Free Software for Your iPod

Let me tell you the tale of an early adopter. I've been a huge fan of personal media players--specifically, those with lots of storage--from day one. If you were to make me choose between my digital camera and the box my headphones plug into, the camera will lose every time.

Long before anyone had ever heard of an iPod, I carried around a 6GB Archos Jukebox 6000. It was built like a tank, and its display was embarrassingly clunky and cheap, but I didn't care. I was able to put a pretty large amount of music on it (I had not yet undertaken the task of ripping my entire CD collection), and everywhere I went, geeks said things like "There's a hard drive in there?" and "How much music did you say you can get on there?" (Non-geeks said things like "Why don't you just use a Discman?" Clearly it would take Steve Jobs to explain to the world why this new tech was so insanely great.)

A few years later, 6 gigs was not nearly enough space. iPods were an option by then (spreading like wildfire...nice job, Steve). But the way iPods store your music with scrambled file and folder names--so that you need to use iTunes (which has no Linux version) to interact with the device--turned me off. Linux's own music-management apps didn't yet know how to speak the proprietary language of iPods. (These days, they do.)

So an iPod was not a realistic choice at the time, and it came to pass that my second personal jukebox was an iRiver IHP-120 (later remarketed as the H120). This device gave me the space I craved, and it natively supported Ogg Vorbis audio files, the MP3 alternative favored by a lot of Free Software types. I started ripping all of my CDs as OGGs, and never looked back.

Though the H120 had the right capacity, it was downright frustrating to use. Its playlist support was notoriously buggy. It didn't do gapless playback. And its interface was simply dreadful. I never liked the thing very much--until I gave it the technological equivalent of a brain replacement. Or, speaking in PC terms, I replaced the iRiver's operating system with an open-source alternative (what else?) called Rockbox.

Rockbox turned the H120 into a device that was a pleasure to use, and gave it new features it had never had before, including gapless playback and support for FLAC files. Rockbox reduced the iRiver's startup time from somewhere around 30 seconds (yet another horrible shortcoming of the stock software) to somewhere around 5. My iRiver stopped being a device I cursed at, and took its rightful place among the small family of devices that I smile gladly upon because they Just Work.


Twenty gigs of music storage isn't nearly enough for me these days. I started 2007 yearning painfully for one of those sleek 80GB, fifth-generation video iPods. (Why aren't more players this roomy? Am I the only person who thinks it's great to be able to take your entire music collection with you every time you go someplace?) Even though Linux can talk to iPods now, an 80GB iPod does me little good if I have about 80GB of OGG files: iPods can't play OGGs. And I'm not about to re-rip hundreds of discs to suit a player's shortcomings.

Salvation arrived in May, when Rockbox was finally ported to (that is, altered to run on) the big-daddy iPod model. I ordered my first-ever Apple product the very next day (shopping tip: check for fantastic deals on factory refurbished iPods at Apple's online store), and as soon as it arrived, I taught it how not to behave at all like an iPod.

Here's where I get down to brass tacks and explain how this all works. Rockbox runs on a wide variety of media players now: iPods, iRivers, Archoses, Sansas, Cowon iAudios, and Toshiba GigaBeats. You begin by downloading the latest version of Rockbox tailored to your specific device, as well as a copy of the Rockbox manual. The manual provides detailed installation instructions also tailored to your particular device.

With my iPod, installing Rockbox involved copying a hidden folder containing the Rockbox program itself to the iPod, and then running a Linux app (Mac and Windows versions are available too) to patch the iPod's bootloader so that it will look for the Rockbox program, rather than Apple's OS, on the hard drive.

After that, when I fire up my iPod, I see not the familiar (and, let's be frank, incredibly well-designed) Apple iPod user interface, but a screen telling me that Rockbox is booting. Just a couple of seconds later, my iPod's screen looks something like this:

Screenshot: Rockbox in file browsing mode
Rockbox in file-browsing mode.

Customizing RockBox

Now, I went to some trouble to get things looking this good. Rockbox, just like a lot of modern PC apps, is skinnable. Since different media players have different screen sizes (and some of the older players that Rockbox supports, like my iRiver, don't even display color), Rockbox themes are device-specific. Most of the themes available for the video iPod are as ugly as heck; locating a theme that was clean and informative, and used larger fonts, took me some time. (I find that larger type makes the device easier to futz with quickly--right before putting the car in gear, for instance.) If you give Rockbox a go, you'll probably want to replace the hideous default theme

'Ugly' doesn't really do justice to Rockbox's default, lowest-common-denominator theme.
immediately and select one that meets your needs and your taste.

With Rockbox, my iPod knows how to play OGGs and FLACs. It also behaves as a typical USB mass-storage device, letting me move files to and from the iPod without any of the name-scrambling or other restrictions that iTunes imposes.

On the iPod itself, I can browse my music files directly, wading through the very files and folders I've put there, or Rockbox can present me with the standard artist/album/genre listings that most players provide, based on the ID3 tags in the music files. There's a robot voice I can turn on that reads out loud the currently selected menu item as I navigate through my music; this feature is fantastic when you're driving, because you can keep your eyes on the road while Rockbox tells you that yes, your right thumb has just selected The Beta Band.

Screenshot: Rockbox Settings
You can customize Rockbox to your heart's delight.
Rockbox's extensive Settings menu lets me tweak the player's behavior to my heart's content. An eclectic set of plug-ins comes with Rockbox, too, including a simple game of Solitaire and a Pac-Man emulator that unfortunately lacks sound. A lot more information on Rockbox's features (compared with the stock feature sets for various players) is available at

Rockbox Issues

Now, I'll be honest: A Rockboxed iPod has several drawbacks. First and foremost, the iPod's unique scroll wheel is miserable to use when the on-screen interface doesn't scroll faster as you kick your thumb into high gear, speeding around the dial. This feature is called acceleration (just like the mouse acceleration on your PC--the faster you move your mouse, the more distance the pointer covers). It takes forever to scroll through long listings (and you end up with long listings when you have 80 gigs of music) if the menu selector doesn't speed up when your thumb does--and regrettably, current builds of Rockbox don't support list acceleration on iPods. To get list acceleration, I'm actually running a custom Rockbox build that includes a patch to the Rockbox source code enabling the feature on the iPod.

My Rockboxed video iPod suffers a few other shortcomings. One is that video is not well supported. A stock video iPod plays H.264 video files beautifully; Rockbox includes a video plug-in that is still in its very early stages. Only certain types of MPEG files are supported, playback can be jerky, and fast-forward and rewind features are not yet in place. (Still images are supported just fine, so you can use a Rockboxed iPod as a photo viewer.)

Rockbox cannot read any music files that contain DRM, so you'll need to strip that poison out of any files you purchase online before moving them to your player. And every now and again, Rockbox puts my iPod into a state where it thinks its battery is dead and refuses to start up. Holding down the Menu and Select buttons for a few seconds (forcing an iPod hard reset) clears up the problem, but it is annoying.

Screenshot: Rockbox's Now Playing screen
Rockbox, playing one of the most beautiful songs I know.
Putting Rockbox on your iPod won't make Steve Jobs happy (quite the opposite, I imagine), and technically it voids your iPod's warranty. As long as the iPod is able to power up, however, removing Rockbox from the device entirely, leaving little or even no trace behind, is rather easy. (It's also worth noting that when Rockbox is installed, if you ever want to fire up Apple's stock interface, you can, since Rockbox provides the equivalent of dual-booting. You won't see any music listed in that interface, though, since Apple's firmware expects iTunes-scrambled files to be living on the device.)

I run Rockbox for two main reasons: I need OGG file support, and I demand unscrambled file storage. But I also run it because I prefer open-source programs, with their vibrant, intertwined developer and user communities, to commercial apps, with their from-the-top-down approach.

When was the last time an iPod user got to discuss the pluses and minuses of the iPod's interface with an Apple developer, perhaps having an impact on future revisions? This sort of thing happens in the Rockbox forums all the time. I also like knowing that if I learn enough C, I can tinker with Rockbox's code myself. And if I never get around to that, I can persuade or hire a smarter geek somewhere to do the coding for me. The custom Rockbox build I'm running benefits directly from work done by exactly this type of smarter geek.

Precisely because it is governed by the freedoms that define Free Software, Rockbox will continue to grow and learn new tricks over time, and my iPod will be along for the ride.

Matthew Newton is PC World's QA Engineer, but takes a break once each month to cover the world of open-source and Free Software. (More often than not, the topic is Linux, but anything open and Free is fair game.) Would you consider replacing your media player's brains with Rockbox? Why or why not? Speak Freely in the Comments section below!
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