Rockbox sets your music free

Make your MP3 player do your bidding with the open-source and free downloadable firmware called Rockbox. Seth Rosenblatt takes an in-depth look at how to free your 'pod.

If you have an MP3 player but--to put it mildly--think its operating system leaves a lot to be desired, there is a way to make that player rock out with Rockbox. Open-source and free, Rockbox is downloadable firmware for your MP3 player that represents a big leap for audiophiles who want to control how they use their portable devices.

It's important to note that Rockbox is not a plug-and-play piece of software. Although it's compatible with more than two dozen models, including most iPods, iRivers and Archos, it also comes with a lengthy installation and usage manual for a good reason: installing it and learning how it works can be complicated.

When I tested it, I used a fifth-generation iPod, the iPod Video, so any of the following notes pertain to that specific model. The installations and instructions are player-specific, so it's pretty hard to confuse one player's installation instructions with another's. Also, there's an auto-installer, but even the Rockbox publishers warn that it's wonky at best. My experience was that it was a bit more convoluted than the manual process and not worth the effort. And no, I couldn't get it to auto-install properly.

The phkTape theme, with animated keys.

The manual installation shouldn't be too trying an experience for those users who're familiar with downloading and unpacking archive files. Of course, the instructions go into much greater detail than I will here, but the short version is quite simple. First, download the firmware archive to your PC, make sure iTunes is closed, and then extract the files to your device. The iPod needs to be in disk mode, and you need to extract the .ROCKBOX directory and all of its contents to the root iPod directory.

The instructions recommend installing the fonts and themes packages before disconnecting and booting Rockbox. Conveniently, the installation for both is nearly identical to installing the main program. The folder architecture in the zip files mimics the main .ROCKBOX directory so all you have to do is unzip the fonts and themes archives into the iPod's root, and you're good to go. Most additional plug-ins that don't come with the program, like a Doom emulator, are installed the same way.

One of the most useful plug-ins is a bit different. Voice is a feature that spells or reads filenames and folders as you navigate through your player. Meant for users who have vision problems, it's installed by downloading the Voice file, renaming it from the player model-date-language format to just the language, and then copying the file directly into the font directory.

The next step is to install the bootloader. Each device has its own bootloader, so following the Rockbox instructions on how to run it from your computer is key. Last, disconnect the device and reboot--on the iPod, that's by pressing the Menu and Select buttons simultaneously. Make sure the iPod isn't locked, and when the Apple icon appears, you let go. In a few seconds, the Rockbox firmware should load.

A theme that shows album art.

Rockbox doesn't override the original firmware, and it's quite easy to jump back to the native system. Simply reboot again, but this time make sure that the iPod is locked. When the native operating system loads, you're good to go.

So that's how you get it to work. Here's what it does, besides kick the butt of every MP3 player OS I've ever had the misfortune of using.

It's skinnable. It comes with several dozen skins, my favorite being one that makes your screen look like an audio cassette. Ah, the '80s. You can change fonts and colors at will, and the Rockbox site has detailed instructions for creating your own skin. You can have the song bit rate and year produced appear onscreen, next to the artist, song title, and album name. Or not. The interface is fully customizable and is able to show album art as easily as your rating.

While music geeks may forever debate the value of a miniature album cover, they can also have the precise decibel level appear onscreen, as well as get an accurate battery life reading. As I write this, I apparently have 68 percent of a full charge. That sure beats the juice out of an inaccurate green icon.

There's also a fairly complete sound equalizer that should be a big draw to anyone who's displeased with their iPod's range. The sound settings are completely customizable, giving users precise control over not just the bass, treble, and balance, but the channel configuration, the stereo width, crossfeed, and dithering. More complicated equalizing settings are also available, including memory presets and a hardware equalizer.

You can also store different settings in configuration files, so you can have one for your car and one for your headphones. MPEG videos are supported with a plug-in on players with native video capability, but the focus of Rockbox is primarily music.

The Menu screen for a school notebook-themed skin.

The games that come with Rockbox are iPodized versions of arcade favorites: everything from Tetris to Space Invaders, Pong to Sudoku, and more come preloaded, 31 games in all as well as the aforementioned Doom plug-in you have to load separately.

There are also applications that come preinstalled. Some of the more interesting ones include a version of Paint that lets you save and export your drawings, a chess clock, a dictionary, a stopwatch, and others. There's also a search function and a text editor that are powered by a virtual keyboard.

The navigation in Rockbox is a bit different from the standard iPod navigation. Users will have to get used to using the left-side Reverse button as well as the top Menu button, where the former will go back to the previous menu and the latter will jump to the root menu.

Although the installation is challenging and once installed Rockbox presents a bit of a learning curve, I think it makes an excellent challenge for audiophiles who feel constrained by using default settings.