Modifying the XBOX
If you’ve read this far, you’ll know that my goal was to ‘hard-mod’ the Xbox, in order to install Linux on it, and then to run the Amiga Emulator.
There are two ways to hard-mod an XBox. One of which is to purchase a ‘mod-chip’ which already has custom BIOS images (usually including cromwell) already installed. This is a good option, but usually requires soldering multiple wires to the very tiny pads on the XBox motherboard.
The second method for hard-modding, is to alter the motherboard in a relatively minor way, to make the TSOP chip writable. The TSOP is a read-only chip in the state that it arrives in the XBox as standard, but it can usually be made writable by bridging just two or three points on the motherboard. Using the TSOP mod mean less soldering, and as I’ll discuss later, my method took no soldering at all.
(Many in the modding community would argue that a TSOP flashed BIOS replacement is not a hard-mod, but a soft-mod, I don’t care to argue the semantics here.)
There is a catch if you’re planning to do the same however, and that’s the XBox revision. You see, over several years, Microsoft revised the design of the XBox multiple times. There are variants with version numbers 1.0 through 1.6. If your XBox is a revision 1.6 it cannot be modified in order to flash the TSOP, instead, you’d have to install a mod chip. If your XBox is a 1.0, the process involves different solder points than it does for the 1.1 through 1.5. So, if you happen to be shopping for an XBox to modify, try to get a 1.1 though 1.5 for the easiest modification. Look for manufacture dates of 2002-2003 to avoid the 1.0 and 1.6 revisions.
Now remember, even when the TSOP is made writable, you’ll be unable to run unsigned code until the TSOP is flashed, and the flashing process requires a tool, which is also unsigned. So before you crack out the soldering iron, you’ll need to soft-mod your XBox.
As I explained in the legalities page of this post, I cannot share a link to a softmod exploit tool, nor am I going to tell you how to actually perform the soft-mod. Instead, I’ll just tell you how I found my softmod tool and where I learned to soft-mod my XBox.
The softmod tool I have is called simply “XBox Softmod Tool” and is written by someone that goes by the handle “Rocky” or “Rocky5”. Unlike me, Rocky is not so cautious about the legalities, and lets just say he seems willing to put his tools on popular source-code repository web sites. (’nuff said?)
Where to learn how to perform the softmod? Well I learned from Youtube. There were several videos on how to do it. A particular youtuber by the handle of MrMario2011 uses the very same Rocky5 softmod tool.
Okay, you watched the video right?
The process basically involves plugging a flash drive into your PC, then using a piece of software called Xplorer360 (not to be confused with similarly named titles, you should not have to pay for it), to write the soft-mod files to the flash drive.
The process of writing the files to the flash drive was not entirely straight forwards for me, because my PC runs Window 10 which is far newer than Xplorer360. This guide was helpful…
Just in case you’re confused about where to find the soft-mod files, as I was, extract the Rocky5 package, you’ll find them.
I’ll also point out that most soft-modding guides demonstrate how to back-up your original XBOX bios using the FTP server built into the soft-mod dashboard, and how to null your hard disk key. I would suggest you do both of these, regardless of what your next steps will be.
Okay, you now have a soft-modded XBox. Now lets look at how to perform the hardware modification. The following video explains how to actually do the hardware modification, but don’t be too quick to pull out the soldering iron. There’s a little more I’d like to add.
Okay. I tried this modification and failed not once, but twice (costing me $30 in motherboards!). I was then able to buy two replacement boards for just $5 each, so it worked out okay in the end, but let me explain how I failed and how to avoid it.
I am quite experienced with a soldering iron. I have built telemetry tracking devices for high altitude ballons to take pictures for near space. I have build LED Dot Matrix displays. I built in-car entertainment systems and in-car computers before they were even a thing. I’m not trying to brag here, I’m just trying to express that I know how to solder a joint. I’ve watched these XBox hacking videos and laughed at some of the poor looking joins, and considered solder-bridging to be a bodge job. I take it all back! I apologise!
These videos are highly magnified and the solder points that you have to join are tiny! On one of my attempts I budged a surface mount component off the board with my iron, and on another attempt I think my join included a point it should not have. Now, not to give myself too hard a time, I did make a mistake when selecting the solder bit, it was far larger than it should have been and I ignored the warning alarms going off in my head. None-the less, when I came back to do the second two boards using a different technique, it was still obvious just how tough a soldering job this is. If you’re experienced soldering on this scale then good for you, but the mere mortals among us need a better way, and I found one…
The answer for me was to use conductive paint, as demonstrated in this video from Youtube…
The audio quality in the video leaves a little to be desired, but a huge thank you to Terry68Firebird for making this video. Terry demonstrates how to make the TSOP modification using “Bare Conductive Electric Paint”. I am going to be using this product in many projects to come!
This conductive paint can be used to bridge the necessary motherboard points to make the TSOP writable, but it takes around 15 minutes to dry and set. It’s still a delicate process requiring a magnifying glass, and to apply the paint I tipped a piece of copper wire. The drying time of the paint is actually an advantage. If you make a connection which does not look right, or which touches something it shouldn’t, simply take a wet-wipe and remove the paint, dry with a piece of kitchen towel or a cotton bud, and try again. It did take perhaps three attempts until I was happy with the results, but I then had a TSOP writable XBox – no worries…
While you have the XBox open for this modification, you should also consider removing the clock capacitor. Effectively the clock capacitor is not actually required in order for the XBox to function, all that may happen without it is that the machine will continually forget what the time is when you turn it off – not a big problem for our Amiga Emulator, which does not require the accurate time in order to function. Why remove it? Well because Microsoft installed the nastiest, cheapest capacitors they could find for the clock with a life expectency of just a few years (which is reasonable for a games console I guess), but these capacitors are now over 20 years old and it’s highly unlikely that you’ll find an Xbox in which the capacitor has not leaked. By leak, I mean acid on the motherboard which over time will corrode away components or traces.
Thankfully, clock capacitor removal is a relatively straight forwards process, also demonstrated by several youtubers.. ( You should then clean your motherboard of any leaked acid using white vineager or baking soda solution to neutralize it. )
With the hard-mod done, all that is left is to install the Cromwell BIOS and Linux, but, I also wanted to increase the hard disk capacity of my XBox so that the Amiga Emulator would have plenty of space for ADF files, and the Amiga could have it’s own emulated hard disk…