Review: RockBox

January 12, 2010 by
Filed under: Distro Review, gadget, linux, mp3, review 

RockBox is a free and open source firmware available for several different digital music players. Stable releases are available for the following music players:

  • Apple: iPod 1g through 5.5g, iPod Mini and iPod Nano 1g
  • Archos: Jukebox 5000, 6000, Studio, Recorder, FM Recorder, Recorder V2 and Ondio
  • Cowon: iAudio X5, X5V, X5L, M5, M5L, M3 and M3L
  • iriver: iHP100 series, H100 series, H300 series and H10 series
  • Olympus: M:Robe 100
  • SanDisk: Sansa c200 series, e200 series and e200R series
  • Toshiba: Gigabeat X and F series

There are unstable releases available for a few more players which can be found on the RockBox website. For this review, I installed RockBox on my SanDisk Sansa e260 digital music player.

Why run RockBox?

The purpose of RockBox is to provide more functionality than the original player firmware. The features that attracted me were: gapless playback, Ogg Vorbis and FLAC support, and support for μSDHC memory cards. It also offers multiple themes and fonts, MPEG video support, and several games. A full list of features can be found here.

Installing RockBox

Automated installers are available for Linux, Mac, and Windows computers. I downloaded the Linux installer to install RockBox from my Ubuntu installation. Running the installer was a simple process of extracting the downloaded archive and running the single executable file inside it. At that point I had to connect my music player to the computer, select my music player in the configuration settings, and then click on the "Complete Installation" button. The installer then went to the RockBox server and downloaded the appropriate files and installed them to my Sansa music player. The only problem I had was that the download of the Doom game stalled out. Clicking cancel at that point just cancelled the installation of Doom and everything else completed properly.

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RockBox on the Sansa

The first thing noticed was how much faster RockBox boots vs. the original firmware. The Sansa boots reasonably fast either way when there is no μSD card in the player, but when it's present, the original firmware forces a full database refresh every time the player starts. This can take more than a minute with 2 GB of music on the expansion card. With RockBox you have the option of manually initiating a database refresh only when you choose, so the player still boots fast with the card installed. This is even more important since RockBox has enabled the Sansa to read high capacity cards up to 32 GB in size. The original firmware from SanDisk can only read non-high capacity cards which limits you to 2 GB of expanded storage.

Another great feature of RockBox is the volume control. The Sansa firmware resets the volume to 50% each time you start the player. RockBox actually remembers where you left the volume set. It also provides greater resolution in volume adjustment which addresses an issue I had with the Sansa.

Several themes are available for download and if you're so inclined, you can create your own theme. This seemingly superficial feature is really quite important. Certain themes can be more readable for people with impaired vision. Additionally, some themes provide features that are missing in others. For example, some will show battery charge percentage and remaining battery time. Another theme may not show as much battery info, but shows both the current song as well as the next song to be played.

Video playback on low powered devices like digital music players can be challenging. RockBox provides support for MPEG playback, but the video size, frame rate, and bitrate need to be set appropriately for the limited hardware to handle it. The firmware automatically rotates the video to landscape mode for proper display on the Sansa's screen, so there's no need rotate the video before adding it to your player. I had reasonable success converting an AVI to MPEG with ffmpeg on Linux for use on RockBox. I used the following command for the conversion:

ffmpeg -i file.avi -vcodec mpeg1video -b 150k -s 220x176 -aspect 4:3 file.mpg

YMMV.

The only negative issue with RockBox on the Sansa is there is a hissing noise along with the music when it first starts playing. This is supposedly an issue that is specific to the Sansa hardware. It seems like the noise only occurs while the device buffer is filling. If you pause the music, the hissing stops after a few seconds and does not come back when play resumes. This tends to happen each time you start listening to a new album/playlist. Hopefully, this is something that can be addressed in a future release.

Conclusions

The RockBox firmware for the SanDisk Sansa e200 is a great product. It really unleashes the power of the hardware and the support for high capacity μSD cards is a big plus. I'm quite pleased to be playing Ogg files instead of the proprietary and inferior MP3 format. I'm able to fit more music on the player while achieving better sound quality as well. My only regret is not installing it sooner.

Comments

5 Responses to “Review: RockBox”

  1. Oyo says:

    There are preliminary Rockbox builds available for Android phones, fairly stable at this point. It runs as an app without replacing the firmware.
    I now have acceptable sound quality on my phone, although playback can sometimes freeze. A quick drag of the playback progress bar and the freeze is gone, (for a while:).

    It has replaced all of the other players on my Samsung Moment, and the touch screen makes it easier to navigate than the wheel and button controls on my Sansa e200.

  2. Tony says:

    Rockbox also works with the Sansa Fuze (Version 1) now.
    I downloaded it because I was interested in gap less playback and a better EQ.

    Two thumbs up.

  3. ShamiS says:

    Nice review, Linerd! Just wanted to point out, that with WinFF you can convert video files to rockboxed players with a preset without having to resort to the cli. Also I'm experiencing said hissing noise in the original firmware as well, although with the lower volumes in rockbox it certainly stands out more clearly. This is most likely a hardware issue on the e200 v1 series.
    cheers,
    ss

    • Linerd says:

      Hi ShamiS - Thanks for the comment. Yeah, I've heard that WinFF has some nice presets for RockBox, but I haven't gotten a chance to try it out yet. I must admit that I enjoy tinkering with the command line just for the learning opportunity it presents.

      Regarding the hissing sound, it tends to be much more subtle on the Sansa firmware (version 01.02.24A) on my player which makes me think there must be some software work around to reduce the effect. My gut tells me that throttling the buffer fill might help, but alas, I'm not a programmer, so I have no way to test that out.

      I need to do a little more testing, but it does seem that the hissing is reduced in duration when playing lower bitrate/smaller files. I'm also experiencing occasional skips on certain files, so I need to try re-encoding some of them to see if it resolves the issue.

      Overall, RockBox has been great. I'm so happy to be able to access my microSDHC card and play OGG and FLAC files. And it's wonderful to be able to convert videos without using that stupid Sansa Media Converter.

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