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Dec 222009

So in the interests of science (ok, I wanted a new toy with a large amount of storage for music), I bought a pre-upgraded iPod 5.5 with a 240Gbyte hard disk in it. Loaded up Rockbox as soon as it arrived with the special version for upgraded iPods and everything was working …

Well … sort of. I could copy most of my music onto it, but nothing with a filename that broke the rules of pure FAT … no long extensions (so no FLAC files!!), no UTF-8 filenames (and “f#a#oo” isn’t quite a catchy a name as “f♯a♯∞”). So I rebuild the filesystem with the standard Linux tool mkfs.vfat

Bad move! Whilst all the files now copied onto the iPod, the Rockbox bootloader was now unable to load the main rockbox binary (“rockbox.ipod”). Seems that Rockbox’s idea of FAT32 on large disks isn’t quite the same as Linux’s version (or to be fair OSX either). So I spend ages hunting around to see how to create an appropriate filesystem on the iPod to allow things to work, without success.

Thus this page.

First of all, connect up the iPod and determine what device it is (mine showed up as /dev/sdh). The command fdisk -l is quite helpful here particularly as we use that next.

Once you find the iPod’s device, use that to display the partition table using fdisk :-

# fdisk /dev/sdh
# fdisk /dev/sdh
Note: sector size is 2048 (not 512)

The number of cylinders for this disk is set to 22506.
There is nothing wrong with that, but this is larger than 1024,
and could in certain setups cause problems with:
1) software that runs at boot time (e.g., old versions of LILO)
2) booting and partitioning software from other OSs
 (e.g., DOS FDISK, OS/2 FDISK)

Command (m for help): p

Disk /dev/sdh: 240.1 GB, 240057409536 bytes
84 heads, 62 sectors/track, 22506 cylinders
Units = cylinders of 5208 * 2048 = 10665984 bytes
Disk identifier: 0x20202020

 Device Boot      Start         End      Blocks   Id  System
/dev/sdh1               1          13      128394    0  Empty
Partition 1 does not end on cylinder boundary.
/dev/sdh2              13       22507   234302542    b  W95 FAT32

Command (m for help): q

Here we use the “p” command to list the partition table, and “q” to quit. The key bit of information we are looking for are the number of cylinders, heads and sectors per track (22506, 84, 62). For the number of cylinders, we need to subtract the number of cylinders used by the first partition … or perhaps easier the value of the cylinder that the second partition starts on (13). This gives the values we use for mformat to format the filesystem.

Next we need to create a “drive letter” (!! – why doesn’t mtools allow you to specify a device to work with in the proper Unix fashion?) by editing /etc/mtools.conf and adding a line at the end like “drive z: file=”/dev/sdh2″”.

Finally we need to use mformat to create the filesystem :-

mformat -t 22493 -h 84 -n 62 -S 4 -M 2048 -F -v FATBOX -N deadcafe z:

The “-v” and “-N” options are unnecessary, but at least the “-v” option is kind of handy to allow the iPod to be automatically mounted in an appropriate place. And I usually take every opportunity to assign some funky hex value 🙂

Nov 032009

You know I was going to jump up and down shouting I told you so … except I cannot find the post from ages ago where I pointed out that this might be a problem (extra points to anyone who finds the link!). The BBC has just had a story about the dangers to visually impaired people from “quiet cars” – hybrids and electric vehicles. Actually of course it is just about everyone who finds it helpful to hear cars coming – indeed I will listen to my iPod on “mono” in certain situations to ensure I get an early warning from the noise of approaching vehicles.

Whilst loud vehicles are an enormous pain and I certainly would not want to encourage their use. The person who invented car stereos loud enough to cause nearby buildings to shake – and yes they can get that loud – needs to be tied down and forced to listen to my choice of music for a few weeks. So called silent cars do also cause problems; in fact a certain amount of noise results from the tyres running along the road. We are used to relying on sound to assist us in locating moving vehicles; in some cases it is the only sense we can rely on.

Apparently Lotus engineers have come up with a nifty system that generates noise that varies according to the amount acceleration the driver is applying. Sorry guys, you’ve been sniffing petrol fumes too much. Whilst the driver may be impressed by the feedback he (or she) gets when they press the acceleration pedal, the rest of us are more interested in the speed of the vehicle. Sound effects for the driver are all very well (when played inside the car) but rather out of scope for this discussion.

It would not be difficult to make hybrid and electric cars generate a noise when they are moving nearly silently. And the most sensible thing to do is to standardise the noise generation before we end up with a confusing variety of different sounds and volumes. The simplest is to have a tone generated when a vehicle is moving that starts low in pitch at low speeds and rises in pitch as the speed increases. Think old-fashioned milk floats.

Oct 312008

I have just watched a documentary on Pink Floyd, which I had unfortunately messed up the audio and video synchronisation which made the viewing somewhat peculiar – perhaps somewhat appropriately.

To me it seems that Pink Floyd is one of those bands where everyone meets. Amongst friends who listen to music, they have widely varying tastes in music and everyone has their own list of favourite bands. Oddly enough that rarely includes Pink Floyd, but when asked the response is almost always “Yeah! Them too”. And usually they will have every studio album produced by Pink Floyd even if they do not have every studio album of their favourite band – I have every Pink Floyd album, but not every Black Sabbath album.

It is almost as though there is no need to mention Pink Floyd as a favourite because anyone with any serious interest in music of almost any kind will have Pink Floyd as a favourite. I do not spend a great deal of time thinking about what music to listen to on my iBox, but every few weeks I find myself listening to Pink Floyd.

In some ways, we all hunting for another band as good as Pink Floyd.

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Sep 212007

Well this is not so much a letter as just a rant because I’m very doubtful that anyone from Apple never mind Steve Jobs is likely to read this. But it is good to get a good rant off your chest and out there (which basically explains this whole site … it is not for you … it is for me). Especially after a few glasses of port!

I currently own an iPod video and have been thinking about buying a Macbook, but I have been doing some rethinking after the announcment of the iPod Classic. It seems that Apple have encrypted the iPod Classic firmware again (the Nano 2g firmware is also encrypted) and have added a hash to iTunes just to make things a little more difficult for those who like to do “unusual” things with their iPods.

I am a Rockbox user (I haven’t even used the normal firmware on my iPod except when I’ve booted it by mistake) mostly because most of my CDs have been encoded in OGG format and I really did not want to re-encode them in any other format because of how long it would take. So Apple have made money out of me because I purchased an iPod; I’m beginning to regret that because Apple seems to be determined to be the kind of business that I don’t want to fund.

First of all there is the encryption of the firmware. I am sure that Apple is aware that hackers have produced not only alternative firmwares but also a utility to patch the default firmware to make interesting changes. So why the encryption ? Obviously to make things difficult for the hackers. In some situations smaller companies may be forced to do something similar because larger companies want to “protect their intellectual property rights”, but Apple is in a dominant position in the portable music player music market … they are the ones who will be dictating the contract terms.

Secondly Apple changed iTunes in an attempt to lock out other music managers. The fact that this protection has been hacked and is no longer a problem is irrelevant … Apple showed their colours by making it difficult to use anything other than iTunes.

A few years ago when it was trendy, Apple embraced the open source model by releasing some of their operating system as open source. Despite apparently trying to improve their operating system by incorporating a open source filesystem (ZFS), they seem to be rapidly retreating from this position. Or at least giving the appearance of doing so. So perhaps their earlier embracement of open source was just a marketing move … something you might expect from Microsoft.

Apple is giving the impression of trying to become a company as user-hostile as Microsoft.

Jun 212007

I have been stimulated into writing this by a slashdot article (not worth linking to) where people were arguing about the merits of installing Rockbox onto a compatible audio player … such as the iPod. Some people seem to think that replacing the standard iPod software is heresy!!

Or at the very least are complaining that Rockbox does not work the same way as the standard firmware.

I am in a somewhat odd situation … I bought an iPod after I was aware that Rockbox supported the iPod (and specifically avoided the 80Gb Ipod as it wasn’t supported at the time) to replace a rockboxed iRiver iHP100 (more commonly known as an iHP110) that was suffering from a lack of battery “oomph” (and yes I had tried replacing the battery). I spent probably just a couple of minutes in the native firmware before switching to the Rockbox firmware because I did not want to re-encode several thousand OGG-encoded tracks.

Now obviously I cannot criticise Apple’s interface or functionality on the iPod because I have not really used it.

However I can say that the Rockbox firmware is a perfectly adequate interface to run on an iPod and is getting better every week. Some of the features the Rockbox has include :-

  • Multi-codec support to play MP3, OGG, FLAC, AAC, WAV, … encoded files. I haven’t pulled down the full list but you really cannot get an audio player offering more codec support on a portable device. Not everyone needs this of course, but it is nice to have the choice.
  • The default Rockbox interface is kind of ropy on the iPod, but it is “themable” and some of the themes are pretty good … just have a look at the Rockbox Themes website (I have linked to the iPod Video themes)
  • Numerous “plugins” for playing games, displaying photos and other miscellaneous things. I must admit I don’t use them too much, but being able to play Jewel whilst bored waiting somewhere does come in useful.
  • The standard mass storage method of storing audio tracks in a way that can be easily accessed outside of iTunes does mean it is easier to copy some tracks to another computer easily. Of course I mean the freely distributable tracks!

Rockbox does have some disadvantages … the battery life is relatively poor compared with the native firmware (but very much better than an iHP100 with a tired battery!), and if you have a lot of investment in iTunes you will suffer from the lack of support (although the Rockbox database will track down files stored on the iPod whether they were put there by iTunes or just copied).

The most sensible advice for an iPod user thinking about making the switch is just to try it out. You may like it or you may not, but you don’t have anything to lose as you can always go back to the standard firmware. In fact as you can easily switch from one to the other, you can try out Rockbox gradually over time … go back to the native firmware when you are lost, and go back when you are feeling adventurous.

Another advantage that the existent Rockbox provides, that many people miss is that it may just put some pressure on Apple to improve their native firmware. If Apple notices that many of their iPod customers install Rockbox, they may be inclined to take a look themselves and start implementing features in their native firmware to “keep” their customers … surely something that would be good for all iPod owners.

Mar 172007

In the dim and distant past when iPods were something in SciFi films that hatched some nasty alien, and the only people who thought we might be using our computers for music were dangerously unstable visionaries there used to be a big issue called ‘software protection’. The software publishers had noticed that their software was being copied rather than paid for.

Being under the impression that every single illegal copy represented a lost sale (it isn’t, but that’s another story), they hired geeks to make copying software difficult. All of a sudden all the floppy disks (yes that long ago) that software came on were written with all sorts of funky tricks to make copying them difficult.

What happened ? Well the pirates came up with tricky ways of copying the disks and even removing the protection completely. Essentially the software protection schemes did not exist for them … in fact the more geeky ones enjoyed the challenge!

As for legitimate consumers, they started having problems. Those few who had hard disks suddenly had a collection of software packages that they could not copy onto the hard disk. Those who failed to treat their disks delicately found themselves unable to run software that often cost hundreds of pounds. It even grew to a point where the disk protection was so extreme that you found even a new disk did not work reliably.

A personal story from the 1980s … when the game Elite was launched for the BBC Microcomputer, I took some of my very limited money at the time and bought a copy. The game was brilliant but the disk protection was so extreme that I could not be sure of loading the game at any time. This experience ruined the game for me and I took it back. A few months later I ‘obtained’ an illegal copy and carried on playing it.

Do I feel guilty about breaking copyright law in this case ? No. I tried to do the right thing, but the software protection was so obnoxious to me as a legitimate consumer that I was encouraged to seek out an illegal copy.

Eventually after a long campaign, most of the larger software companies gave up software protection as a bad joke and everybody (probably including the software companies) breathed a sigh of relief.

Roll on a few years to now and look to digital music … a whole alphabet soup of different file formats … MP3, OGG, AAC, WMA, FLAC, MIDI … and that is just a few from the software that I run on my iPod. Some of these digital music formats have digital rights management and some do not … and the ones that do have it do not have the same one.

So I ‘buy’ a track from an online store for my smartphone which works quite well providing I keep the music there. Move it to my iPod and the iPod does not know it is music. Move it to a Windows machine, and it says that you’re not allowed to play it here. Some of these digital music formats have digital rights management and some do not … and the ones that do have it do not have the same one.

Notice something similar ? Again those who want to steal something will come up with a way to do it, and those legitimate consumers have to put up with restrictions that the pirates do not. Some of these digital music formats have digital rights management and some do not … and the ones that do have it do not have the same one.

We move onto films, where the same thing is happening. Ever notice whilst watching a DVD that you have to sit through 5-10 minutes of some stupid video telling you not to be naughty and steal the DVD ? Very irritating to be told off for something that you are not doing … especially when you realise those who steal movies usually have hacked hardware so they can fast forward through those bits. And of course movie download sites are using DRM in much the same way as music … you can download the movie and play it once, or play it as many times as you like for a month, or it only works on your PlayStation3 (or something like that). All sorts of restrictions for the legitimate consumer.

And what about those who download films from the file sharing networks ? Well no restrictions of course. In fact you can sometimes even download films before they are in the cinema especially if you are in a strange place like the UK where apparently shipping a film suitable for showing in the cinema can take many months.

Most media companies have yet to learn something that most software companies learnt a long time ago … pirates will steal your content whatever you do, and punishing legitimate consumers for doing the right thing will encourage some to become pirates and is pretty daft anyway. If I were a large media company I would do the following :-

  • Get rid of DRM. It costs money, probably has a negligable effect on the problem and punishes legitimate consumers.
  • Make all the old content available for download in a high-quality media format that can play everywhere for an almost nominal sum … perhaps a £1 a movie. Put the address of the download site at the beginning of the film prominently for a minute or two. This becomes your advertisement to those who get a copy illegally … and some of them will spend a pound to get an obscure
    film they’ve heard is good and then become more likely to purchase downloads.
  • Stop making cinema releases in stages. If you really want to see an over-hyped film that you know is in the cinema in the US but you have to wait months to see it in your country, you are far more likely to download an illegal copy than otherwise. If you have seen that illegal copy (sometimes a low-quality recording from a camcorder in a cinema) you are less likely to spend money on the film again. Especially if it is really over-hyped.
  • Same thing for DVD releases. Release them simultaneously world-wide and make them region free (whatever the excuse, region encoding comes across to consumers as a way of ripping them off).
  • Normalise DVD prices as much as possible. Seeing the same product at different prices in different countries makes the consumer feel they’re being ripped off. And don’t make the sales tax excuse … some consumers are capable of calculating the difference that makes.
  • Make DVD prices as cheap as possible. When consumers get DVDs for free with our newspaper, they feel like they are getting ripped off when they pay £20 for one.

If consumers feel like they are getting ripped off by media companies, they are more likely to try ripping off the media companies.

It all comes down to one simple statement. Rather than trying to stop people stealing using methods that don’t really work (and punish the legitimate consumer), look into why consumers steal films and other media and come up with consumer-friendly methods to alleviate that problem.

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