Rockbox Review

Even 20GB of music storage isn’t nearly enough for many music lovers these days. But for digital music’s early adoptors, even shelling out for one of Apple’s sleek 80GB, fifth-generation video iPods may not entirely solve the problem. Even though Linux can talk to iPods, an 80GB iPod does little or no good if you have about 80GB of OGG files. iPods can’t play OGGs.

OGG is an open standard for a free container format for digital multimedia, unrestricted by software patents and designed for efficient streaming and manipulation. In other words, it’s the digital music file format of choice for open-source fans.

The compatibility problem between OGG files and iPods was solved in May, when Rockbox was finally ported to Apple’s top end iPod model. It allows you to completely do away with the iPod’s interface, to the point where your iPod doesn’t really behave like an iPod at all. Of course, it still plays music, but it’s look and feel is vastly different, and if you scratch the surface, it’ll do a bit more than the traditional iPod/iTunes setup.

But what is it? Rockbox is an open source firmware replacement for your iPod, that aims to offer more
than your traditional firmware and software setup. It runs on a wide variety of media players now: iPods, iRivers, Archoses, Sansas, Cowon iAudios, and Toshiba GigaBeats. You begin by downloading the latest version of Rockbox tailored to your specific device, as well as a copy of the Rockbox manual. The manual provides detailed installation instructions also tailored to your particular device, so make sure you download the iPod version of the software and the iPod manual.

Installing Rockbox involves copying a hidden folder containing the Rockbox program itself to the iPod, and then running an application for your operating system – Linux, Mac OS and Windows versions are available – to patch the iPod’s bootloader so it will look for the Rockbox program, not Apple’s OS, on the hard drive.

After that, when you fire up your iPod, you’ll see a screen telling you Rockbox is booting. This can be a little alarming, since the default Rockbox screens are not a patch on the beautifully designed iPod menus.

Customising RockBox
You have to go to some trouble to get things looking as good as the default iPod interface. Rockbox, just like a lot of modern PC apps, is skinnable. Since different media players have different screen sizes (and some older players that Rockbox supports, such as an iRiver, don’t even display colour), Rockbox themes are device-specific. Most of the themes available for the video iPod are ugly – locating a theme that was clean and informative, and used larger fonts, took us some time.

If you give Rockbox a go, you’ll probably want to replace the hideous default theme immediately and select one that meets your needs and your taste.

With Rockbox, our iPod knows how to play OGGs and FLACs. It also behaves as a typical USB mass-storage device, letting us move files to and from the iPod without any of the name-scrambling or other restrictions that iTunes imposes.

On the iPod itself, we can browse music files directly, wading through the files and folders we’ve put there, or Rockbox can present us with the standard artist/album/genre listings that most players provide, based on the ID3 tags in the music files.

There’s a robot voice you can turn on that reads out loud the currently selected menu item as you navigate through the music – handy when you don’t want to get your iPod out in public, walking home late at night for example. Your robot friend will confirm what you’re about to play without you having to flash your iPod for all and sundry to see what expensive gear you carry around with you.

Rockbox’s extensive Settings menu lets you tweak the iPod’s behaviour ad infinitum. An eclectic set of plug-ins comes with Rockbox, too, including a simple game of Solitaire and a Pac-Man emulator that unfortunately lacks sound. A lot more information on Rockbox’s features (compared with the stock feature sets for various players) is available at Rockbox.org.

OUR VERDICT

Clearly Rockbox is not for everyone. If you’re happy with the way your iPod works, and using open-source hacks is not your thing, you can live happily in blithe ignorance of Rockbox’ charms. But for those people who hanker for freedom from iTunes’ simple plug and play system, Rockbox offers a world of opportunities.

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