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In order to carry samples of my audio and video work to tradeshows, I need to be able to play a wider variety of audio and video formats than is available on any of the pocket devices out there. Fortunately, the open source Rockbox operating system doesn't require sacrificing nifty features like FM tuning and recording or voice recording and playback. And format compatibility is not the only reason one might want to install Rockbox. In fact, Rockbox was developed primarily with another purpose in mind: improving sound quality.
Rockbox works on a variety of portable music players (PMP) from Apple, Archos, Cowon, iAudio, iriver, and SanDisk. It supports FLAC, Ogg, MP3, and WAV audio streams, MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 video streams, JPEG, and text. The interface is skinnable, and there are a couple of hundred nicely done skins available on the Rockbox Web site.
I installed Rockbox on a Sandisk Sansa e260. It has a powerful enough processor to handle properly scaled video, a microSD card port for expanding memory, a built-in microphone so I can record interviews for articles, and a large enough and clear enough video screen for me to show off my video reel and photo portfolio.
As convenient as small MP3 players are, they leave a lot to be desired in terms of quality. They offer limited options in terms of EQ curves, some are prone to skip on VBR MP3s or fail to play LAME-encoded MP3s (a bummer for podcast listeners), and some don't even offer gapless playback or crossfade between tracks. Rockbox solves all of these problems, delivering a listening experience that's a cut above what you get out of the box.
PMPs also create a safety concern when you're driving and want to select your music. Not even iPods offer the option to have the player tell you audibly what you're selecting; you have to keep your eyes on the screen while navigating the interfaces. Not so with Rockbox. If you so desire, Rockbox will read out every menu option as you scroll through to change your playlist or tracks, or navigate the filesystem.
Once you put a screen on a PMP, you have a pocket computer with considerably more power than Palm handhelds had just a couple of years back. Few PMPs actually take advantage of this processing power, but with Rockbox, you can. Included with the operating system are a text viewer, stop watch, calculator, clock, dozens of games (including Doom), metronome, and some filesystem maintenance tools.
Rockbox is not a firmware hack -- it doesn't touch the native firmware, nor does it use the native firmware in any way. It is an independent, open source operating system that sits alongside the manufacturer's firmware and diverts the player to itself using its bootloader. This makes installing it much lower risk than a firmware hack, which could permanently disable your player.
As each company's players run on their own proprietary firmware platforms, Rockbox's installation routines vary from player to player. However, in all cases it's a non-destructive process, and the Rockbox upgrade is easily removed if you don't like it once you've got it up and running. In the case of the e260, installation is a two stage process -- installing the bootloader first, and then the operating system.
To install it on the e260, you'll first want to download the bootloader and the Rockbox package compiled for the Sansa e200 series from the Rockbox home page. You'll also need the Sansa Patcher utility, which writes the bootloader to the device.
Once they're downloaded, plug in your Sansa, mount it as you would a normal USB flash drive, and unzip rockbox.zip to the root directory of the Sansa. That's all you have to do to load the operating system.
To load the bootloader, bring up a terminal window and run
sansapatcher. It will ask if you want to write or remove the bootloader -- select write. One caution: If you're running a 64-bit system, this won't work unless you run sansapatcher through the 32-bit emulator:
Once you've done that, you're done. Rockbox is ready to use. Just unmount your player, unplug it, and reboot it.
Of course, once it's back up you may find the default interface more than a little spartan and inhospitable, but this is easily fixed with a visit to the Rockbox Themes site. Select a theme, download it, and unzip it to the root directory of your player, and it's installed.
If you're still not satisfied with the look, you can add a font variety pack. Again, installation is as simple as unzipping the contents to the fonts directory on the player. You can similarly change the icons on your player with one of the many available icon sets.
There are plenty of other extras available, such as WAD files for Doom, multiple languages and voices for the text-to-speech function, and FM Preset directories for the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Australia.
Remote though it is, there's always the possibility that you won't like Rockbox -- or that a new operating system will come along with the feature that you just have to have -- and you have to uninstall it. The uninstall is, if anything, easier than the install. All you have to do is remove the .rockbox directory from the root of your Sansa and run
sansapatcher again, this time selecting the remove option from the menu. Unmount and reboot your Sansa, and it will boot straight up to the original firmware as if nothing ever happened.
With Rockbox you can have a little media player reborn, handling more than it could before, sounding better, and looking like you want it to look.
Dan Sawyer is the founder of ArtisticWhispers Productions, a small audio/video studio in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has been an enthusiastic advocate for free and open source software since the late 1990s, when he founded the Blenderwars Filmmaking Community. He is currently the host of The Polyschizmatic Reprobates Hour and Sculpting God podcasts.