Saturday, February 23, 2019

And now for something completely different: The G5 that went to the dark side of the X-Force

My favourite console of all time is still the ahead-of-its-time Sega Dreamcast, but a close second on my list is the PowerPC-based Microsoft Xbox 360. Besides being our favourite architecture, it plays a number of great games (I still think BioShock Infinite is one of the best games ever written, and it could have been even better) and many original Xbox titles, and it's even on topic here as Microsoft shipped Power Mac G5s as development systems to early Xbox 360 developers (the X360 being powered by the Xenon CPU, designed by IBM and using three of the PowerPC PPE cores that also appeared in the Cell processor). There was a famous Anandtech article I remember where at E3 2005 they discovered the "consoles" were props, and what people were playing were actually Power Mac G5 machines hidden in the back of the enclosures. In the community these are referred to as Alphas (or Alpha XeDK systems).

A few of these boxes leaked out into the wider community and recently one of them posted how he made his G5 development system work, with lots of cool pictures. It's possible to turn one of the early 2GHz G5 machines into one of these, using a compatible graphics card (he used a flashed ATI Radeon X800 XT, but it seems easier to just use the native Mac version) and a compatible Intel network card, and a proper selection of ATA devices. There's even a term for these; they call them FrankenXenons. (A reassurance: you won't need to modify your Mac substantially to run this, and you don't need to flash the G5's firmware. On the other hand, this also means that an Alpha can be recreated or even faked with off-the-shelf hardware, and you probably shouldn't drop a lot of coin trying to get a "genuine" one unless you can verify its provenance.)

Note that this probably won't make your Mac into an Xbox 360, or at least not sufficiently to replace a proper console. Many things don't run, particularly later games, and even though it has an original Xbox emulator some of those games still glitch. But at least some early games will run and the recovery image includes a few demo applications to play with.

Eventually the Alphas were replaced with actual pre-production console hardware, called Beta, which have a strange history as Microsoft actually rounded them up, intentionally fouled them to prevent reuse, and shipped them overseas for destruction. Naturally some folks saved a few, as is what usually happens when someone realizes a prototype with potential future value is in their possession, but they have a reputation for being difficult machines.

Even as an Xbox 360 fan, I don't feel highly compelled to seek out the proper hardware to turn an otherwise perfectly useful G5 into a doorstop that runs a few early games rather badly. It certainly doesn't argue much in support for the power of the dark Microsoft side of the (X-)force, and my slim 360 is much more convenient. But as a historical artifact it's cool that you can do so, if you want to.

1 comment:

  1. I sometimes asked myself just how wrong things would go if I simply swapped my 2 IBM 970 MP dual-core processors with 2 early model Xbox360 processors on my G5 Quad. Would something catch fire? Or it simply wouldn't boot and spin the fans up loudly?

    Also, is there any chance QEMU would include video game consoles as target platforms? If so, I'd fancy a virtualized Xbox 360 on G5s. (:

    Of course, all this is nothing but wet dreams that basically are equal to science fiction. Just like natively booting Mac OS 9 on a Wii U, Nintendo GameCube or Wii. (:


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