I have a confession to make. I love iPods. I have been a consistent user of the iPod since I got my first one about the time Mac OS X Tiger came out. Back then I was a Mac OS X fan and I had a PowerBook. I loved my PowerBook. I used iTunes on my Mac back when it was still clean and sleek. Now iTunes is a bloated mess that I just dislike dealing with. I have also transitioned to using Linux as my OS of choice, which can make life difficult if you love iPods, but not terribly so.
RockBox is a alternative firmware that will run on many iPods, Archos, iAudio, iRiver, Sandisk and the Olympus M-Robe 100. RockBox can also make the life of a Linux using iPod fan much easier.
Once you follow the installation steps for your device(I used a iPod Video), you can boot into either Apple’s firmware or RockBox. To boot into RockBox on the iPod, you just need to hold the Menu and Select buttons like you would when you restart the iPod making sure that the iPod is unlocked.
Once you are in RockBox, you are presented with a menu.
To play music, you will need to browse to a folder of music you created on the iPod, or if you have not moved your music to a folder outside of the iTunes Database yet, browse to the Music directory underneath the iPod_Control directory. You can also generate a database by scrolling to database and long pressing the select button on the Database Menu and press the select button to generate the database. It takes a few moments, but once the database has been created, you can then browse the music by Artist, Genre, Album and all the ways you are used to with the iPod. This is much easier than navigating by folder structure. The beauty of RockBox is you can either browse the folders or use the database. You aren’t locked in to using either method. I would also, at this point, delve into the settings and turn on the generate database on Auto Update function. This makes it much easier when putting on and taking off music. Also, make sure you save your settings or when you reboot, it will not update like it should. Check out the RockBox manual for your device for further details on this feature.
RockBox supports playlists in the m3u format. To create playlists when your iPod is connected to your computer you need a media player that supports m3u playlists that use relative paths to the mp3 file. Example programs that you can use are Audacious on Linux and Winamp or Windows Media Player on Windows. RockBox has a good FAQ that explains how you can do this or use the command line to achieve the same thing.
You can also create these on the device. The bad part is the text entry on RockBox kind of sucks. It’s handy to do this and to create a on the fly playlist, but saving this is tedious thanks to the horrible on screen keyboard. This is one area where the Apple firmware has it beat. After a while, you get used to it, but it still isn’t as elegant as the text entry method that Apple uses when searching for music on the iPod.
RockBox supports Album Art but not embedded album art. You need to have a bmp or jpg file with the art in the same directory as your album in order for RockBox to display the art. There are other alternatives to putting it in the album’s directory. For more on this, check out the iPod Video RockBox manual.
Now that we have the basics covered, what else can RockBox do for your iPod? Well RockBox supports everything the iPod does except music with Digital Rights Management and iPod formatted video. It also supports Ogg Vorbis. For a full list of codecs, just check out the RockBox website. RockBox also supports some video via it’s mpeg player plugin but it does not support h.264 which is what most iPod formatted podcasts use. Fortunately it does not remove the Apple firmware, so you can just boot to this firmware to view those if they are synced to the iTunes Database. On Windows or Mac, just use iTunes and on Linux use your favorite app that supports iPod syncing. I use RhythmBox on Ubuntu Linux.
RockBox also supports many other features. So many that this article would never end if I wrote about each one. My favorite features of RockBox are the crossfading between each track and the plugin support for running small applications including games. My favorite game is a old favorite from iD Software called Doom. Yes you can play Doom on the iPod. RockBox comes with a free map file that you can use but you can copy your maps from the original CD to your iPod and play the original game. There are other games of course, but Doom is a great game from the past and it’s one I still fire up every few years just for nostalgia.
One of the other games available is a Bejeweled clone called Jewels.
With that said, as cool as RockBox is, it does falter at some things. The interface is not the best. the iPod firmware still has it beat. Plus as strange as it sounds, I have yet to find a Linux program that will actually sync music. Most Linux programs work well with the iTunes Database but there’s none that will sync between the iPod running RockBox and your computer. If RhythmBox would start to support this, it would be much easier to use RockBox. I know you could use rsync to do this, but it would not help with creating playlists across albums and inserting album art in the album directories. I just find it funny that the iPod seems to have better support even under Linux for this kind of feature. Yes you can write your own scripts to do this, but I don’t have time to do that and I don’t care about the metadata as much as I used to.
Most iPod peripherals are supported on my iPod when running RockBox, but not all. I tested it with a Altec Lansing iPod dock I have in for review and it worked fine, but not all features of the dock worked. I was able to switch tracks and change volume and not much else. That’s ok as most iPod docks also let you manipulate it’s controls as well so I can live with that. If you depend on a certain peripheral that will not work with RockBox, then I suggest sticking to the iPod firmware.
RockBox makes the iPod something some geeks will absolutely love if they don’t love it already. Even non geeks may love just using the file browser for playing albums. However, if you are a relatively new computer user or one who has no idea what firmware is, again, I advise that you stick with iTunes and the original firmware.
One thing to note is if you have a newer iPod like the new Nano just announced, you won’t be able to run RockBox. Older iPods are generally supported except almost every generation of the Nano. I have a Second Generation Nano and they have yet to figure out how to get RockBox running on it. This is generally because RockBox is a completely volunteer project. People work on the project as they get time in their personal lives and the devices themselves. This means the newer devices will always lag in support of RockBox if they get support at all. It could be years until the latest iPods are supported if at all.
Also, every device does not support every RockBox feature. It depends on the device’s hardware on what functions will work on it. Just keep that in mind if you decide to load RockBox yourself.
To see the full list of supported players, check out the target status page on the RockBox web site.
What I liked: Completely Open Source firmware alternative. Adds Ogg Vorbis support to the iPod and many other features.
What Needs Improvement: The interface is only something hard core geeks would like. The text is too small on the iPod’s screen.