I’ve been watching DankPods on YouTube for some time now (really entertaining guy btw). His bit is that he buys old iPods and does stupid stuff with them. Here’s one where he runs Doom Eternal off an iPod Classic in “hard drive” mode. What a maniac.
This made me wonder how expensive it would be to get a used iPod and make it usable enough so that is plays my music library. I don’t have a huge library all things considered: beets tells me I have 5007 songs. However, my library is a mix of MP3 and OGG files, and the only iPod which supports OGG is…the iPod Touch 📱. Bleh.
Thankfully, there are ways to replace the default iPod OS with Rockbox, an open-source, community-made operating system for lots of music players. It’s been going since 2001, and seems to still be maintained today, which is a testament to the dedication of weird music nerds. That’s one issue solved!
Getting all the hardware together
Finding a used iPod isn’t too difficult. I went with an iPod Video (5.5), because it seemed to have a good balance between price, ease of tinkering, and modern feel. I got a used one, with scratches, for 45€ off a second-hand website. The battery was completely toast, but that’s to be expected from an 18-year-old device 👴 (and it’s easy to change). I would have loved to get my hand on an iPod Classic, but they are far more expensive, so the Video will have to do!
One little quirk of iPods is that they all use mechanical storage. That’s because at the time flash memory was very expensive, so the engineers at Apple decided to trade lightness and resilience for big storage sizes. The iPod hard drives are actually manufactured by Toshiba, and were a very nice piece of engineering! They’re just tiny guys wrapped in foam to protect them from shocks. This has the nice perk of letting you know when your device is working: you can hear the disk spin up, and feel the vibrations through the metal shell. The drawbacks, however, are that you can’t really shake your device around, and that most drive operations are pretty slow.
Thankfully, several people have developed SD card adapters you can just replace the HDD with. I went with the iFlash Solo, because they shipped from the UK and seemed to be a well-known name in the iPod modding scene. Other, probably cheaper, options can be found on AliExpress or other marketplace, however there are less guarantees as to quality of the product you’re gonna get. I also added two shimmy tools to my shopping cart: I can wholeheartedly recommend them, as I opened my iPod once with only an iFixit Pro Tech Toolkit, and it was a pain. These little tools are life-savers.
Replacement batteries are easily found on eBay, I paid around 10€ for mine: make sure you order one with the right reference number for your device (mine was “616-0229”, that’s written on the battery itself). If you have an 80GB iPod video, you should even be able to go for a jumbo-size battery once your replace the mechanical hard drive with an SD card, because the back case is deeper than the 50GB version.
Getting your hands dirty
Honestly, there isn’t much to this section. I followed iFixit’s guide, and as alway it was great. Once you get to the battery, you can use a spludger tool to lift up the tab holding the hard drive ribbon cable. Make sure you install the SD card adapter the right way around (you should be able to rest it nicely against the logic board. If there’s plastic in the way, you mounted it the wrong way around! Ask me how I know 😁).
Once you replaced the battery and the hard drive, plug it to your computer and let iTunes restore it: that’s to make sure it is correctly setup and formatted.
Rockbox can be easily installed by going to their official website, more specifically to their download page. Their automated installer is pretty easy to use and will setup your iPod to dual-boot between the original iPod OS and Rockbox. Which one is booted when you turn on your iPod depends on the state of the “Hold” button:
- If the button is in the “Hold” position (red part apparent), then the iPod OS is booted
- If the button is not in the “Hold” position, then Rockbox is started.
However, it appears that Rockbox has some issues with the iFlash Solo…using the latest release (3.15), I had lots of problems generating the music database, as well as dreadful load times when starting music playback. Upgrading to one of the dev releases fixed it right away! The process to do so is very easy:
- Use the automated installer from the “release” page to install the latest stable version (we only care about it installing the bootloader)
- Download the latest “rockbox” package from the dev build page (make sure you get the “iPod Video” version)
- Also download the font pack from the top of the dev build page
- Remove the “.rockbox” folder at the root of your iPod’s storage, and extract both ZIP files there
⚠️ Warning: I don’t really understand why, but the Rockbox installer didn’t quite work on my Windows desktop. I tried around with other machines, and in the end it only ran correctly on my Debian Sid laptop…so if you have issues with the installer, I can recommend trying out other machines and Operating Systems.
I can recommend downloading a few themes from their theme repository: I particularly enjoy iRB Video, which mimics the original iPod OS interface. There are literally hundreds of themes, so there’s definitely something you will like :)