By Collin Allen

Mac Meet Xbox: Part 1

August 19, 2006

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 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