Rockbox has been chugging along for years offering an open source firmware replacement for MP3 players. But how relevant is a firmware replacement for a type of device that's slowly going extinct? With the release of Rockbox 3.6 on June 3, now is a good time to check in on the state of Rockbox and the future of the project.
Rockbox is considered stable for a range of more than 20 MP3 players
from Apple, Archos, Cowon, iRiver, Olympus, SanDisk, Toshiba, and several
others. The project also offers unstable ports for a number of other
players, and ports are in progress (but largely non-functional) for another
dozen or so.
The 3.6 release is a fairly modest one. It includes support for the
Packard Bell Vibe 500, which is a music player released around 2005. It also supports
upgraded hard drives larger than 137GB, features a new alarm clock plugin,
and adds support for Sony's ATRAC3 and other codecs. Users should see improved
battery life when playing Ogg Vorbis, WMA, AAC, ATRAC3, Cook, and AC3
formats thanks to other improvements in 3.6.
Installing Rockbox on a supported player is a simple affair. The project makes GUI install managers available for Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows. This includes pre-compiled binaries for 32-bit and 64-bit Linux distributions, a Gentoo ebuild, and (of course) source code.
Many years ago, I'd tried Rockbox on the same iPod used for this
review. Copying Rockbox to the device was not difficult, but required the
use (if memory serves) of dd and making a backup of the original iPod firmware. Now all that is necessary is choosing the proper supported player and components that one desires on the player. It was necessary to run the installer with superuser privileges, but the installer worked well and putting Rockbox on the player only took about five minutes from start to finish.
Of equal importance, Rockbox uninstalls easily. It's possible to
uninstall Rockbox and return to the original firmware using the Rockbox
Utility. This takes just a minute and should restore a player to its
original condition. Uninstalling seemed to work well with the iPod, though
when re-installing Rockbox later it did indicate finding a prior installation, so there may be bits left behind. If so, it didn't seem to affect the player.
A quick peek at the feature comparison
chart shows where the Rockbox firmware stands against the original
player firmware. This compares Rockbox to Archos, iRiver, Sansa, Apple's
iPods, and other supported players. It's a long list, and a few of the
comparisons are a bit silly. For instance, "open source development
process" goes without saying against any of the players sporting
proprietary firmware. Aside from some obvious "gimmes", the feature
comparison does a good job of showing how Rockbox will boost the feature
set on a supported player.
By far the most useful feature, at least for this user, is the
additional codec support. Few proprietary players ship with support for Ogg
Vorbis or FLAC codecs. For users
concerned with "free as in freedom", finding a media player that offers
that support is challenging indeed. Rockbox fixes this and adds support for WMA, Apple Lossless, WAV, and AAC/MP4 across the board on all supported players.
Customization isn't a concern for most media player manufacturers. Rockbox offers themes for the players, so the menus and so forth are more attractive (or at least different) than the original firmware. The value of the themes depends on how much one cares about the look and feel of the "skins" on a media player. Some were more attractive than the default iPod theme, others were merely passable, one or two downright ugly.
Rockbox piles on the features and applications, but some work better or are more intuitive than others. I tested Rockbox 3.6 on a 20GB iPod, 4th generation. This player has the click wheel with forward/reverse, play, and menu, and a select button in the middle. When entering some applications (like the calendar), all of the buttons are used for navigation, and it takes some experimentation to figure out how to escape the application and return to the standard menus. Some of the docs do explain how to get in/out of apps, but if you don't happen to have them handy, there's no contextual help to be found.
The amount of documentation for Rockbox is impressive. The project has a manual for all supported media players, though it may not be entirely accurate. The iPod manual showed a few menus that were not available in Rockbox 3.6. It also gave little advice for copying music to the player from Linux or other operating systems.
Syncing music with Rhythmbox was an interesting experience. Rhythmbox
0.12.8 on Fedora 13 didn't want to transfer files over to the iPod when the
iPod plugin was enabled. Turning that off, however, allowed me to transfer
Oggs and other formats with no problem at all. After the files were copied over they showed up under the Files menu, where it seemed the player would be able to play them. Instead, when I tried to play a file, it threw an "Undefined instruction error" and I had to reboot the iPod. Playing MP3 and AAC files worked without a hitch. On a hunch, I re-installed the Rockbox firmware and then was able to play Ogg files just fine. After that, Rockbox was solid. Rockbox adds functionality, but it's not entirely glitch-free.
Rockbox also adds some nice flourishes, such as fading out music when pausing the player rather than abruptly ending a song. Strictly as a player, Rockbox works pretty well. I used it to listen to several albums in MP3 and Ogg formats, and the sound was as good as the standard firmware.
If you're inclined towards gaming, Rockbox includes all manner of games from Blackjack to Sudoku, and even Doom. It's nice to know you can play most of these games, though the actual experience leaves one wanting a bit. Navigating a game like Sudoku with the touchpad isn't difficult, but some games do not fare well on all players. Doom is a case in point. The iPod I used has a greyscale screen which was difficult to see, and the controls were not particularly responsive. Eventually I had to reboot the player because it seemed impossible to exit.
In addition, Rockbox ships some applications like a calendar, text file editor, clock, metronome, and quite a few others. Some, again, were quite glitchy. Just trying to launch the remote_control plugin, which is supposed to allow regular use of the device when plugged into USB, to test it caused an error that required a reboot.
Future of Rockbox
Dedicated MP3 / audio players are becoming a bit archaic. While it's still possible to buy media players that focus on only playing media, the market is dwindling. More users are buying multi-purpose devices like the iPod Touch, iPhone, Android devices, and so on that are quite a bit more complex than the standard devices that Rockbox has worked on so far.
Rockbox hacker Daniel Stenberg wrote in February that he sees the project moving towards an application that runs on top of Android:
Rockbox as an app has been a story we've told the kids around the campfires for a good while by now and yet we haven't actually seen it take off in any significant way. I'm now building up my own interest in working on making this happen. In a chat after my Rockbox talk at Fosdem 2010, two other core Rockbox developers (Zagor and gevaerts) seemed to agree to the general view that a Rockbox future involves it running as an app.
Out of the existing systems mentioned above, I'd prefer to start this work focused on Android. It has the widest company backing combined with open source and it's also the most used open phone OS. I don't think there's anything that will prevent us from working on all those platforms as the back-bone should be able to remain the same and portable code we already have and use. Heck, it could then also become more of a regular app for common desktops too.
The challenges are that Rockbox will need to deal with different screen sizes, deal with threading on different operating systems (Stenberg says Rockbox is "dog slow on a Nokia n900"), and focusing on only the core of Rockbox. The apps are largely redundant on platforms that already have better games and applications than what ship with Rockbox itself.
The team hasn't given up. A Rockbox DevCon was held in Europe from June 4th through 6th, where some of the Rockbox team planned at least some of the future of the project. This includes re-affirming a steering board to mediate any developer impasses, a NoDo list of items that the team has decided not to work on (such as DRM, and features that won't be implemented on Archos players), and a transition plan to GCC 4.4.4 for ARM.
Work is also proceeding on Rockbox as an Application through the Google Summer of Code program. This involves trying to port Rockbox to a standalone application that can run on a host OS like Android. The code so far is available as a git repository. This was tried previously in 2008, but seems to be making better progress now.
For now, Rockbox is a reasonable option, though not without its share of
bugs, for users with aging media players looking to add free codecs and some additional functionality. However, as Stenberg notes, Rockbox will have to evolve to remain relevant in a world of smartphones, tablets, and other multi-function devices.
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