iPod + Rockbox = Entertainment Extravaganza
Apple ships iPods with a few games, and the newer models allow you to purchase additional ones, but the sheer number of Rockbox's available titles leaves the commercial alternatives in the dust. Although many of the games are the type you'd expect to see on a device the size of an iPod, one game surprised me—Doom. Seriously, as hard as it is to believe, id Software's Doom runs natively on the iPod (Figure 2). I'll admit, controlling it was a bit awkward, but there it was in all its glory.
Although high on the cool factor, Doom wasn't the best game available. I found Bubbles (much like Frozen Bubble) and Jewels (much like Bejeweled) to be the most fun. Just like the computer version of these games, their iPod counterparts easily will suck hours of productivity from your life. You've been warned.
Along with the games, Rockbox also includes a handful of applications. The metronome was particularly useful, and the text editor was particularly difficult. I'm impressed there is a text editor at all, but the interface is severely limited by the lack of buttons. I'd rather use a cell phone to text-message an entire novel than try to write an article of this size with the Rockbox text editor. Still, it's nice to have the option. One oddity worth mentioning is that there's not really a standard way to exit games and applications once they start. Sometimes, pressing the menu button exits. Sometimes, you must press the select and menu buttons. Other programs require you to press play and select in order to get back to the main Rockbox program. I'm sure this is because the different programs (or plugins, as they are called in the Rockbox interface) are developed by separate programmers, but I wish there was a standard in place regarding how to exit.
Along with games and applications, there's also a group of programs called demos. If you were a computer user back in the early 1990s, you may remember hacking groups releasing what they called demos, in which they would show off their programming skills and push the graphics processors of the time to their limits. These Rockbox programs follow a similar road, and the demos mainly show off the iPod's graphics and processor. They aren't useful for much more than oohs and aahs, but they do make for interesting conversation starters. The demos vary from a simple starfield simulation to a 3-D cube to a complex digital fire scene.
Rockbox has a plugin (again, that's what these add-on programs are called) that allows playback of MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 video. The main focus of the program, however, is to play music. Rockbox supports pretty much any non-DRM music file, and Rockbox claims the audio playback is better quality than with the original iPod software. Honestly, I can't tell the difference, but perhaps audiophiles will notice the improvement. Locating and playing files is done mainly by traversing the folder structure on the drive. Rockbox also can create a database of information (Artist, Album and so forth), but unfortunately, it can't read the database created by iTunes. To add insult to injury, if you try to find songs placed on the drive by iTunes, you'll find cryptically named files in equally cryptically named folders.
Playlists are created easily in Rockbox, and it's possible to create and save several playlists on the fly. They are standard M3U files, so uploading a playlist you've created on a computer is a fairly painless endeavor. Because the Rockbox iPod mounts as a standard USB drive, manipulating songs and playlists from the computer is literally as easy as dragging and dropping. Most Linux-based MP3-playing software, like Amarok or Rhythmbox, will recognize the Rockbox player as well. There's really not a best way to handle music management; it's a matter of personal taste.
What Rockbox does, it does very well, and very completely. I found the installation procedure easy enough that everyone should be able to accomplish it, and yet it was geeky enough that I felt a level of satisfaction when it was complete. The number of features Rockbox has compared with the standard iPod software is astronomical, but that's only a good thing if you're looking for lots of features in your media player. Let me explain.
I installed Rockbox, and played with games, demos and applications for a long time. Then, I played some music and realized one of the advantages the original iPod software has over Rockbox—simplicity. If you just want to listen to music, without the complexity of multiple dynamic playlists, auto/manual-generated databases, playlist queue positions and sound file gap lengths, you might want to consider sticking with the original software. Thankfully, the developers even have admitted that to themselves and offer a painless way to run the original software right alongside the new. If you reboot your iPod (hold down menu and select for 3–5 seconds) and immediately toggle the hold switch, the iPod boots the original firmware. So if you like everything about the Rockbox music player, except the way it plays music, don't worry; you can have the best of both worlds. Well done, Rockbox.