I’ll start off with the disclaimer, so that the uninterested can tune out now. This has nothing to do with vintage Apple gear, though I suppose these days, an iPod from 2006 could be considered retro. No, this is here because I haven’t written in a while, and I like to write. When I’m in practice I’m pretty good at it, too. It’s also here because I don’t have anywhere else to put it and since no one reads this blog, there isn’t going to be any psychological damage.
At any rate, iTunes crashed while updating my iPod, and apparently took my beloved music player with it. No error message, no warning of trouble. iTunes just closed mid-file transfer, and I found myself staring at the desktop. It took me a minute to realize that it wasn’t coming back on its own, and the iPod had slipped into an endless reboot cycle. I’d get the glowing white Apple on black background for a few seconds, the a dark screen and then the shiny Apple again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
My first thought was that the hard drive had given up the ghost – apparently this is a fairly common killer of older iPods, and a guaranteed revenue stream from upgraders for Apple. A quick web search for replacement 1.8″ hard drives revealed that they were out of my price range – a drive comparable to the one in my unit costs nearly as much as a new iPod. Desperate to save my coins for my upcoming journey to retro-Mecca, I started looking for troubleshooting tips. Various hard reset methods were tried, but still no luck.
As a last resort, I stopped by the local Apple temple… uh… retail store and hit the Genius Bar. This iPod is well out of warranty, but they’ve always been friendly and have been willing to lend a hand for a few minutes even if it’s for stuff on which they’re not supposed to work. After a few minutes spent repeating the steps I’d already tried, the girl at the counter reached the same conclusion: a dead hard drive. Any attempt to plug the iPod into a machine with iTunes up and running quickly and invariably crashed iTunes. We did learn, however, that when the device is started in “Disk Mode“, the endless rebooting stopped. I could plug it in and browse the iPod’s file system, transfer stuff back and forth and in general do everything I was supposed to be able to, other than actually boot it and listen to music.
Hmmm. When I got home, I plugged it into my wife’s laptop (she has a Motorola Droid and doesn’t use iTunes) and loaded her copy of doubleTwist, DVD Jon‘s cool iTunes clone for those not blessed to own an iPodPhonePad. doubleTwist saw the device and allowed me to sync a few files. I began to doubt my initial prognosis and loaded chkdsk, Windows’ file system and storage media diagnostic and repair utility. The initial check came up with no errors, so I ran it again with more thorough tests. Still nothing. Finally, an overnight surface test of the drive also came up suspiciously clean.
Perhaps the iTunes wasn’t the problem – strange, I know. The quality of the Windows version of Apple’s media player and sync application is no secret. I wondered if the iTunes crash mid-transfer hadn’t caused some corruption of the operating system on the iPod itself. As I wasn’t sure how much of the iPod system is stored on the HDD versus internal firmware, and lacking confidence that I could do a complete restore manually, I ruled out formatting the drive and trying from scratch. The thought of driving across Kansas in the July heat without my favorite podcasts to accompany me was more than I could bear and if I could rescue my little friend, by god, that’s what I was going to do, dammit!
iTunes has a pretty cool function that allows you to wipe your device clean and restore it to factory settings – a sort of panic-button, if you will – but it’s not much good when iTunes crashes the instant you plug in your iPod. Someone on a forum suggested that I track down one of the old iPod Device Updater programs that Apple used to release before they integrated that functionality into iTunes. Fortunately, people smarter than I have archived and made these available on various forums and file repositories. But there’s a snag (isn’t there always?). It seems that if you already have iTunes installed, these updaters refuse to function and instead insist that you use iTunes. No amount of removing the myriad services and applications Apple sets up when you install iTunes could resolve the problem. So, barring major Windows Registry and system file surgery, that method was out.
I found another program on ipodwizard.net, one of those all-in-one diagnostic utilities that frustrated users seem to be so good at producing. From the look of it, the iPodWizard app could reload my firmware and a bunch of other neat stuff. Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out how to use it, and the info in the forum thread where I found it was less than clear. In the end, it needed that iPod Updater program which would no longer run for me.
I was reaching my wit’s end here, which usually isn’t very far away on any given afternoon. Was it really this difficult to restore an iPod to its factory settings without iTunes? Then, in the midst of my preparations for Hari-kiri, a thought occurred to me. Wasn’t there an alternative bootloader and OS that you could load onto your iPod? Rock… something or other. Don’t you hate that? Trying to remember the name of the product you tried that one time way back when. I’ve probably got it bookmarked somewhere, but searching through the thousands upon thousands of virtual “I was here” markers that I make as I troll through the web and then never visit again, was a daunting challenge. More than I was up to – yes, I’m lazy. Shut up.
Rockbox! Yes, that’s the one! I remember trying this thing once, years ago. While I admire the skill and effort they’ve put into an open-source alternative to the iPod’s OS, I found its user interface to be unfortunately unwieldy and hard to use. There’s just no substitute for the elegance of Apple’s click-wheel and menu system. If there’s one thing you can say about the Fruit of Silicon Valley, it’s that you can’t beat them when it comes to the end user experience. It’s why the iPhone ran away with the cell phone industry in less than three years, easily beating long time incumbents like Motorola and Nokia, and it’s why touchscreen computing sucked until this April’s iPad rollout. But, back to the problem at hand.
The one thing I did remember from my brief interlude with Rockbox was that it could replace the default iPod bootloader, the bit of code that launched the UI when the iPod was restarted or powered up. Perhaps this was the solution. With fingers crossed, I downloaded and installed the program and fired it up. It saw the iPod and loaded itself without a hitch. I was back in business! Almost. Unfortunately, the intervening years since last I’d seen Rockbox hadn’t been too kind – the software was faster to load and no longer suffering the lag that made using it such a dreary experience, but it’s look hadn’t improved at all. It was still ugly and hard to navigate. The whole “files” vs “database” thing is an irritation, and I found myself pining for the good old Apple interface I’ve come to know and love.
I was skimming through the Rockbox manual when I came across a button-combo procedure, one I’d forgotten about, to allow you to boot to the Apple UI instead of Rockbox. I tried it, and presto! Life is good again. Well, mostly. iTunes still crashes when I plug the player in, which is frustrating because, as bad as it is, iTunes is pretty sweet when it comes to managing and automatically updating your podcasts, which I listen to almost exclusively these days. And, Rockbox has been a one-way journey – uninstalling it sends the iPod right back to the reboot cycle. But, at least I’ll have something to listen to on the way to KansasFest. And that’s really the most important thing, right?