The original Xbox was well-known for being based on basic PC hardware, and among developers, well known for having just 64 megabytes of RAM which even at the time wasn’t a lot to be working with. In a recent podcast, [Todd Howard] of Bethesda related an anecdote from the era, claiming that Morrowind occasionally invisibly rebooted the Xbox without user’s knowledge in order to free up RAM. [Modern Vintage Gamer] wanted to determine if this was true or not, and began an investigation.
The investigation begins with the aid of an Xbox Development Kit. Noting that the original anecdote mentioned the reboots occurring during the loading process, the devkit Xbox was soft rebooted after executing a load. Rather than going back to the title screen of the game, it kicked straight back into the loading screen and brought up the last save game instead. This suggested that the game was indeed capable of rebooting in the midst of the loading routine.
[Modern Vintage Gamer] had a hunch that this was being achieved with the use of a routine called XLaunchNew Image, a piece of the Xbox API that could be used to soft-reboot the console and start an executable. Upon decompiling Morrowind, a call was found that fit the bill. Further analysis showed that the game was indeed calling XLaunchNewImage upon loading and launching a new game, and was confirmed by finding an *.ini file that contained flags to enable this behaviour.
Presumably, the reason for this behaviour was that it was simpler to boot the game fresh when loading a save, rather than trying to unload all the game assets in memory from the current game. It’s a neat trick that likely made the development team’s lives much easier once they implemented it.
It’s hardly a secret any more at this point that today’s game consoles from Microsoft and Sony are essentially AMD gaming rigs packed up into a custom package and with tweaked system software. So it’s not too surprising that enterprising hackers got the Playstation 2 emulator of RetroArch running on an Xbox Series X|S game console despite Microsoft’s attempts to stop them. (Video, embedded below.)
It’s possible to sneak the RetroArch app past Microsoft’s security checkpoints by shelling out $19 for a Microsoft Developer Account, setting up Developer Mode on the XBox console, and getting the Universal Windows Platform (UWP) port of RetroArch from the official website. This has the advantage of it being a blessed-by-the-Redmond-gods approach. But one cannot play retail games in Developer Mode and large games due to a 2 GB limit.
More recently, a hacker by the name of [tunip3] found a flaw in the Xbox app distribution system which allows one to download a ‘retail’ version of RetroArch. This involves marking the RetroArch app as ‘private’, allowing it to skip a review by Microsoft. People whose email address is on a whitelist are then granted download permission for that app on their Xbox console. The advantage of this ‘retail’ approach is that it does not feature the 2 GB filesize limits. The disadvantage is that Microsoft is free to take the app down and ban [tunip3]’s developer account.
My Way Versus the Highway
A lot about this comes down to a simple question of ‘why?’. Why even jump through these hoops to set up a limited, possibly ToS-breaking emulator on what is ultimately a gaming PC running Windows 10? Why not use that Raspberry Pi 4 or NUC system that’s been giving you sad eyes for the past months from where it’s been stuffed into a dusty corner?
Fans of retro computers from the 8-bit and 16-bit eras will be well aware of the green death that eats these machines from the inside out. A common cause is leaking electrolytic capacitors, with RTC batteries being an even more vicious scourge when it comes to corrosion that destroys motherboards. Of course, time rolls on, and new generations of machines are now prone to this risk. [MattKC] has explored the issue on Microsoft’s original Xbox, built from 2001 to 2009.
The original Xbox does include a real-time clock, however, it doesn’t rely on a battery. Due to the RTC hardware being included in the bigger NVIDA MCPX X3 sound chip, the current draw on standby was too high to use a standard coin cell as a backup battery. Instead, a fancy high-value capacitor was used, allowing the clock to be maintained for a few hours away from AC power. The problem is that these capacitors were made during the Capacitor Plague in the early 2000s. Over time they leak and deposit corrosive material on the motherboard, which can easily kill the Xbox.
The solution? Removing the capacitor and cleaning off any goop that may have already been left on the board. The fastidious can replace the part, though the Xbox will work just fine without the capacitor in place; you’ll just have to reset the clock every time you unplug the console. [MattKC] also points out that this is a good time to inspect other caps on the board for harmful leakage.
Console launch season is upon us. A time for billion dollar corporations ingratiate themselves with “Johnny Consumer” by promising the future of entertainment is finally available to one-and-all. The focus of this new generation of consoles has been the battle for 4K supremacy between Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5. Interestingly, Microsoft also created another iteration of their Xbox Series for those satisfied with games in 1080p, and thanks to [Dimitris] we have been able to see the internals of the Xbox Series S (XSS).
Microsoft’s choice to produce an all-digital console has greatly affected the internal design of the XSS. With the lack of a disc-drive there is only a single cable, the fan cable, tying the components together. The heat sink covering the 197mm² AMD APU takes up nearly 60% of the motherboard surface area. Though the XSS may be diminutive by modern console standards, its cooling fan is huge, somewhere in the 140 mm range. What little space is left by the heat sink and fan assembly is taken up by the internal power supply. As a fun nod, the PSU sports a Master Chief insignia to denote the location of the two-pronged connector beneath.
On the underside of the motherboard lies the biggest surprise of the “little brother” console. The system storage SSD is socketed rather than directly soldered to the board itself. The primary design goal of the XSS was to provide a cheaper alternative for players, but this standard m.2 slot reveals that Microsoft has plans for future expansion. This SSD, while not user-accessible in a traditional sense, will likely provide an alternative method to expanding storage outside of Microsoft’s proprietary external offerings. For a look at the teardown in process, [Dimitris’] video from his Modern Vintage Gamer YouTube channel is below.
Consoles are obsolete the minute they are released. The onward march of silicon innovation ensures that consoles never are able to keep up with the times, but technical superiority rarely results in being remembered. That kind of legacy is defined by the experiences a device provides. A genre defining game, a revolutionary approach to media, or a beloved controller can be enough to sway popular opinion. But really…it all boils down to a box. All the spurious promises of world-class hardware specs, all the overly ambitious software ship dates, and even the questionable fast-food crossover promotions exist in service to the box. The boxes vying for attention in 2020 A.D. are the PlayStation 5 (PS5) and Xbox Series X/S/Seriessss (XSX or whatever the common nomenclature eventually shakes out to be). These boxes likely represent the minimum spec for the next decade in big-budget video games, however, it is the core identity of those consoles that will define the era.
There are negative-one hacks to this project. Someone lost at their game, lost their temper, then raged at their Xbox controller with some horsepower. The result is that [Taylor Burley] gets a free controller with a non-responsive joystick out of the deal, and since he had nothing to lose, he decided to heat up the iron and bring the controller back to life.
The majority of the project is told in pictures and through the narration in the video below. In removing the joystick, [Taylor] opts for the technique of doping the connections with fresh solder (we assume containing lead for easier melting) before reaching for the desoldering wick. The diagnosis stage is brief because when the joystick lifts away, the PCB falls apart into two separate pieces! The next step was to glue the two halves together with cyanoacrylate to get into the nooks and crannies, then epoxy to provide structure. Solder bridges were not going to jump that gap, so he used 30ga wire and attached it wherever he could scrape away some solder mask. Best of all, it worked when he reattached the joystick. Job well done.
Xbox controllers are not a scarce commodity, so people do not spend their idle hours fixing them, but not many people can claim experience. Maybe someday the stakes will be higher and he will have the courage to repair vintage electronics. We won’t rant on how things aren’t built to last, and how we don’t train people to fix things. Today, we want to focus on someone who used their time to repair and learn.
[Ryan] tells us he was looking for a way to play some older games from the early 2000s, and thought it was a good opportunity to put together a quiet set-top computer. The final hardware is more than capable of running older titles, and can even be used with Steam Link to stream newer content from his primary gaming computer.
Even with a diminutive Gigabyte GA-H81N Mini ITX motherboard, things are pretty tight inside the Xbox. Fairly tight wire management was required to prevent any airflow obstructions, especially since [Ryan] decided to put the system’s 80 watt laptop-style power supply inside the case. While this made the build a bit more complicated, it does make the final product a lot cleaner and makes it feel just that much more like a proper game console.
Benchmarks show the machine has decent performance, all things considered. [Ryan] says there are some potential upgrades down the line, but as with most gaming PC builds, cost is the limiting factor. Until he’s ready to spend the cash on revamping the internals, he says that streaming newer games over the the network has been working great.