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RockBox and Zune walking together? Print E-mail
Written by Kostas Tzounopoulos   
Wednesday, 29 November 2006
RockBox projectRockBox is an alternative opensource firmware running already on several devices like Zune. It has an interesting feeling and features. Our forum member and RockBox enthusiast, Ioannis Koutoulakis, walks us through with help from markun, one of the main RockBox developers on the Toshiba Gigabeat branch. The question which remains for you to answer is if RockBox and Zune can share a common future...

An introduction to Rockbox

RockBox Logo

Rockbox is an open source operating system for various digital audio players. It’s a complete replacement to the player’s firmware and it aims to extend the functionality and efficiency of the stock firmware. As an open source project, Rockbox is freely distributed (licensed under the GNU General Public License) and constantly growing and improving. But let’s take the things from the start…

The past

The project was born in late 2001 and was the outcome of some owner’s disappointment to the firmware implementation of one of the first Hard Drive based DAPs, the Archos Studio. Since then, a lot of dedicated developers joined the Rockbox-wagon, new targets started being supported, features were being added and the result of all these today is a flexible multi-target platform and thousands of satisfied users!

The present

  • The feeling 

The minimalistic look of Rockbox when first installed may disappoint some, but this is only the starting point. Rockbox lets you have things the way you want them to be and surely offers a lot if you spend some time with it.

On a closer look, the first thing that a user will find appealing is the ability to completely customize the while playing screen (also known as WPS). The WPS system in Rockbox lets you change almost everything! From the colours and font, to backgrounds and even the exact placement of the info you want to be displayed, you can draw a screen, completely from scratch and satisfy your likings and needs. Alternatively, you can search and download WPSs made and shared by other users in Rockbox WpsGallery.

While Playing Screen
(a wps screenshot taken from the Gigabeat)
RockBox Menu
(Rockbox menu using a background - screenshot taken from iPod 5g)
  • The features 

But since it’s not about the looks (especially when we talk about a DAP firmware) Rockbox offers a variety of playback features such as gapless or even crossfade transitions between the tracks, stereo crossfeed, replay gain support (for normalizing the volume level between your tracks) and various playback modes. Moreover there’s also a 5-band parametric equaliser. It has a wide variety of codec support besides mp3 including vorbis (ogg), aac, musepack (mpc), flac, wavpack and others. Unfortunately, wma is not in the list yet but there’s some movement going on about this. There is also midi support (currently via a plugin).

RockBox Equaliser
(the parametric equaliser screen on iriver H300)

Transferring files in Rockbox is done by simply copying them into your device. There’s no need for an external application to do this. This is very handy as you can use your device as a UMS one (USB Mass Storage). Browsing your music can be done in two ways. You can either use the simple File Browser view or use the Database view which is based on tags (id3v1-v2, ape, vorbis comments) and offers search functions, as well. Another ability that Rockbox offers is On-the-fly playlists. You are able to create playlists by adding/enqueuing songs and folders on the go.

The list of features doesn’t end here. Rockbox has a nice system for managing your settings. You can store multiple configuration files and load them whenever it’s needed. The same can be done with radio presets. Speaking of radio, you are also able to record from it. It’s worth mentioning that in many cases, the stock firmware didn’t offer this (even though the hardware was capable of).

  • The user experience 

Rockbox in one word (ok, maybe two) is user-centric! Currently, there are more than 30 languages the user can choose from and there’s also Unicode support for filenames and tags. A special voice interface is also implemented for visually impaired users. A plugin system offers a lot of extra functionality, too. There’s a picture viewer, a text viewer, a dictionary, calculator and so on… and if you ever get bored while on train or something there are lot of games, too! There’s a Game Boy emulator and even Doom!

(Brickmania on iriver H300)
  • The support

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that there is a big effort on a Rockbox manual, too. This is not something common in open source projects. The manual is hosted and can be downloaded from the Rockbox website. There you can also find what you need to install Rockbox on your player. There are two different types of firmware binaries. The daily builds which are generated automatically every day and the CVS builds which are made automatically every time there is a change to the Rockbox source.

Currently, the list of the supported devices is long and includes:

Archos: Jukebox 5000, 6000, Studio, Recorder, FM Recorder, Recorder V2, Ondio SP, Ondio FM
iriver: H100, H300, H10 Series
Apple: iPod 3rd gen, 4th gen (grayscale and color), 5th gen (Video), Nano 1st gen and Mini 1st/2nd gen
Cowon: iAudio X5

The future of RockBox and Zune

New ports are being worked on at the moment like the Sandisk Sansa e200 Series and the Toshiba Gigabeat F and X Series. Basically, a new port in Rockbox requires two things: 1) developer interest and 2) detailed hardware information. Having said that, nothing gets planned and no one works under a schedule. It's not possible to say for sure whether Rockbox is going to get ported to Zune or not. Of course there is no possibility to predict “when” either. There are some things though that have to get pointed out.

As many of you already know, the Microsoft Zune player is actually manufactured by Toshiba. We won’t exaggerate if we say that Zune is practically an “OEMed” Toshiba Gigabeat S. The S Series though differ from F and X Series were Rockbox effort is focused on. According to markun (one of the main developers of the Rockbox Gigabeat effort): “the S has a much more powerful CPU capable of decoding MPEG4, has video out and FM radio (all of which the F and X don't have)”.

The good news is that there is hardware shared between all the Gigabeat Series and the Zune player. Furthermore, there are chips that are well documented. For instance, the DAC chip (digital-to-analog converter), were you can easily download the datasheet from the manufacturer’s website. Asking markun whether a possible port to Gigabeat S and the Zune would benefit from the current work of other Gigabeats he replied: It will benefit because the screens have the same resolution and orientation and because we had to figure out how to do the memory management on a ARM9 (and higher)”.

Another thing that has to be pointed out though, is that due to the Wi-Fi implementation, Zune player’s CPU (Freescale i.MX31) incorporates several hardware blocks and architectural features targeted to help secure the platform. This may stand a serious obstacle on a possible Rockbox effort but as markun stated: if we can get passed the security features and have enough people who are skilled, a rockbox port shouldn't be impossible.

Some linkage:

The Rockbox website
The Rockbox Wikipedia page
Some more Rockbox screenshots

The "New Ports" page on Rockbox
i.MX31 Security Features Overview

Written by Ioannis Koutoulakis .

Last Updated ( Monday, 04 December 2006 )
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