Cross-platform iPodding: Unnecessarily complicated

Posted by Pierre Igot in: iTunes, Macintosh, Music, Technology
December 29th, 2004 • 9:30 am

Two things are happening in my wife’s technological world right now. She just got her own iPod mini for Christmas, and the university where she teaches has just got a new language lab that is entirely digital. (The old one still used cassettes.)

One of the major benefits of a digital language lab is that student work can now be recorded as MP3 files, which the professors can then transfer to their own computer for correcting purposes.

My wife does most of her school work at home on her PowerBook. Of course, most of the university’s computer network is PC-based, and the language lab computer itself is a Windows XP computer.

Still, rather than having to drag her laptop to work, connect it to the university network, and try to transfer the files from the language lab computer to her laptop over the network (which could probably be done, but not necessarily reliably, and it’s a big drag to have to carry the laptop around just for that), my idea was to use her iPod mini as an external hard drive on the Windows XP computer in the language lab.

So I wanted to reformat the iPod mini as a Windows iPod rather than a Mac iPod, so that she could use it both as a music player and as an external drive for the Windows XP computer at work. (Obviously Windows XP can’t mount the iPod formatted as a Mac drive.)

First of all, how to reformat the iPod is not at all obvious. I figured that it wasn’t just a matter of using Disk Utility, because the iPod requires additional formatting. But I searched through the iTunes interface and couldn’t find anything. I went to the site and looked for documentation about this, but to no avail. I finally found, through a search for certain keywords, a side note on some help page that did indicate that, in order to reformat the iPod, you needed to use the iPod Software Updater application. Not exactly obvious! It’s called “iPod Software Updater”, not “iPod Utility” — so it sounds as if its sole purpose is to update the iPod software, not to reformat the iPod.

In fact, in this context “reformatting” the iPod is actually achieved using the “Restore” button — even though, once again, this is not entirely clear. The text explanation next to the button (the very fact that there is such an explanation indicates that Apple is having trouble with the interface here) states that “Restore” erases the iPod and “applies factory settings”. Which settings are those exactly? Do they include the iPod software as well? Does it mean that the software update needs to be reapplied after the iPod has been “restored”.

It doesn’t. What restoring does is that it reformats the hard drive and configures the iPod using the latest software version. But that’s really not clear.

But to go back to my initial intention, which was to format the iPod for Windows, obviously this iPod Updater utility is no help, because there is no such option. Clearly Apple assumes that, if you are running the iPod Updater for Mac OS X, it means that you want to format your iPod as a Mac iPod, not as a Windows iPod. As my situation indicates, this assumption is wrong. And I don’t think that what I want to achieve is such a rare combination. I just want my wife to be able to use her iPod as an external hard drive with Windows PCs at work, and still use it as a music player here at home with music files from our music library on my Mac.

Don’t get me wrong: This particular set-up can be achieved. But in order to prepare the iPod for this, you actually need to connect it to a Windows PC and use the iPod Software Updater for Windows to “restore” the iPod. In actual fact, what “Restore” means is “Reformat the hard drive using the volume format of the current system and then configure the iPod with the factory settings”.

And that’s what I ended up doing. I went to the university with my wife, connected the iPod to a Windows XP computer via USB, downloaded the latest Software Updater for Windows, and used “Restore” in that environment.

Of course, just to make things more annoying for us, the Windows iPod Updater decided that the iPod also needed a “firmware update”. (The Mac iPod Updater, which has the same release date, does not include this firmware update, or at least it didn’t require it when I ran the updater.) And, since the USB connection doesn’t provide enough power for a reliable firmware update, the iPod Updater asks you to connect the iPod directly to its power supply instead. And, as luck would have it, I didn’t bring the iPod’s power supply with me. (Its battery was almost full.) So I had to drive back home to allow the firmware update to be completed. (Of course, I just connected the iPod to one of my computer’s FireWire ports and it worked just fine as a “power supply”.)

Then finally I drove back to the university and completed the iPod’s configuration with iTunes for Windows.

I have to say that this was far too complicated for my taste. Disk Utility is perfectly able to format an external hard drive as a Windows volume. So why can’t the iPod Software Updater for the Mac offer the same option? I suspect that my wife is not the only Mac user who’s forced to deal with a work environment dominated by Windows PCs. But she should easily be able to use her iPod both as a Mac-compatible music player and as a Windows-compatible external hard drive. Right now, this means that she has to use a Windows-running PC to “restore” her iPod so that it will be compatible with Windows. I don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to do this from a Mac computer.

10 Responses to “Cross-platform iPodding: Unnecessarily complicated”

  1. LoonyPandora says:

    As far as Apple’s technical documentation goes, the iPod mini cannot be used as an external hard drive on any system…

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    Where do you get this information from? I never had any problems using the iPod as an external hard drive on my Mac.

  3. LoonyPandora says:

    iPod mini’s Can’t be used as external HD’s – Regular iPods can.

    I get this info from Apple’s Service Provider Training… Guess it must be wrong if you are definitely using an iPod mini as an external HD :-/

  4. Pierre Igot says:

    As soon as the iPod mini is properly formatted, it appears as a volume on my desktop and I can drag and drop any file I want. It’s no different from a regular iPod.

    That said, I’ve given up on the idea of trying to use it as an external hard drive with a Windows PC. Too many catastrophic failures. My wife will be using CD-RW instead. Just as portable, and much cheaper :).

  5. LoonyPandora says:

    I think you better tell Apple that it works fine as an external HD then… As they don’t seem to think it does!

  6. Pierre Igot says:

    Well, on page 35 of the iPod mini manual, it says “To enable iPod mini as a hard disk:” etc. — so I think Apple do know that it does work :).

  7. LoonyPandora says:

    Tell the people who make Apple’s training documentation then :P

    Your adventures do come in useful sometimes you know ;)

  8. Pierre Igot says:

    Yeah, I do try my best to post the most useless rants exclusively, but sometimes a bit of somewhat useful information does slip through. Sorry ;-).

  9. blech says:

    I suspect (but haven’t bothered to check) that the distinction is more likely to be that the iPod mini cannot be a bootable FireWire hard drive, but the iPod can.

  10. Pierre Igot says:

    Quite possible, since there’s not that much space on an iPod mini. But it would be worth trying, just to see :).

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