Zero-Cost Gadget Upgrades For the Next Great Depression

Hanging out at sites like Giz may have instilled in you an insatiable, pocket-emptying gadget habit. But now we're entering a new era-the old guys on the TV are saying that soon we may not even have pockets, let alone money for them. Don't panic though: You've probably got a wealth of gadgetry sitting underutilized in your living rooms, closets and basements, just waiting to be given powerful new (not exactly authorized) features. For free.

I've collected the best firmware replacements, software mods and homebrew hacks from the DMCA-flouting, EULA-hating frontiers of gadgetland that'll breathe new life into your stable of hardware and maybe-just maybe-let you feel that lusty new-gadget rush again.

Turn Your Xbox, Old PC or Apple TV into a Genuine Media Center

Zero-Cost Gadget Upgrades For the Next Great Depression

Xbox Media Center is about as refined as an unauthorized hack can get, playing back virtually any audio and video format, running a bevy of console emulators and still playing your Xbox games. To be honest, this should almost be viewed as a natural update for every Xbox, which at its core is a slow but functional PC with an easy TV connection. (Any actual PCs you have lying around can run a PC-ported version of XBMC.)

Zero-Cost Gadget Upgrades For the Next Great Depression

Boxee is a very slick fork of the XBMC project for Mac, and it's available for Apple TV. As shipped, the Apple TV works fine within the closed iTunes ecosystem, but Boxee's support for virtually every video codec and free online video like YouTube, CNN, BBC, and Revision3 will suit your new, more destitute lifestyle a bit better.

Difficulty: Easy to Moderate. Installation is pretty straightforward in most cases, with simple Boxee and XBMC setup programs available for Windows, Mac and Linux. Before you load XBMC, though, you have to mod your Xbox with one of these methods, many of which require a specific game. After that it's all install wizards and lollipops.

Installing anything on the locked-down Apple TV used to take some serious finagling, but there are now tools that will create an automated Boxee installer on a flash drive. Just plug the drive in, restart and you're good to go.
XBMC Online Manual
Boxee

Zero-Cost Gadget Upgrades For the Next Great Depression

Make Over Your iPod, Archos, iRiver or Sandisk with Rockbox
It's hard to look at the current generation of media players and not admire their diverse capabilities and extensible software platforms. That's not to say that your 5th-gen iPod doesn't play back music perfectly well, or that your iRiver H10 still isn't a kickass media player, but they do feel a bit dated. Rockbox replaces your MP3 player's operating system with something more substantial, effectively making it a completely new device. You get endless codec support, advanced audio options, dozens of games, useful apps like a calculator and a text editor, plus you can choose from tons of different interface skins for a unique look and feel. Rockbox's tweaking possibilities mean you will earn admiring "what is that?" questions from friends, and it won't cost you a thing. If your player isn't supported yet just hold on-everything from the Zen Vision:M to the Toshiba Gigabeat S has a fairly active dev team.

Difficulty: Easy. Rockbox has an automated tool called the Rockbox Utility available for Windows, Mac and Linux. It does the work for you. Even better, it often automatically configures your player to dual boot with its original OS.
Rockbox Official Site

Zero-Cost Gadget Upgrades For the Next Great Depression

Convert Your PC or Notebook Into A Much More Expensive Mac
It's undeniable that Macs are too expensive. For many, they are considered a luxury item whose added cost doesn't justify the benefit. Luckily Apple's switch to an Intel platform opened up a world of unauthorized OS X installations which can turn your existing PC into a powerhouse Mac Pro workstation, or morph your MSI Wind or Asus EeePC into the Mac netbook that should be in their goddamn product line anyway. Check the hardware compatibility list to see if your PC is eligible for the upgrade.

Difficulty: Moderate to Hard. If you're not morally opposed to downloading iATKOS and Kalyway, which are pre-patched Leopard install DVDs (this is bit torrent territory), then the process is much like installing any other OS. If you insist on building your own patched install from a DVD you own, then, well, good luck. Always check hardware lists first, though, because driver support is everything.
OSX86 Project Page

Zero-Cost Gadget Upgrades For the Next Great Depression

Flash Your Crappy Router Into a Top-Line Piece of Hardware
The DD-WRT project exists for a simple reason: Most routers are physically very similar, but are priced differently because of functionality derived from software. The DD-WRT firmware unlocks the potential of the most basic routers out there-too many to name but damn if yours isn't on the list. As it turns out, your budget model is kind of impressive: Program-specific traffic throttling, professional level wireless security and radical signal boosting are just a few of the dozens of new features that can be enabled.

Difficulty: Easy. If you can't manage this one, then you don't deserve a router-installation just takes a few clicks on the device's default configuration pages. A word of caution, though: Make sure your router configuration page is totally compatible with your browser before the operation, as some choke on Firefox and can botch firmware upgrades. Stick to IE if you have the choice.
DD-WRT Project Page

Zero-Cost Gadget Upgrades For the Next Great Depression

Download Updated Maps For Your Old GPS
I'm referring of course to capital 'D' downloading here, mainly because at the moment GPS map updates are a racket. You could spend hundreds of dollars on map data that is freely available on Google Maps, Microsoft Live and MapQuest, among others, or you can just, you know, not. Map packs for Garmin, TomTom and Magellan units are floating around torrent sites and usually don't require much more than a simple CD image mount and run routine to set up. (Guilty conscience sold separately.)

Difficulty: Easy to Moderate. If you're just running a copy of a CD, then you'll be able to use the installation wizards. Some more involved methods for Windows CE-based devices require some SSH file transfers, but these are relatively rare.

Zero-Cost Gadget Upgrades For the Next Great Depression

Jailbreak Your iPhone for Wi-Fi Internet Tethering
Two internet plans are enough, but to sign on to a mobile internet contract when you've already got unlimited iPhone data feels kind of stupid. Jailbreaking your iPhone is now about as easy as performing a firmware upgrade, and there are actually multiple tethering apps. PDANet and iPhoneModem both work a treat, but keep in mind that excessive usage could draw AT&T's attention and ire: Tethering is not allowed on the data plan, even though it works fine. Both apps are available in Cydia, where you can also find a limited assortment of other apps that don't have a place in the app store.

Difficulty: Moderate. Jailbreaking can be managed through the Dev Team's fantastic Quickpwn tool, but it does take a few minutes and can go wrong if instructions aren't followed closely. After jailbreak, Cydia and Installer fill the role of the gray-market app store, functioning as simple package managers that are arguably as polished as their more legitimate younger brother.

PDANet and iPhoneModem take different approaches to tethering, but neither requires more networking expertise than it would take to, say, set up a router.
iPhone Jailbreak
PDANet
iPhoneModem

Zero-Cost Gadget Upgrades For the Next Great Depression

Turn Your Wii Into a Free Emulation Machine
It's more than a little infuriating to have to repurchase your childhood library of console games from the Virtual Console, especially when free PC emulators and accompanying ROMs abound on the old intertubes. All you need is a copy of Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess, an SD card and an SD reader and you're ready to install A Boy and His Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia, which is pretty much all anyone has ever really needed since this whole "Video Gaming Television Machine" thing got under way in the first place. Throw in extended media playback and some helpful widgets for an extra value-add.

Difficulty: Moderate. This is one of the only hacks here that needs additional hardware to work, even if it's basic. The good news is that once you find a copy of Zelda and load up your SD card, the process pretty much takes care of itself. Further app installs are taken care of through a intuitive dedicated channel.
WiiBrew WIki

A great resource for similar projects is our industrious sister site Lifehacker, where you can find a veritable treasure trove of tutorials and tricks. Have you postponed any gadget purchases until you're sure your bank is solvent? Have any other budget hardware resurrection techniques that we missed? Let us know in the comments.