Hacker’s delight: 10 ways to soup up your iPod

The earphone port on your iPod can double as a microphone input if you’re willing to bend the rules

Illustration By Michele Brown

The only difference between a hacker and a programmer is that the latter’s getting paid. All good-natured admonishments not to mess with your iPod are, in other words, political and merely so. My guess is that almost every piece of technology ever made has some sort of exploitable weakness snuck into its design. Over the years, Steve Jobs and Apple have become notorious for this brand of nerdy, harmless prankage: Look hard enough through Mac system software, and you’ll stumble upon inside joke after inside joke by and for the company’s programmers, some of them impenetrable, others capable of changing the way you approach desktop computing. Thing is, Apple Hacks is Nerd Fight Club: I can’t tell you about any of it.

Dangle some greenbacks in front of me, though, and this is what you get: a cheat sheet to some of the best iPod hacks—software and hardware—available on-line and elsewhere. Some are essential; others are just for larfs. Most are available at www.versiontracker.com. And remember, any tinkering with your iPod hardware voids the warranty.

1) iPodRip v3.7.2 (just updated to 3.8!). The big to-do when the iPod debuted in 2002 was that, though you could transfer MP3s from your computer to the iPod, you couldn’t transfer from the iPod to your computer. So if your buddy brought his iPod over to your place, you couldn’t take all his songs and put them on your machine. Well, that lasted for about a week—now there are hundreds of programs available that reverse-download or “rip” songs from the iPod onto a computer. IPodRip is the best of them: the least buggy and the most iTunes-like regarding graphical interface.

2) Party-Pod Pro v4.0. After someone figured out how to make “dummy directories” on the iPod—files and folders with names but nothing in ’em—all sorts of useful iPod database programs started popping up. I’m not Mr. Collar Flip Party Shirt Esquire, but this particular prog’s got 650 mixed-drink recipes, 55 drinking games, bar and club listings for every major American city and getaway, and—I kid not—100 pick-up lines for use on men and women. None of them works, but still …

3) iWorkout v2.0. This program is of the coach-on-tape sort—a workout routine for your workout routines. In fact, an actual ACE Certified Personal Trainer had something to do with its creation. If you have an iPod Photo, you can even watch videos instructing you how to do several different gym exercises.

4) Book2Pod v1.2.2. Maybe because PDA designers were developing MP3 technology competitive with the iPod, Apple eventually added a Note Reader program into its player. Users could now upload short, simple notes for themselves as well as songs. But what if you want to upload a whole book? Book2Pod takes an enormous text file (i.e., a book), chops it up into Note Reader segments and adds a directory for easy “page turning.” A hint: Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org) has more than 16,000 classic works of literature you can download for free.

5) Podzilla. There’s so much to say about Linux users’ antagonistic relationship with Windows, Apple, and those companies’ proprietary hardware and software—such as this iPod-iTunes thing. Podzilla (www.ipodlinux.org), for instance, began as a simple program to replace the iPod firmware with free and fully functional Linux-based hardware. Over time, however, Podzilla users realized that Apple was withholding info about the iPod’s hardware capabilities. They have revealed, among other things, that the earphone port can double as a microphone port, and that you can even use your left headphone to record the audio. Sure, the Apple iPod firmware is rock-solid, but Podzilla is worth a jam if you’re the total-liberation type.

6) iPodWizard. The tech gossip blog Engadget (www.engadget.com) posted links and a guide late last year on manually changing the icons on iPods—sort of like changing the icons on your desktop. So instead of the Apple logo on the iPod’s boot-up, you might have the Microsoft logo or something crazy like Bono’s face. Now there’s iPodWizard, a program that automates the whole process. This is one of those for-laughs-only deals, but you could parlay it into a prank.

7) iPodVolumeBooster v1.0. I don’t know whether this program is necessary anymore—maybe Apple people and European lawmaker types have wised up—but check this. In Europe, the volume output on iPods is limited to 100 decibels, which makes listening on public transportation pretty damned impossible. So there’s this hack to up the volume on European iPods, a simple fix but arguably more important than the hack I mentioned above with all the pick-up lines. Arguably.

8) Replace your battery. And so we move into hardware enhancements. Everyone knows that the iPod’s biggest weakness is its battery length. Advertised as lasting 12 hours, the standard iPod battery gets eight hours on a good day. Apple wants extortion-level cash to replace batteries out-of-warranty, and even third parties can be obscenely expensive. But it turns out it’s really easy to replace the battery on your own and to use better, longer-lasting batteries. Replacement kits for all generations of the iPod—they come with a battery and tools to crack open the iPod case—are available at www.batteryship.com. Its kits seem to be the best, the batteries have infinitely more capacity (850 mAh versus 550 mAh, which is what Apple will replace yours with).

9) Get rid of the white earbuds. Complete garbage. I like how they produce sound, to an extent, but nothing says “I just got a new iPod! Punch me in the face!” like those headphones. Other (more important) concerns: iPods lose battery more quickly with greater volume, and the white earbuds don’t have any power, so you end up cranking them really hard in loud environments. If you like having long battery life and better sound in public, you might think of picking up a pair of closed-ear, noise-canceling headphones like the Sennheiser PXC250s. I recommend these because you get good sound without looking as if you were wearing a set of potatoes on your ears. The noise-canceling device is separate from the actual headphones. Clip it on your undershirt or belt and nobody will suspect a thing, not even the oncoming traffic you will inevitably not hear from time to time.

10) 300 GB iPod a/k/a iPod Super. This, as all great things seem to, started as a joke. Then Command-Tab (www.command-tab.com), a Mac geek blog, posted step-by-step instructions on how to rig a 300 GB standard 3.5-inch ATA hard drive (such as the one found in your desktop computer) to the iPod, soldering, desoldering, hammering this to that with specific adapters and keeping things relatively safe with new power supplies. Woof. I think I’ll just stick to the hack about workout exercises.