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The Microsoft X-Box: a belated review

Firstly I should apologise for the lateness of this review of the Microsoft X-Box console. Sadly my Microsoft phobia somewhat delayed my purchasing of their first entry into the console market, as well as my stubborn and probably ill-conceived refusal to purchase their products. I also had no interest in the console whatsoever at the time, I’m generally not a console person preferring PC gaming, so as you can imagine I have a good excuse for not rushing out and queuing for one on day of release.

Anyway, a friend recently gave me one of the beasts, ready modded and with the excellent XBMC installed. XBMC, formerly known as X-Box Media Centre; an open-source media player and replacement dash-board originally only available for modded Microsoft X-Boxes but now also available in builds for Windows, Mac and Linux, is possibly the best of it’s ilk out there and I was impressed from the get-go. I’d only wished it had been around when I was making my clunky media PC for my home so I wouldn’t have wasted so much time and suffered so much hair-loss trying to get MythTV up and running (I’m aware that the installation and set-up procedure for MythTV has come on in leaps and bounds in the last year or two so I shouldn’t knock it. It’s probably a fine media front-end should you have all the premium kit on your linux box so it’ll autodetect. Otherwise it’s still probably a recipe for premature baldness.). XBMC largely does everything MythTV does… with the exception of the TV bits. There is no way I can think of to install a TV tuner into an X-Box so this functionality has been quite low on the XBMC developers to-do list. It may show up on the dev radar for the Win/*nix versions but as XBMC comes with a nice user-maintained repository of plugins and scripts, what with python being the language of choice here, there is no end to the possibilities. Already there are scripts that will grab your torrents of Smallville and HouseMD for watching in the Video section, let you search YouTube and view the resulting videos in fullscreen, search lyrics for your mp3s, play tetris and possibly RickRoll your friends… the only limit is imagination, motivation and the python skills of the user-base. Yes, that is a fairly big limit, but in theory the possibilities are potentially endless.
Out of the “box”, as it were, XBMC will play most movie and audio formats. The player is based on the excellent and well maintained MPlayer. The dashboard can be set to access and source you like, local or remote and scan in the files to a library. Providing the files meet certain filename formats it can also scrape information from selected online databases like allmusic, IMDb, thetvdb etc and download relevant information and thumbs for your movies, TV seasons and artist/albums. Personally I’ve found that my extensive obsessive music collection has caused XBMC to crash while scanning in the files. This may be related to inconsistent file-name conversion on my Linux Samba shares and the way the customised Win/FATX based X-BOX is handling them. This means I tend to just browse my files using the file-system as is rather than using the library, which is perfectly adequate.

As for the X-Box itself, it’s solid and blends in nicely with the TV corner… it’s an ugly beasts but doesn’t stick out too much. As I said, I’m not really a console gamer. The few games I grabbed for it have been PC-conversions or adventure/strategy-type games and I’ve already determined that all would probably have been better on a PC. the reason I’m not playing them on a PC is due to my lack of time and patience to get them working under WINE, the Windows emulation layer. WINE stands for Wine Is Not an emulator, though it very much looks like one. It also comes with a recursive acronym which, like the Linux mascot Tux, is one of the many traditions in the Linux community that needs taking out and shooting. But enough of such rants, which are the subject of other witterings.

An optional remote control is available for the X-Box and can be had quite cheaply these days. It’s fairly crucial for using XBMC unless you are a hardened Halo player who can use the X-Box joypad like it’s an additional limb as the joypads are generally shite and using one to browse menus is like trying to beat an egg with a claw-hammer. Maybe this is just because I’ve always been a keyboard/mouse combo person and have never liked joypads for anything other than helping plumbers avoid turtles. Since the Nintendo Entertainment system I’ve believed the design of the joypad has gone down-hill. Having never used a Wiimote I’m unsure whether they are the replacement for the tired old joypad or just the next level of hell and I’m unlikely to find out until someone manages to foist an old Nintendo Wii on me on five years time.

As second-hand or refurbished X-Boxes can be had for next to nothing (I’ve heard reports that some Game stores in the UK are selling their XBOX 360 trade-ins for a tenner) they make a cheap and very effective networked media centre once modded and installed with XBMC. A hardware mod-chip can be had for £20 or you can google for the information on doing a software mod, which usually requires using an exploit in a broken game like Splinter Cell and the stomach to take the possibility that you might “brick” your X-Box.

Failing that, if you have an old PC around with hardware equivalent to X-Box, a IR port and generic remote, and a TV-out you can install XBMC and get roughly the same functionality.

As the X-Box plays DVDs and TV is mostly shite you can replace just about everything with a modded X-box. At least until digital on-demand and interactive TV reaches it’s full potential, which in Ireland will be sometime before the end of the next millennium.

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