An IPOD thats not an IPOD

A few weeks ago, I installed Rockbox on my trusty 30GB iPod Photo. Rockbox isn’t one of the many applications that run on the iPod software platform; rather, it’s firmware that completely replaces the iPod’s, with the goal of expanding the possibilities and the limits of the existing hardware.

In its current state, the Rockbox interface is utilitarian, graphically sparse, and reminiscent of a command-line system, and it lacks the flash of modern commercial MP3 players. But where it comes up short in pizzazz, it more than compensates in options and settings, many of which would make the default iPod jealous. Using RockPod is fun, and though it doesn’t benefit from a seamless iTunes relationship (you can, however, manually transfer songs within iTunes) and is missing a few familiar features that make the iPod so popular with the masses, I personally dig it–enough to use it exclusively for a while.

Apples to–umm–Apples: A standard iPod next to the Rockbox iPod.

Specifically, the Rockbox open-source firmware, which is updated on a near daily basis by a dedicated group of programmers (and interested users such as you), opens up many doors in the area of audio quality, where Apple has often fallen short: flat sound with weak bass and weaker equalizer presets. Simply browsing through the audio settings will make an audio geek perk up.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the iPod’s innards hosed down and replaced with an alternative operating system. Last year, fellow CNET editor Tim Moynihan installed the iPodLinux OS on an old iPod (actually, my old iPod) to showcase its video-playing capabilities. In fact, it was the efforts of the software’s developers, the iPodLinux Project, that paved the way for further iPod exploration, including the Rockbox project, whose firmware builds are coded from the ground up.

From the Rockbox Web site: "Rockbox aims to be considerably more functional and efficient than your device’s stock firmware while remaining easy to use and customizable. Rockbox is written by users, for users." This notion of replacing or substituting firmware, particularly on a device as popular as the iPod, opens the door to understanding the possibilities of the hardware inside the device and thus deserves merit. While Apple makes a sucessful product by combining a well-designed physique with a sparkling personality, it also dumbs down the package for the masses. Rockbox is anything but dumb.

The geeks’ iPod
The header is an oxymoron–the iPod is mainstream, typical, and safe. The original geek MP3 player was the
Rio Karma, which included features such as OGG and FLAC support, gapless playback, and a variety of menu settings; its dock even had a built-in Ethernet jack. But moments after viewing the Rockbox’s splash screen on my iPod, I realized its personality had changed–same body, new soul. I grabbed the player and my headphones and slipped away from CNET to explore my made-over iPod.

Some of the Rockbox’s key features are Karma-like: OGG and FLAC support, as well as gapless playback (dance mixes on a standard iPod are anything but seamless). You also get crossfading options, fade in/out, a user-definable antiskip buffer, and much more–all on a spartan interface that’s simply not as pretty as the iPod’s. But the Rockbox is fairly easy to use, considering all the extra features you get.

You get photo playback–no thumbnail grid views–but you can zoom in and tweak slide-show settings. File/folder organization is completely customizable, and you can browse by ID3 tag data. Rockbox even offers a choice of playback screen skins (again user-customizable and created); some include dancing graphics (a.k.a. DancePuff Duo), while others show a battery meter with the actual time remaining. The Rockbox GUI is exceptionally customizable as you can see in these beautiful 5G iPod example themes. Incidentally, the iPod’s battery life takes a serious hit when using Rockbox, but this is a known issue that will be remedied by the time Rockbox for iPod officially launches later this year. There’s playlist creation, bookmarking, and a library of plug-ins ranging from games and a calculator to a very cool oscilloscope. But most of all, it offers a hard-core control over audio playback.

The Rockbox’s playback screen is customizable.

Does your iPod have a built-in oscilloscope?

Volume can be cranked up; you have control over bass and treble, balance, stereo width, mono/stereo settings, and cross-feed, as well as a heavy-duty graphical equalizer that helps you sculpt sound in real time, though extreme tweaking will cut out the sound for a second. Granted, some of the options are a bit overkill, and you’ll encounter some bugs, but all in all, the Rockbox truly rocks.

Adjust your audio in real time with the powerful five-band parametric equalizer.

And it’s not just for the iPod; the Rockbox team has developed replacement firmware for a host of devices from Archos, iRiver, Cowon, and even the 5G iPod.

I want to point out that Rockbox is a constant work in progress and doesn’t officially launch until November. The developers didn’t even get sound on an iPod until January of this year, so my references to audio-related bugs, battery life, and even the look and feel should definitely be considered with this in mind. A Rockbox developer expects battery life to equal or surpass that of the current iPod by launch. Given the current pace of work, Rockbox inches its way toward perfection on a daily basis.

Life without DRM
Even if it could easily get licensing for decoding FairPlay AAC (iTunes Music Store) or WMA DRM, the Rockbox team wouldn’t go there–for obvious reasons. Instead, the player–formerly known as the iPod Photo–supports MP3, OGG, FLAC, WAV, AIFF, and a host of other audio formats that are either open source or universal. Additionally, the Rockbox will play AAC, ALAC, SHN, WavPack, AC3, MPC, MP1, and MP2 file formats.

For the moment, I have abandoned buying songs from music services and have returned to ripping discs in MP3 or OGG, or I get music where I can for free.

Hurray for open source!
There’s no denying the iPod’s accomplished design: anchored by the Click Wheel (Rockbox plus Click Wheel is nice), which has yet to be surpassed as a navigator, and the common yet still inspiring look and feel. The iPod software is slick too, with its innocent Mac OS sensibility and flair. But deep inside, the iPod is a computer processor that begs to be programmed, adjusted, overclocked, and tweaked. Apple keeps it simple with a thin set of audio options and emphasizes the lowest common denominator. Open-source experimenters such as Rockbox give users choice and flexibility, but more importantly, their work brings us several steps closer in the quest for the ultimate digital audio player.


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