After Hours

Open source your iPod (or other MP3 device)

It was only a matter of time. But finally the iPod has been remade in the eyes of the open source community. No, I am not saying that Steve Jobs finally threw up his arms and said, "Open 'er up people." No, I'm talking about a fantastic firmware replacement called Rockbox. Rockbox is a firmware replacement that is exactly what Apple should have done to their iPod firmware in the first place. It has more functionality than the iPod firmware could ever dream of having, it's reliable, it's -- dare I say -- as sexy as the hardware.

That's always been my problem with Apple. They have this outstanding hardware, but with software that tends to lack enough functionality to make it really worth the money you drop for it. That is a shame.

Fortunately, the open source community is a crafty lot. And the crafty folks at Rockbox have created probably the most amazing MP3 device firmware (it works with many different devices) that you will lay your eyes on. Rockbox adds to the iPod firmware by:

  • Extending the equalizer by adding manual adjustments.
  • Treating the files as a database, not a proprietary system.
  • Adding theming capability.
  • Adding plugins.
  • Allowing user-created playlists on the device itself.
  • Extending user controls.
  • Allowing music to be added with drag and drop.

Rockbox is pretty much standard fare for open source. It's flexible. You can make Rockbox act as you would have it act...not the other way around.

I've been using Rockbox on my iPod, and I am very close to wiping out the Apple firmware altogether. There are only a few hitches so far:

  • Playlists aren't as easy to create.
  • Battery life isn't as good.
  • After suspend, the device must reboot each time (though reboot time is quite a bit faster than the Apple firmware).
  • It does not support all third-party devices (such as the iHome dock).

That's pretty much it. And even though playlists aren't as easy to create they CAN be created from the device. You do NOT have to create them from another software.

Installing Rockbox is simple. Download the Rockbox Utility, install it on your machine, run it, and install Rockbox on your device.

Now there are issues when dealing with the iPod. First and foremost is the database. Apple uses a proprietary format for its databases. So you have two options:

  • Convert your Apple database into a usable database with the itdb2tc tool and use the music as is on your iPod.
  • Remove all your music on your iPod and then drag and drop your music into the .rockbox directory.

At first I used the converter but found it didn't work so well. So now I am working on exchanging my music from the iPod directories into the .rockbox directories.

Personally I am amazed at what the Rockbox firmware has done to my iPod. Not only is the UI far superior to that of the Apple firmware, it's open source! My Fedora is tipped to the Rockbox developers. I hope they continue taking this tool to new heights and showing those who don't believe (in the power of open source) that a community of open source developers is sometimes far superior to that of a department of a massive company.


Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website

Shadetree Engineer
Shadetree Engineer

I tried it already, nice. But I have a first gen Nano, and Rockbox doesn't work so well on that. It crashed constantly and only played music once or twice. If you really want to give it a try, it wont hurt though. I'm back to the boring iPod interface and removed the bootloader and rockbox folder without any leftover problems. The main reason I tried it was because I cant get iTunes 7 to install on my machine. But then I found that Apple will let you download iTunes 6 from their archive. That installed, and now I'm able to not only get the playlists up and running among other things, but also have the nifty photo support which Rockbox didn't even attempt to support. I'd keep an eye on that site though, those guy are never going to stop improving their software. We just have to stay current with our mp3 players is all!


i created a rockbox theme last night. it hasn't been accepted yet but when it does i'll post a link.


Been using rockbox for about 2 years now on my toshiba gigabeat f40 and its worked on the ipod even longer than that. It is by far the best audio playing O.S around and I won't be buying another mp3 player unless rockbox runs on it.


That's very interesting to see an open-source firmware for the iPod. I probably won't be swapping out the standard Apple firmware for it, though, cause I'm happy with the way it works now, and I have a car stereo with iPod connectivity and don't want to risk it not working anymore. I have a question about this firmware, though. Will it allow syncing of an iPod/mp3 player? I don't know about everyone else, but I have a large collection of music that isn't all tagged or tagged correctly, and I've been slowly going through and fixing/adding tags. Whenever I plug my iPod in, I get all the changes updated during the sync process. If I was dragging and dropping, I'd have to re-drag those files to my iPod, if I could even remember which ones had changed since the last time I'd plugged it in. What I'd really like to see is the standard iPod firmware work with Linux. I've heard that it used to, but Apple changed it so it won't anymore. I keep my music on my Linux server and share it on the network with Firefly Media Server and I'd much rather just plug the iPod in there than have one copy of iTunes also connected to the library on the Linux box just for iPod syncing. A release of iTunes for Linux would even be fine. I just want easier iPod syncing, and I want it to be simple.


I've been using Amarok with my iPod mini for about 3 years now. Drag n drop, playlists, easy sync, plenty of great scripts available, themes, mySQL database, cover has everything I could possibly want, I've not had a reason to look anywhere else. **my favourite script add-in has been the alarm clock feature. Plays my morning playlist at a set time, bringing the volume up slowly until I'm bouncing out of bed. Then again the script for fading out the music is really nice too**


i switched the firmware. if Apple is going to pull such a stunt as to leave out the Linux community then why should I continue using their firmware (or buy more of their hardware for that matter)?

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