MP3 player success with Rockbox

Some of you who have been following this blog for a while may remember my post from 2009 where I was lamenting my lack of decent Linux-friendly MP3 player options out there to replace my aging Archos device.

Well, I still haven’t found one. However, thanks to Rockbox and a used device I bought from a friend, I have a stopgap that will hopefully last me until the portable music player electronics market sorts itself out.

Recap

Since 2005 — yes, that long ago — I’ve been getting an enormous amount of use out of an Archos XS202s 20GB MP3 player. It’s been a great little gadget… I can’t even calculate how many thousands of hours of use I’ve gotten out of it.

But its days are coming to an end. The lack of storage space is an endless source of frustration for me, as I am constantly having to decide what to remove from it in order for me to add any new music to it, and the battery life — once 12-15 hours — is now so bad that I can’t even mow the lawn while listening to it without it going dead on me.

And yet, despite the fact that this is now a 6 year old device, I still cannot find anything at all that meets my requirements, which don’t seem that unreasonable to me.

Namely,

1. Platform agnostic
2. 40GB or better native storage
3. Battery life of 10 hours or more

Numero uno rules out most players on the market, sadly. I’m of the firm opinion that MTP players need to die a painful death. Adding a “you must use $software to sync this device and that’s the only way to get music on it” layer to what is otherwise perfectly good hardware should be a criminal offense.

The correct way to put music on a device is with a program all of us already have: the file manager.

If I have to use anything other than copy+paste to get music on an MP3 player, it’s a big, egregious, insulting, frustrating FAIL.

My second requirement rules out solid state/flash memory based devices, though I’m hopeful in the next year or two we’ll start seeing such devices that are bigger than 32GB. But for now the market is flooded with little 4GB, 8GB and 16GB devices that are in my opinion a big step backward from the 20GB Archos player I’ve had since 2005 that is currently dying a lingering death.

And the third requirement shouldn’t be an issue, but there are a lot of players out there that have big, power-hungry screens that suck battery life down to pretty stupid levels. I want to be able to get a lot of use on a charge, and if it was possible to get 12-15 hours of life on a hard drive based device I bought six years ago, one would think that in 2011 it should be easily possible to do that with improvements in technology. One would think, at least.

So, faced now with the inevitable and inescapable demise of my Archos Gmini XS202s, and NOT A SINGLE PRODUCT that meets my stupid requirements, I’ve been in a quandary, still, even after all this time and exhaustive research.

What do I do in the meantime?

I bought a used device

By a chance conversation and my mentioning my quandary to a friend of mine a temporary solution was presented to me. He had a Toshiba Gigabeat S60 that he was willing to sell me for $30.00 plus whatever it cost to ship it to me.

And that was near perfect for my needs, for now anyway.

Wait, what?

I know what you’re going to say. “But the Gigabeat is an MTP device! It won’t work with Linux!”.

And this is true. And I can say that I would never, ever buy one of these new. Ever. However, for $30.00 plus the $5.00 shipping, it was a pretty reasonable risk to me.

It met my space requirements, had decent battery life (considering that it’s almost as old as the device it’s replacing), and it’s pretty easy to replace the battery on one of these, and I could work around the MTP/syncing issue.

Problems and solutions

Zach was kind enough to get me the Gigabeat in pretty short order, and I decided that I was going to give it a try as-is first, just to see how it worked, and see if it was even possible to work the thing with Linux.

The Gigabeat’s native OS of pain

This was an unmitigated disaster. I don’t honestly understand how anybody could use the Toshiba Gigabeat the way it comes from the manufacturer.

I tried everything I could come up with just to get music ON the device. From my Linux Mint laptop, I copied several gigs of music to it. But the device refused to see any of it.

So then I tried Banshee, which didn’t even see the device, and then I tried Rhythmbox, which saw the device, but just sat forever on an “updating the device” screen rather than let me load anything to it.

Clementine did the same thing Rhythmbox did.

Then, just to see if perhaps there was something wrong with the device itself, I fired up my Windows XP laptop that I have from work and tried synchronizing it from there.

That worked… kind of.

See, the Toshiba Gigabeat doesn’t just take the files copied to it and store them. It converts each one, individually, to some sort of goofy proprietary format, and THAT is the file it reads.

And it does this very, very, very slowly.

Synchronization with Windows Media Player went like this.

WMP: Okay, here’s the next song…. *copies*

Gigabeat: Receiving the song… wait for it…. wait for it…

Gigabeat: Okay, now I’m very slowly converting the MP3 which normal players can just read into something unnecessarily complicated and time-consuming….

Gigabeat: Wait for it… wait for it… wait for– DONE!

WMP: Okay, here’s the next song…. *copies*

Repeat approximately 5100 times. This process, from beginning to end, took over ten HOURS.

That’s not an exaggeration. Ten hours later, I had approximately 30GB of music on the 60GB device. And that was with Windows XP, the operating system with which this device was designed to operate.

After the mind-numbingly frustrating process of loading this, I can understand why the Toshiba Gigabeat was never really that popular a player. I’m pretty technical and I like a challenge, and if I was this frustrated by it — using Windows, no less! — how does the average user handle this pile of junk? I shudder to think of it.

Anyway, after all that, at least now I could listen to music on it, right?

Wrong.

The Gigabeat was broken with respect to reading ID3 tags. It saw the “artist” tag, and the “song title” tag just fine, as well as “genre” and “track” and a few others. However, it didn’t see any of the “album” tags, so it just organized all 5100+ songs into one “unknown album”. Irritating, but I could still use it. Right?

Wrong.

There’s no way to really effectively power the device down (except with a tiny little switch that physically cuts off the power from the battery, and that’s only operable with a paper clip or a pin or something, because it’s so small), so the actual on-off button that you can use your fingers on just puts the device into a kind of suspend mode.

From which it wakes up at random and stays on, draining the battery. Like while it’s in my bag. Or in my car’s glove compartment. So I’d be listening to it, on a full battery charge, and I’d suspend it, walk away, and a couple hours later go back to listen to it again and find the battery at 0% because it had been sitting there on the whole time, screen all backlit, burning the battery.

Needless to say, this was really an unusable device. Not only was it impossible to load it in Linux, but it was nearly impossible (and if nothing else, highly impractical) to load it in Windows (and I didn’t bother trying it in Mac OS X).

And the interface on it is difficult to use, buggy, flaky about how it plays music and reads metadata, and the Windows Mobile OS (yes, that’s what it runs natively) managed power horribly.

Rockbox time

So satisfied that I gave it a thorough run-through, I decided to try Rockbox on it.

Rockbox is basically replacement firmware developed from the ground up (no, it’s not Linux based, though it’s designed to be Linux friendly) to work on a number of popular portable music players (like the one I bought). The theory is, a lot of these devices actually have pretty good hardware — it’s just the defective-by-design, crappy firmware/operating systems that ruin the experience for everyone.

Now, according to the Rockbox site, the Rockbox firmware on the Gigabeat S60 is in the “unstable” or “experimental” category, so their default quick installer doesn’t work for it, and there are supposed to be problems with it.

But I figured I wouldn’t be any worse off. After all, the native OS was pretty much useless on the thing… how bad could Rockbox be?

I did try out the Automatic Installer and as prophesied, it didn’t work, wouldn’t even see the device.

So I moved on to the next phase, which was the rather lengthy Manual Installation Instructions.

This wasn’t actually as bad as it probably looks. I ran the little bootloader installer, which put the device in a state where I could get the Rockbox firmware directory on it, and then I did some tweaking after rebooting the device… and it worked.

And what a difference that made.

I was able to get 30GB of music onto it (via Nautilus, copy+paste) in only about a half hour. It saw all my metadata, including my “album” ID3 tags.

The interface was a little odd, but way more intuitive and easy to use than the default one.

Battery life was greatly improved on the Gigabeat with Rockbox. The power button actually powers the device down — which means that starting it up takes a little longer, but only a few seconds.

Not to mention, Rockbox has far more features and far more flexibility than the native OS on the Gigabeat had. The equalizer is better, and as a result, sound quality on playback is FAR better.

In short, Rockbox took a device that was really only fit for the trash can and made it totally usable.

Conclusion

I have a replacement battery ordered for my Toshiba Gigabeat S60, as even with Rockbox on it, I can really only get 4-5 hours of play on this thing. The screen really drains things fast, and I think a new battery will breathe some life into it.

But I think this will be a good stopgap for me until someone — ANYONE — out there stops screwing around and makes a decent MP3 player again. Technology has really taken a step backwards.

Six years ago, when I bought my Archos Gmini XS202s, I was expecting to get three, maybe four years of use out of it at most. And at that point I’d go from a 20GB player to something in the 60GB+ range.

But Archos doesn’t make any useful players anymore… their products are all solid state/flash memory based that are all smaller capacity — not bigger. And their hard drive based devices are all big, bulky video playing devices in which I have no interest.

Cowon is probably the closest to acceptable to me, as they are user friendly with respect to loading music, and seem to make decent electronics. But they too are behind when it comes to capacity (since bigger capacity players were widely available years ago), and I’m not overly fond of touchscreen devices, and that’s what they seem focused on.

So hopefully this self-refurbished Toshiba Gigabeat S60 will last me until someone starts making a decent MP3 player again, and then I’ll buy a new one.

Until then, if you have an MP3 player that has a painful native OS, and it’s on Rockbox’s “supported” (heck, or even “unsupported”) list, give Rockbox a try. I think you’ll be surprised.

– Trent

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8 thoughts on “MP3 player success with Rockbox

  1. I’ve fought the MTP-vs-MSC before with my wife’s Sansa Clip. When her Clip died, she liked the form factor and price so we got a new one, a Clip v2.

    The device (both versions) has a menu option to control the MTP-vs-MSC option so that the user can determine how to best use it. Amarok is able to see it and transfer music either way, which is very nice, but yes the device will only see the music that is copied onto it in the method that it is set to (MTP vs MSC).

    It was a headache to figure it all out tho. I’ve replaced her old device’s firmware with Rockbox but the storage on it seems broken, meaning it sometimes reverts back to the Sansa firmware and then back to Rockbox and the music will stick around for a while and then disappear. The Rockbox interface is pretty nice tho and the device may be exactly what you need, with either firmware.

    • MTP just drives me nuts. I wish it had never been invented.

      I’ve looked at the Sandisk devices, and they seem like they could be great options, there’s still the fact that they sound like the MTP vs. MSC thing is still an issue, plus they still don’t make anything with decent storage capacity.

      Thanks for the comment, lefty! I always enjoy hearing from you here, I’m glad you’re still reading. I’ve added a link to your own blog to my blogroll, hope you don’t mind! :)

  2. Pingback: Links 19/5/2011: Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6.1 is Out, Linux 2.6.39 is Near | Techrights
  3. rockbox is awesome. i dont know if the gigabeat can do it at full speed, but you can totally emulate a game boy or play videos on a device not made to play videos. was absolutely perfect on my second-gen ipod nano.

  4. Why does no-one make an mp3 that that supports Rockbox natively, instead of the horrible propriety firmware? It would save them a HUGE heap of time and effort, and make them a great deal of money.
    And I agree that there aren’t any decent mp3 players out there any more.
    Long Live H340 and Rockbox!

  5. Exhaustive research?

    Did you look at the Cowen j3?
    It has 32 gb memory and a microsd slot for 32 gb more…

    I mounted it as a mass storage device in Linux with 2 lines, one for the main mem and one for the card.

    The advertised battery life is 55 hours (in a manufacturer-contrived test, I’m sure), but my experience in the last month is on the order of 16 hours per charge.

    Would seem to fit your 3 criteria.

    I’m not saying it is perfect, and I wish the buttons were on the end like the Cowen S9 so it could be paused, vol. adjusted, etc while in a shirt pocket without taking it out and having to LOOK at it, and a few other things I’d like different, but it does seem to meet your 3 criteria.

    It does cost a bunch, but I guess we each have to decide how important our songs and audiobooks are to us.

    Steve

    • I did look at the Cowon J3, in fact, but all I could ever find was the 16GB model before. Now that I look again, there’s the 32GB model, which, if I drop another $60 on a 32GB microSD card for it, meets my requirements. Though I wish I didn’t have to resort to that.

      It’s not clear from your comment… does it actually support a 32GB microSD? A lot of devices out there have microSD slots but only support limited card sizes.

      Thanks for the comment.

  6. I cannot be sure that it will work with a 32 GB micro sd card. Personally, I can confirm that it works with a 16 GB card, giving me 48gb of space. I can load it up with audiobooks
    and have more than a month’s worth of listening pleasure.
    Plus some CD’s of music. Enjoy the radio on it too, when outdoors.

    I was given both a J3 and an S9 for my birthday (yes, I feel loved!) and really like the user interface of the S9–it sits in a shirt pocket or Bib overall chest pocket and you can operate it without taking it out of your pocket and looking at it. Useful when you are working and need to pause it to talk to someone for a minute. But the micro sdhc slot (only on the J3) is important to me. I like them both.

    Both of them need a hard body case for durability (I take them to work in a shop).

    I’m going to mill out a case from Delrin for the J3 with external buttons that are a little bigger, though protected from accidental presses in your pocket. Can you recommend who makes the best screen protectors?

    One thing I wish is that they had is a more sturdy cover over the charging/usb port. Both covers seem fragile for long term use, though they have not broken so far.

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