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I have an iRiver H-140, and several years ago I waved goodbye to the quite frankly awful proprietary firmware on the device. With a bit of fiddling I installed a third-party unofficial “warranty voiding” firmware called Rockbox. It was like owning a brand new MP3 player whilst retaining everything I loved about my ageing jukebox, and I urge you to do the same.
If you’re the kind of guy (or gal, let’s not be hasty) who often feels let down by manufacturers who make solid hardware with ropey software, then Rockbox might be for you. This open source gem is a complete rewrite of digital audio player firmware, adding some mind-blowing features and improvements along the way.
The list of compatible devices has grown incredibly over the years, and it is now possible to load Rockbox onto a variety of players including those from Archos, iRiver, Apple, Sandisk and Toshiba. If you’re interested, you can check out compatible players on the releases page on the official website.
As Rockbox operates differently on different devices, there isn’t a definitive list of improvements that can be guaranteed for every device (some are better than others in the first place). Battery life is one thing the Rockbox developers have strived to improve, and evidence of this can be found on the iRiver release where the battery life has leapt from around 14 hours to 21 hours at the top end.
One area in which the firmware will excel on all players is the decoding of audio. Gapless playback makes an appearance, meaning you’ll now be able to listen to those Pink Floyd albums the way Syd intended. Additional audio formats that are supported include OGG Vorbis, FLAC (one for the purists), AC3, MP4, Apple Lossless, WMA (on your iPod) as well as good old MP3 and WAV.
Digital audio players with support for recording will see the benefit of improved recording controls, including volume-activated recording, automatic volume control and pitch control. Add to this the powerful file browser, which allows for the deletion and renaming of files from the device itself and your DAP can keep itself organized fairly easily too.
If you’ve got the battery life to spare, there’s a full set of games included with the release which provides some charming clones of classics like Snake, Breakout and Tetris to entertain whilst you listen, and customization is easy as pie with hundreds of themes and fonts to download and choose from. You can even make your own themes, including changeable Now Playing screens so you only get the information you really want.
For an even more long-winded look at the included features and how they improve on original firmware, check out the official feature comparison table.
Installing Rockbox is also easier than ever before. Back in the day you’d have to download a version specific to your hardware and manually unzip to your device. Those of you who still want to do this can of course, but for everyone else there’s the Rockbox Utility.
Available for Windows, Mac and Linux the utility allows you to install and manage your newly Rockbox’d DAP. Simply download, extract and run the application. The first time you run you’ll be prompted to configure Rockbox by choosing your manufacturer and model, there’s even a handy auto-detect if you’re really stuck.
Once you’ve chosen you’ll need to install the bootloader (in order to bypass your existing firmware) and the Rockbox software itself. Choose Complete Installation in order to install Rockbox and all the extras (fonts, games and themes). Click OK to proceed past the warning.
You may need the original firmware in order to install the bootloader. These are quite easily downloaded from your manufacturer’s website, and if you’re like me you might have a backup somewhere anyway (I keep mine on my device, saves crawling the web).
Locate the file and Rockbox will be installed.
Congratulations, you have a nice new toy to play with. You should notice improved battery life, the ability to take your obscure files with you and the ability to customize your player using the included theme, game and font manager portion of the Rockbox Utility.
Have you tried Rockbox on your device? Will you ever look back? Any favourite themes and games that keep you occupied? Let us know in the comments!