Build Log: Restoring a 3rd Gen iPod

A few years ago, I realised that I no longer had a good portable music player. Sure, there was my mobile – but I was still using an iPhone at the time, which could store about 10 songs before its pitiful internal, non-expandable memory got filled up. I longed for the golden days of iPods… back when they were cutting edge and had nice glowy buttons and scroll wheels and that nostalgic clicky sound. After a bit of Googling it seemed like it would be easy enough to pick up an old iPod and stick a new hard-drive and battery in – so that’s what I decided to do. However, things didn’t go especially smoothly. Below is my overly long account of my journey to repair the damn thing which nobody needs or wants, but since we are all currently locked inside thanks to the Coronavirus, it seems like as good a time as any.

The Restoration Journey

I didn’t want just any old iPod. I wanted the 3rd Generation iPod specifically. Why? Because that was arguably the best design – with a nice, smooth scrollwheel, and separate touch sensitive buttons. Looking around eBay, there were a few that were listed as ‘just needing a new hard drive’ for under twenty quid, but I decided to play it safe and get one that was fully working in the first place, to avoid other unseen problems cropping up. In the end, I went for a 20GB model for about £40 which seemed in decent enough nick. I picked up a battery with much larger capacity than the original (£9), and an 80GB hard drive (£28) – supposedly the maximum size that would work with this model. Along with the special tools to open the iPod without breaking it, the total cost so far is at: £90.

When the iPod arrived, everything worked as expected, but it was a lot more beaten up than I had expected. I always took really good care of my old one, so was a bit miffed that this one was rough. I hummed and hawwed for a while, before deciding to buy a whole new front plate, as I knew I wouldn’t be happy having upgraded all the other bits and then having a scratched up screen. I managed to track one down at a spare parts site, which cost about £20. It turned out I also needed a very particular size of Torx screw to get the logic board off and transferred over, so that brings the total cost at this point to £115. 

The front plate and screwdriver finally arrived, and I was pretty pleased. It was brand new and shiny. The battery and hard drive were a breeze to install, and things seemed to be going well… though not for long. It turns out the front plate also has a whole set of electronics attached, which did not come included. That meant I had to transfer them from the old case into the new one, and there were no instructions online for how to do this. Luckily, I managed to slowly pry them off with a spudger (what a great word) without destroying anything. I left the iPod case open, so if anything went wrong restoring things, I could easily get back into the innards.

ipod 3rd generation upgrade

The next big issue that became apparent pretty quickly was that this particular model of iPod was originally designed only to work with Macs, and so requires a FireWire connection to restore. I had vague memories of this changing with later revisions, so didn’t think much of it – and assumed there must be some workaround – but after some further research online, that turned out not to be the case. If I wanted to restore the iPod, I was going to have to get a special Y cable that had both a FireWire and USB connection. What’s more, it would apparently not even charge over USB – which meant that not only were the cables I had bought already useless, but I needed to get a hold of an old FireWire mains adaptor as well. Since they are so hard to find, I decided to pick up a couple so I had a spare for the future. Total cost so far including the cables (£21) and chargers (£18): £154.

The dual headed cable arrived, and I thought I was in the final stretch. Apparently you should be able to plug in the USB cable into the laptop on one end, and the FireWire cable into an AC adaptor on the other, and then the iPod will restore just fine. That turned out not to be the case, with iTunes point blank refusing to restore the iPod without it being connected over FireWire. Pish. I thought it must be the third party cable that I had bought, so I hunted down an official Apple cable, in the hope that it might make a difference. Total cost: £164. At this point I was getting pretty despondent about the whole thing. Why did I have to drag up this antiquated piece of junk that was crippled by ties to obsolete technology when I could have gotten an iPod classic for less money? Either way, I was determined to get the damn thing to work.

ipod firewire Y cable
Remember these?

Luckily, I realised that my Apple Cinema Display screen had a FireWire port – since Apple ditched the connection from its laptops years ago. Of course, the connection I needed was a FireWire 400 port, and this was FireWire 800. I ordered a convertor, which brings the running total spent on this miserable project to £168.

The FireWire adaptor arrived, and I was convinced that this would do the trick. Wrong. When I hooked the iPod up to the Mac with USB, the hard drive purred nicely and was recognised fine – it just wouldn’t restore. When I tried FireWire, the drive just clicked and clicked – refusing to spin up properly. I let it charge up for a bit, but no dice. I tried a different Y cable – but that didn’t work either. I tried a dedicated FireWire cable – but nope. I thought maybe it was some USB-C weirdness with my laptop, so I used my wife’s connected up to the Display Screen to see if that made a difference. After about ten minutes the hard drive seemed to mount, and it got halfway through the restore process before returning an obscure error that just said the iPod could not be restored. Great.

I spun up a Windows 7 Virtual Machine in the hopes that I might have better luck that way – but no dice. The iPod wasn’t recognised at all. I did all sorts of troubleshooting to correct the drivers, but nothing helped. Getting desperate, I spent hours researching online to see if there was some way to restore the iPod without using iTunes, but most of them involved flashing the firmware on Windows – which already wasn’t working. I was beginning to think that I might be stuck with a very expensive paper weight, since nobody was going to want to buy the damn thing when it was in bits. Why did I insist on pursuing these insane projects that cost so much money for so little reward?!

Finally, in one last hail mary, I fired up a Windows XP virtual machine – battling with the weird config to get it working. When I finally had iTunes installed, I connected the iPod up using USB only, and lo and behold – it actually restored. I let it complete the setup, switched back to OSX, and there it was in all of its vintage glory. I loaded it up with 40GB odd of music to test it out, and everything seemed to be coming up roses.

80gb ipod 3rd gen

Well, almost. I went to close up the iPod for good, and realised that it didn’t seem to want to. I compared the sizes of the hard-drives, and realised that the 80GB drive was considerably thicker than the 20GB one that I had pulled from the original one. I was sure this model should work though, and that I had confirmed it online – but after angrily Googling, I realised that the 30GB and 40GB models had a slightly thicker backplate in order to allow for the bigger sized disks, and that was the kind I should have gotten in the first place. I begrudgingly found a broken 40GB model on eBay from Sweden for £17.50, which brings us to the grand total of £185.5 – just under double what an iPod Classic 160GB is going for second hand.

Despite installing everything on the old hard drive fine, I then had to go through the whole process to try and get it to work again. For some reason, the process kept failing. At this stage, I gave up documenting everything that had gone wrong, and my mind has clouded over on exactly what I had to do to get it to work – probably out of some kind of self protection mechanism. However, finally… I got everything to fall into place.

Behold, my beautiful, revamped 3rd Gen iPod:

iPod 3rd Generation restore

I was so pleased with the outcome and the throwback to my youth that I bought a nice leather case, and a charging dock (unfortunately I couldn’t find a silicone green case like I had as a teenager).

ipod 3rd gen restore

However, the iPod had one last trick up its sleeve… for when I had finally gotten it all together and working successfully, I realised that the nice clean new front plate I had bought actually had a plastic screen protector sheet on the inside, which had a mark on it.

To remove this, I would have to take the whole thing apart again, which I can’t really face doing – especially since knowing me I would end up breaking the damn thing somehow. Of course, when the backlight is on you can’t really see it, but I know it’s there. Watching. Taunting me.

ipod 3rd gen restore

Maybe one day I’ll fix it.

Build Notes

  1. This ended up being a far fiddlier and more expensive project than I expected it to be initially. In hindsight, I could have saved money by not buying as many cables; buying a 40GB model in the first place; and getting a model that was more bashed up from the get-go since I ended up replacing the front plate anyway. If I had known the FireWire connection was never going to work, that would have saved me another tenner. In total, I could probably have done this for about £70 cheaper.
  2. It is ludicrous that I had to rely on Windows XP to restore an iPod. I had read that the reason these couldn’t be restored over USB on OSX was down to some architectural limitations – but if that was the case, why did it work on Windows?

Practicalities

Having owned the restored iPod for a few years now, here’s some of my thoughts and observations:

  1. I hadn’t quite appreciated just how much of a pain it would be to charge the iPod. You can’t just plug it in to a regular USB port, as it needs the dedicated Firewire charger. This means it’s not especially practical for travelling, but at some point the chargers are going to fail and become impossible to replace – which is a bit of a concern.
  2. Similarly, putting new music on to the device is a bit of a pain. For that to work (at least on the Mac), you need to use the Firewire/USB/power Y Cable plugged into both the wall outlet and the computer at once. There’s also no real guarantee that iTunes will continue to recognise the iPod, and at some point I suspect I’ll end up having to use a Virtual Machine to get software old enough to be compatible.
  3. There is no reliable way to scrobble the tunes you listen to on the iPod to Last.fm. This seems like a fairly minor and inconsequential detail, but I use Last.fm fairly religiously – and I can even track what vinyl I listen to – so it’s a bit of a bummer that the iPod support no longer functions.
ipod charger
Not the most practical of travel charging arrangements.

When all is said and done, was it worth it, and would I do it all over again?

Hell no.

I’m pleased that I managed to get the iPod up and working, and recapture a bit of my youth through nostalgia – but in practical terms it was a fairly expensive experiment, for a device that has a bunch of real impracticalities. Since restoring it, I have switched to Android, and can store as much music on my phone as I want… and I’ve finally moved into the modern world of bluetooth noise cancelling headphones – both of which means the iPod’s usefulness has ended up reduced.

It does get use though. I have the iPod loaded up with my favourite bands, and it is connected up to my hifi for whenever I just want to whack on a bunch of great music and not think much about it.