The Linux iPod

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Imagine using your iPod and a regular old microphone to record studio-quality audio. Or sitting on a commuter train and playing Othello, Pong, Tetris, or Asteroids. All this and more is possible when you install Linux on your third-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, the software supports all third-generation and earlier iPods. Work is under way on adding the fourth-generation iPod, the iPod photo, and the iPod mini to that list. ( Make sure your iPod is supported.) Download the iPod-Linux Installer. It will take up about 5MB of your iPod’s hard-disk space.

It’s unlikely that anything bad will happen while you’re installing Linux, but it would behoove you to back up your music to your Mac first (if you don’t already keep your master files there). That way, if some unforeseen software glitch happens, you won’t lose your entire collection.

The installation process is very straightforward. Plug your iPod in and make sure that it’s mounted on your desktop. If you can’t see it, open iTunes and select iTunes: Preferences: iPod. Select the Enable Disk Use option and click on OK. Now you can run the installer. Once it’s completed, eject your iPod through iTunes or by dragging its icon to the Trash.

Disconnect it and then reboot it by holding down the menu and play/pause buttons simultaneously. When you see the Apple logo, press and hold the back button. The smiling face of Tux (the emblematic penguin that is Linux’s mascot) should greet you, and then you’ll see a rapid series of scrolling text messages. In a few seconds, the new interface should appear. Known as podzilla, it looks very much like the iPod’s familiar facade but includes many new options.

Enjoy the Linux Goodies

Of course, there is a simple pleasure in having Tux’s mug grace your iPod when you turn it on. But that’s just the beginning of the fun.

Record Audio
Probably the coolest thing you can do after you install Linux on your iPod is record high-quality audio. Using Apple’s software, you can create recordings only at up to 8kHz with your iPod, and to do so you must purchase and use an add-on device, such as the Griffin iTalk voice recorder ($40).

A Linux-enabled third-generation iPod circumvents this restriction. You can record mono audio at up to 96kHz. (If you’re feeling really geeky, try recording in stereo by using the line-in pins on a modified dock connector. Make sure you identify the pins you’ll wire the mike to.)

To put those numbers into context, CDs are 44.1kHz, and Digital Audio Tape (DAT) is 48kHz. Most pro studio recording is done at 24 bits and 96kHz. Newer DVD-Audio discs also go up to 96kHz. The higher the 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. Click here for a sample. If you’re a musician, this could be a highly portable way to record your live shows.

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 it as you see fit. Then scroll back up to Mic Record and press the iPod’s center button to begin recording. Press the play/pause button to stop or restart recording. Voilà—you’ll find your recording stored as a 16-bit sample under Voice Recordings. When you connect your iPod to your Mac and soft-reset back into the iPod OS, iTunes will pick up this recording and create a playlist for it.

View Images
What else can your iPod do? How about acting as a very crude photo viewer? OK, it won’t turn your third-generation iPod into an iPod photo, but the supported iPods can display images (including JPEG, GIF, and BMP files) in black and white. That’s good enough to sneak a quick peek at a scan of your child’s latest drawing.

To access this feature, hook up your iPod to your Mac, and then create a new folder at the iPod’s root level. 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. Press the iPod’s center button to open the folder. Select the file name and wait a moment. The image will open in 2-bit gray scale. Simple photos with lots of contrast will come out better; those with subtle color distinctions 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), and Minesweeper (Nimesweeper)—it even offers a version of Etch A Sketch called PodDraw. To play a game, use the scroll wheel to open the Extras menu. Scroll down to Games, and then select a game. Press the menu button to exit. Now when you get tired of music while traveling on a plane, train, or bus, you’ve got other options.

Access Other Goodies
Under the Extras menu, you’ll find a calculator application, perfect for doing simple math 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 finding out what day of the week the 15th falls on next month. But for any serious 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’ll quickly notice that your songs don’t sound very good. In fact, they probably skip. If you try to play a song and then 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/pause button) is all it takes to switch back to your regular iPod OS. Want to go back to Linux? Press those buttons again; when 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 pipeline, and anyone with sufficient programming background can help. The developers also maintain a blog that provides 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 in 2004. ]

When the Linux penguin greets you, you’ll know you’re not in an Apple OS anymore.
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