The Null Device

Posts matching tags 'rockbox'


It looks like the Rockbox open-source MP3 player firmware is starting to get noticed. After a few years of hobbyist hackers independently shoehorning it into running on various players, often in spite of the manufacturers, one player manufacturer, SanDisk, is reported to be negotiating officially porting it to their hardware and supporting it. Which could be very good news, especially if they contribute their port back to the project, ensuring that it can keep up to date with developments.

Unfortunately, being the product of a flash memory manufacturer, the SanDisk players are all flash-based, and peak at 6Gb (though do have SD-card slots, so you can add an extra gigabyte or so if needed). Now if someone made a 40-60Gb hard-disk-based player that ran Rockbox by design, I'd be interested.

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The first MP3 player I owned was an Archos Jukebox Recorder. This was a relatively bulky unit consisting of a low-power CPU, monochrome bitmap display and notebook hard drive (20Gb, though it was easy enough to open it up and swap the hard disk for a larger one, at least until Archos started soldering their hard drives into cages of circuit boards).

Just under a year ago, I bought an iRiver H340; this is a smaller unit, with a more powerful CPU (Motorola ColdFire; it's powerful enough to decode MP3 and OGG in software, and someone has gotten an iRiver emulating a GameBoy), a colour display, two USB ports (device and host), and based around a smaller (1.8", i.e., iPod-sized) hard drive. Like the Archos, it could record to MP3, from a (crap) built-in microphone or line in (I think it even has a microphone preamp built in, unlike the Archos). However, it seemed to have one crucial missing feature: no real-time clock.

Why is that such a big problem, you ask? Well, when you suddenly record something on the go, how will you know what it is that you recorded later on? The files it makes are named VOICE001.MP3, VOICE002.MP3 and so on, which doesn't say much. There is no keypad, touch screen or other data-entry method to give them names either. Of course, if the device has a real-time clock, you can look at the timestamp of the file to see when it was recorded, but with no such clock, all files created get an arbitrary creation time such as midnight on 1/1/2002, so you're left guessing.

Mind you, now it emerges that the H340 hardware does have a real-time clock, just that the firmware didn't use it. I just found out the most recent firmware upgrade adds a clock function, displaying the current time, and adding sensible timestamps to any files recorded. Which makes the iRiver slightly more useful for things other than listening to music.

(Of course, the firmware is still annoyingly clunky when it comes to doing some things; though now that it is confirmed that there is a clock inside the unit, Rockbox can make use of it when it is ported to it.)

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The Rockbox iRiver porting effort is making some progress. They now have it booting on an iRiver H140 and presenting the file browser that will be familiar to Archos Rockbox users. Not only that, but someone has coded a GameBoy emulator plug-in, which the iRiver is powerful enough to run.

Now all they need to do is make it play sound; unlike the Archos, the iRiver has no hardware MP3 decoder, so they need to graft an entire codec API onto the system. With such a big step, of course, come plenty of possibilities; already there is talk of having the unit play tracker modules and Commodore 64 SID chiptunes, not to mention lots of lossy and lossless audio formats.

Hopefully they'll get it working on the H3xx series (that's the newer one, with a colour screen and two USB ports) too. It'll be less annoying than the stock iRiver firmware.

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It looks like the people behind the Rockbox* MP3 player firmware/OS (which runs on Archos Jukebox series hardware) have started preliminary work on porting it to iRiver devices; they're starting on the (discontinued?) iHP-1x0 series, but hopefully that'll lead to an H-3x0 version as well (assuming that they're based on a similar architecture).

* not to be confused with Rocbox, a MP3 player brought out by rap record/fashion label Roc-A-Fella. (Hang on, aren't they part of Def Jam/Universal? If so, I wonder if their corporate parent knows that they're putting out a MP3 player.)

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In MP3 player news, hackers are making progress reverse-engineering the iRiver firmware and loading mechanism, with a view to loading custom firmware into the unit. iRiver have used various mechanisms (checksums, encryption, disabling hardware debugging access) to make things difficult for them, but to no avail. Of course, iRiver could very easily sue them into oblivion under the DMCA, though would probably lose lots of sales doing that (including your humble narrator, who'd probably get another Archos instead); let's hope that iRiver decide not to be asshats about this.

Meanwhile, on the Rockbox mailing lists, this is being viewed with some excitement; there is already talk of expanding the Rockbox project from just the Archos Jukebox/Recorder platform to the iRiver. Which would be incredibly cool; it could be the first step towards Rockbox becoming the Linux of portable media player OSes. If that happens, I wonder how long until companies stop making (and maintaining) their own firmware and start building players around Rockbox.

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As of today, I have a 40Gb* Archos Jukebox Recorder 20.

This Sunday, I went to the computer swap meet and picked up a 40Gb notebook hard disk (a Hitachi TravelStar, for what it's worth), along with a notebook-drive-to-IDE-cable adaptor. Yesterday, I wandered down to Jaycar and bought a set of Torx screwdrivers (that's the funny hexagonal screws used to fasten things that people with ordinary household screwdrivers have no business in opening) and an antistatic wrist strap (just in case).

First, I copied the contents of the Archos to the new disk; I used the adaptor to attach the disk to my Linux box (as /dev/hdb; to make it into the slave device, I borrowed a jumper from an ancient SCSI hard disk I have lying around whose exact origins are lost in the mists of time). I then partitioned it (making one big FAT32 (LBA) partition, as on the Archos), and copied the Archos' contents to it in one gulp, with:

dd if=/dev/sda1 of=/dev/hdb1

Then I used GNU Parted to resize the partition (and the FAT filesystem on it) to take up the entire span of the new disk.

Then came the hardware modification; off came the "Warranty Seal" sticker, and the rubicon was crossed. I was working from this guide, which, whilst written for older Archos units, was quite accurate. The operation was easier than I feared; I was half-expecting the Archos hardware to be next to impossible to take apart without destroying some delicate connection or other, but this turned out not to be the case. The most tricky thing was putting on the black rubber bumpers when putting the case back together (obviously, whoever designs cases for Archos is not the same person who designed the Apple Macintosh G4 case or any similarly hacker-friendly hardware enclosure). In any case, everything went smoothly and without a hitch. I'd say that changing the hard disk in an Archos Jukebox isn't much harder than doing so inside a generic PC; if your warranty has expired (or would involve shipping the unit to France by courier or something similarly useless), it's worth a try.

Now I've got a 20Gb hard disk full of MP3 files, waiting to be recycled. In an ideal world, someone would sell external USB drive enclosures (like the ones you can buy for hard disks) with built in MP3-player functionality. (I believe there are all-in-one MP3 decoder chips that can talk to an arbitrary IDE disk.) Though if those don't exist, I may just end up using it as a backup device or somesuch (the usual fate of old hard disks).

* That's in marketing gigabytes. It actually has 37Gb or so of space, though that is still twice its former capacity.

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Ah yes, Rockbox 2.1 is out now, with a raft of new enhancements, including loadable plugins, a calendar application, a swag of new games, and a Chip 8 emulator. (I believe Chip 8 was some very primitive hobbyist home computer of the 1980s, and allowed the sufficiently masochistic to program games in machine code or something like it. It's not quite a Commodore 64 emulator on your MP3 player, but it's something.)

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Rockbox, the open-source Archos Jukebox Recorder firmware that wipes the floor with Archos' official firmware, is now able to be flashed into ROM. This makes it quicker to start (no loading from hard disk); but it also completely eliminates the need for Archos' firmware, the last proprietary component of the Jukebox.

I was thinking a few days ago that the Jukebox Recorder hardware appears to be made entirely from commodity parts; it basically consists of a laptop hard disk, a USB-IDE interface chip, a MP3 decoder chip, a display, some buttons, and an off-the-shelf Hitachi RISC CPU to control everything, with no custom chips anywhere. Even the batteries are commodity AA-size NiMH cells (unlike Apple's 18-month, non-removable iPod battery). Now that there is complete open-source firmware that runs on the hardware, how long until third-party manufacturers start cobbling together Archos-like MP3 players running Rockbox, or possibly improved hardware running hacked versions of Rockbox? Imagine dozens of small south-east-Asian tech firms making their own 20-60Gb MP3 players and selling them at the cutthroat discounts that Flash-based MP3 players have come down to (the most basic 128Mb ones can be had for just over A$100, with ones with displays and recording starting at A$125), and Rockbox becoming the Linux of HD-based music player firmware (Linux was once bound to one hardware platform; the IBM 386 PC architecture).

So we'll have MP3 players which anybody can build from off-the-shelf parts given the right equipment (you could possibly do so at home, if you really wanted to), which is not controlled by any one company, and whose firmware is entirely hackable. Which sounds very good to me.

(Of course, the Archos Jukebox hardware is rather inflexible; for instance, it has only one MP3 decoder chip wired directly to the headphone socket, which immediately rules out things such as crossfading or playing non-MP3 audio. But that's not to say that third-party variations on the theme wouldn't remedy this.)

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Ah yes; the long awaited 2.0 release of Rockbox (that's the enhanced open-source firmware for the Archos Jukebox MP3 player/recorder units) is out. This update adds MP3 recording (so you don't need to boot the rather pedestrian Archos firmware), file queueing, playlist creation, allegedly improved battery life and charging, various sound enhancements (fade in/out on start/end, pitch changing and stereo wide/narrow/karaoke modes), and numerous other minor enhancements. If you have a compatible device, grab it; you probably won't be disappointed.

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The Archos Jukebox Recorder is sort of like the iPod, only not quite as light, sexy-looking or fashionable, but it is considerably cheaper and can record directly to MP3 from a microphone or line in. That's right; take it to a gig, press record, and it makes a MP3 file you can copy onto your computer when you plug it in at home. (It also speaks USB, for those of us who don't have an IEE1394 card.) And now some enterprising hackers in Sweden have written custom open-source firmware for it, which adds lots of features (and extends the battery life somewhat too), which makes it an even more attractive proposition. (Mind you, it's not really firmware; more like a kernel that gets loaded off the hard disk; there's even a Lilo-like boot menu program to select from different boot options.)

(Has anybody here had any experience with Archos MP3 units? Are they as good as they look on paper?)

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