Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Phenomenal Rockbox

I listen to MP3s a lot. Some music ripped from CDs collected over many years, but more and more I play speech. Most often it's from the BBC, especially their splendid radio comedy programs, about which I've written previously. Generally I download the Real Media files and convert them to the portable MP3 form with a free version of Switch (highly recommended for ease of use and for never choking on any of the many format-to-format conversions I've thrown at it yet).

Also, for a truly funny speech podcast that requires no conversion to put on your MP3 player, don't forget The Bugle with John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman.

For several years my player was a Mobiblu Cube, in part because it is so miniscule and cute. But I recently found a very cheap refurbished Sandisk Sansa c250 (MP3 and FM radio, with 2 gigs internal memory and a slot for SD expansion card. I've filled that with a 1 gig card, for 3 gigs total space). I've never been in cult of the Apple so I wasn't attracted to iPod, especially since I want something smaller--both the Cube and the Sansa are quite small--but with a screen, which the the small iPod shuffle didn't have.

I've owned 5-6 MP3 portables over the years, and they all have limitations that make me like one model more for some features, and another for other features. The Sandisk, while laid out well and with most of the basic features, also lacked a few things I would like. It didn't have adjustable play speed, to play files quicker--a good thing with some speech programs; didn't show enough track information; wouldn't just play in sequence through a directory on the disc (it required playlists to sequence files, and I prefer just putting files I want in a folder and playing them in sequence from that); it wouldn't allow bookmarking. And there were more annoyances. It just wasn't configurable enough.

It's a shame, because most the hardware of MP3 players should allow for a lot more features than their software ever accesses -- for instance this Sansa doesn't have a clock setting, even though it's perfectly capable of keeping time and date.

Finally last night I got frustrated and decided to try something I read about a while back: Rockbox, a free, open source software / firmware package for an array of MP3 players (including various models from iRiver, iPod, Archos, Gigabeat, iAudio, as well as Sansa).

Sansa c250 with RockBox playing an MP3 -- note that it
displays the next track to be played below info on the current track.

Rockbox is astoundingly great. It's nearly infinitely configurable: I can set playback speed, play directories, bookmark multiple files, show more track information (and can create formatting to show whatever info I want in the playback screen); it has a clock and calendar, and voice-activated recording if your player is equipped. I believe it's capable of doing everything I have liked from each of my prior players, and far more.

It even has games (up to and including a port of Doom!). It offers a few applications (like calculator, stopwatch, metronome, and text editor)--though the lack of a keyboard makes some of these "gee-whiz" gadgets though they may work in a pinch. There's a music store's worth of bells and whistles. Some of them make a functional difference: for instance, if I weren't satisfied with the quality of playback on my player, Rockbox offers some pretty sophisticated tools for tweaking the sonic characteristics of the output. Other settings are merely cool, such as the vast array of cosmetic display options.

It installed with only a couple glitches (I used the automatic installer, which is still a bit clunky but fixable). It's been a breeze to use. Some of the more abstruse configurations--which I will never actually need but may try sometime-- require editing text files and using some odd syntax, but overall it's very easy to use if one has just a little technical experience.

If there are some things you'd like your MP3 player to do, chances are good that the hardware that will handle it but the software is holding it back. With Rockbox, you're likely to get more than you ever expected out of your player. And it's totally free, so it's like getting a new fancier player for nothing!

Here is a quick summary of some of the capabilities on various players: What is Rockbox? Why should I use it?

Back to politics at some point.

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