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UK Mike (miner2049er)

The Bi-Weekly British Backtrack – Retro iPods

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Sometimes oldest is bet.

It seems strange to call a device as modern as the iPod retro, but looking at the iPod Touch of today, the older iPods do take on somewhat of a retro feel, and as with most things, that is an advantage. You remember that in an earlier entry I said that I have used a portable media player of one kind or another for a while, and that I found myself using a Creative Zen, and I was happy using it?
That changed when I heard this word "Podcast."

WOW! Apple must have invented this brand new technology, right? Wrong, but you wouldn't know it.

A Podcast is basically a radio show that is downloaded from the Internet, but the beauty of the Podcast is that it is delivered to you automatically once you subscribe to the RSS Feed.

RSS Feed? Yes, the RSS Feed. Whenever there is a new show released, the RSS Feed is updated, then the show is delivered to you, or to be more precise to your RSS Reader.

The casual listener would assume that this is a new technology discovered by Apple themselves, after all, perhaps nowadays one of the most famous RSS readers is iTunes. Far from it, RSS feeds have been around since the early days of the internet and were originally used for text , for news headlines, and still are of course. The only difference is that those ancient RSS feeds now have audio and video content within them.

Now because I'm down wiv da kidz I had to get in on this new phenomenon, and after looking at some of the most popular Podcasts, I decided on a few that I would listen to. Now, this was pretty much the turning point, and the point at which owning a player other than an iPod became an inconvenience.

The thing is, I wanted to listen to Podcasts at home, in the car, on the toliet, on holiday, and I wanted to download them and transfer them to my player using different computers and even different Operating Systems both at work and at home.

Using the Creative Zen I was only able to transfer Podcasts using Windows and only if I had installed the Creative transfer client beforehand. Not great but at least I didn't need to maintain a media library like iTunes does. If I wanted a file or an album on my player, I transferred it using the client and the I could delete it from my computer.

So how would I listen to the Podcasts? Well, when I was at home, walking around with headphones on wasn't convenient, so I needed a pair of speakers that would use the headphone socket on the player and I bought a set of these which had an amplifier in and were plenty loud enough, but of course that amplifier needed powering somehow. The speakers didn't come with a mains adaptor but did come with a USB adaptor that could power them, bit if I could plug them into a USB slot, why not just listen to the podcast on the Computer instead?

Battery power was more convenient but the damn things would always seem to run out when it was least convenient, plus you had the added consideration of ensuring that the both the player and the speakers had enough battery life in them. Maintaining battery life in 2 devices is double the trouble and we're going for convenience here.

In the car an easy solution would have been a line in socket on my car radio but I didn't have one of those at the time, so I had to buy one of these instead. It plugs into the headphone jack on the player, and transmits the sound using an FM signal on 1 of 4 preset frequencies which you then tune your car radio into and the sound comes through your car's speaker system. The problem with this solution was two fold in that I drive into Manchester every day which has lots of local radio stations, some of which occupy the same frequencies that my transmitter used so every so often my player would get drowned out. You can buy models with a fully adjustable frequency range rather than 4 presets like these, but once again our old friend battery life raises its ugly head. Again you are maintaining batteries in 2 devices which again is inconvenient. It may not sound too inconvenient, but I was doing this every day, and it became a bind. An annoyance I could well do without, and that wasn't the half of it.

To get Podcasts onto the Creative Player and organised so I could find them easily while driving meant:
(1) downloading the podcast
(2) changing the id3 tags
(3) copying the podcast to my player.

Whoa! id3tag?

Yep, basically an id3tag is information contained within an mp3 file and holds metadata about it such as the Artist, Album, Year, Genre etc. Most modern players organise music using these tags rather than the actual filenames.

So, Step 1 was easy while I only listened to a couple of Podcasts a week and I could manually download them, but once I started to listen to half a dozen or so it became far too laborious.
For step 2 I used an app called Tagedit to change the artist and album for each file to ZPodcast so they would be right at the bottom of the alphabetical list and if I searched upwards, they would be the first artist or album I found.
Step 3 was easy and was just a case of using the creative client as normal.

While the software and editing issues weren't major, the daily problems of batteries and portability and losing FM signals got to be an annoyance, and in the end it was just so much easier to bite the bullet and buy an iPod. At home I could either play it through speakers or one of these, and conveniently, if I plugged it in at the same time it would charge my iPod erradicating the battery problem. With a standard usb lead it would also allow me to connect it to a PC without the bespoke iPod lead.

In the car I could play it through one of these, which is an FM transmitter with an adjustable FM signal, and conveniently it takes its power from the iPod, so there is no need to worry about charging it. What could be simpler?
So all I had to do was find a program I preferred to iTunes.

I like iPods, but I don't like the limited functionality that comes with iPods, and I like even less the software that comes with them. Or rather, should I say, used to come with them as you now have to go out and download it yourself because they can't be bothered to include it in the packaging and because they have to update it every five minutes.

Anyway, I found a great solution that admittedly did require some jiggery pokery to get it working, but it gave me the ability to update the content on my iPod from any computer and operating system, it was true drag n drop and it allowed me to easily sort my Podcasts and keep them separate from the other audio. That solution was Rockbox.

Rockbox is basically a new firmware for your iPod but it doesn’t remove the standard Apple firmware in fact it makes it dual boot, so if you want to boot the Apple firmware you turn the iPod on with the lock button set to on, to run the Rockbox firmware you turn the iPod on with the lock button set to off.
To install Rockbox you just download it, it’s free, and run the installer which will detect your iPod and install itself in a couple of minutes or less.

Once installed it will read a file and folder structure whereas Apple’s firmware will only read the iTunes database, so copying a folder of music to it using a simple folder structure of Audio/Artist/Album means you can scroll through your audio in just the same way as you normally would, which means I can copy the music I want from my Media Server and I don’t have to maintain another copy of it on any machine for the iPod to sync with. You can do that without even having to worry about editing id3tags but Rockbox does have that dual function and will read them into a database if you want it to, but using the file structure is so much easier. It essentially turns your iPod into a USB hard drive with an interface and a headphone socket. You use it as though it were a USB hard drive and you copy music to it from any computer running any Operating System that supports USB hard drives.

Rockbox also gives you the option to delete files, unlike Apple, so it means you can keep track more easily and more reliably of the podcast episodes you have listened to, so how about getting those Podcasts on there in the first place? Well, as far as Podcasts are concerned I needed an app that would grab them automatically for me and save them to the iPod, and because Podcasts are basically just audio stored in an rss feed, there is a wealth of choice of rss readers that would do it for me, but the one I settled on was one called GreatNews.

GreatNews is very lightweight and has a familiar looking interface, and as soon as you've setup your rss feeds manually or by import, it will highlight the podcast feeds that have new episodes since you last ran it. All you have to do is to click on the feed which displays the episode in the reading pane and you just click on the link to the mp3 file to download it and save it to your iPod, probably into a folder you've set up for Podcasts.

Overall then, I like the ease with which my iPod works now, I love not being bound to iTunes and its limitations and sluggishness, and I like not having to keep a media library just so I can sync with it. I've taken back my iPod, so, Great News! Try Rockbox and GreatNews.

The only concession I’ll make in all of this is video, because I’ve got an iPod video I occasionally want to watch video on it, or more often I actually use the TV Out option when I’m on holiday to watch a film. Now Rockbox does support video, but in all honesty I’ve found it to be lacking and fussy, so I still use the Apple firmware to watch videos, but to get them on there and into the iTunes database I still don’t want to use iTunes so I use one of the few 3rd party apps that will write to the iTunes database.

While I want to give a big plug to Yamipod I found that I prefer one called Floola, which has Windows, Mac and Linux ports.

Floola is a standalone app that doesn’t need installing on any Operating System so you can store the app itself on your iPod and run it from any computer you connect your iPod to. Once running it will allow you to drag and drop audio or video into the iTunes database on the iPod so you can access it from the Apple firmware. It also acts like a media library of sorts and allows you to playback any content already stored, be it audio or video, and you can use it create playlists too.

So I really do have the best of both worlds:
I can add, edit and delete audio
I can add, edit and delete video
I can add, edit and delete podcasts
I can add, edit and delete playlists
I can listen to my iPod content via the host computer.
I don't need to maintain an idle media library.
I can run the same program with the same settings on both major platforms (and Mac too). Oh, and it's all free.

So, retro or not, older iPods are still the best, and you can keep your iTunes bound iPod Touch and its lack of a disk mode. I've been there and done that. Even jailbroken I'm not interested. I'll stick to my 5th Gen 80GB iPod Video thank you very much.

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Classic / Retro , Editorial


  1. miner2049er's Avatar
    Yeah, I've had similar comments about mine, it's funny.

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