in Gaming, Reviews, Tech

Review: Xbox Media Center

As I mentioned recently, this weekend I built myself an Xbox Media Center to add to my home theater system (know that I use that phrase very loosely).

While the guide I used provides much more detail, essentially there is a weakness in certain Xbox games that allows users to execute their own code. Naturally, a bunch of geeks quickly ported a tiny version of Linux to run on the system. Using Linux, you gain FTP access to your Xbox’s hard drive. From there, you can load in any number of open source interfaces.

I went with the Xbox Media Center, and couldn’t be happier.

What it can do:

  • Stream almost any video/audio/image file from my PC over my network and onto my TV
  • Listen to streaming radio
  • Read and play my iTunes playlists
  • Play DVDs
  • Read daily comic strips
  • Subscribe to any RSS feed, including podcasts
  • Read my Bloglines account
  • Pretty much anything a script written in Python can do.

Of course, there are limitations. What it can’t do:

  • Play DRM-encoded media files
  • Moving backwards in DVD movies doesn’t work very well
  • Record TV
  • Play HD video smoothly (the processor just isn’t fast enough)
  • Play Xbox games on Microsoft’s Live online service

There are a number of less legal add-ons too, mainly focused on pirating games. But I’m honestly not interested in that. If I wanted to, I could even install emulators that let me play older systems’ games. And notably the XBMC system I have installed, even without the illegal add-ons, already out-functions Microsoft’s own version available for the Xbox. For example: Other than Realplayer files, I have yet to find a video format that XBMC will not play. And believe me, I’ve thrown it some oddball examples. Microsoft’s version is limited to a select few.

I am utterly amazed at how well this all works. The net cost to me was about $150 for a used Xbox and assorted other materials (outlined in detail at the guide linked above). For that small price, I’ve moved my consumption of digital material off of my small laptop screen and into my living room.

I highly recommend building an XBMC, and would be happy to answer any questions about it that I can.

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  1. Sweet! I wondered if anyone would try that.

    Besides XBL, can you still play your Xbox games?

  2. I can! It also has some sort of homebrew version of XBL, which supposedly even works with non-XBL games by simulating a system link, but I haven’t tried it out yet.

  3. Perhaps I’m being a trifle impertinent and reactionary, but what are the advantages of doing this over stringing an AV cable from your computer to your home theater system?

  4. Picture quality is better, as the Xbox is better designed to output images to a TV. But mostly, lots of little things like the ability to use a remote control or the fact that it boots up in 15 seconds. That, and its just plain cool 🙂

  5. “Perhaps I’m being a trifle impertinent and reactionary, but what are the advantages of doing this over stringing an AV cable from your computer to your home theater system?”

    1) You don’t need to be at the computer to control it.
    2) Your computer may be on the other side of the house.
    3) If your computer is on the other side of the house it could end up being quite a long AV cable.
    4) Someone may want to use the computer while you are using the media center. XBMC does it’s own processing, the only thing your pc needs to do is shares the necessary files.

  6. Chad, took your advise – LOVING XBMC and all it’s capable of doing. Only downfall being someone as un-savvy as me struggles to get the most out of it like the RSS feeds & the iTunes playlists. Is there any simple way to get these functions to work for simpletons like myself?

  7. Glad you like it! I admit that I don’t exactly get the full functionality out of all those features, either…

    To get the iTunes sharing working, I used this gude:

    But of course, now this morning my iTunes sharing isn’t working anymore 😛 I’m not sure what the problem is yet.

    As for RSS feeds, there’s a setting in the same xml file referenced in that guide that lets you customize the feed that scrolls by on the first screen you see when you boot up XBMC. It’s around line 150 in the code.