Pace - IT Adaptive Tech Reviews
Saturday, March 25, 2006
  Review: Rockbox Talking iPod
Rockbox - Open Source Jukebox Firmware

The prospect of getting talking menus, directories and filenames for some iPods and other MP3 players is an attractive one. This is something very useful to people with vision impairments or if they just want to be able to change selections while driving. Rockbox is an open source project to replace the firmware of various MP3 players with a customizable interface and the computer voice option is one of them.

I was using an iPod Color for this testing and installing the firmware is not a plug and play process. There is no installation wizard and many commands need to be entered through a command line interface. The directions were clear enough for most techies but quite a few of the possible problems were not mentioned. I had to go to the forums to get some hints on how to solve some of the problems I ran into. Once the firmware and software was in place I still didn't have any files. The previous data on the iPod wasn't easily accessible. The user of Rockbox has to set up a directory structure on the iPod using root levels like Music, Audiobooks, or Podcasts and then sublevels like Artist, and then album.

To get these directories and filenames spoken isn't that hard through the use of a utility they provide that creates a small computer voice generated file that says the name needed. If one isn't present then the computer voice can spell the file name or say the number of the music track.

Using Rockbox means the iPod can't be loaded with iTunes and files would need to be loaded in other ways. Songs purchased through iTunes and other AAC files can't be played with RockBox.
To make a long story short, I don't recommend this, at least for iPODs for several reasons:
  1. The software crashes quite a bit while trying to navigate menus. It isn't that difficult to reboot but it is hard to tell when you aren't going to get it to work since some things work but it gets to the point it just refuses to play files but lets you navigat menus.
  2. Battery life is seriously diminished. I'm much more impressed now with how well the stock iPod works since it has power management functions that aren't recreated in Rockbox.
  3. Playback is jumpy sometimes when the player screen is doing too many functions like the equalizer.
  4. The voice function didn't work well enough to be useful. The names were read clearly but there is a pause of about half a second or more before the name is read and the speaking rate is slow. So, it can take quite awhile to get through a menu or list of song names.
  5. The player has to be set up as an external drive so it has to be ejected each time you want to disconnect it from the USB cable. The iPod I'm using has 60GB so using that filespace is nice for moving other files occasionally, like a really fat USB Thumb Drive, but needing to eject the unit every time is a hassle.
In conclusion, it takes a fairly tech savvy person to get this running and keep it running and the benefits don't merit its use. The FAQ files admit a number of problems that they intend to work on. There is also a page describing the voice functions. You can click on this page they call the Blind FAQ. There are probably some other ways to make MP3 players more accessible. I'll be looking for some of those.
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