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Introduction To XBox Modification

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I originally posted this in the Facebook group, but it might be a good thing to keep on the site as well for archival purposes.

This is only a general introduction to modifying the original Xbox. It doesn't include specific instructions, but instead just provides an overview to help those who are interested in Xbox modification to understand the basic premise. YouTube and this group are loaded with a wealth of helpful information for more in-depth processes and how-to guides. Consider this merely a starting point to help understand the common references and terminology you'll run into as you go.

Factory Operation Of The Original Xbox
Before we get into the specifics of the different kinds of mods available, let’s start with how an original Xbox actually works. In the world of electronics a TSOP is just a type of flash memory chip that stores a small amount of data. Most original Xboxes, much like PCs from that time period, have a TSOP chip that stores a very small program called a BIOS. The first thing the motherboard does when you power on the Xbox is run the BIOS program stored on the TSOP. The BIOS checks all of the hardware in the system, then looks for an operating system to boot (in the case of the Xbox, either the software on a game disc or the dashboard software stored on the hard drive).
The Xbox ships from the factory with a very restricted BIOS stored on the TSOP to prevent running pirated games, unauthorized software, or using custom hardware that violates the terms of service (non-original hard drives, custom disc drives, etc.). The first thing the BIOS does when you turn on the Xbox is a hardware check, and it halts the system if anything is missing, inoperative or not original to the system. During this process it checks the hard drive to make sure it’s locked with a special key code specific to that Xbox. If the hard drive isn't locked, or if it doesn't have that specific key code, the BIOS will halt the system to prevent booting unauthorized software and display an error. If the hard drive passes these requirements it next checks the DVD drive to make sure it’s compatible (any original Xbox drive will work, but only Xbox drives). If the DVD drive is verified to be an Xbox drive it then looks for a bootable disc in the tray. The disc will only boot if the copy protection proves the disc is a genuine Xbox game; if not, it will load the dashboard from the hard drive instead.
NOTE: Not all Xboxes have a TSOP chip, and without one you obviously can't do a TSOP mod. The last version of the Xbox, v1.6, is the only exception and has a different type of chip custom-made by Microsoft instead of a TSOP. While this chip still contains the BIOS and performs the same function as the TSOP chips, it cannot be flashed (i.e. re-written) with a custom BIOS.
Why Mod?
The main purpose of modifying an Xbox is to run custom software on it. Once you mod the Xbox it unlocks it for all kinds of uses.
* Play downloaded/burned/copied games/homebrew applications or other custom software
* Run emulators for older systems and play NES/SNES/Genesis/Playstation etc. games on your Xbox
* Run XBMC and use your Xbox as a home theater PC. You can play most music and videos, including DVDs without the official DVD playback kit from Microsoft.
* Install a bigger hard drive. This mostly facilitates the other uses listed here, but you'll have more storage in general for anything else you might want it for.
* Install games directly to the hard drive, either with the original disc or uploaded through FTP on a home network. Not only is it more convenient with faster loading times, but this also saves wear and tear on the DVD drive.
* Use cheats in games much like a Gameshark or Game Genie. For the Xbox they're called "trainers", but perform the same function.
Softmod Vs. Hardware Mod
In most cases a softmod (software mod) will do most of the practical things you can do with a hardware mod. A softmod is usually applied by loading a hacked save file in specific games that have code vulnerabilities. When the game tries to load the save file a small Linux installation loads instead, takes over the Xbox and executes custom code that copies software onto your hard drive. It also installs a shortcut that tricks the BIOS into loading a custom dashboard at boot instead of the factory dashboard. Afterwards you're able to run custom software and burned discs from a custom dashboard.
It should be noted that you will have to install a softmod anyway if you intend to use a TSOP mod as you will need it to run the TSOP flashing software. Softmods have a few cons compared to hardware mods:
* If you screw up the softmod software you have to start from scratch to re-install it. If you screw up the software after a hardware mod you can simply load a rescue disc to fix it.
* Upgrading the hard drive is possible with a softmod, but a little tricky and slightly risky.
* You have to use a locked hard drive with a softmod, even if you upgrade to a larger disk. If you're using an upgraded hard drive and it fails you'll have to go back to the factory drive before you can install a new drive. If you're still using the small factory hard drive, it fails, and you don't have another already-locked hard drive on hand with that specific key code, you'll have to go through a somewhat complicated process to replace the hard drive. Hard drives are destined to fail eventually, so a hardware mod is great insurance against future hardware failure.
* A softmod requires a DVD drive to be connected at all times. If you only have a softmod, and for whatever reason the DVD drive's mainboard fails, you'll have to replace the drive (or at least the drive's mainboard) before your Xbox will boot. On the plus side, the Xbox DVD drive isn't key coded to the motherboard, so any Xbox DVD drive will work as a replacement. A hardware mod makes the DVD drive entirely optional.
* With a softmod the BIOS still checks the disc to make sure it’s authorized software, and if it isn't, it loads your dashboard instead. Most of the time you won't see any ill effects from this as the custom dashboard will autorun the disc anyway (depending on your settings). However, the custom BIOS from a hardware mod will more securely be able to directly boot any disc. This is why you're able to run rescue discs with a hardware mod if your custom dashboard gets broken.
* Not a huge deal, but a hardware mod allows you to customize the "flood machine" and splash screen you see when the system first powers on.
Hardware Mods: Mod Chip Vs. TSOP Mod
In the early days of Xbox modification the only way to mod your Xbox was with a mod chip. The way these function is to bypass the on-board chip that stores the BIOS so that a custom BIOS runs from the mod chip instead. A mod chip usually only consists of a TSOP wired to run instead of the factory chip. Mod chips are now obsolete in the majority of cases with only a few exceptions, as the modding community has found further exploits that allow you to overwrite the BIOS stored on your existing TSOP.
The only reasons you would really NEED a mod chip are:
* You have a v1.6 Xbox with the custom Microsoft chip instead of a TSOP, meaning you can't flash a new BIOS to the on-board chip.
* For some reason your BIOS gets corrupted during a TSOP flash and your Xbox won't boot otherwise.
* You still have the factory BIOS and your hard drive is too damaged to boot a softmod for the TSOP mod process. (NOTE: There is an advanced process to replace your hard drive by re-writing the on-board EEPROM in this instance, but a mod chip is a viable alternative)
What Is A TSOP Mod?
Despite the techy-sounding name, a TSOP mod is actually a fairly simple and straight-forward process. All it does is overwrite the factory BIOS software on the TSOP chip with custom BIOS software without restrictions. You don't need any special equipment beyond a very basic understanding of soldering, a 30-watt soldering iron and some solder. A good magnifying glass can be a huge help as well, but isn't entirely necessary.
To apply a TSOP mod to a compatible Xbox (v1.0-v1.5) there are typically two spots on the motherboard where you will need to bridge together solder points. This disables write protection on the TSOP chip, allowing the factory BIOS to be overwritten with a custom BIOS. There are more in-depth guides on this process, and it’s important to follow the directions exactly according to the specific TSOP chip you have. Make sure you have installed a softmod before you begin as it will be necessary to run the software that flashes the TSOP.
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Well said.  Speaking as someone who intends to do his first TSOP in the very near future I found this to be very informative.  Something as technical sounding as a TSOP always seemed somewhat intimidating and until recently I never even took the time to look into it.  Posts like yours that put these things into Layman's terms really help bring difficulty into perspective.

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