A Computer In My Living Room: An Epilogue

April 11th, 2006

Previously, I wrote a two-part entry where I documented the hardware and software that I used to make a home theatre PC capable of playing audio through my stereo system. The system worked well enough but it only lasted for about a month before I got tired of it.

It was too cumbersome.  Running a VGA cable under the rug looked stupid as did having an LCD monitor next to the couch.  The whole thing was annoying to use as the computer was loud, the bluetooth mouse was finnicky, the monitor was crappy, and the interface was clunky.

I am no stranger to defeat in the realm of technology.  When I realized my homebrew HTPC was a dud, I took it apart and tried to think of another solution.  Pretty much all of the ideas I came up with required me to build a full computer that would cost me at least $1,000.  I didn’t want to spend $1,000.

I then decided to take a look at pre-made solutions that were more tailored to my needs.  At this point I was still mainly interested in audio players which is why the Squeezebox from Slimdevices caught my eye.  It plays most of the formats I use, has a snazzy web interface, can access a music share wirelessly and is certainly less expensive than building an entire computer just to play audio in my living room.

I’d been using the Squeezebox for the last two months or so and loving it.  Then I began jonesing for a way to play my computer-specific video files in the living room.  You know, XViD and DiVX, that sort of thing.  I started looking for a pre-made solution for video but all of the reviews I found for these types of devices were less than stellar.  They choked on codecs or were a hassle to set up or they cost too much or the remote control sucked or they didn’t do wireless or any number of things.

I couldn’t see dropping a few hundred bucks on a device that was just going to frustrate me.  With my conundrum in hand, I turned to the goons of Something Awful for advice.  A few people recommended some devices I hadn’t heard about, but then a small army of posters came to tout the wonders of a soft-modded Xbox running Xbox Media Center (XBMC).  They didn’t give reasons or pros and cons.  They just said “Get an Xbox and soft-mod it. Install XBMC. You will be pleased.”

Usually I poo-poo this sort of advice, but I decided to investigate further and I found this thread which details how to soft-mod the Xbox and I decided “Why the hell not? If nothing else, I’ll have an Xbox.”  I went to Fred Meyer and picked up an Xbox with Forza Motorsport and an Action Replay.  I went to Blockbuster and rented Mech Assault (one of three games that allows for the exploit to work).  I was on my way.

I modified the Xbox in about 15 minutes.  Most of that time was spent installing Datel’s Action Replay software (which is ugly and not very intuitive by the by).  After that it pretty much went like this:

  1. Transfer Mech Assault gamesave to the memory card.
  2. Transfer Mech Assault gamesave from the memory card to the Xbox hard drive.
  3. Load Mech Assault gamesave called “Run Linux”.
  4. Bloop Bleep Boop Beep Linux Installed have fun.

After that it was a breeze to do anything else.  I installed XBMC and set it as the default dashboard. I cloned the contents of the tiny 8GB hard drive to a spare 160GB hard drive I had lying around and installed it in the Xbox.  I set up SMB shares for XBMC to stream media over the network.  I installed emulators for NES, SNES, MAME, Genesis, and N64.  Everything “just worked”.  It was like using a Mac without paying out the ass for it.  Once I had it all set up, I began to use it.

Oh god they were right.

It plays everything.  It plays every XViD file I have, it plays every audio file I have, the emulators work perfectly, the interface is beautifully intuitive and polished… it’s everything I’ve always wanted in a home theatre computer and it only cost me 200 dollars.

Oh yeah, and it plays Xbox games.

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