Softmodding an Xbox (For Free)

Dale Swanson 07-09-2009

The original Xbox can be turned into a media center that can play classic video games, videos and music. Xboxes are very cheap ($30) from places like Craigslist, or even free from someone that doesn't want it anymore. In order to use the Xbox in these ways first it must be modded. There are a few ways of doing this, but here I will describe a way to softmod without needing anything else (using the hotswap method).

Overview Prep Xbox Make Disk Open the Xbox The Hotswap and Softmod Xbox Basics Setup Installing A Larger HDD Summary Links



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So why do you want to mod an Xbox? How should I know?

Why do I mod Xboxes? Because it turns a crappy $30 console into a multimedia center. A modded Xbox will be able to play classic games (Atari, NES, SNES, Sega, Game Boy, N64), play almost any video format, play music, as well as playing Xbox games directly off the HDD. Those are the main features, but you can also browse the web, play other games, and run various other programs. You have a couple options that will depend on what features you want. The ability to run emulators (classic games), will come with any modded Xbox. However, if you want to play Xbox games from the HDD or watch videos and listen to music the stock 8 GB HDD won't be big enough. If you don't care about Xbox games I recommend you simply put your videos and music on your home network and share them. The Xbox will be able to play them from the network quite easily. Xbox games though can't be played over the network (at least I haven't been able to get them to work). Estimate about 3 gigs per game, to figure out how much room you will want. Also remember you can keep the games on your PC and swap them out on the Xbox, although this takes a bit of time. If you choose to install a large HDD, it must be IDE, not SATA, and slower speed drives are actually better since they are cooler. Personally I have an 80 gig HDD in the Xbox with about 15 games on it, then I have my video on the network.

Now to review the ways of doing this. The first method was the hardmod. This involves buying a mod chip for around $30-$50, opening your Xbox and soldering it in (later solderless adapters were made). This method has the benefit of giving you the most freedom to use your modded Xbox how you want. However, progress was made and now almost anything that can be done with a hardmod can be done with a softmod.

The softmod doesn't involve any hardware changes, everything is done in software, hence the name. There are two types of softmod, the first requires you have one of three specific games and a way to copy files from your computer to the Xbox (either memory card + Action Replay, or USB drive + USB to Xbox adapter). You'll likely have to buy these items. However the benefit is you don't have to open the Xbox at all, so if you are scared of releasing the demons that live in your Xbox this is probably the best bet for you.

The last method is the one I prefer. It's the hotswap softmod. You have to open the Xbox and unplug the HDD and plug it into your PC while they are both running. Thus it can be rather risky, particularly if you preform the operation in a bath of salt water and shake uncontrollably. The benefit is that it only requires the Xbox, and a PC, you don't have to buy anything else.

You will need:

Prep Xbox

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Before you begin you have to do some stuff in the stock Microsoft Dashboard to prepare. First turn on the Xbox and go to the time set up, make sure your time zone is correct. Next go to the game save manager and delete all the game saves to free up room (you don't have to do this, but if you bought the Xbox used you probably don't want the saves anyway). Then you need to rip at least 1 song to the Xbox HDD. I use The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Original Soundtrack, you can probably use something else.

Then you need to find out what version dashboard and kernel you have. Go to Settings > System Info and wait for the text to scroll, at the bottom of this text is the versions:

The above dash is 5960, this is the newest dashboard, you should make sure yours is up to date. I haven't seen one since I started modding again that wasn't. I've heard you can simply play any new game or log on to Xbox Live to update the dash. The kernel above is 5838, there's a good chance yours is different. The kernel is based on when the Xbox was made, and won't change for any one Xbox. You'll need to know what kernel you have later so write it down.

Make Disk

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You'll need Ndure 3.1, and xboxhdm 1.9. Auto Xbins is a good tool to use to find Xbox software. Ndure is the actual softmod, and xboxhdm is a general program for Xbox stuff. You'll use xboxhdm to run Ndure. First start up the Ndure program and select your options. For the most part the defaults are fine, however, there are two key changes. First you must select your kernel, second you must select "Create XBOXHDM Installer". After you do this finish the steps to build your Ndure files. When the program is done you should have a folder called "ndure", you have to copy that folder into your xboxhdm/linux/ folder. See my screenshot for clarification.

Ndure setup options

Now you go to the base xboxhdm folder and run the file "make-iso-win.bat". This will create a file called linux.iso, this is your CD you will use to mod your Xbox. Burn this iso and you'll be ready to open your Xbox.

Putting the ndure folder in the xboxhdm folder

Opening the Xbox

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The Xbox is fairly easy to open, once you know where the screws are. There are 6 long T-20 screws holding the case on. They are all on the bottom under the feet and stickers. You'll have to pry the 4 feet off (I use a small flat screw driver, they can be quite hard to remove). You can feel around for the holes under the stickers for the other two screws. Once you find them punch a hole through with your screwdriver and remove them. See my picture for locations.

Screws holding case together

Remove the case lid. Inside you will find a bounty of candy and happiness. After you finish the candy you will see the gray ribbon cable, hidding underneath it is a single gold T-10 screw, remove it.

Single screw holding in the HDD tray

Now you should try to unplug the power and IDE cable from the back of the HDD. They sometimes are quite hard to remove, wiggling may be necessary. Then you can lift the whole black plastic HDD tray out. The HDD power cable is routed through it to make your life harder. Lastly there are four T-15 screws, two on either side of the HDD tray, they will have to be removed to remove the HDD from the tray.

Two of the four screws holding the HDD into the tray

The Hotswap and Softmod

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Now that you have your modding CD and your Xbox HDD it is time to begin the actual modding. All Xbox HDDs must be locked in order for the system to boot. Locking is a rather obscure HDD feature which I don't think I've ever seen used for anything other than Xboxes. When the system is first powered on the HDD asks it for a a key. If the system provides the correct key then the HDD is unlocked. It will remain unlocked for as long as it's powered, and will return to a locked state as soon as it loses power. It's important to note that any loss of power will cause the HDD to relock, the system doesn't have to tell it to or anything. Luckily relocking isn't really a big deal, since the Xbox has the key to unlock it again. If something goes wrong during the hotswap (for instance the CD times out before you complete the hotswap) you can simply turn everything off and start over.

Ok, so now you will want to remove any HDDs you may have in your PC so they don't get messed up. Leave only your CD drive as the secondary master. Then put the Xbox HDD in the PC, and plug a power cable from the PC into it. However, you will plug the IDE cable from the Xbox into it. To summarize the Xbox HDD will be in the PC, powered by the PC, but have an IDE cable running to the Xbox. This will require the Xbox and PC to be quite close. You'll want to practice the motion you'll have to do a few times with the power off. You'll be unplugging the Xbox IDE and then plugging in the PC IDE, so that the Xbox is the primary master in the PC (and at this point the Xbox will have no connections to the HDD). Make sure the PC IDE cable is easily accessed, and that you'll be able to remove the Xbox IDE. Keep in mind you'll be doing this while everything is powered up and running, so there is a good chance you'll die. Also the HDD spins very fast while on, and in general doesn't take kindly to violent shakes, so try to remove the IDE cable gently.

You'll want to set up your PC to boot from CD. Also a quick note. My Dell Dimension 8100 that I use for this has a very annoying BIOS that doesn't like it when drives appear out of nowhere. As such I have to have a random HDD plugged in to the primary master IDE channel when powering on. When it comes time to plug that IDE cable into the Xbox HDD I have to first remove it from the random PC HDD. You shouldn't worry about this unless you have problems with the modding CD not seeing the Xbox HDD. Just don't be alarmed when you see the second HDD in my pics, the bottom HDD is the random PC HDD, and the top is the Xbox HDD.

Make sure you have plenty of cables. Also an electric organ can't hurt.

An ample supply of cables

Now that you are all practiced and ready it's show time. Make sure the CD is in your PC and that it boots to the CD before you try the hotswap. When you're ready you'll power on the PC, wait a second or two and then power on the Xbox. Hopefully the PC will supply the power to the Xbox HDD and the Xbox will be able to access without suspecting a thing. As soon as the Microsoft dash is loaded go into your soundtracks and play a song, as soon as it starts playing you can be sure the HDD is unlocked, so you can pause it. Now your PC should be at the xboxhdm main menu, waiting for your choice. Remove the Xbox IDE cable and connect the PC IDE cable. Once the connection is made the Xbox is no longer connected to the PC or HDD in anyway, you can turn the Xbox off.

Hard Drive Setup Hard Drive Setup Hard Drive Setup

On your PC choose option 1 "Boot VGA console with xbox-drive utilities (default)". If the hotswap went well xboxhdm should load. If not it's a sign you've angered the mighty warlord Odin. Determine what you did wrong and fix it, least he unleash his wolves Geri and Freki upon you. When you are prompted you will enter "xbrowser", which will load the xbrowser. This will let you navigate to your Ndure folder, and run your Ndure script (ndure.htm).

ndure screenshot ndure screenshot ndure screenshot ndure screenshot

This will launch Ndure, where you will want to choose option 1 "Install Ndure [Install only ndure files]". Ndure will then mod your Xbox. There are 3 steps and it takes roughly 10 minutes. Often time errors will show up, I've had success with the "ignore it and hope it goes away" policy. Once it is done you can power off the PC, and put the Xbox HDD back into the Xbox. The Xbox should be modded now. Congratulations you've brought glory to Odin's name.

ndure screenshot ndure screenshot

Xbox Basics

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I'll take this opportunity to go over some Xbox basics so you can follow along. First up there are 5 partitions on the HDD. C: - default dashboard stuff as well as the mod, generally don't mess with C:. D: - DVD drive. E: - This is the main drive where you will be installing apps and what not. Your default dashboard (UnleashX) is here in E:/dash/. X: Y: Z: - these are caches, each about 750MB in size, they are required to play Xbox games, and probably for a lot of the mod stuff too. You won't mess with them. Those are the 5 that every Xbox has, but if you have a larger HDD you may have an F: or even G: too. Generally if you put a bigger HDD in you put all the extra space in F:, leaving E: at the default size. G: is only needed if you use a HDD larger than 137GB, and even then you can use only F: instead of splitting it up. If you are sticking with the stock HDD you will put everything on E:. If you are upgrading the HDD you will have the option of E: or F:. Generally I put all apps on E:, and all data (ROMs) on F:

Next thing is FTP. FTP is the best way to access the files on the Xbox, and is pretty easy to set up. If you have a router you plug in your Xbox and set the option to use DHCP. It will find an IP and UnleashX or AID should show the current IP on the opening screen (example - Get an FTP program, use the IP as the address/host, password and username are both xbox (generally all usernames and passwords are set to xbox as defaults, sometimes Xbox), leave the rest as defaults. Hit connect and it should work. If not you'll have to find a more in depth Xbox FTP tutorial. It should be pretty easy to figure out what's going on. It's probably a good idea to explore the folders (mainly on E:) a bit.

Then there's the Xbox filesystem and programs. The Xbox uses a custom version of FAT32 called FATX. FATX has some limitations that you should be aware of. File names are limited to 42 characters, max filesize is 2GB, and some characters aren't allowed. There are programs you run on your PC that will convert filenames to legal FATX filenames. As for programs they are actually quite simple. The Xbox version of .exe is .xbe (are you starting to notice a common theme?). In general programs are named default.xbe, and they are in a folder named for the program, along with whatever config files they may need. For example if you wanted to install the Evox app it would just be a folder called /evox/ with a default.xbe file in it along with a config file. You'd just copy that folder onto your Xbox into your E:/apps/ folder (or anywhere else you want).

Another fun aspect of working with the Xbox is that any software that runs on the Xbox itself and isn't authorized by Microsoft (read everything related to modding) is illegal. Thus you will have trouble finding it. Note the source code isn't illegal, only the compiled .xbe files that you actually need to run. The place to find these files is referred to as the "usual places". Mainly this is an IRC channel called xbins. There are many tutorials explaining how to get into it, but it's a rather complex process. Luckily there is a program called autoxbins that does everything for you. You just download it then run it, wait a minute or two for it to connect, and then can browse the files.

You can get the programs you want one by one from xbins and install them, although it is a bit annoying. Luckily again there are auto installer disks. The one I use is called Auto-Installer Deluxe (AID). You just download the iso and burn it then after the Xbox is modded you'll be able to boot to it and install many programs at once.

I never used an Xbox other than modded ones. So I have no idea how intuitive the controls would be for someone who plays Xbox, but either way I'll go over the basic controls most programs tend to use. A tends to be OK, and B cancel. If you want to exit a program back will usually serve as escape. The triggers are often used as a way to scroll fast through long lists (very useful), the farther you press them the faster you scroll. Sometimes right and left and the D-pad will skip through letters in lists (as in As then Bs, then Cs, then Ds...). The rest don't really have general functions but, especially in the more complex programs, they all tend to do something. Play around.


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First off you want to test to make sure everything went well. Put the Xbox HDD back into the Xbox and plug in the cables, but don't bother screwing anything in yet. Power on the Xbox and you should be taken to an UnleashX screen. It tends to take longer than the default Microsoft dashboard, so don't be alarmed if nothing immediately happens. If you get to the dashboard and your house hasn't burned down yet you can breath a sigh of relief (I lost 4 houses when I was starting out).

Your first order of business is getting your HDD eeprom.bin. This is the key which allows you to lock and unlock your HDD at will. Once you have this you can build a new HDD from scratch and put it in your Xbox. Until you have this you are at risk of permanently bricking your Xbox if something unexpected happens (for instance Ragnarok). The best way to get your eeprom backup is EvoX. EvoX is a dashboard just like UnleashX. If it was installed you can launch it from UnleashX. Look for an applications menu item, or launch a file browser and look for it at E:/apps/evox/default.xbe. If you don't have it installed you'll have to install it yourself. Luckily installing programs on the Xbox is as easy as moving them onto the HDD. The two obvious options are to either FTP in to your Xbox and place it in the apps folder, or use an autoinstaller like AID to install it.

If you go with AID this is how it works. You'll load the DVD, if nothing seems to happen it means your Xbox won't recognize your media. Xbox DVD drives are very fussy about which brand disks they will read, if your brand doesn't work the only thing you can do is try a different brand. AID takes about a minute to load. Once it's started you go to: make backup, Backup / Restore HDD >Backup Eeprom > wait for load > Backup Eeprom > Move to E: > Back to main menu. Once this is done you should be able to FTP in to AID and look for the backup. I've had trouble getting this to work sometimes, so often I'll just install Evox from AID (Application Section, Install Dash as App) then launch that.

The Evox backup is a folder with 5 small files (bios.bin, disk.bin, eeprom.bin, hddinfo.txt, and hddkey.bin, total size 1.5MB) in it. You may have other folders called backup, don't be distracted by them, keep your eye on the prize. Copy the entire backup folder somewhere on your PC, and rename it something like backup.myxbox. Since it's such a small file (and is even smaller if you zip it), you can email it to yourself if you are really paranoid.

This may seem complicated and not immediately necessary, but trust me you'll want to have the backup around (and you need it if you plan on putting in a bigger HDD).

Once you have your backup you can proceed with copying over programs and files. If you plan on installing a larger HDD though you should do that first, as installing anything on the smaller HDD will just be a waste of time. If you are sticking with your stock HDD (or after you've upgraded) you can either FTP programs over or use AID. I like to us AID and just select install all apps, and then install all emulators.

Installing A Larger HDD

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As long as you have your eeprom.bin installing a larger HDD is relatively painless. All you have to do is create a HDD with the Xbox partitions, format, and files, then lock it. A HDD must be able to lock to be used in a softmodded Xbox. There are some sites that have lists of HDD models that lock. The only way to be sure is to just try it. The easiest way to do this is to make another xboxhdm CD. First FTP in and copy over your C and E drives to your PC. They should be something like 400 MB. Go to your xboxhdm folder and put the contents of the C and E drives in the folders called C and E. Note this is the C and E folders directly at /xboxhdm/linux/C/. There are also C and E folders in the ndure folder you moved over earlier, those aren't needed. You don't need ndure at all anymore, so you can delete the /ndure/ folder entirely (in fact it probably won't fit on a CD if you don't). After you have your C and E folders copied you also need to copy your eeprom.bin into the folder conventionally called /eeprom/.

After C, E, and eeprom.bin are in the correct places you can run "make-iso-win.bat" again. It'll overwrite the linux.iso file with a new one. Once it's done go ahead and burn the disk. Place the new larger HDD into your PC, no other HDD should be connected (the original Xbox HDD isn't used at all). Boot to CD as before and again choose option 1 (Boot VGA console). Here you will type "xboxhd" instead of "xbrowser" as before. Then you have to type "yes" (full yes not just y). At the menu you want option 1 "Build a new Xbox HD from scratch". After the process starts you'll have to type "yes" again at three different prompts. After a few minutes it'll finish, you can restart the PC.

xboxhdm screenshot xboxhdm screenshot xboxhdm screenshot xboxhdm screenshot xboxhdm screenshot xboxhdm screenshot

Now you have a properly formatted Xbox HDD, however it still won't work in an Xbox unless it's locked. So after the CD loads at the first menu you'll choose option 3 "Boot linux with locking/unlocking utilities". It should load and detect your HDD. Now you will have the ability to lock and unlock your HDD. I remind you that if you lock a HDD with an unknown key it's virtually impossible to recover the drive, you won't even be able to format it. That's why you put the eeprom.bin file on the CD. This way the CD can automatically use that key to lock/unlock, and you don't have to worry about something like a typo bricking your HDD. The command to lock your HDD with the key on the CD is "lockhd -a". You can type just "lockhd" to see the options. It should display a screen telling you if it's locked or not. It also tells you that it set the master password to "XBOXSCENE". This master password can be used to unlock the HDD if you lose the regular key (by default the stock HDD doesn't have a master password).

Now you can simply put the new HDD into the Xbox and power it up to see if it works. If so you can begin copying files over. You may want to unlock the old HDD now, so that it can be used for nonxbox purposes later. If you want to the process is the same as locking except the final command is "unlockhd -a". A great thing about the Evox backup is that it includes a text file with the HDD serial in it, that makes it easy to find the right key to unlock a random HDD from a big pile of old Xbox HDDs later.

Quick Reference Guide

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How to Softmod Your Xbox Using XboxHDM (Ndure)

Best Emulators For Xbox, Complete List

The Great Xbox Emulation Answer Thread

Netplay Tutorial - Netplay lets you play classic games over the internet.

Install Larger Hard-Drive into SoftModded Xbox

HOW to read your XBOX's EEPROM and GET the HDD KEY WITHOUT removing the chip Or Modding the XBOX - Quite technical.

Will A 320gb Hard Disk Work In A Ndure-softmodded Xbox? Yes.


Stuff I Wrote