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Xbox hacks becoming child's play

Got a mod chip and a Net connection? You too might be able to hack Microsoft's popular game console. But the company is looking to crack down on the practice.

The hacks just keep on coming for Microsoft's Xbox.

A second "mod chip," an add-on chip for the console that lets consumers play pirated discs and other applications on their consoles, is now available. And for more ambitious hackers, instructions have begun to proliferate on the Web for building homemade Xbox modifications.

The first Xbox mod chip, the Xtender, went on sale late last month through specialty retailers such as Hong Kong-based Lik Sang. Late last week, those retailers also began offering the Enigmah-X and the XboxChip, a differently packaged mod chip based on the Enigmah.

Like mod chips that have proliferated for other game consoles, including Sony's market-leading PlayStation 2, the Xbox chips disable security features built into the console. With a mod chip soldered into the box, owners can play bootleg copies of games burned onto CD or DVD discs, or games designed for other geographic regions that normally would be blocked by the console's regional encoding system.

The Xbox mod chips also allow hackers to run PC-flavored software on the console, including a media player already in circulation. There is also a growing effort to port the Linux operating system to the Xbox.

While the mod chips permit the use of bootleg copies of Xbox games, analysts have said they pose little threat to Microsoft because few Xbox owners would even consider the technologically daunting task of installing the chips. Still, the hacks are embarrassing and could potentially pave the way for more piracy, which can move rapidly if conditions become ripe. Microsoft and other console makers sell their boxes for less than they cost to manufacture, but then make up the difference in game sales.

Installation of the Enigmah chip requires that 29 wires be precisely soldered to the chip and specific spots on the Xbox's main circuit board, although a version that requires only 12 connections reportedly is in the works.

Microsoft representatives have said the company is investigating legal options to stop distribution of mod chips.

Users and manufacturers of the mod chips say they're not interested in piracy. Instead, the chips are used mainly to run import games--the bulk of mod chip activity has been centered in Europe, where games have been slow to arrive from the United States--and experiment with homemade software.

Jon, a representative of XboxChip who would not give his full name, said the chips should inspire a wealth of free software for the Xbox.

"There is a very large development community that could release hundreds of freeware games or software packages enhancing the Xbox console," he said in an e-mail exchange. "The possibilities are endless."

More ambitious hackers are building their own Xbox add-ons, following in the wake of Andrew "Bunnie" Huang, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student who recently published details of his research project to crack the Xbox's security measures. Several Web sites offer instructions for making homemade Xbox modifications using programmable EPROM memory loaded with an altered version of the Xbox BIOS, the basic software instructions that govern how the console works.

"FulgOre," who maintains a site with instructions on Xbox modification, said building a homemade hack isn't much more difficult than installing one of the prefab mod chips. "It is relatively trivial in terms of assembling and installing such a mod chip," the hacker, who declined to give his real name, said in an e-mail.

"You can give your Xbox a brain transplant in under a minute."
--Andy Green, from Kettering, England
Andy Green, a hardware tinkerer from Kettering, England, thinks he can do better than the commercially available mod chips with "Milksop," his homemade Xbox modification for accessing the console's flash memory, where the BIOS and other critical software reside. Milksop, which uses a parallel port connection and other common PC hardware, connects to the Xbox memory without soldering, allowing hackers to overwrite the console's BIOS with homemade software.

"You can give your Xbox a brain transplant in under a minute," Green said.

Green, who is publishing specifications for the Milksop hardware and software under the GNU open-source license, says his main interest with the project is to provide an avenue for running Linux software on the Xbox.

"Linux will mean that the box is under the user's control, where it ought to have been in the first place," he said.