By replacing the standard iPod firmware with software from Rockbox, you can add flexibility to your iPod and give it features you wish it already had.


If you’re like me you like to be able to have more control over your technology than the manufacturer intended you to have. And if you’re like me, you’re not a big fan of the Apple iPod firmware. Fortunately, thanks to the creators of Rockbox, you can kiss your iPod firmware goodbye. Now you might be asking yourself “Why would I want to get rid of the iPod firmware?” Because you want more flexibility; you want to do more and you want to add more drag and drop features to your iPod.

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What exactly does the open source software of Rockbox offer? Here’s the short list:

  • Support for over fifteen codecs.
  • Gapless playback.
  • 5-band fully parametric equalizer with cross feed.
  • High resolution volume control.
  • Themes.
  • Advanced cross fading.
  • Cue sheet support.
  • Cover art support.
  • JPEG file viewing support.
  • Doom (on some models)
  • MPEG video support.
  • RTC (real time clock)
  • Customizable tag database.
  • Unicode support.
  • Multilingual capability.
  • Spoken interface (optional).
  • Plugin support.
  • Open source.

Certainly that list alone should be enough to tempt you to give it a try.

Of course Rockbox can replace the firmware on more than just the iPod. In fact Rockbox works on media players from Archos, Cowon, iRiver, iPod, Sandisk, Toshiba, and Olympus.

And now the big question: How difficult is it to install and use?

Getting and installing

Rockbox can be used on Linux, OS X, or Windows. If using Linux you’ll need a machine that is already set up to mount your iPod. Once you have that up and running you are ready to go. I am demonstrating how to install Rockbox on a Linux machine.

There are two ways of installing Rockbox onto your iPod, manually or with the Rockbox Utility. Installing Rockbox manually is a little more nerve wracking when you’re dealing with such a costly item. Although it is RARE that Rockbox has bricked a device, you never know. So let’s stick with the “official” installation tool.

Grab the rbutilqt tool and grab the right download for your architecture. Once you download the package you will unzip and untar the file to create a new directory called rbutilqt. Change into that directory and you will see a file called rbutilqt which is the executable binary for the package. You run the utility with the command ./rbutilqt from within the rbutilqt directory.

When you first run the tool you will be greeted with a window asking you to select your device (Figure A).

Figure A

You can try auto-detect but manual configuration is always best.

You have to make sure that you enter both the mount point and the type of device used. In my case it is a 30GB iPod Video, fifth generation. Once you have configured this click OK. You will now see the main window of the Rockbox Utility (Figure B).

Figure B

Your device should now be listed in the selected device line under Device.

You have two choices, Complete or Small installation. I would suggest the complete installation because this adds the extras, which include themes and fonts. For a first time installation you should stick with the Quick Start tab and select the Complete Installation.

Once you get the Complete installation button you will get a confirmation screen where you will click either “yes” or “no” to continue on (or not to continue on). Click “yes” and a new window will appear (Figure C) giving you the details of the progress.

Figure C

This truly is an automated process. The rbutilqt downloads and installs everything for you.

Once the utility has completed the installation go to File and then Exit to close it out. You can then unmount your iPod, remove it from the USB cable and reboot the iPod. When you reboot your iPod it will default to Rockbox.

Using Rockbox

Using Rockbox is not like using the Apple firmware. The first thing you will have to do is initialize the database. What this does is reads the Apple iPod database and saves it in a format that Rockbox can use. Now depending upon how many songs you have, this could take some time. When the scan is finished you may be asked to reboot your machine.

Once you have initialized your database you are ready to rock. You can go to the Database menu and then start searching by Artist, Album, Genre, Composer, Track, Year, User Rating, Recently Added, A to Z, History, or even a Custom View.

Final thoughts

Rockbox is an amazing piece of firmware that will have you wondering why you would bother going back to the original Apple firmware. We obviously only scratched the surface of this tool in this article, but with it installed you can play around and see for yourself how amazing a piece of open source software can be. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to create your own themes for your iPod. That will keep you busy for days!