Xbox Live not for everyone

"Mod chip" fans, AOL subscribers, and some owners of older game machines are having problems with the new online service for Microsoft's Xbox video game console.

Last week's launch of Microsoft's new online service for its Xbox video game console created headaches for some customers, who reported not being able to use the service or their game machines.

The company on Friday released Xbox Live, a $50-a-year service that allows Xbox owners to tap into an existing high-speed Internet connection to play games online. The service has become the cornerstone of Microsoft's strategy to distinguish the Xbox from competing game machines made by Sony and Nintendo.

While Xbox fans were pumped up for the debut of the service after a successful test version, those who had altered their consoles with "mod chips" were out of luck. Mod chips are gray-market add-ons that allow the Xbox to play legally and illegally copied discs, imported games and homemade software. Microsoft has followed through on earlier threats, originally reported by CNET, to use Xbox Live to detect and bar consoles outfitted with mod chips.

According to a document posted on one of Microsoft's Xbox online forums, Xbox Live will check for the presence of mod chips or unauthorized software when a console connects to the service. If such modifications are detected, Xbox Live will record the serial number of the unit and permanently ban that machine from accessing the Xbox Live network.

Numerous owners of modified Xbox units reported in forums at the Xbox Hacker site that they were locked out of Xbox Live. "All I know is I have two machines--one modded, and the other not," wrote one poster. "The one that's modded can't connect at all, and the unmodded one works perfectly."

A Microsoft representative confirmed the company has barred modified consoles, as defined in the Xbox Live user agreement. "We've designed the user agreement to protect the platform," the representative said.

Xbox owners with unmodified machines were also reporting problems running Xbox Live games. Numerous postings in Xbox forums maintained by Microsoft detailed problems, especially with older consoles, continually reporting "dirty disc" errors when trying to run games.

Brian McDonald, an IT administrator from Norwalk, Conn., said he had a fine time as a tester for Xbox Live, but since he started using the retail version of the service's software he's had nothing but trouble.

"Basically, every time I finish a game, it freezes up and says I've got a dirty disc," he said. "That kind of negates the whole experience of Xbox Live, if you can't even finish a game."

McDonald, who believes the problem stems from substandard DVD drives used in early Xbox units, says the only options offered by Microsoft support have been to pay more than $100 to have his out-of-warranty unit repaired or pay $199 for a new Xbox.

"My wife is pretty adamant that we're not buying another Xbox, so I guess I'm stuck," he said.

The Microsoft representative said the company was unaware of any systemic issues with disc errors.

Would-be Xbox Live users also are finding that all broadband Internet connections are not equal. As with online features Sony recently introduced for its PlayStation 2 console, Xbox Live won't work with America Online's proprietary and fledgling broadband service.

The Microsoft representative said the company was still negotiating with AOL to allow access through its network.