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Wednesday, 26 June, 2002, 12:22 GMT 13:22 UK
Hackers play with the Xbox
Microsoft's Xbox, AP
The Xbox - entertaining inside and out
Microsoft's Xbox console may not be overpopular with computer game players but it is rapidly winning fans in the hardware hacking world.

Computer scientists, smart amateur engineers and others are taking the console apart and creating modification chips and software for the machine to make it do things Microsoft never intended it to.

The modifications mean the console can play movies, pirated games and music files.

Microsoft is currently investigating ways to stop the hardware hackers.

Modified machine

One of the most comprehensive investigations of the insides of an Xbox was done by Andrew Huang, a graduate student from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In early June Mr Huang released a 15-page report on the three weeks it took him to find out about the security system built in to the Xbox.

He also showed how to interrupt its start-up sequence so it can be made to run other operating systems.

Mr Huang's investigations have been followed by others who have produced modification, or mod, chips for the device to change what it does and how it does it.

The chips, one of which goes by the name Xtender, let owners use their console to play pirated games, run PC software or games from other regions.

Sony Playstation, PA
Mod chips have also been produced for the Playstation
Many of the titles produced for the Xbox use a regional coding system to help game makers manage the release of the software.

The mod chips let keen gamers play imported games that they would otherwise have to wait months to play.

Board room

Although there are new mod chips being developed for the Xbox few think they will be widely used.

The chips have to be soldered onto the circuit board of the console, a feat most game players are unlikely to attempt.

Other Xbox tinkerers are working on other ways of modifying the console without needing to resort to soldering wires onto a circuit board.

Add-on programs are now starting to appear that work with a modified console. One of the first makes it possible to play movies on the console provided they are encoded using the Divx format.

Many of the movies being shared in online networks use Divx because it does a good job of preserving image quality but the resulting files are a fraction of the size of the original film and can be downloaded in a reasonable amount of time.

Also recently moved to the Xbox is the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (Mame) which lets players run old style arcade games on the console.

Mame is hugely popular online because it authentically recreates many of the games that people spent hours playing in their youth.

Microsoft is known to be looking into ways of stopping the spread of mod chips with legal action or by ensuring future Xbox games will not work with a modified console.

But it too also has plans to extend what the Xbox can do. Reports this week suggest that Microsoft is planning a hybrid device that uses the internal hard disk of the machine as a video recorder.

See also:

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