Upgrade your MP3 player with Rockbox

11 Feb 2009

Bored of your MP3 player? Hankering after a shiny replacement, for no good reason other than the seductive urge for something gadgety and new? Don't waste your money - get Rockbox on your existing player instead.

We think Rockbox is pretty much the ultimate free hardware upgrade. It will work on a range of devices, it's amazingly comprehensive, and setting it up is simplicity itself.

Rockbox has been ported to devices from seven manufacturers so far, including Apple, Archos and SanDisk. It isn't just an alternative geek's option that's there for the sake of it, either: it can really improve MP3 players that are basically good quality but don't have the best menu systems. We've installed it on an iriver H340-series player and found it far more usable afterwards.

For this feature, we installed the latest version 3 on a 6GB Sansa e270. Installation is a far cry from the manual tweaking of config files you need to get Linux installations working on other handheld devices. All we did was download the Automated Installer utility, run it on a local PC and connect the Sansa. From there you can choose whether to add a full install or a smaller basic version. Hit the go button and that's all there is to it. On the next reboot, Rockbox starts up in place of the standard firmware.

Rockbox doesn't only give your MP3 player a different look and a different way of playing your music. Choose the full installation and you'll get a raft of extras including mobile phone-style games, with classics such as Minesweeper and Solitaire, plus utility applets including a stopwatch and calculator. You even get retro-style graphics demos that hark back to the days when machine-code programmers would produce the most impressive graphics routines they could with the limited memory and hardware available to old computers such as the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga. And in true hacker's fashion, the games package includes a port of classic first-person shooter, Doom.

On our Sansa, this actually has a perfectly playable frame rate, although your fingers will get in a bit of a knot controlling your space marine.

Even better, for most devices Rockbox doesn't overwrite your old firmware. Plugging our Sansa player into a USB port automatically forces the device into booting the original SanDisk OS. You can then choose to de-activate Rockbox temporarily by removing the bootloader, or completely removing all files; the installer application can handle all of this for you. In any case, the Rockbox OS occupies only about 45MB for a full installation, so modern multigigabyte players won't miss the extra space occupied.

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