into the room once in a while, goggle at the disemboweled Xbox surrounded by crazed nerds with a soldering gun, and ask, "What the hell are you doing?" Such a person allows everybody to explain, in more or less technical language, why it's important to be able to take apart machines that belong to you despite what Microsoft says in its authoritarian End User License Agreement. Often, such a person is quickly persuaded to support the cause when he or she is told that soon the Xbox will play those DVDs of Firefly that you created after downloading the unaired episodes from your friendly local file-sharing network. (Admittedly, this person may return to the room with pesky questions like "Why not just use the DVD player for that?" You can't win 'em all.)

Everyone at our nerd day had a role. My job was to research and acquire a modchip.

Ah, the modchip. At a wise geek's suggestion, I began my research on www.xboxscene.net, where there is a whole section devoted to different kinds of modchips. Mostly home brewed, modchips are designed to usurp your Xbox's BIOS. A nonliberated Xbox has a BIOS that tells the machine to enter a pseudo-operating system called a dashboard, which will only let you play copy-protected games, DVDs, and CDs. Once you have a modchip installed, you can tell your Xbox to boot into whatever you like, whether that's a more flexible dashboard or GNU/Linux.

But you'll never guess what happened next. Tune in next week to find out what happens when five nerds, several hundred screwdriver heads, two soldering guns, and one modchip get together.

Annalee Newitz (mod@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd whose Xbox still lies open on the living room floor. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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