How About 32,000?

A few further comments on my iPod rebuild, now that I’ve had a little time to play with the device and have started to get the hang of Rockbox.

The flash drive is much lighter. Those few grams may not seem like much, but you notice the difference. And, since there are no moving parts, using a modified iPod on the go feels more comfortable. Exercise? Potholed roads? Sure, go ahead. Better yet, add a cheap Bluetooth transmitter that plugs into the headphone jack, and you can do away with that annoying wires to your headphones or the car stereo’s aux jack.

If you’re doing the hard drive replacement, it’s a good time to look at your iPod’s battery life. On the one hand, opening an iPod Classic is such a pain that you might want to save yourself some trouble and expense by swapping in a new battery at the same time you put in the flash card. On the other hand, the flash card uses so much less power, you may not need to replace the battery to get adequate life.

Not only does the flash card use less power than the original hard drive, it’s much faster. When I did some tests with Rockbox prior to the drive replacement, it took hours for the software to build its database of music. After the replacement, with about five times as many tracks, building the database took less than ten minutes.

Similarly, there’s no lag between tracks. Unlike the hard drive, there’s no spin-up time when the iPod wakes up the flash drive. Well, okay, there is, but it’s measured in fractions of a second instead of multiples of a second.

Rockbox supports music in many formats that Apple’s software doesn’t know anything about. If you keep your music in a flac format for the best possible sound on your computer, loading it to an iPod via iTunes requires converting it to aac or mp3. Sure, iTunes takes care of that for you, but it still takes time and you wind up storing a duplicate copy. Why waste the space on your computer–not everyone has a 50 terabyte server in their home office. Admittedly, the music may not sound any better on the iPod–let’s be honest, even when the iPod Classic was new, there were complaints about the sound quality–but it’s certainly not going to sound any worse either.

To be fair, everything isn’t wonderful in Rockbox-land.

It doesn’t work exactly like the original iPod software. Buttons do some different things, so there is a learning curve.

You can still use iTunes, but you don’t have to. Be aware that if you don’t, you lose Apple’s music management, metadata editing, and playlist generation. Those can all be replaced, but if you’re comfortable with Apple’s approach, you might want to stick with iTunes.

If you do stick with iTunes, however, you should know that some versions have a limit on the number of tracks you can store and the number of tracks per playlist. On some older versions, those limits may be as low as 100 per playlist and 25,000 total. If you like the “I forgot I owned that” moment of discovery that comes from setting your device on “shuffle” and letting it skip around through your entire library, 100 tracks isn’t going to work for you.

Rockbox also has a playlist limit (although there’s no total track limit). However, unlike Apple, you can change it. By default, the limit is 1,000 tracks. The “Settings” screen will allow you to change it to 32,000, but if you’re willing to live on the edge*, you can crank it up as high as you want. For the record, I have around 42,000 tracks–I’ve been buying music for four decades and I’m a packrat–so I set the limit at 64,000 tracks.

* The documentation warns that this can result in memory shortages, but so far at least, I haven’t had any problems. (As a reminder to myself, to set a limit higher than 32,000, you copy Rockbox’s “config.cfg” to “fixed.cfg” and edit the new file with any text editor. Delete the lines you don’t need and change the track limit to whatever you want. When you turn on the iPod, config.cfg gets loaded first, then anything in fixed.cfg replaces the settings in config.cfg. That allows you to make changes while you’re listening to music, but always return to your normal setup at power-on.)

Rockbox isn’t as polished as Apple’s iPod software, but it more than gets the job done. I love having 42,000 tracks in my backpack. Assuming the average song is five minutes long, that gives me more than three months of continuous music and comedy with no commercials. Not bad at all, even if the iPod has to be recharged every couple of days.

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