When is an iPod not an iPod? When it's running Rockbox, the open-source replacement for your MP3 player's brains.

Even 20GB of music storage isn't nearly enough for many music lovers these days. But for digital music's tech-savvy early adopters, even shelling out for one of Apple's sleek 80GB, fifth-generation video iPods may not entirely solve the problem. Even though Linux can talk to iPods now, an 80GB iPod does little or no good if you have about 80GB of OGG files: iPods can't play OGGs.

For the uninitiated, Ogg is an open standard for a free container format for digital multimedia, unrestricted by software patents and designed for efficient streaming and manipulation. In other words, it's the digital music file format of choice for open-source fans.

This problem was solved in May, when Rockbox was finally ported to (that is, altered to run on) the big-daddy iPod model. We've used Rockbox to teach our Apple iPod how not to behave at all like, well, an iPod.

Rockbox runs on a wide variety of media players now: iPods, iRivers, Archoses, Sansas, Cowon iAudios and Toshiba GigaBeats. You begin by downloading the latest version of Rockbox tailored to your specific device, as well as a copy of the Rockbox manual. The manual provides detailed installation instructions also tailored to your particular device.

With our iPod, installing Rockbox involved copying a hidden folder containing the Rockbox program itself to the iPod, and then running a Linux app (Mac and Windows versions are available too) to patch the iPod's bootloader so that it will look for the Rockbox program, rather than Apple's OS, on the hard drive.

After that, when we fire up our iPod, we see not the familiar (and, let's be frank, incredibly well-designed) Apple iPod user interface, but a screen telling us that Rockbox is booting. Just a couple of seconds later, our iPod's screen looks something like this:

Rockbox in file-browsing mode

Rockbox in file-browsing mode

Customising RockBox

Now, we went to some trouble to get things looking this good. Rockbox, just like a lot of modern PC apps, is skinnable. Since different media players have different screen sizes (and some of the older players that Rockbox supports, such as an iRiver, don't even display colour), Rockbox themes are device-specific. Most of the themes available for the video iPod are as ugly as heck; locating a theme that was clean and informative, and used larger fonts, took us some time.

If you give Rockbox a go, you'll probably want to replace the hideous default theme immediately and select one that meets your needs and your taste.

With Rockbox, our iPod knows how to play OGGs and FLACs. It also behaves as a typical USB mass-storage device, letting us move files to and from the iPod without any of the name-scrambling or other restrictions that iTunes imposes.

On the iPod itself, we can browse music files directly, wading through the very files and folders we've put there, or Rockbox can present us with the standard artist/album/genre listings that most players provide, based on the ID3 tags in the music files.

There's a robot voice we can turn on that reads out loud the currently selected menu item as we navigate through the music; this feature is fantastic when you're driving, because you can keep your eyes on the road while Rockbox tells you that yes, your right thumb has just selected The Beta Band.

You can customise Rockbox

You can customise Rockbox

Rockbox's extensive Settings menu lets us tweak the player's behaviour ad finitum. An eclectic set of plug-ins comes with Rockbox, too, including a simple game of Solitaire and a Pac-Man emulator that unfortunately lacks sound. A lot more information on Rockbox's features (compared with the stock feature sets for various players) is available at Rockbox.org.

Rockbox: Specs

  • Runs on: Archos (Jukebox 5000, 6000, Studio, Recorder, FM Recorder, Recorder V2 and Ondio)
  • iRiver (H100, H300 and H10 series)
  • Apple (iPod 4th gen - grayscale and colour), 5th/5.5th gen video, 1st gen nano and Mini 1st/2nd gen - nano 2nd gen is not supported)
  • Cowon (iAudio X5 - including X5V and X5L), M5 (including M5L)
  • Toshiba (Gigabeat X and F series (the S model is not supported)
  • SanDisk (Sansa E200 series)
  • Runs on: Archos (Jukebox 5000, 6000, Studio, Recorder, FM Recorder, Recorder V2 and Ondio)
  • iRiver (H100, H300 and H10 series)
  • Apple (iPod 4th gen - grayscale and colour), 5th/5.5th gen video, 1st gen nano and Mini 1st/2nd gen - nano 2nd gen is not supported)
  • Cowon (iAudio X5 - including X5V and X5L), M5 (including M5L)
  • Toshiba (Gigabeat X and F series (the S model is not supported)
  • SanDisk (Sansa E200 series)

OUR VERDICT

Clearly Rockbox is not for everyone. If you're happy with the way your iPod works, and using open-source hacks is not your thing, you can live happily in blithe ignorance of Rockbox' charms. But for those people who hanker after freedom from iTunes' benign clutches, Rockbox offers a world of opportunities.

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