Make your gadgets better
Custom firmware improves your toys
By John ďjaQĒ Andrews† firstname.lastname@example.org
A few weeks ago, I wrote about updating the firmware in your digital camera or other device.
The purpose of upgrading firmware is usually to fix some flaw or add a minor new feature. At least, with firmware made by the manufacturer.
A number of homebrew projects have sprung up that claim to enhance the functionality of common devices by adding features, replacing interfaces and streamlining operation. Theyíre generally free, with some community support but absolutely no help from hardware manufacturers. As with any firmware change, there is a small risk of ďbrickingĒ the device ó making it useless by interrupting the update. Most gadgets are resilient, though, and in many cases will still connect to your computer for another attempt.
The most famous third-party firmware replacements right now are Rockbox, for a number of portable media players, and DD-WRT, for many wireless routers. They can both be downloaded and installed with minimal effort.
Rockbox (www.rockbox.org) replaces the stock firmware on several newer iPods, as well as various MP3 and video players. Itís been under development since 2001, and just as hardware has come a long way, so has this firmware.
The Rockbox developers started with the concept that everything should be configurable and customizable to each userís individual preferences. If you want to shuffle your songs without going through a long series of menus, for example, you can set a hotkey for doing that when you turn on your player. You can select which elements to show on your screen, like song title and time remaining, while leaving out the things that donít matter to you, like album art and rating.
Most compellingly, Rockbox adds video capability to some models of music player that donít support video out of the box. Itís essentially software decoding, though, which canít compete with dedicated hardware decoders on players equipped with them. The Rockbox site acknowledges that the built-in video player on the iPod provides much better performance.
There are even extra plugins like games and visualizations.
DD-WRT (www.dd-wrt.com) does the same kind of stuff for wireless routers (although, sadly, no games). Since these networking devices arenít specifically made for entertainment, the emphasis is more on ease of use and new functionality rather than customization and fun. It works with a number of routers based on a Broadcom chipset, but the easiest way to determine compatibility is to look at the list on their Web site. A bunch of Belkin, Buffalo, Linksys, Motorola and Siemens routers are compatible, along with some other smaller brands.
The features added depend on what your router can already do, but most users can expect to gain a repeater function, which allows a router to receive a signal wirelessly and rebroadcast it; a tool for setting up virtual private networks (VPNs) that connect remote locations over the Internet while remaining secure; and transmission power adjustment, which can boost the range and strength of your routerís signal.
Remember to follow instructions closely and only change your firmware if thereís a compelling reason or you donít mind ruining your hardware. Enjoy!