Rock Your iPod With an Open-Source Upgrade

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Rockbox lets you choose an interface (shown above is Analog Cassette Deck) or create your own.
Rockbox lets you choose an interface (shown above is Analog Cassette Deck) or create your own.
Life is too short to listen to crappy digital music. So I recently decided to begin ripping all of my newly purchased CDs into FLAC, the Free Lossless Audio Codec. Music files in FLAC format sound better than those using lossy compression formats such as MP3--plus, FLAC is an open standard. The only downside is that my 80GB Apple iPod doesn't play FLAC files.

Happily, we can fix that.

Rockbox to the Rescue

Rockbox is an open-source software project that develops firmware replacements for a growing list of portable media players, including Apple's iPod. Rockbox firmware offers features you don't get with most players, support for geek-approved codecs such as FLAC and Ogg Vorbis, and interfaces users can configure. Best of all, it's free, courtesy of a dedicated community of programmers. (Matthew Newton, our Free Software columnist, recently wrote about Rockbox too.)

There are a few caveats. Most Rockbox builds are works in progress, with almost daily updates, so their stability may vary. Similarly, not every one of the hundreds of user-submitted interface themes works equally well on all builds, and many are less than attractive. Bottom line: Expect to tweak some settings (it really is half the fun), and remember that you can always revert to your player's original firmware by performing a fairly simple uninstall, or by using Rockbox's dual-boot capability.

To install Rockbox I first had to connect my 5.5-generation video iPod to my PC so I could enable disk mode using iTunes; be sure to use a USB port right on the PC as opposed to a USB hub, which can cause write errors.

Next, I downloaded the appropriate Rockbox firmware for my player, the standard fonts package, and the Rockbox bootloader, which resides in an application called iPodPatcher (all of these are available at the Rockbox site). A few more minutes of installation, a quick disconnect and reboot, and suddenly my iPod wasn't acting like a plain old iPod anymore.

New Interface, New Features

Admittedly that first bootup is just a bit jarring--the app's font is quite tiny (but easy to change). Initially, I accessed my music files using a straightforward file browser. But the first time you load Rockbox, it scans the onboard files and collects tag data in a database that you can subsequently browse by categories such as album, artist, and genre. You can also create and save playlists.

Perhaps Rockbox's greatest attribute is the level of audio control it offers. Besides its many preset and customizable equalizer options, it supports terrific precision in fine-tuning. For example, while you can raise or lower bass and treble on any iPod, Rockbox lets you adjust by specific dB (decibel). You can also tweak balance and channel settings (including stereo, mono, and karaoke).

Rockbox offers some unique sound settings such as crossfeed, which uses a special algorithm to make audio from headphones sound closer to the way it would through freestanding speakers. Dithering uses low-level noise and noise shaping to fix bit-depth discrepancies between Rockbox's audio decoders and the iPod's.

I got Rockbox for its FLAC compatibility, but its customizability has made me a true fan. And with programmers worldwide tinkering with the code, I expect that it will only get better.

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