Rockbox is a replacement firmware for various audio players, that opens up new features and fixes devices shortcomings. We don’t think of these devices as personal computers, but they are; and Rockbox is an alternative operating system. This review focuses on Rockbox as a replacement “OS” for the iRiver player.
The Rockbox system was initially designed as a replacement firmware for the Archos Jukebox and Ondio series of audio players. However, the Rockbox team soon ported their firmware to the iRiver Hx00 and Apple’s iPod series of players. The review will focus on a custom version of the Rockbox firmware running on an iRiver H340 player. While many of things mentioned in this article that are relevant for the iRiver are also applicable to the iPod, but for those of you who would prefer a review that focuses on the iPod, I suggest checking out Newsforge’s article on Rockbox.
The installation is pretty straightforward as long as you follow the installation guide for the iRiver Hx00 series. The first step of the procedure is to install the Rockbox bootloader, which allows you to dual boot between the Rockbox firmware and iRiver’s vanilla firmware. This is done by patching the vanilla firmware and installing it onto the player. In order to actually load the Rockbox firmware, all you have to do is copy the latest Rockbox build onto the hard drive and restart the player. However, I would suggest using the latest optimized builds from www.misticriver.net. Don’t forget to get the additional fonts pack or your screen might look really messed up. Unlike the official CVS version, this optimized build allows for the use of colour within the file browser, not only in certain applications and the while playing screen. Prepare for a stable ‘3.0’ release in the near future.
Quick Start Guide
Some users might find that the interface used by Rockbox is a bit intimidating and hard to use. However, after a short period of time you get used to Rockbox’s choice of keyboard navigation. In order to avoid problems with navigation and configuration it is better to download the Rockbox manual for the H300 series (direct pdf link). It’s written in a well-organized manner and it is quite in-depth. The first thing that you might want to do is get a better choice of themes. As you can see the default theme used by Rockbox is worse than the one provided by iRiver.
A comparison of the default Rockbox theme and the official iRiver theme.
A sufficiently large theme pack can be downloaded from here. Just copy the relevant folders in the “rockbox” directory. I suggest using the Arctic Desert theme. Although people used to the theme in official iRiver firmware can try the h300-rmx theme. If you feel like making your own theme, I suggest that you check out this guide. More complex while playing screens that display album art are certainly a possibility.
The Arctic Desert theme in action.
Rockbox as a Media Jukebox
The Rockbox firmware provides the user with the ability to play a host of new codecs including ogg, FLAC, ac3 and acc. While ogg playback won’t be anything new for iRiver users, this might be a very useful feature for owners of the iPod. An interesting addition in Rockbox is the seemingly smoother scrolling. At first I thought that this was achieved through some sort of algorithm. But after using the file navigation for a longer period of time, I determined that this effect is achieved primarily though having a smaller font (though a scrolling algorithm is also implemented) allowing a longer list of folders to be displayed in the file browser. I would like to note that the font size is dependent upon the theme and some themes might force you to revert to iRiver’s default of seven folders (or whatever the number it is) per window. However Rockbox’s navigation is slightly buggy and sometimes the player lags while loading folders with a large amount of subfolders. Hopefully in future releases this issue will be fixed.
Gapless playback is supported with ogg, though I wouldn’t consider this ‘a killer feature’ of Rockbox. The Rockbox firmware cannot play WMA files or DRM enabled files (only applicable to US versions of the player), but considering the target audience of this firmware, this shouldn’t be an issue. Due to patent issues Rockbox doesn’t implement SRS WOW, which is a shame, but I think the equalizer compensates for this. The FM radio works fine and you can rip tracks from the radio, if you so desire.
One significant improvement in the Rockbox firmware is the playlist system. Rockbox implemented contextual playlists. So whenever you start playing one song within a folder, automatically a playlist containing all the tracks from that folder is created. If you want to, you can either insert tracks in your playlist or enqueue them (play them once). This is a significant improvement over the iRiver firmware which was limited to a 1 song enqueue system and lacked a method of creating playlists within the player.
Sadly I cannot give screenshots of the playlist system due to technical limitation of the emulation software.
The Rockbox firmware also supports a tag database that allows you to sort your music by artist, album, genre and even song tags. The tagging system supports both IDv3 and vorbis comments tags. It features a useful search feature for those of you who aren’t good at keeping your folder structure organized. A significant advantage of the Rockbox tagging system over the iRiver firmware is that it allows for the creation of a database within the player itself. With the iRiver firmware, you had to create a tag database using your computer and the database creation tool was severely limited in that couldn’t gracefully handle errors and crashed very often. Furthermore, it couldn’t handle files that had a path longer than a certain mount of characters. This was significant problem for those of us who like to have a detailed and organized folder structure.
Rockbox’s tag database.
While on the audio front things are looking quite good, on the video front things are not very satisfactory. Rockbox at present does not support any sort of video playback on the iRiver. This page suggests that video in some form is supported, but I couldn’t find the video viewer plugin, my guess is that it ships only with archos specific version of Rockbox. The lack of video is quite disappointing, but to be fair I did not make extensive use of the video function on my iRiver. I am sure the Rockbox devs will implement video support at one point in the future, hopefully they will also make video support more flexible and support ogg streams and the MKV container format.
Rockbox’s image viewer supports only JPEG images, but not PNG or GIF. However it does support the JPEG format quite well and the viewer is well designed and solves many of the problems of viewing images on such a small screen. Before the release of the latest version of the iRiver firmware, the default firmware would often choke on larger images. The Rockbox viewer has a nice zoom function and the slideshow mode can be quite useful. You can play music while viewing your jpeg files, but only if the files aren’t too large, nothing can be done about this as this ‘bug’ is due to the hardware limitations of the player.
Rockbox handled my text version of Neuromancer just fine. The text reader is more flexible than the one provided with iRiver’s firmware and the smaller font makes it much easier to read text files (usually it’s the other way round, isn’t it?) as the line lengths are of a more sensible size. The text viewer allows word chopping and word wrap to be disabled. Reading long text files becomes so much easier with the Rockbox text viewer. You can also load a text file from wherever you feel like, not only the TEXT folder. Like the iRiver firmware, you can listen to music while reading your text files and the viewer remembers your last viewed position, which is useful for long text files such as novels.
Rockbox as Genuine OS
Let’s start with the filesystem structure of Rockbox. Initially, it’s hard to actually notice that Rockbox is more than just an open source jukebox firmware because like windows XP, Rockbox likes to hide a considerable amount of the system from the user. In order to disable this ‘feature’ you have to configure the ‘file view’ format to display all files and folders. Note that there is no loss of functionality when using the ‘nanny’ display mode. Plugins and themes are accessible from the main menu.
Reminds you of windows, doesn’t it?
The manner in which Rockbox organized the OS is rather disappointing. Everything is dumped into the “rockbox” folder and there is no real separation between different types of files and folders. I would much prefer if Rockbox separated all files/folders into system files, user configuration files (system settings and themes would be held here) and applications. At present the application configuration and save files are all saved in the root plugins folder, so enjoy having highscore files littering your plugins folder. To be fair, Rockbox isn’t large enough to have any 3rd party developer and its primary purpose is that of media play system, so I guess the devs see little reason for implementing a saner folder structure and proper package management. Nevertheless, it would be nice to have this issue fixed.
One of the most significant advantages of the Rockbox firmware is the way in which it implements connections and disconnections with the host computer. The iRiver firmware would hang on the ‘disconnected screen’ after you would disconnect the player from your computer. In contrast, the Rockbox firmware almost instantaneously becomes usable after being disconnected from the host computer.
Rockbox features a very primitive form of filetype icons. While they are quite small even when using a theme with a large font size, they can be useful.
The file type icons in Rockbox.
Games & Applications
Perhaps the most famous thing that Rockbox is known for is that with Rockbox you can play Doom on your player. You can even play half-life (sort of), by getting a half life mod for Doom. Sadly I can’t get any good quality screenshots of the game in action, but if you want to see a decent demonstration of Doom on Rockbox, I suggest you check out this video. Although it might seem quite impressive at first, I must say Doom for Rockbox is a bit overrated (at least on my H340), the game is a bit too pixilated to be fun and the controls are a bit awkward. To each his own I guess. The games that I enjoyed playing the most where bubble and snake. Their simplicity is a great advantage considering the limited controls of the H340. A note of warning, Snake 1 (the ‘old skul’ version) doesn’t seem to save high scores.
Here is a sample of games that come with Rockbox:
* Space Invaders
Trust me, these games are much more fun than Doom when played on a portable media player.
Rockbox also has a gameboy emulator that allows you to play gameboy ROMs with the extension .gb and .gbc. While this is a potentially useful application that would allow users to play a whole host of new games, at present the implementation is not very usable. It doesn’t seem to be optimized and at times games lag up. I have only tested a gameboy colour version of Super Mario, maybe grayscale ROMs would work better.
The Super Mario loading screen.
Rockbox also features several productivity applications. These include a text editor, a calendar application, a word clone and a paint clone. While these applications are great showcase for what can be done with the iRiver 340’s hardware, I didn’t really find these applications useful. The limited controller of the iRiver is simply not suited for text manipulation. In particular, I found the ‘paint’ application a real pain to use. Feel free to try the application out, maybe you will find them useful.
The calendar application and the Paint program
Overall, I would say that Rockbox is a more viable platform than the official iRiver firmware. I highly doubt that iRiver will release any more significant updates to its firmware and it is almost guaranteed that they will never add all the features present in Rockbox. Granted, the iRiver firmware is a lot more stable, Rockbox has a tendency to die on you, but luckily this usually happens when you’re trying to load an application. In my experience, audio playback is quite stable in Rockbox. Another annoying point is that Rockbox isn’t completely usable out of the box. You need to get experimental builds to get colour working in every section of the firmware and you need to get custom a custom themes pack. Hopefully all these issues will be resolved by the time the stable version of Rockbox for iRiver is released.
Ugly or what?