Anyone who’s owned a gaming console from the last few generations will tell you that machines are increasingly becoming set-top computers — equipped with USB ports, Bluetooth, removable hard drives, and their own online software repositories. But while this overlap theoretically offers significant benefits, such as For example, the ability to use your own USB controller instead of sticking with the system’s default settings hasn’t always been as accommodating of manufacturers.
Take the Xbox 360’s removable hard drive, for example. It was a standard 2.5-inch SATA drive in a fancy case, but as explained by [Eaton], Microsoft has made significant efforts to prevent the user from updating it themselves. Which wouldn’t have been such a big deal if the Redmond giant hadn’t put things at a huge premium; Even in 2005, $99 for 20GBs was a robbery.
An Xbox 360 hard drive
How did the drive lock work? Genuine Xbox drives had an RSA-signed “security sector” at sector 16 that contained information such as the drive’s serial number, firmware version, and model number. The RSA signature would prevent the fields stored in the security sector from being tampered with, and you couldn’t just copy that sector onto a blank drive because when the console compared the data to the data reported by the drive itself, they wouldn’t match.
Of course, hardworking hackers eventually found some workarounds. A DOS tool called HDDHackr has been created that allows you to insert any identifying information you want into Western Digital drives. All you had to do was grab a copy of a security sector from the shadier parts of the internet, forge the values it contained onto the drive using HDDHackr, and you were spot on. There’s reason to believe Microsoft might catch on to this – hundreds or thousands of Xbox consoles phoning into the mothership with identical drive serial numbers was certainly a red flag – but apparently nothing was ever done to stop it.
Later, when it was possible to modify the console’s firmware with JTAG access, the RSA security sector check was removed, allowing you to use basically any drive you wanted. But this is where Microsoft seems to have drawn the line, as changing your console this way meant you could no longer sign into Xbox Live.
By changing the security sector data, you can spoof drive information.
As an interesting side effect of being able to modify the Security Sector, [Eton] Note that it is possible to replace the Microsoft logo with any image that is displayed on the console when checking the capacity of the drive. Why store a logo on the drive at all? He suspects that Microsoft may have planned to have third-party companies produce drives, in which case you would have seen their logo instead. It’s just a guess though, as Microsoft ended up being the only company producing drives for the 360.
These days, Sony lets you put your own M.2 SSD in the PS5, and even traditionally tech-averse Nintendo lets you store your games on generic SD cards. The situation hasn’t changed much for Microsoft, however, as their latest Series X console uses custom NVMe-based storage devices that only Seagate makes. However, they have taken a much more enlightened approach to allowing the user to run their own software on the console, which is certainly a step in the right direction.