How-To: Install RockBox on your MP3 player

Alex Castle

For most people, an MP3 player serves a pretty narrow purpose: it plays music, maybe a video here or there if you’ve got a newer model, and might have a handful of applications. All in all, though, MP3 players are rarely treated as anything more than tiny, portable jukeboxes, which is a shame, because as gadgets they’ve got the potential for so much more. That’s why, in this article, we’re going to show you how to install custom Rockbox firmware and breathe new life into your trusty old MP3 player.

Rockbox is an open source replacement firmware for MP3 players. It supports a wide range of MP3 players, including many (but not all) players from Apple, Archos, Cowon, iriver, Olympus, SanDisk  and Toshiba. Before reading any further, check out the chart at the top of the Rockbox homepage to see whether your specific model is supported or not. If it’s not, you are sadly out of luck, for the time being.

Why Rockbox?

The big question on your mind is probably “why should I install Rockbox on my iPod? The standard interface works pretty well.” Well, aside from the simple nerd cred associated with “hacking” something you own, RockBox affords you with a whole bevy of additional features, including the following:

Customizable User Interface

RockBox lets you pick from a big list of user-created themes for the various supported MP3 players. These changes are both cosmetic, with custom fonts and backgrounds, as well as functional, including the ability to select the contents and layout of the “now playing” screen. You could, for instance, decide that you want an omni-informative display setup, with meters for volume, battery life, a “next track” display and everything else under the sun, or you might want simple display, with nothing but the artist and track name.

Additional Functionality

Rockbox allows you to expand the functionality of your MP3 player in several core ways. For instance, with Rockbox firmware, an old iPod photo (the one before the iPod video) is actually capable of playing .mpeg video files. Many players can play music and video in more formats and containers than are supported by default, such as FLAC and Matroska. Additionally, Rockbox can add voice to menus, and supports voice recognition, to make it easier for people with impaired vision to use MP3 players.

Apps, Apps, Apps

Like the game consoles we’ve already discussed, most MP3 players don’t allow you to run any homebrew code, confining you to apps which they’ve approved (and, in some cases, which you’ve paid for.) With Rockbox, you get access to an enormous catalog of apps, written mostly by hobbyists, which you can load onto your player for added functionality or just to have some fun. The standard Rockbox install includes a bunch of apps and games, including classics like minesweeper, Sudoku and Doom.


Doom

Did we mention that you can play Doom? On a funky, old school iPod? Sure, trying to play Doom on a greyscale iPod screen is enough to make your eyes commit ritual seppuku, but the novelty factor alone is sure to keep you blasting demons with a click wheel for a few minutes at least. Also: remember that nerd cred thing? This is how you get it.


I’m sold. How do I install it?

First, you’ll need to go to the Rockbox website and download the Rockbox Utility , which includes an automatic installer tool which works with any of the supported MP3 players.

Simply run the utility, and it will automatically detect that this is the first time it’s been run and will ask if you want to install Rockbox on a new device. Plug your device into your computer, then select whichever drive letter has been assigned to it, and specify what model it is. Click OK.

The Rockbox utility will now allow you to customize your Rockbox installation. Generally, clicking Complete Installation is advisable, as it will also install the full set of extra plugins to allow you to get the most out of your hacked MP3 player.

Sit tight for a bit while the installation completes, then select whichever theme you want installed on your MP3 player.

And that’s pretty much it; you’ve now got a hacked MP3 player. You can change your theme whenever you feel like it, using the RockBox utility, and you can read the official documentation for your player to find out how you can customize your player using the extensive options menu.

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