Portable Xbox

A creative hacker at portablesystems.net managed to carefully pack the contents of an Xbox console into a portable form factor. It’s yet another project that makes me exclaim “I had that idea!” However, the creator did a far better job than I could do with the tools at my disposal. His hack includes creating a custom vacuum-formed case, hooking up Li-Ion batteries to power the system, and wiring a PSOne LCD to the video output. It’s a masterfully executed hack that sets the standard for his other portable video game creations, and is a must-see for any Xbox hardware hacker.

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Portable Xbox

Mac Meet Xbox: Part 1

Mac Meet Xbox
Although this is a little late — the successor to the Xbox has already been released for some time — I thought it would be useful to others to write up a comprehensive guide on modding an Xbox and using it with a Mac in a Windows-centric world. It’s never too late, though, because the Xbox is continuing to drop in price and makes a dazzling home media center that blows the Mac Mini away.

This is going to be a multi-post article, as it would otherwise be an extraordinarily long post. Sections will cover opening the Xbox, installing a modchip, and finally loading and configuring the media center software.

Why Xbox?

And why not a Mac Mini? Why choose an Xbox for a home media center solution, and how does it outperform to the Mac Mini? In a word: compatibility. Right out of the box, the Xbox is a terrible home media solution. In fact, it doesn’t even make an attempt at any media center capabilities, short of ripping CDs. However, when modified and loaded with the open-source Xbox Media Center software, it can play just about any file format you’ll ever encounter in an interface that’s as shiny as Apple’s own. Covering all the bases from AVC/H.264 to Xvid, Xbox Media Center is what makes it happen, and is a stellar example of the kind of quality software that can be produced from a truly dedicated team of programmers. Finding plugins for QuickTime that work as smoothly as Xbox Media Center would be a nightmare. Adding a DVD Playback Kit to the Xbox setup lets you have complete control from the couch, even if you’re just checking the weather or listening to some music from iTunes.

Choosing Chips

Like all modern gaming systems, the Xbox has copy protection and various restrictions to stop people from backing up games and/or running their own software on the system. That has to go. Thankfully, modding Xboxes has been a long, well documented effort, and there is much to show for it. It took only a few months for clever hackers to exploit bugs and holes in the system and gain access to the inner workings, making all sorts of homemade projects possible. Xbox Media Center is among the most popular and well-recognized of the lot.

First on the route to an Xbox-centric home media solution, comes the choice of deciding on the right hardware to enable all the cool stuff to come. Dozens of Xbox modchips are available, many of which require soldering to tiny, tiny spots on the motherboard. If you’re uncomfortable soldering or have an unsteady hand, there are solderless solutions available, but I highly recommend practicing soldering if you intend to get good and continue modding beyond a modchip. Soldering a modchip into an Xbox is far less complicated than with other systems like the PS2, but still requires both patience and skill. Practicing soldering on an old VCR or stereo motherboard is a good way to start (it’s how I learned!). Xbox modchips can run up into the $70 range, but you don’t have to spend a bunch of money to get great features. My modchip of choice — at least until production ends — is the Xecuter 2.6 CE Lite. This model is intended to be soldered in, although a solderless kit is available. Among it’s notable features are included front panel switches, total Xbox hardware compatibility, a backup BIOS bank if you make what would otherwise be a costly mistake, and network flashing. For all the features included, the Xecuter 2.6 CE Lite can’t be beat.

Up Next

That’s it for this edition of “Mac Meet Xbox.” Stay tuned (via RSS, perhaps) for the next installment, which will cover opening of the Xbox and installation of the modchip.

Mac Meet Xbox: Navigation

Part 1: Why Xbox + Choosing Chips
Part 2: Cracking the Case + Installing and Flashing
Part 3: Installing XBMC
Part 3.1: Networking in Detail

Mac Meet Xbox: Part 1

Hamachi on Mac OS X

Planning to run Hamachi under Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard? Please read this updated post instead.

Over the weekend, I had the need to create a VPN (Virtual Private Network) between a few MUG members and myself to use iChat through a proxy. I should mention that this did not help our paticular situation, as the proxy/firewall we were attempting to bypass was pickier than we first thought. However, I did learn how to use a great VPN tool, Hamachi, and I thought I would detail the steps needed to get it running under Mac OS X. Hamachi has been discussed at length in various episodes of the Security Now! podcast, which I highly recommend (In particular, episode #18 covers most of Hamachi).

The idea behind Hamachi is to create a secure virtual network between computers over the internet, and get them communicating as if they were all on the same local network together. Having all the computers on the same virtual LAN has numerous advantages, including connecting business networks, playing LAN games, and sharing files. Connections are made secure with the use of various encryption and handshake technologies which prevent prying eyes from seeing the information sent back and forth.

Hamachi for Windows is more advanced than the Mac version as far as point-and-click interfaces go, but the Mac version is quite stable and works just as well. To get started using Hamachi, first download and decompress the latest release. You’ll also need to grab the latest Tun/Tap driver here.

First, install the Tap package from the Tun/Tap file you downloaded earlier. Then, open the Terminal in your /Applications/Utilities folder, and type cd Desktop to change directory to your Desktop folder inside your Home folder. Do cd [hamachi], where [hamachi] is the folder that was made when you decompressed the downloaded file. In my case, the folder was titled hamachi-0.9.9.9-20-osx, so I did cd hamachi-0.9.9.9-20-osx. Your Terminal window is now navigated inside of the Hamachi folder, and you’re ready to start installing.

Installing Hamachi is quite easy — almost as easy as installing most Mac OS X applications. Type sudo ./install, followed by your administrator password. The admin password is required because Hamachi installs system-level components to make everything work. After the quick install is done, type sudo tuncfg. Tuncfg (tunnel configuration) sets up the VPN tunnel for Hamachi. From this point onward (until you reboot), your administrator password is not required, as Hamchi does all root level functionality in one fell swoop. Type hamachi-init to generate the cryptographic keys that will be used to protect your data as it speeds throughout the internet. Typing hamachi start will load Hamachi and prepare it for use.

As this point, you would also want to get Hamachi running on any other computers you would like on your virtual network, PC or Mac. PC users need only to download and run Hamachi, and they can all connect to the same network. Once that’s done, you’ll need a network for everybody to connect to. Again in the Terminal window, do hamachi create [network] where [network] is the 4 to 64 character name of the network you’d like to create. If the name is already in use, you can simply try again. When prompted for a password, do not enter your administrator password. What you’re being prompted for is the password to log onto your virtual network. Choose a word or phrase not in the dictionary, preferably longer than 8 characters. For security, the longer the password, the better. After your network is created, you can then instruct all your other computers to join the network using the password you chose.

After all the computers are connected in Hamachi, that’s it! You can view members of the network by doing hamachi list, and connect to their IPs (starting with “5.”) as if they were all on your own local network. One popular use for Hamachi is to share music on iTunes with your home computer (under Preferences, Sharing), and then install Hamachi at work. When both computers are connected, iTunes will be fooled into thinking your home computer is on your work computer’s network, so it will allow you to stream music to your workplace via the internet.

I should note that when your computer is restarted, you’ll have to do sudo tuncfg and hamachi start to re-run Hamachi. Also, the Hamachi OS X ReadMe has a listing of commands to delete networks, evict members, and other useful features that are worth a look.

Now that you’ve come this far “the hard way” by typing in commands and learning how to set up Hamachi on your own at the command line level, you should know about two graphical ways to use Hamachi. After using Hamachi for a few minutes, I thought it would be cool to run a Dashboard widget to control it. A single Google search turned up exactly what I had imagined. A third-party Mac OS X program, HamachiX, is also another great front end to Hamachi on the Mac. Both solutions work quite well, and may save you some time in setting up a quick VPN between your computer and others, anywhere else in the world.

Hamachi on Mac OS X

WWDC 2006 Delivers

To kick off their WWDC 2006 conference, Apple yet again delivered the goods to the Mac faithful. The Intel transition is now complete, and this coming spring will see a shiny new release of Mac OS X.

New “Mac Pro” towers touting Intel Xeon dual-core chips and a massive amount of room for expansion lead the way for high end computing, leaving all but the aluminum G5 case behind. These are also the first Apple machines to hit 3 GHz, which is a huge leap in performance for Macs. I’m looking forward to see just how well these machines perform — running Mac OS X or Windows. Finally, owners can take advantage of the best of both worlds using one ultra-fast machine.

While the Mac Pro towers are great, I’m more excited by the sneak peek of Mac OS X 10.5. Apple’s new “Time Machine” backup strategy will be fantastic if it works as seamlessly as it was presented. I’m curious, though, how it will handle changes such as a large temporary file that’s created, such as joined video segments. Will a backup state exist with all the files and thus eat up a huge amount of Time Machine “space” on the backup drive? We’ll know shortly. The Spotlight improvements are a welcome addition, too, as the current Spotlight search is rather slow. What really interests me, though, are the “Top Secret” features not announced or installed in the WWDC build of 10.5. What other cool stuff could Apple have in store that’s not yet ready for public consumption? And I say “public” because you just know that WWDC build of 10.5 is going to be all over the web in no time…

Update: Also, did anyone else notice the huge icons in the Time Machine demo? It looks like Leopard will increase the maximum icon size.

Update: Andy Ihnatko has a great article at MacWorld about the Top Secret Leopard features. Which, by the way, are speculated to be:

  • Complete 64-Bit support for Intel and PowerPC through all frameworks excluding QuickTime C, QuickDraw, Sound Manager, Code Fragment Manager, Language Analysis Manager and QuickTime Musical Instruments. These modules are deprecated and one should use the modern equivalents instead.
  • Leopard will feature resolution-independent user interface and there are several functions to get the current scaling factor and apply it to pixel measurements. It is a good idea to use vector controls and buttons (PDF will work fine) or to have multiple sized resources, similar to Mac OS X icon design, so you can scale to the nearest size for the required resolution.
  • Address Book adds support for sharing accounts, allowing an application to restrict content according to user.
  • Automator includes a new user interface and allows things such as action recording, workflow variables and embedding workflows in other applications.
  • Time Machine has an API that allows developers to exclude unimportant files from a backup set which improves backup performance and reduces space needed for a backup.
  • A new Calendar Store framework allows developers access to calendar, event and task information from iCal to use in their applications or to add new events or tasks.
  • Carbon, the set of APIs built upon Classic MacOS and used by most 3rd party high-profile Mac OS X applications, now allows Cocoa views to be embedded into the application. This could provide applications like Photoshop and Microsoft Office access to advanced functions previously only available to Cocoa applications.
  • A new control for creating matrices of views is available, NSGridView. This allows a grid to be created from any view in the system, including OpenGL or Web Views.
  • Core Animation allows layers to be used as backing stores for a view, windows to use explicit animations when resizing (can be three dimensional, akin to the Time Machine view). Any view can now be put into fullscreen mode and a CoreImage transition effect can be used. Using Core Animation you can create anything including GPU-accelerated Front Row-style user interfaces without having to write OpenGL code. A Core Animation layer can include OpenGL content, Core Image and Core Video filter effects and Quartz/Cocoa drawing content, like views and windows.
  • Text engine improvements include a systemwide grammar checking facility, smart quote support, automatic link detection and support for copying and pasting multiple selections.
  • Core Image has been upgraded to allow access to RAW images directly.
  • Apache 2.0, Ruby on Rails and Subversion are included, and support for script-to-framework programming is available, allowing Python and Ruby scripting to access Mac OS X specific APIs.
  • The iChat framework allows a developer to add shared content to an active iChat session, for example a video, an image slideshow or even an online multiplayer game.
  • “Sharing accounts” are possible, with users being restricted via an access control list (ACL) to certain applications or files. Developers can integrate with this by restricting access to a specific piece of content by connecting it to a sharing account. Sharing accounts have no home folder.
  • An Image Kit is included, to allow a developer to easily create an application that can browse, view, crop, rotate and pick images, then apply Core Image filter effects through an interface. A slideshow interface is also open to developers, allowing any application to display a fullscreen slideshow of images.
  • Leopard also gives developers access to a “Latent Semantic Mapping” framework, which is the basis for spam protection in Mail. It allows you to analyze text and train the engine to restrict items with specific content (like spam e-mail for example).
  • Mail stationery is open to developers, allowing any web designer to create fantastic-looking Mail templates, with defined areas for custom user content.
  • A new framework is included for publishing and subscribing to RSS and Atom feeds, including complete RSS parsing and generation. Local feeds can be shared over Bonjour zero-configuration sharing and discovery.
  • Quicktime 7.1 is included, and the underlying QTKit framework is greatly improved. There is improved correction for nonsquare pixels, use of the clean aperture which is the “user-displayable region of video that does not contain transition artifacts caused by the encoding process”, support for aperture mode dimensions, improved pitch and rate control for audio and a number of developer improvements, like QuickTime capture from sources like cameras and microphones, full screen recording or QuickTime stream recording. Live content from a capture can be broadcast as a stream over the network.
WWDC 2006 Delivers