Restoring Classic iPods, Part II. (plus scrobbling to Last.FM with LastPod!)

Last year I finally pulled together a post for a project that I had begun years ago, but never written up: Restoring a 3rd Generation iPod Classic. In that, I outlined my various mis-adventures upgrading the battery, hard drive, replacing the clickwheel electronics, the case, and… well. Everything.

ipod 3rd gen restore

Seeing this, a friend shared an article with me about someone who had taken things a step further, and basically rebuilt his entire 4th Gen iPod to stream from Spotify. While looking into how they had managed it, I fell down the rabbit hole of what has apparently become a fairly active iPod modification/restoration community. There’s even someone called DankPods who has racked up 600k subscribers in only a year. Damn. Maybe I should have made more of an effort to document things back in 2016 when I started working on these old iPods. I could have found YouTube fame.

Nah, probably not.

Anyway, what I did find was that there were now a whole host of resources for modifying and restoring these old iPods which weren’t necessarily available, or as clear as they were when I first started looking into them – and it’s piqued my intrigue for how I could expand on, or revisit this project.

Scrobbling to Last.FM

It might sound ridiculous, but one of the things I really missed when using my beloved 3rd Gen iPod was the ability to log all of the music I listen to using Last.FM, as I use that data to help discover new artists, and a bunch of other things. There were some tools available, but none of them really worked… and come on, I even scrobble my LPs with Vinyl Scrobbler, so it seemed ridiculous that I couldn’t do that with the iPod.

As luck would have it, I came across a little Java application called LastPod which solves this problem. I’m not sure how I never found this before, but I thought I would share as it’s the only solution that I’ve found which does the job. Essentially, you listen to tracks on your iPod (making sure the date and time are set correctly), plug it in to your computer, open up LastPod, make sure it knows where your iPod database is (a quick config that persists after the first time), and then… you can scrobble your tracks! There are a couple of caveats, including the limitation of only being able to scrobble each song once (so it can’t track multiple listens), and that you need to synch your iPod with iTunes or whatever after you Scrobble to reset the counters… but! It works, and I am unreasonably happy about this.

Don’t judge.
Last.FM.

Flash Modification

Back when I was looking at options for increased storage in the iPod, there was talk of being able to use Compact Flash cards to store the songs, instead of the bulky hard drives they were designed to work with. However, this was reportedly flakey, and so it’s not a route I went down in the end. However… now, there are a bunch of different options for using the much cheaper and higher capacity SD/MicroSD cards in old iPods. As well as kind of cheap standard CF to IDE adaptors, there’s a brand called iFlash which makes specific adaptors to allow you to use up to 4 SD cards in one iPod. Wild!

USB Charging

As I mentioned in my last post, despite being arguably the most beautiful of all the iPods, the big issue with the 3rd Gen Classic is that it only charges over Firewire. This means that you need a specific cable and plug to charge the bloody thing, or a dock. These are bulky, getting harder to come buy, and increasingly pricey. If you’re travelling, that means no USB power bank to juice up the thing easily.

It appears that some enterprising folks have found a way to address this problem though, using a MICRO USB 1A Battery Charging Module TP4056. This is essentially just a small PCB which lets you charge up batteries over USB. In theory, if you have already modified your iPod to use a flash drive, then there is space inside the case to install the board, and you can then avoid the firewire problem completely.

This is probably the most tricky of all the modifications though. I’m not 100% on the best way to wire this together, and lithium ion batteries are a bit of a fire risk if you cock things up. You also need to find a place to put the USB port (or pull the power from the usual 40 pin connector), and that means making a new hole in the case. Definitely not for the faint hearted… or if you are crap at DIY like myself.

Rockbox

After reading my last post, someone helpfully left a comment pointing me towards the existence of Rockbox – a free, open source bit of software that replaces the OEM music management functions on a whole variety of different portable players, including the iPod.

This allows you to bypass iTunes completely, and just load music up in disk mode, which could be pretttty useful. In theory it could also make Last.FM scrobbling a bit easier, though now I’ve found LastPod I’m less concerned about that.

Customised Shells

Such is the growing popularity of restoring these classic devices that you can now pick up drop-in replacement shells to customise the look, with some really cool colour combinations available. Here’s a look at some options from Aliexpress.

This reminds me of what happened with Game Boy modifications. Early on it was pretty difficult and hacky to do… and then people started getting better at it, and putting out better tutorials and kits. Now, there are full shops dedicated to selling brand new parts with an almost mind boggling variety of customisation options.

The caveat here is that most of the shells are for the 4th Gen iPod and up. The plucky 3rd gen is still a bit of a weirdo, and so there aren’t really any drop-in options if you want what I maintain is the best iPod design ever.

Built in OSX Support

One thing that surprised me when I plugged my 3rd Gen iPod into my newest Mac (running Catalina) was that it appeared to be picked up and detected better than in previous OSX versions. It turns out that when Apple started phasing out iTunes, they actually integrated the iPod directly into MacOS, so you can access and synch it from Finder itself. The feature set is limited, but it’s pretty cool to see an ‘obsolete’ piece of hardware still being supported by a major developer. Respect where it’s due!

My Restoration Plans

So… now that the modding community has caught up, and there’s all these new options available, I feel like I’m going to have to at least attempt to experiment with a few of them. I’m a bit torn at the moment between further modifying my current 3rd gen, and leaving it be… getting a separate 4th or 5th gen iPod to work on. So here’s my thoughts/plans:

  1. FlashMod. If I restore any other iPods, I’ll definitely be using a FlashMod. There are cheap CF to IDE alternatives, but they can be a bit buggy, so I’ll need to decide whether to use them or just go straight for the iFlash devices which are the creme de la creme. In particular, I like the ability to use multiple SD cards internally.
  2. USB charging mod for 3rd gen. This out of all of the modifications is the one I would love to be able to implement, as it would free up my iPod from the shackles of Firewire. However, I don’t want to risk mucking up the case, and I suspect that I would never fully trust the safety of the Lithium battery with my modification. Probably not smart to take it on a plane and charge… so perhaps this will need to remain a pipe dream.
  3. USB charging alternative. I dug out a pile of dongles and various adaptors that I have (I knew keeping that box of random connectors was a good idea!!), and tried going from the Apple split Firewire/USB Y-cable through a Firewire converter, to Thunderbolt, to USB… plugging into my Mac. Miraculously, the iPod appeared to be charging (!). However… it wouldn’t initialise on OSX. I wouldn’t want to leave it like that, as the disk kept clicking to try spin up, but it does suggest that I could plug directly into a USB port and just draw power with the right adaptor. Potentially it might also work better with a flash mod. I’ve ordered some different adaptors to test out, and I’m hoping I can find a solution…
  4. Rockbox. I am really curious about Rockbox, and if I have trouble updating the iPod again in future with iTunes I’ll seriously consider it. However, part of the reason I like the 3rd gen iPod is for its UI, and I think that replacing the OS would kind of ruin that experience. There are apparently themes available to get you close to the original, but I’m not entirely sure how legit that would be. If I got a different gen iPod I would definitely try it out though.
  5. Customisation. This is where I could get in trouble, as I’d want ALL the colour combinations. If I’m not careful I could end up with 15 iPods.

Unsurprisingly the Classic iPods have been going up in price gradually as folks realise what you can do with them, so finding a bargain is getting tougher – again similar to Game Boys. Ultimately I suspect that if I do modify any other iPods I’ll look at something like the 5th Gen, as they can charge over USB. Currently though, the combined cost of the various parts would be around £120 all in, and I’m not quite prepared to spend that on another iPod project just yet. Watch this space.

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