Home on the iPod

The iPod is far more versatile than most people think. Not only can it store and play thousands of songs, it can also serve as a portable hard drive (after all, once you get past the pleasing exterior, that’s essentially what it is).

What benefit is this to you? The iPod can be a handy way to take your computer with you, sans laptop. If you transfer your personal settings to the iPod, you make any computer feel like your computer. And when trouble strikes, a properly configured iPod can put a cranky Mac back on its feet.

Before I continue, I must issue this word of warning: Your iPod wasn’t designed to be used as a startup drive for long periods of time. When the tiny hard drive inside the device spins for hours on end—as it can if you boot from it—the player heats up enough to make your palms sweat. Since there’s no way for the heat to vent, as it would on a hard drive in your computer, you risk tragedy.

So I suggest using these methods as a supplement to everyday computing activities, not as a substitute.

Booting from the iPod

Creating a bootable iPod can save your Mac’s life (regrettably, Windows PCs can’t be booted from an iPod). With a bootable version of the Mac OS on your iPod you can help recover from hard-disk corruption, system software conflicts, and all-around bugginess.

To begin, plug in your iPod and configuring iTunes so the iPod mounts as a disk (enable the Enable Disk Use option in iPod preferences). To install OS 9, 10.1.x, or 10.3.x, insert the OS installation CD (a Software Restore CD won’t work). Restart your computer when prompted and begin the installation. When you get to the “Destination” step, select your iPod.

Before installing OS 9 on an iPod, think about the kind of computer your iPod may be asked to boot. Modern Macs can’t boot from OS 9. Unless you’re sure you’ll be dealing with an older Mac, forego an OS 9 installation unless you also install OS X and use OS 9 in OS X’s Classic environment.

For OS X installs, you’ll see an Easy Install screen. Unless you’ve got a 60GB iPod photo or only a few gigabytes of songs, choose a custom installation and select only the languages you need. This way you can load just the essentials and cut down on the overall file size. You can further slim down the installation by foregoing extra printer drivers, fonts, and applications.

When the install is complete, restart and go through the setup procedure, including the Software Update. You’ve now got a bootable version of your Mac OS.

To boot from your iPod, you must designate it as your startup disk. To do this, hold down the Option key as you turn on the Mac. You’ll see a screen that lists all bootable volumes attached to your computer. Choose the one on your iPod. Alternatively, on a Mac that’s up and running, you can designate the iPod as the startup disk in the descriptively named Startup Disk System Preferences in OS X or Startup Disk Control Panel in OS 9 and restart the Mac.

Clone It

You may have noticed that OS X 10.2.x is missing from the list of operating systems above. That’s because you can’t create a bootable version of it on your iPod by using the Mac OS X installer. But there’s a way around this, thanks to Mike Bombich’s Carbon Copy Cloner. This $5 utility “clones” a Mac OS X installation from one volume (your Mac, in this case) to another (your iPod), and you can make that copy bootable.

After you launch Carbon Copy Cloner, choose your Mac’s hard drive as the Source and your iPod as the Target Disk. In the Items to be Copied list, you should delete some of the selections or you’ll risk running out of room on your iPod. To create a useful bootable startup disk, keep these items:

  • .hidden
  • Applications
  • Library
  • System
  • Users
  • bin
  • mach_kernel
  • private
  • sbin
  • usr
  • Note that you’ll get a far slimmer installation if you don’t clone a volume that contains a mass of applications, a Documents folder full of a large Entourage email database, and swollen iPhoto and iTunes libraries. If you intend to go the clone route, begin with a volume that’s darned-near freshly installed to avoiding junking up your iPod with applications and files you’re unlikely to use.

    Make sure the Make Bootable option is selected in Carbon Copy Cloner’s Preferences. Then click Clone and wait for the magic to happen. After the clone is complete, set your iPod as your start up disk in your System Preferences and restart your Mac to boot from your iPod.

    You Can Take It With You

    While a bootable iPod may come in handy during an emergency, you may not need a whole OS in your pocket. If you’re a frequent user of other people’s computers—in cafés, at trade shows, or a freeloader in general—you probably only want certain components of your computer on your iPod.

    For Windows users, PowerHouse Technologies’ Migo is software that lets you take your desktop, email, Internet Explorer Favorites, and other documents along in your iPod. The software is normally $100, but a current special lowers the prices to a more affordable $40.

    To use Migo, connect your iPod to your PC and launch the Migo installer. The application installs on your iPod, so you don’t need to install Migo on another computer to access the files you download.

    In the Migo application, select what you want to take with you. If you use Outlook, you can download as many emails as you want from your computer onto your iPod, or specify the number of days-worth of email that Migo should download (email received in the last week, for example). You can also add any folder or specific file. After you’ve selected the files, wait as Migo copies them to your iPod. When the files you’ve selected have downloaded, you’ll receive a message letting you know it’s safe to eject your iPod.

    When you plug the iPod in to another Windows machine, you access the files by opening your iPod in Windows Explorer and double-clicking the Migo application. Once launched, the saved account appears as a tab at the top of the screen. This tab displays the accounts you can access. Click the account name and it will transform the desktop into your own.

    When you get back to your own computer, connect your iPod again. Click Synchronize and Migo will synch the files you edited.

    Home on iPod

    Mac users have an option, too. Your Home directory on Mac OS X holds your personal settings, desktop, music and picture files, and documents. You can transfer this folder to your iPod for home computing on the go.

    A similar feature was rumored to be built into Panther, but was pulled before release. You can do it yourself, though. Start by creating a new account on your Mac. To do so, launch System Preferences, click the Accounts entry, and click the Plus (+) button at the bottom of the Account window.

    This creates a new Home directory for that account—you’ll find it in the Users folder at the root level of your startup drive. The Home directory has the same name as the account you created. Configure this directory so it’s useful to you. You can do this by logging in under this account and adding the documents, applications, and files you want to take with you.

    On your iPod, create a folder and drop the copy of the Home folder into it. To use the Home directory on the iPod, you need to set your computer to look for it when you log in. Open the NetInfo Manager application in your Utilities folder. Click Users and select the account name. Change the home location to your iPod—start with “/Volume” and follow with the path to your home folder. If your account name was “iPod” and you placed it in a “Users” folder on your iPod named MyiPod, the path would be “/Volumes/MyiPod/Users/iPod.”

    Now all changes will be saved to the Home directory on your iPod. To access your account from another Mac, create a new account on the second Mac with the same name. Set the NetInfo Manager on this Mac to look for the file as you did before. Log out, plug in your iPod and log in again. You will now access the Home folder on your iPod.

    Roam Where You Want To

    While using your iPod in the ways I’ve described sacrifices gigabytes that could be devoted to storing your favorite tunes, it offers the enticing advantage of making your music player your computing-home away from home.

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