Burn

As often as I use Toast and refer to it in postings here, it’s easy to overlook some of the freeware options that will usually work just as well. Burn is one such program which allows you to easily burn data, audio, video, and disc images. Unlike Toast — and more like Disk Utility — Burn uses Apple’s disc burning APIs, which are provided for developers to add CD and DVD writing capabilities to their programs with little effort. It can handle Mac and PC formatted discs, audio and MP3 CDs, all kinds of video discs (DVD included), as well as a number of disc image formats. While it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles Toast has, Burn may provide all the features you need for free. Download it here.

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Burn

The Unarchiver

The Unarchiver is a replacement for Apple’s relatively hidden “BOMArchiveHelper” application, which is responsible for the Zip, Tar, and gzip abilities built into the Finder. Not only does The Unarchiver come pre-loaded with much better icons, but it handles Zip, Tar, gzip, bzip2, RAR (including multi-part RAR), 7-zip, StuffIt (but not SitX, sadly), and many other formats. Installation is as easy as dropping the program somewhere on disk, perhaps in /Applications, and then associating preferred formats to be opened with The Unarchiver. I find it’s a much better archive handler than Apple’s own, and the “brown box” icons help differentiate compressed files from regular documents.

The Unarchiver

iTunes Art Redux

As you probably know by now, Apple has updated iTunes and the entire iPod lineup. I’ll spare you the “big picture” details available everywhere else on the web and focus on the single new feature that made my day.

Movies, iPod updates, and various album artwork views all pale in comparison to:

iTunes can automatically download album artwork when you add songs to your library. iTunes can also download album artwork for songs in your library that don’t already have artwork

Now I can stop wracking my brain trying to figure out just how their new artwork system works.

Apple’s new album artwork feature is even easier to use than my old workflow, where I would have to find the album in the iTunes Music Store iTunes Store, copy the URL, paste it into a web page, and drag the image to iTunes. Now I can simply right-click a song or group of songs, and choose “Get Album Artwork.” iTunes communicates with Apple* and loads the proper artwork with no further hassle. It’s a seamless and nearly effortless feature that I’m sure will get used often.

*iTunes notes that Apple does not collect any information about your music library. It seems Apple has learned to disclose everything since the MiniStore privacy concern.

Update: I figured out how the new artwork system works. Here’s a PHP script showing just how easy it is to find your own artwork for any artist/album.

Update: After the addition of some HTML to my original code, we now have a complete prototype for downloading album art. One thing yet to be explored is the full list of parameters that the “coverArtMatch” WebObjects script allows. So far, I’ve only seen Artist, Album, and Genre, but I’m quite sure there’s more to be discovered.

When you download this script and run it, you’ll be presented with Artist and Album fields, and a Get Artwork button. The form is submitted to the PHP script itself, the iTunes Store is searched for your album art, and the resultting image displayed. If there are no matches, you will receive a message to that effect. Enjoy!

Update: As quickly as the fun began, it seems that it will be ending. Apple has begun encrypting artwork on albums released later than October 3rd, and this prevents my script from properly displaying images. While older albums still work (for now…), this script will be rendered less useful as time goes on. With any luck, some clever hacker will figure out the encryption scheme sooner or later. I took a look at the givens, and the solution is quite simply over my head. Now we wait.

iTunes Art Redux

Mac Meet Xbox: Part 2

Mac Meet Xbox
Welcome to Part 2 of my multi-part introduction to setting up a Xbox-based home media center in a Mac environment. So far, the Mac has been absent, but the Xbox hardware must first be set up to communicate on your home network. This section will cover opening the Xbox, installing the modchip, and loading the necessary firmware.

Void Your Warranty

Cracking the Case

To begin modding, you’ll have to open your Xbox. This will void your warranty. If you send your Xbox to Microsoft for repair after tampering with it, they will refuse to work on it. However, if you have even basic computer hardware skills, then there’s no reason to be alarmed — there is a great Xbox modding community that has developed and will gladly help you out of a jam. I can’t say enough about the importance of like-minded individuals who can help you through impossibly complex situations involving small wires, config files, and unsupported hacks. Like everything technological, Xbox modding is an involved topic, but there’s plenty of help available.

I should note that I’m aware of “softmod” solutions that do not require a modchip, but I’ve found that installing a modchip is the safest and most feature-packed path to choose, especially if you haven’t done anything like this before. In the past, I’ve killed a few Xboxes with a bad flash, and resurrecting them took more time, effort, and research than most would be willing to invest. The Xecuter 2.6 CE Lite chip I recommended in Part 1 sports a number of features to help you avoid this situation, and protect both your Xbox and your modchip from being turned into paperweights.

Screwdriver in hand, it’s time to get to the heart of the matter by cracking the case and dissecting the system. As the Xbox is quite similar to a PC, disassembly should be an easy task if you’ve ever taken apart a computer. The case is held together by six T-20 Torx screws which hold the top and bottom plastic shells together. Peeling back the feet and stickers on the underside will allow access to the screws, as they’re concealed from initial observation. If you prefer, you can avoid leaving a thin veneer of stickiness by simply poking your screwdriver through the stickers instead of peeling them off. With the screws out, the top case can be lifted off the bulk of the components. Three smaller T-10 screws hold down the 8 or 10 GB hard drive and DVD-ROM. After unplugging the power and IDE cabling from both drives, lift them straight out to expose the Xbox motherboard. Eleven more T-10 screws fasten the motherboard to the chassis. Remove them all, including the ones beside the A/V connector, and gently lift out the motherboard. If it gets stuck towards the back (as it often does), lift the front first, while keeping controller port wires out of the way. You can then set the case and power supply assembly aside and focus on the motherboard.

Xbox Versions

Because of the changes made in various revisions of Xboxes, it’s necessary to categorize the Xboxes into groups which are modded using the same procedures. The earlier Xboxes are version 1.0 through 1.5, and the newest is 1.6. The latest version requires the “patch” circuit mentioned above, as well as an alternate source of power (which is readily available all over the motherboard). If you’re following along, you can easily check which version you have just by taking a look at the video encoder chip on the motherboard, right next to the A/V output. If you find that the chip has “Xcalibur” with an Xbox logo stenciled on the surface, your Xbox is a 1.6 and requires the additional circuit.

Installing the Modchip

The installation procedure for the Xecuter 2.6 CE chip is nearly identical to that of the more expensive Xecuter 3 chip, so I’ll provide the installation instructions here. However, you can stop reading at page 16, as the rest doesn’t apply to the 2.6 CE. Team Xectuer does a great job of detailing all the intricacies of installing the chip, so be sure to double-check your work. Also, check out out some of my Xbox Hacks photos on Flickr for some ideas on how to install the front panel switches without cutting into the case.

Installing the modchip will probably be the most tedious part of the project, so be sure to take your time on this step. There will always be questions, so I’ll leave comments open indefinitely on this post.

Choosing a BIOS

Now that your modchip is installed and working, it’s time to choose the code that will allow you to run non-Microsoft software, which includes our target program: Xbox Media Center. This isn’t a terribly important decision, as it will be nearly invisible. However, you will want to look for a few key features: Enabling use of hard drives greater than 137 GB, and the ability to stop the Xbox from resetting upon ejecting. My personal favorite BIOS (and there are dozens to choose from) is the Xecuter 2 build 5035, as it reads all important settings from a config file stored on your hard drive, whereas other BIOSes require you to patch the code and reload them onto your chip.

Unfortunately, this and other Xbox BIOS software isn’t technically legal. Most are modified versions of the official Microsoft BIOS, which, no matter how small, are still copyrighted. Modification and distribution of copyrighted code is illegal, but progress often doesn’t stop in the name of law. The Xecuter 2 5035 BIOS can be found all around the internet. It’s usually distributed in RAR format, so you’ll need either UnRarX or MacParDeluxe to extract the contents (Windows users can use the free 7-zip).

Booting and BIOS Flashing

When you first power on your newly modded Xbox, you’ll hopefully be greeted with the FlashBIOS screen. If your Xbox fails to boot properly, perhaps flashing alternating red and green lights, have a second look at the modchip installation instructions and make sure you followed each step for your version Xbox (taking careful note of the D0 point on your motherboard). If all went well, FlashBIOS’ blue screen will be displayed, and you’re now ready to load the non-Microsoft firmware onto your modchip. The easiest way to accomplish this is via the chip’s network flashing capabilities.

The absolute easiest way to flash the BIOS over the network is using a simple home router, nearly all of which assign IP addresses to any attached device. Connect your Xbox to your router using a length of straight-through Ethernet cable, your Mac via Ethernet or AirPort, and choose Enable Network Flashing from the FlashBIOS menu onscreen. FlashBIOS will bring up the Xbox’s networking hardware and provide you with an IP address to which you should direct your web browser. On the page that loads, you can choose a BIOS file to upload, which will then be flashed. In my case, I chose the X2 5035 “.bin” file and uploaded it to the Xbox. It’s worth noting my much earlier post about slicing and combining BIOS files on the Mac — the Xecuter 2.6 has two 1 MB banks, so you may need to double-over the BIOS to completely fill the bank adjacent to FlashBIOS. After FlashBIOS has written the file to the chip, flick the Bank Select switch on the front panel board, and reboot from the new BIOS. If it worked, you’ll be greeted with “Xecuter Rox My Box” under the Xbox logo. Your Xbox will appear to boot up like normal, or so it seems…

This concludes the second, and undoubtedly most complicated edition of “Mac Meet Xbox.” If you’re following along and having troubles, or simply unsure of a detail, feel free post a comment below. In the next installation, we’ll be covering installtion and formatting of a new hard drive, and laying the foundation for Xbox Media Center.

Resources

Modding a v1.6 Xbox in 10 Minutes (softmod)
Xbox-Scene Forums

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 2

Dock Trick

Here’s a fun Mac OS X Dock trick:

  1. Set your Dock’s minimize effect to Genie.
  2. Open Applications, Utilities, Terminal.
  3. Type killall Dock but don’t hit Return just yet.
  4. Open Safari and load a decent sized website.
  5. Switch back to the Terminal, keeping the Safari window in view.
  6. Shift-click the yellow minimize button of the Safari window, and hit Return to execute the command while the window is busy morphing.

The Dock process will be killed, and it will disappear, leaving the Safari window with nowhere to go. The window will freeze mid-transition. The cool part is that the window is still responsive, and you can scroll around and see the content transform in real-time.

The Dock automatically relaunches, so you don’t have to worry about breaking anything. Finish minimizing the window, or do Command-W to close it.

Credit due to Marco for his recent comment on the Cool Things You Can Do on a Mac article, although this is likely the original source.

Dock Trick

WRT54G Won’t Upgrade

After half an hour of messing around with my Linksys WRT54G v5 hardware, I was finally able to upgrade the firmware on the device. I try to maintain a secure setup by using WPA encryption, HTTPS web-based management, and Ethernet-only administration. However, it seems that all my conscientiousness worked against me when attempting to upgrade from v1.00.6 to 1.00.9. For reasons known only to Linksys, you can’t upgrade the firmware while logged in over HTTPS. The kicker, though, is that you get no warning or indication that anything is malfunctioning — the upgrade simply doesn’t happen. A text-based progress bar is displayed for about 3 minutes, and (about one in three times) you get the following stupid error:

Upgrade are failed.

The solution to this is to re-enable plain HTTP administration, log in unencrypted, and then retry the upgrade.

WRT54G Won’t Upgrade