Trying to quench mp3 player lust
I don’t know why, but in the recent week I’ve been overcome with a strong compulsion to buy a new mp3 player… Well, I kind of know why — partially because my experience with syncing and playing podcasts on my MDA has recently been less than ideal for various reasons. I’m not going to go into all the details right now, but that’s a partial reason. Also, hearing about a bunch of cool new mp3 players around the time of CES and Macworld kind of got me impatient to see these new players, like the iPhone (or the rumored iPod with touchscreen and similar features as the iPhone), the second-gen iRiver Clix, and various other interesting portable media devices.
Yes, I have some “dormant” mp3 players that I can use for my podcasts, but I just want something new to play around with, something different from the iPods and the Gigabeat/Zune. My top contender was the black 4GB iRiver Clix, since it has an interface and features that are quite different from the popular mp3 players. But iRiver just announced some successors in the Clix line, so I figure I should wait. And I’m still really hanging on to the idea that Apple will announce a 6th-gen, touchscreen iPod in the coming months, so it’s ridiculous to get a current 5.5-gen iPod, even though I’ve seriously been considering one for my podcasts, mobile video watching, and portable hard drive usage.
Anyway, enough whining. *smirk* What I ended up doing was to install an alternate firmware for my 1st-gen iPod nano from the open-source project called Rockbox. Rockbox has been around for a long while, creating alternate firmware for all sorts of players, like the Archos Jukebox (I had one a long time ago), various iPod models, various iRiver players, and even a Sandisk Sansa player. I’ve known about the Rockbox project, but this is the first time I’ve tried installing it.
I think it’s great! I was wary of it at first, because I didn’t want a bare-bones-looking player interface that just offered a few interesting features like OGG or FLAC playback, or simple graphics demos and whatnot. But this is quite a full-featured player, complete with different fonts and themes to customize your menus and “While Playing Screen”, gapless playback and crossfading, lots of games, picture and text viewing, and other miscellaneous utilies and demos. Additionally, when you install Rockbox, you’re not losing the original iPod firmware. You can easily choose the original firmware when you start up the nano, so if you get tired of playing with Rockbox, you can switch back, and vice versa. Installation and backup of the original boot partition was quite simple. Even lazy, hardly-any-tolerance-for-complex-installations me could get through the installation process in a few minutes. Just pay close attention to the installation instructions and the online documentation, and things will likely go smoothly.
Music playback is great, and I love the crossfading feature, which is highly configurable. Playback controls are as you would expect on a nano, except that the center select button brings you back to the main File Browser menu instead of toggling track info and rating. Pressing the Menu button brings up the Main Menu to access settings, recent bookmarks, recording options, playlist options, and plugins. Holding down the Menu button brings up a shortcut menu to choose whether to shuffle tracks, configure the repeat mode, and configure file display for the File Browser menus. With Rockbox, you can drag and drop tracks and folders directly onto the nano (into the root Music folder created during install, subfolders are allowed). You don’t have to use any kind of syncing software. However, the nano will still show up in iTunes, so you can sync it like normal for when you want to use the original nano firmware. And, after dragging files to the nano, you can either navigate the folder structure you created, or you can use Rockbox’s database view that mirrors how the iPod uses ID3 tag info to display music by Album, Title, Track Name, etc. So far I have just transferred podcasts to a “Netcasts” subdirectory, and I created a playlist on my PC with Windows Media Player (m3u format) and copied that into the Playlists directory on the nano. Rockbox recognizes m3u files, and it works perfectly that way. You can create “on-the-go” playlists directly on the nano, if you wish. I do the playlists on my PC for ease of setup.
When the iPod games for the 5/5.5-gen iPods came out, I was mildly annoyed that the firmware update to enable usage of these games did not extend to my nano. Rockbox to the rescue! Among the many games they offer are clones of Bejeweled, Bust-a-Move, Pac-Man, and Asteroids, the first two games being my favorites (the pictures are those of my nano, not stock screenshots):
As I mentioned earlier, you can also skin your menus and “While Playing Screen”. Funnily my current favorite theme/skin is a version of the Windows Media Player 11 skin with the Vista desktop picture of grass blades. But there are many others that people have contributed to Rockbox’s site, and this other site.
iPodVision nano (looks like Creative Zen:Vision M screens)
It’s a shallow point, but one thing that did irk me about the original nano Now Playing screen was the inability to customize it in any way. Sure you could change the display to look at the album art, but that’s not exactly the same… The Zune’s customizable backgrounds is a step in the right direction. Rockbox’s skinning feature is way cool.
Another cool feature of the Rockbox firmware is the availability of various plug-ins. Besides the many games that they offer, there are also graphics demos that show off the graphics capabilities of the nano’s video hardware, picture and text viewers, and even a text editor. It would be pretty tedious to scroll around the letters, numbers, and symbols in the makeshift “keyboard” — it’s more like entering your name for high score in a video game — but it’s nice to have the option to “jot” a quick thing down if you wanted to.
Rockbox is constantly being developed for many platforms, so it’s likely that there’s a version of firmware you can try out. Sadly there isn’t one for the Toshiba Gigabeat S series, but there is one for the older F series. The newer 2nd-gen nano isn’t yet supported. But since it’s open source, you’re welcome to code up your own tweaks, if you desire. This is a pretty cool project, and I wish I’d started playing around with the Rockbox firmware earlier. There’s a bit of a learning curve for controls and stuff, but it’s not that bad. And now’s a good a time as any to get started with it, especially so I can distract myself a little longer to hold off buying a new mp3 player until Apple has announced 6th-gen iPods, or other manufacturers come out with the new devices that they announced at CES. I’m going to play around with my Rockbox nano for a while, and even install Rockbox onto my older 4th-gen, grayscale iPod, too. I’ll try to blog updates or tips whenever the occasion arises. Or maybe I’ll get tired of Rockbox after a few days and go back to pining for a new mp3 player….heh.