There’s been another milestone in getting Linux running on Microsoft’s Xbox game console. It’s now possible to get it going if you bridge a couple of solder points on the motherboard to enable flashing the unit’s BIOS, then you use the James Bond 007 game and a save game that exploits a buffer overflow, and with a few more tricks, you can unlock the hard drive, put it in a Linux PC, install Linux, then move the drive back to the Xbox and turn it into a cheap Linux box.
It’s still convoluted and not for the faint-hearted, it’ll void your warranty six ways ’til Sunday, but getting Linux to run on certain old Macintoshes was nearly as difficult.
That’s not really my point, because I do expect it to get easier. The main reason I bring it up is because when this appeared, a flood of people started asking why? Why do you want to turn a game machine into something other than a game machine? Why go to the trouble when you can buy a pre-installed Linux PC at Wal-Mart for $199?
Pure spite. The Xbox costs $199, and the general consensus is that it costs Microsoft far more than $199 to make the thing–the money in game consoles is the games and controllers. Companies sell the consoles at a loss. If you buy an Xbox and turn it into a Linux PC, you’re probably not buying Xbox games, so Microsoft loses money.
Quality. The Xbox is built better than the $199 Wal-Mart PCs. And it comes with better hardware. The 733 MHz Intel CPU is a better performer than the 700 MHz VIA CPU in the Wal-Mart special. The graphics hardware in the Xbox is worlds apart. The sound quality is better. And the Xbox gives you a DVD drive, not just an old-fashioned CD-ROM.
Looks. Let’s face it: The Xbox is designed to go in your living room, so the Xbox looks good there. It’s ready to hook up to your TV and your stereo. Slap on Linux and some audio and video playback software, and you’ve got yourself a great media PC. And for an added bonus, you can install emulators for old consoles you had in the past and play Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog on it. Just because games are old doesn’t make them any less fun. You’ll go to nearly as much hassle trying to modify the $199 special to connect to your TV set, and in the end you’ve still got an ugly, cheap-looking white or beige box.
Price. Even at full price, and even with the trouble, it’s hard to build a PC with the Xbox’s specs for anywhere close to the price. And refurb units are available for $140-$170 (search your favorite price-grabbing site), making it an even better deal.
Irony. Let’s face it, there are people who want a computer running Linux on hardware that says “Microsoft” on the front. I understand. I once ripped the innards of an IBM PC/XT out and replaced them with an IBM 486SLC2 motherboard so someone could run Windows on what looked like an XT.
The downside is that yes, you’ll have to either make or buy a special cable to allow you to connect a standard USB keyboard and mouse to the Xbox so you can use it. But the cables cost $15 and a Google search on Xbox USB keyboard will turn them up, so that’s hardly the worst aspect of this. The rest of the process isn’t as easy as it could be, and that’s the worst part.
But after a couple of hours’ work–and let’s face it, most of the people who are going to think about doing something like this love a challenge, so it’ll actually be pretty fun–and $199 for the console, a $5 game rental, $15 for the USB adapter, $25 for a USB hub, and the cost of your favorite USB keyboard and mouse, you end up with a pretty decent little computer for under $300. It will only get more attractive if the rumors that Microsoft will soon cut the price of the console to $149 are true.