Xbox Media Center

Product: Xbox Media Center
Version: 1.1.0
Manufacturer: Microsoft (hardware) Team XBMC (software)
Price: $150 (hardware) / free (software)

Performance & stability: 8/10
Features: 9/10
Expected return on investment: 10/10
Support: 7/10
Longevity: 9/10
Flexibility: 7/10

Pros: Will output almost any digital media you throw at it

Cons: Complex installation; processor must be replaced in order to playback HD data

Bottom line: No facility should be without one

Xbox Media Center 1.1


XBMC logo
What does a Microsoft Xbox games console have to do with the digital intermediate process? Well, though I suspect that this will be one of the more controversial reviews I put on this website, please bear with me as I attempt to explain how an Xbox can form an integral part of any digital intermediate facility.

One of my clients, around a year ago, wanted to install a system whereby they could feed digital movies (QuickTimes, RealVideos, etc.) remotely to a central server, and then output them as standard definition video, and (of course), to do it cheaply. They were using Avid systems in-house, so it seemed the logical thing to do would be to set up and ftp server, access the movies from the server, load them into Avid, and then play them out. Everyone was reluctant to go this route, and I was especially unhappy about relying on Avids for this purpose (see my review of the Avid systems). Instead, I proposed buying an Xbox, and then modifying it for this purpose, having seen a working model elsewhere. So that’s what we did, and it works perfectly.
The Xbox Media Center (XBMC) software is a spin-off from another freeware Xbox program, the “Xbox Media Player”, the aim of which was simply to allow different digital movies to be played on a TV using an Xbox. The XBMC software is open-source, released under a Gnu Public License, and is updated pretty much on a daily basis. At the time of writing, the system can be used to playback most digital movie formats, DVDs, music and audio types such as MP3s, and individual still images. The list of supported network types, file formats and so on is so long, you’ll have to read it here. Suffice to say, if you can play it on your PC, it will work on XBMC.
Installation is tricky. The problem is, Microsoft do not advocate the installation of third-party freeware on their systems. It’s a little bit more complicated than that, but the bottom line is, you have to open up the Xbox hardware and install a third-party microchip (a “modchip”) to allow the program to be run (this will also enable you to upgrade the Xbox’s internal hard disk drive to one with significantly higher capacity). I’ve heard it suggested that this process might even be considerd illegal in the US, but certainly in the EU, once you’ve bought the hardware, you can do what you like with it. Although the software is free, it is not available to be downloaded in its compiled form anywhere, but you can get the source and compile it yourself (this will inevitably require paying for Microsoft’s Xbox SDK at a ridiculous cost), or you can just google or torrentspy a precompiled version.
Once you have it installed and configured, you have several options for playing back media. You can set up the system to function as an FTP server, with uploaded files stored on the local hard drive. Alternatively, it is possible to have the system stream media across a network, and this works remarkably well. You can potentially set up a linux NAS system with a terabyte of video and audio files, and view them sequentially. The hardware outputs composite SD video (or S-video) with the option to output digital sound. You can optionally attach a component HD cable, and get 1080i video out of it (this includes using DLP projectors, if you’re so inclined). What my client did was take the composite signal and feed it into a video-switching matrix, which is probably the ideal solution for most facilities. You control playback either through an on-screen menu system via an infra-red remote control, or through a web-based interface.
On the down-side, it won’t playback uncompressed video data, which is more a limitation of the hardware. The processor is fast enough to decode most SD-resolution movie files, and will even upconvert them to HD if an HD adaptor is attached, but if you want to play back HD-resolution movie files, you’ll have to manually upgrade the processor, which requires solid soldering skills. Failing that, you can wait for the possibility of a version of XBMC running on the forthcoming Xbox 360 hardware.
XBMC
Support is pretty good (considering the “you get what you pay for” ethos), there is a lot of activity on the official support forums, through the development mailing list, and on odd occassions, through the developers themselves. Just bear in mind that it’s an unpaid project, and so you probably won’t get anyone falling over themselves to fix your specific problem. That said, almost everything that goes wrong, barring specific video codec issues, are resolvable by simply rebooting the hardware. Even though it has been developed primarily for the home entertainment market, the support staff are pretty-clued up on issues concerning different video formats and codecs.
After spending a few minutes using it, you’re left with the impression that this is a system with a lot of hidden depth. More advanced users can create python-based scripts to automate certain functions (this also includes, for example, the ability to communicate with websites on the internet or local intranet), but otherwise, even if you only need to use it twice in a year, it has paid for itself over buying an ftp server and video output board for a PC.
[Oh yes, and you can also use it to play games or keep your clients entertained.]

For more information on Xbox Media Center, see the XBMC website


All reviews are based upon the principle that the hardware or software reviewed is to be used within a commercial digital intermediate environment; as such the review may not necessarily reflect the product’s intended purpose.

About the reviewer: Jack James has been working with digital imaging technology for 10 years. He has worked within a number of digital intermediate environments since joining Cinesite (Europe) Ltd.’s Digital Lab in 2001 to work on HBO’s Band of Brothers.  He has a number of film credits, and has published the book "Digital Intermediates for Film & Video" with Focal Press.

The reviewer’s opinions are his own, and not affiliated with any third-party.

Posted: September 26th, 2005
Categories: Uncategorized
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Comment from Jack - 9/27/2005 at 2:37 pm

UPDATE: Team XBMC tell me that “Latest/current XBMC (CVS) has many, MANY more features and functions”

Comment from pike - 9/27/2005 at 2:47 pm

Nice review!

But since xbmc 1.1.0 is 3 weeks shy of 1 year old when this is typed, you oughta take another look at XBMC when we release the next pointrelease :)

Comment from John Thunder - 9/27/2005 at 6:34 pm

This review is incorrect in stating that the standard hardware will not playback HD resolution content (720p, 1080i, 1080p) in fact xbmc on the xbox original hardware 733mhz CPU and 64MB RAM will playback 720p xvid content, as long as the video stream is at a resonable bitrate.

Comment from Jack - 9/28/2005 at 10:52 am

Thanks for the correction

Comment from Ryan - 10/13/2005 at 6:16 pm

you also do not NEED a modchip…
personally, i find modchips are more reliable and secure safe and happy console modding… i know my Xenium ice mod chip has helped me multiple times when i’v messed up
But I have a sneaking hunch that Microsoft has taken the clue that people whant more froma console than just to play audio CD’s ,DVD’s and Games… and they are going to put open source projects like this out because if the product comes with all this functionality what’s the point in learning how to mess around with it.
and the 360 is going to be a honey doodle of a melon scratcher to try n’ figure out how to mod it…
hopefully it’ll happen

Comment from dave downey - 1/8/2007 at 9:10 am

is there any updates to get my xbmc xbox to play 1080i at 50Hz pal for my panasonic tx76pw300a HD CRT tv,some feedback on that would be greatly appreciated.

Comment from Jack - 1/8/2007 at 3:36 pm

Well, that’s a little specific, and I really need to refer you to the xbmc forums (http://www.xboxmediaplayer.de/cgi-bin/forums/ikonboard.pl) for that sort of information, but as a rule of thumb, the xbox supports up to 1080i50 but you need the so-called “advanced” video cable, which has component outputs. I’ve personally had xbmc working at 1080i50 with a panasonic projector using this method, but bear in mind you’re then at the mercy of the limited amount of ram built into the xbox to actually play stuff.

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