iPod + Rockbox = Entertainment Extravaganza

What's cooler than a box of rocks? Well, a lot, but not much is cooler than Rockbox on your iPod!

Wouldn't it be great if you could customize an iPod and run third-party software on it? Wouldn't it be great if you could download games and applications along with the songs and videos you already have? Wouldn't it be great if all those features were open source and free? Wish no longer. Rockbox offers all those things, wrapped in an easy-to-use installer.

Rockbox is an open-source firmware replacement for a variety of music and video players. The interface is very similar, regardless of the device, and as I don't have access to anything other than an iPod, this review focuses on it. You certainly don't need an iPod to use Rockbox, but because Apple's products are so popular, I was happy to see a wide variety of iPod models are supported. Check out the Rockbox Web site to see whether your media player will work.


To get Rockbox on your iPod, the developers offer two options, automatic and manual. The automatic option appealed to my lazy nature, but unfortunately, it didn't work for me. I think this was largely because my iPod was formatted with the HFS (Apple) filesystem instead of the FAT32 (Windows) filesystem. On an iPod with the FAT32 filesystem, the automatic installer is very slick and downloads the latest version of the programs directly from the Internet. I wish the automatic installer had worked for me off the bat, because then I could have just suggested you use it (which I still do) and forget about the manual stuff.

Thankfully, the documentation is very helpful even if you are forced to use the manual method. Here's a brief overview of the procedure, but be sure to read the documentation before attempting it on your own. It's not terribly difficult, but it requires extensive use of the command line. My suggestion is to try the automatic installation program first, and resort to the following method only if the installer doesn't work for you.

Manual Installation Steps

Go to www.rockbox.org, and click on Manual at the left. Find your specific device on the list, and go to the instruction manual provided. The installation section is helpful, and following it will ensure success. Here's a rundown of the steps:

  1. If you have an iPod that was formatted for use with OS X, you need to convert the filesystem to FAT32. You either can plug the iPod in to a Windows machine and have iTunes reformat it, or follow the directions provided in the Rockbox manual to reformat it with Linux command-line tools.

  2. Download the appropriate version of Rockbox from the Web site and extract it directly to the iPod. If done properly, there should be a folder on the iPod called .rockbox with the program inside. It should be at the root level of the iPod (not the root level of your computer), and because it starts with a dot, it won't be visible by default.

  3. Next, download the font package, available from the Extras section on the Web site. The font package is the same, regardless of what media player you have, so you can't go wrong when downloading it. Just like with the Rockbox software, the fonts need to be extracted at the root level of the iPod. (The fonts actually reside inside the .rockbox folder, but the zip file is designed to be extracted at the root level of the iPod, and it will put them in the correct place.)

  4. Finally, install the Rockbox bootloader. This is the part that causes the iPod firmware to load Rockbox instead of the original iPod software. Download the Linux version of ipodpatcher (link provided in the installation manual), and execute it as root:

    # chmod +x ipodpatcher
    # sudo ./ipodpatcher

Assuming all goes well, you should see a message telling you the bootloader has been installed. Feel free to do a happy dance, and then hold down Menu + Select to reboot your iPod into Rockboxy goodness (Figure 1). If you have problems along the way, and corrupt the partitions on your iPod (as I did once), just plug it back in to your iTunes machine, allow it to repair itself, and start over.

Figure 1. The Rockbox bootup screen: if you see this, you've succeeded.

Rockbox Features at Your Fingertips

Now that you have Rockbox installed, let's talk a bit about what you can do with it. Yes, with a name like Rockbox, your iPod now sounds threatening and weapon-like. And sure, if you throw it hard enough, you probably could hurt someone with it, but really, there are more productive things to do with your new media player. Let's look at a few.


Shawn Powers is a Linux Journal Associate Editor. You might find him on IRC, Twitter, or training IT pros at CBT Nuggets.


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Simplicity would be nice, yes. The other stuff is easy though.

NASA's headless astronauts's picture

It'd be nice to have a more simple Rockbox UI, yeah. I hope someone comes up with a nice way to edit the menus, that way perhaps we could download new customized UI's and some day _perhaps_ someone would think to make one that's as simple as the original one, only allowing us to play OGG files and shuffling a single playlist (the two things I miss in Apple's firmware).

BTW, for iTunes users, there's a method for playlist conversion. Basically, it boils down to using Songbird with the Playlist Export Tool to turn the playlists into m3u files and moving those over to your iPod.

For synchronization I use:

rsync -avW --progress --size-only --delete ~/Music/* /Volumes/IPODNAME/Music/

And put database.ignore in the iPod_Control/Music folder, since my 60GB iPod is more than big enough to hold two copies of my music library.