The return of iPod booting

Though it’s a feature many never took advantage of, the first several generations of full-sized iPod—specifically those that supported FireWire syncing—were capable of booting a Macintosh. Just plug the iPod into your Mac’s FireWire port, run the OS X installer, select the iPod as the destination disk, and, if the iPod has enough space to allow, you can install a bootable system on the iPod.

When Apple abandoned FireWire syncing, the bootable iPod also disappeared.

Until now.

Apple’s Intel-based Macs can boot from compatible USB 2.0 hard drives. The 5G iPod happens to be just such a compatible USB 2.0 hard drive. It worked this way for me:

I plugged my 30GB 5G iPod into my new 1.66GHz Core Duo Mac mini. I inserted the mini’s Mac OS X Install Disc 1 and double-clicked on the Install Mac OS X and Bundled Software item. When I attempted to choose the iPod as the destination for the installation, I was presented with a large red X, indicating that the iPod was not a suitable target.

Because I’d been through this before with OS X 10.2, which would not install properly on an iPod, I pursued the old reliable—Mike Bombich’s $5 Carbon Copy Cloner. This is a handy tool for creating a bootable volume that contains the contents of another volume.

In this case I chose my Mac mini’s startup drive as the source for the clone and the iPod as the destination. Clicking the Preference button I made sure that the Make Bootable option was enabled. Though Carbon Copy Cloner isn’t available in a version native to an Intel Mac, it works perfectly well under Apple emulation PowerPC emulation software, Rosetta.

After about an hour, CCC had completed its work, copying the entire contents of the mini’s hard drive to the iPod. Opening the Startup Disk system preference I discovered that the iPod appeared as a bootable option. I selected it and clicked Restart.

Lo, the iPod booted the Mac—albeit very slowly at about 2 minutes.

So, what’s this good (and bad) for? A bootable iPod is a useful troubleshooting tool. Pack the iPod with your troubleshooting utilities and you can more easily repair a Mac that won’t boot on its own. It’s also a way to put a bootable copy of your Mac in your pocket—when you want to maintain your desktop environment on the road, for example.

And bad for? The iPod isn’t vented and its hard drive wasn’t meant to spin constantly, as it would if you used it to routinely boot your Mac. Although I’ve run a Mac from an iPod for up to an hour, it’s not something I’d do on a regular basis as both heat and wear and tear on the hard drive are unlikely to do the iPod any good.

Thanks to Macworld’s Lab Director, Jim Galbraith, for pointing out that this is possible.

Subscribe to the Best of Macworld Newsletter

Comments