Last May, your editor lamented
that, while his new
digital audio player had a number of nice features, it also had a long list
of glitches which, due to the proprietary nature of its firmware, could not
be fixed. At that time, a Rockbox
for this device (an iRiver H340) was still a distant prospect. Since then,
the situation has changed somewhat. In particular, on November 24, 2005,
Rockbox hacker Linus Nielsen Feltzing announced
his ability to play music on the
H300 series. This nice little player had, at last, been cracked open and
put to work running free software.
Your editor took his time before giving Rockbox a try. There is something
intimidating about rewriting the firmware of one's expensive electronic toy
with untried new code covered in "this is experimental, only to be used by
professionals and idiots" warnings. Maybe it has to do with the prospect
of turning said toy into an inert paperweight and having to explain to the
spouse that it will be necessary to buy yet another gadget, urgently, to
replace it. But, eventually, after a suitable amount of loin
girding, your editor launched into the process of generating a new firmware blob and
loading it into the player. Happily, said player did not explode.
The Rockbox iRiver port works by applying a patch to the standard iRiver
firmware. That patch adds a special bootloader, and a few other
Rockbox-specific things. Unlike the native system, most of Rockbox lives
outside of the firmware; it is, instead, loaded from the internal disk.
Among other things, this organization makes it easy to upgrade the Rockbox
code without going through the sweaty-palms firmware flashing experience
The bootloader normally just grabs the Rockbox kernel from the disk and
runs it. Quite a bit of effort has been put into making the bootloader
robust, however. If the on-disk software cannot be found, it simply boots
into the iRiver firmware. There is a power-on key sequence which can
be used to get the iRiver code. The bootloader is also programmed to drop
into the USB mode if the disk's filesystem is corrupted, giving the user a
chance to fix things - though, since the H3xx bootloader's USB mode does
not work properly yet, that feature is not as reassuring as one would hope.
One might well wonder: why bother changing operating software and risking
turning the player into a brick when it worked reasonably nicely before?
Here are a few of the things that Rockbox brings:
- Boot time. The iRiver firmware takes 26 seconds to boot on your
editor's player - and that is with the "database" feature, which
lengthens boot time, disabled. Rockbox is ready to play in ten
seconds. When one is, for example, trying to play some music before
driving, the difference is significant.
- Gapless playback. Your editor's music collection includes many works
which, to put it mildly, do not benefit from the one-second gap that
the iRiver software puts between every pair of tracks. Rockbox does
not have that problem.
- Bookmarks. Some audio files (like the interesting set of Long Now
seminars) can be over two hours long. Imagine listening to the
first hour of such a file, then picking up one's children to haul them
to the next in their long list of activities. Said children will, of
course, immediately grab the player and put on a Beatles song (one
must raise them on the classics, after all). With the iRiver
firmware, returning to the previous file involves painfully
fast-forwarding in until one finds a spot near where one left off.
Rockbox, instead, can automatically place a nice bookmark at the spot
where listening stopped, and jump right back on request.
- Codecs. The iRiver already played Ogg files (a big part of why your
editor chose it in the first place). Rockbox adds other formats,
including AAC, FLAC, Shorten, and more.
- Configurable screens. The iRiver firmware, when playing, wastes much
of its gorgeous color screen space with useless frobs. Rockbox allows
the "while playing" screen to be configured with great flexibility,
with the result that it offers a wide variety of information-dense
screens - in ugly monochrome. Color patches are in circulation,
happily, but they have not made it into the Rockbox mainline yet.
- Plugins. There is a long
list of plugins available for the Rockbox
software, many of which make nice use of the color display. Most of
them appear to be games (like "Brickmania," shown on the right). Yes,
you can now solve Suduko puzzles on the iRiver. But there is also a
calculator, a clock, a playlist searcher, a metronome, and more. A
color video player is in the works.
- Audio menus. Rockbox can, when loaded with a suitable voice file,
read out menus and track names as they are selected on the display.
The Rockbox mailing list has a steady stream of inquiries from blind
users who are not well served by commercially available audio
- Languages. Rockbox can operate in Afrikaans, Bulgarian, Czech, Greek,
Hebrew, Swedish, and Wallisertitsch. Oh, yes, it works in English
- Playlist generation. The iRiver software cannot generate playlists at
all (they must be loaded from a computer), and, annoyingly, it can't
do basic things like "treat this
directory of files as a playlist and stop when you get to the end."
It is easy to leave the device running by mistake, only to find
(usually at the beginning of a long trip) that it has drained its
battery trying to play one's entire music collection. Rockbox has a
number of playlist generation options, and is generally better behaved
in this regard.
The list could go on for a while, but one should not forget the nicest part
of all: Rockbox is free software. Your editor did not feel particularly
oppressed by the proprietary iRiver firmware, but switching to a free
system still brought a sense of relief. So many things were clearly
designed with the users in mind, and one knows that the rough edges (of
which there are still many) can be fixed.
With Rockbox, this gadget has become a living thing, rather than a
set-in-stone consumer product.
Rockbox would be worth running
for its free nature alone, even if it weren't better in so many other
There is some bad news: the iRiver H3xx players are no longer being made,
and iRiver's replacements are rather more closed devices. There is no
Rockbox port envisioned for current iRiver players, so people are now
wandering around on online auction sites in search of the few H3xx players
which are still available. The good news is that Rockbox is being ported
to a number of other platforms, notably the current set of iPod players.
The iPod port
page states: "Rockbox boots and appears to be stable on the iPod
Color/Photo, the Nano and the Video. Plugins and codecs work, but there is
no audio output yet." So, other than one little problem, everything
As Rockbox becomes more portable, its user base is growing. Rockbox seems
to have recently crossed one of those invisible lines where it becomes
essentially unstoppable. There will likely come a time when some
manufacturers of digital audio and video players - especially those who
don't make iPods - will have to seriously consider shipping Rockbox on their
gadgets. After all, why should they spend time and money
creating their own software, when Rockbox is both free and better? Free
software, it seems, has a good chance of taking over another category of
[For those H3xx owners who find standard Rockbox to be insufficiently
bleeding-edge: the Rockbox H300
Optimized release is a fork with improved color support, more plugins,
remote control support, a lyrics viewer, and more.]
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