Rocking the Rockbox
If you’ve been around the forums reading about portable audio players, it’s likely that you’ve come across the term “Rockbox”. You probably wondered what it was. Maybe you even looked into the matter further but stopped pursuing it when it got complicated. In this article I intend to arm you with enough info to help you understand what Rockbox is, what it does, and ultimately if it is something worth trying.
Interested in hot-rodding your portable audio player? Read on.
Editors Note: I'm very happy to welcome John Grandberg to the very short list of contributors here at InnerFidelity. He's an avid headphone geek with many comprehensive reviews at Head-Fi under the screen name "project86." After recently answering my call for contributors, we discovered he has significant experience with Rockbox --- a chunk of software I've long admired, and am very happy to have reviewed here. Thanks for answering the call, John!
So what, exactly is Rockbox?
Simply put, Rockbox is an open source firmware that has been released for various portable audio players. If you are unfamiliar with the term firmware, think of it as the operating system that allows you to interface with the device. Consider the differences between Windows, OS X, and Linux – all three can generally run on identical hardware but each offers a very different user experience. Of course, they all do basically the same tasks in the end, but each has their own unique method of arriving at that goal. In the case of Rockbox, it does all the usual tasks of playing your music, but allows you to have more control over the way it is done, and sometimes actually unlocks functionality that was missing with the stock firmware (depending on which player we are talking about).
Still with me?
You haven’t even heard the best part yet – the price. Being an open-source project, Rockbox is completely free to use. No messing around with demo versions or limited trials. The only profit involved is through donations, which I encourage if you find yourself enjoying the product as much as I do.
Rockbox has been around for 10 years, so many of the players it initially supported are considered ancient by today’s standards. But there are a few reasonably modern devices on the list, with more in the works. The most significant models on the list include the Sansa Fuze, Clip and Clip+, as well as the Apple devices – 1st and 2nd generation iPod Nano and 1st through 5.5th generation full size iPod. Lately I’ve been using the Sansa Clip+, Sansa Fuze, and 5th gen iPod (60GB model), and I prefer all of them over their counterparts with stock firmware.
The team is constantly working to include more players – the iPod Classic is the one I’m most excited about, but there are some other notables such as the Cowon D2, Meizu M6, and Android Devices in general. Some of these are further along than others, and the list is ever expanding, so it is worth checking back every once in a while to see what’s new.
Not exactly a computer expert?
Not a problem. Rockbox is very easy to install these days - don’t be intimidated. The old process, which gave you a separate download for each individual device, was already pretty straight forward. But they now provide an installer program that basically does all the work for you; it really couldn’t be much easier. Connect your device via USB and the installer will automatically detect it and walk you through the steps.
The only thing I’ve encountered that wasn’t absurdly easy was with the Sansa players which require you to manually download an original firmware, because bundling it would possibly be a copyright violation. They do provide a link so it really isn’t hard at all, adding just a few clicks to the process. Basically, if you know your way around your computer, know which drive you player gets mapped to when connected, and are capable of following basic instructions, you should be able to handle the install just fine.
As with any situation where you are updating a firmware, there is a very small chance of things going wrong and ruing the device. I’ve done about a dozen installs over the past few years without a single error. In the event that you do “brick” your device, Rockbox.org has a thriving community forum where you can get help to possibly revive the unit. Overall the risk seems very small but I feel obligated to point out that it does exist.
So, what are the benefits?