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Hacking the Xbox by Andrew “bunnie” Huang

Paul Barry

Issue #117, January 2004

This book focuses on reverse engineering from the point of view of the hardware engineer, not the software engineer.

No Starch Press, 2003

ISBN: 1-59327-029-1


Structured around a series of hardware hacking projects that range in complexity from installing an alternate LED and making cables to eavesdropping on the motherboard with a custom tap board, Hacking the Xbox explores the hardware internals of Microsoft's game console first by opening the case, then by voiding the warranty and, finally, by taking a look around. Doing so is a legal minefield under the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and discussion of the DMCA is featured frequently throughout the text. Although primarily of interest to the North American reader, the book provides insight into the problems that can be created by well-intentioned but often ill-informed legislators. Hackers living in other countries may not worry too much about the DMCA, but that's not to say there is not an equivalent local legislation waiting in the wings.

Readers looking to learn about hacking the Xbox from a software perspective will be intrigued but disappointed. Although it describes some important Xbox software projects, Hacking the Xbox focuses on reverse engineering from the point of view of the hardware engineer, not the software engineer. Detailed instructions on getting GNU/Linux up and running on your Xbox are not here, but they are provided elsewhere, and Andrew Huang includes the required pointers. If you are the kind of person who is at home with a screwdriver, a soldering iron, electronic components and PCBs, then this is the book for you. Of course, it helps if you can stomach potentially destroying your Xbox in the process. Not to worry, though, as Huang provides detailed instructions on replacing damaged mass-storage devices, memory and power supplies should anything go wrong.

Subtitled An Introduction to Reverse Engineering, Huang's Hacking the Xbox is much more. It is an introduction to cryptography and its use in hardware design. It is a warning on the threat to scientific pursuit that is the DMCA. It is a primer on intellectual property law and its implications for hackers. It is a profile of the key players in the Xbox Hacking community and it highlights their motivations, intent and contributions. It's also a darned good read. What is astounding is that Huang manages to do all this in under 270 pages.

Obviously, Hacking the Xbox describes the current Xbox and, now that the book has been published (another story all in itself), it is likely that the next-generation Xbox will change, invalidating the bulk of the book's content. That said, the general hardware hacking techniques described in Hacking the Xbox can be re-applied to the new Xbox, albeit without the step-by-step instructions. Of course, with millions of original Xbox consoles shipped worldwide, there will always be old, replaced or upgraded Xboxes to play with, so the book will have worth for some time to come.

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