Imagine recording studio-quality audio using your iPod and a regular-old microphone. Or sitting on the commuter train, playing Othello, Pong, Tetris or Asteroids. All this and more is possible when you install Linux on your 3rd generation or earlier iPod. Best of all, one soft-reset and you’re back in Apple’s iPod operating system, listening to your tunes.
Do the Deed
To get started, you need your iPod, the FireWire cable you use to attach your iPod to your Mac, and free software from the open source iPod Linux project. Currently all 3rd generation and earlier iPods are supported. Work is underway on the 4th generation, iPod photo and iPod mini. (To make sure your iPod is supported, go to http://www.ipodlinux.org/Project_Status.) Download the iPod-Linux Installer from http://ipodlinuxinstl.sourceforge.net/. It will take up about 5MB of your iPod’s hard disk space.
While it’s unlikely that anything bad would happen while you’re installing Linux, it would behoove you to backup your music to your computer first (if you don’t keep your master files there already). That way, if some unforeseen software glitch happens, you won’t lose your music collection.
The installation process is very straightforward. Plug your iPod in and make sure it’s mounted on your desktop. If you can’t see yours, open iTunes and select iTunes: Preferences: iPod. Select the Enable Disk Use option and click OK. Now you can run the installer. Once the installation is complete, unmount your iPod by ejecting it through iTunes or by dragging its icon to the Trash. Disconnect it and reboot your iPod by holding down the Menu and Play buttons. Once you see the Apple logo, press and hold the Back button. The smiling face of Tux (the emblematic penguin and Linux mascot) should greet you, followed by a rapid series of scrolling text. In a few seconds, the new interface should appear. Known as podzilla, this looks very much like the iPod’s familiar interface, but includes new options.
Enjoy the Linux Goodies
Of course, there’s something to say for the simple pleasure of having Tux’s mug grace your iPod on boot. But that’s just the beginning of the fun.
Record Audio Probably the coolest thing you can do once you install Linux on your iPod is record high-quality audio. Under Apple’s software, you can create 8KHz recordings with your iPod and to do so you must use an add-on product, such as the Griffin TEchnology’s $40 iTalk. A Linux-enabled 3rd generation iPod circumvents this. You can record mono audio up to 96KHz. (If you’re feeling really geeky, try recording in stereo by using the line-in pins on a modified dock connector. To find out which pins to wire the mic to, see http://www.ipodlinux.org/Dock_Connector.)
To put that in context, CDs are 44.1KHz and DAT (the preferred recording method for music tapers, for example) is 48KHz. Most pro studio recording is done at 24-bit, 96KHz. Newer DVD-Audio discs also go up to 96KHz. The more quality you have up front, the better your recording will sound in the end.
Any simple computer microphone should work as a recording device. In fact, you can even use your left earbud . Mind you, the recording quality is not perfect, but it’s surprisingly good.
To try this out, boot your iPod into Linux, and plug in a microphone. Scroll down to the Extras directory and click on Recordings. Scroll down to Sample Rate and adjust as you see fit. Then scroll back up to Mic Record and press the action button (the center button) to beginning recording. Press the Play/Pause button to stop or restart recording. Huzzah! You’ll find your recording stored as a 16-bit sample under Voice Recordings. When you hook your iPod up to your Mac and soft-reset back into the iPod OS, iTunes will pick this recording up and create a playlist for it.
View Images But what else can your iPod do? How about acting as a very crude photo viewer? OK, it’s no iPod Photo, but the supported iPods do have the ability to display images (including JPEG, GIF and BMP) in black and white. That’s good enough to sneak a quick peak at a scan of your child’s latest drawing.
To access this feature, hook your iPod up to your computer, and create a new folder in the root level of the iPod. Call it something like img. Put a small photo—say, less than 100K—in the folder. Now, disconnect your iPod, and boot into Linux. Using the scroll wheel, select File Browser and then the img folder. Use the action key to open the folder. Select the file name and wait a moment. The image will open in 2-bit grayscale. Simple photos with lots of contrast will appear better—ones with subtle color distinction will look like mud.
Play More Games This slimmed down version of Linux, called uClinux , comes with a number of games, including Othello, Pong, Tetris (known as “BlueCube”), Asteroids (“Steroids”), Minesweeper (“Nimesweeper”) and even a version of Etch-A-Sketch called PodDraw. To play one of them, open the Extras menu using the scroll wheel. Scroll down to Games, and then select the game you wish to play. Press Menu to exit.
Access Other Goodies Under the Extras menu, there’s a calculator application, perfect for making simple calculations at the grocery store. There’s also a Calendar application, but unlike Apple’s version, it can’t sync with iCal, nor does it display entries for each day. It’ll do for knowing what day the 10th falls on next month. But for any real personal appointment making, you’ll want to switch to the calendar that’s available through the regular iPod OS.
One iPod, Two OSes
If you try to play music with your Linux Pod, you quickly notice that your songs don’t sound as good. In fact, they probably skip. You try to play a song and then try to play Tetris while listening to it, the song stops.
In short, don’t bother. A simple soft reset (press the Menu button and the Play button) is all it takes to switch back to your regular iPod OS. Want to go back to Linux? Do it again, and once you see the Apple logo, press the Back button, and Linux takes over.
The iPod Linux project is open source, which means new features are always in the pipe and anyone with sufficient programming background can help. For details, go to www.ipodlinux.org. The developers also maintain a blog (www.ipodlinux.org/blog) with news and updates.
Cyrus Farivar is a freelance technology journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was an editorial intern at Macworld magazine during the first half of 2004. See his blog at http://cfarivar.org