Archive:Ipod liberation parties

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The correct title of this article is iPod liberation parties. The initial letter is capitalized due to technical restrictions.

This page describes the process of running an iPod liberation party. It aims to collect "best practices" around the proccess of running an iPod liberation event.


As with most events, most of the hard work in creating an iPod liberation party is in preparation. The most important lessons learned from the iRony event is that is essential to have a variety of computers running a variety of operating systems.

Here's a checklist of items to have on hand:

  • Separate laptops (at least one each) with both USB and (if possible) Firewire/IEEE1394 running:
    • Windows XP (with the latest version of iTunes)
    • Mac OS X (with the latest version of iTunes)
    • Up-to-date GNU/Linux Distribution (e.g., Ubuntu)
  • Plenty of (tested) iPod USB and IEEE1394 cables.
  • People who are comfortable installing RockBox and iPodLinux and who have been using it for some period time and familiar with the issues and problems involved.
  • The iRony RockBox Installer which the installers should try out (on a variety of iPods) ahead of the event.

Of course, it's not enough to just have these computers and operating systems on hand. You should have at least one person skilled at using each of them. If you're going to be using the Irony RockBox Installer, remember that it only works on GNU/Linux systems.

Ideally, both the attendees and the organizers will come prepared. Toward this end, the iRony organizers sent around emails inviting people the party that attempted to ensure that anyone coming to install firmware would be aware of the risks involved and, more importantly, would back up all of the data on their music player. The group sent out this text which might be worth emulating or using:

We'll be installing iPodLinux and RockBox onto iPods. Both firmwares are meant to coexist with the Apple firmware. This means that you'll be able to press a button on your iPod when it boots and return to the proprietary Apple firmware. Your experience, and the firmware you can install, will depend on the type of iPod you have. The process will be more or less straightforward based on the formatting of your iPods filesystem.
If you have a Windows (VFAT or FAT32) formatted iPod, the process will be very simple and you will be able to preserve your data. If you have a Mac formatted iPod, you will probably have to reformat your iPod in the process.
Migrating to a new firmware for your iPod is invasive and potentially dangerous. THERE IS A SMALL RISK THAT THE PROCESS MAY DAMAGE YOUR IPOD. PERHAPS IRREVOCABLY. This is the price we must pay for freedom.
For more information, visit these websites:

Finally, the iRony organizers put in a good deal of effort to ensure the environment was fun. Using music and an invitation to play music from installed iPods led to more of a social environment that was less reminiscent of a computer class than it might have been otherwise.

Processing iPods

The most difficult part of installing RockBox or iPodLinux is the variations in configurations of iPods. You will likely see hard disk iPods from the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 5.5th generation plus both first and second generation iPod Minis and Nanos. The way you treat each of these needs to be slightly different. Most importantly, the 5.5gen iPods and and the 2gen Nanos are wholly unsupported the time of writing. As if that weren't complicated enough, there were sometimes different Firewire and USB versions of iPods.

The most important thing to do as soon as someone walks in with an iPod is to find out what kind of iPod they have. Of course, most iPod users don't actually know which generation of iPod they have so asking will not help. Wikipedia maintains an incredibly useful list of iPod version numbers and it's worth considering having a printed copy at the install party. If you find iPods with a core version number not on the list, consider adding them to the Wikipedia page. The iRony RockBox Installer incorporates this list and asks users to type in their model number and then looks it up so it can help with this identification stage. For older iPods, some may be Firewire/IEEE1394 which means that you'll need to take this into account when finding a computer to install from.

The most important difference between iPods though, is how they are formatted. Most new iPods can be formatted as either FAT32 (i.e., VFAT or Windows filesystem) or HFS+ (Mac OS X filesystem). iPods are sold unformatted and their filesystem seems to be determined by where they are plugged in to first. While iPodLinux can happily coexist with an HFS+ formatted iPod, RockBox cannot. It requires a FAT32 formatted iPod or will not run at all. Attempting to run the iRony RockBox Installer on an HFS+ formatted iPod can cause trouble. GNU/Linux's "fdisk -l" or the Windows or Mac OS X disk utilities should be able to give you information on the partition type.

In summary, you'll need the following information for each iPod and it's probably a good idea to write on a sticky note on the back of each iPod:

  • Model number and generation type
  • Firewire/USB requirements
  • Filesystem type

For the next step, you will need to decide what you want to install. The choices are iPodLinux, RockBox or both. Ultimately, this choice should be up to iPod's owner but its the organizers' job to help owners make an informed decision. At our installfest, most users were choosing alternative firmware so that they could play OGG Vorbis and FLAC music. While iPodLinux has rudimentary support for through a project called MPD, by far the easiest way to play Vorbis and FLAC on iPods is through RockBox. At our party, the vast majority of attendees chose to install RockBox only.

Installing iPodLinux on either FAT32 or HFS+ formatted iPods is relatively straightforward. The installer is relatively simple, if not entirely reliable. Our only recommendation is to install from the "home" platform (i.e., install HFS+ formatted iPods from Mac OS X and FAT32 formatted iPods from Windows).

Installing RockBox on an FAT32 formatted iPod is simple: you're ready to run the installer or follow the installation instructions right away.

Installing RockBox on an HFS+ formatted iPod, however, is tricky. Basically, you'll need to convert the HFS+ iPod into a FAT32 iPod and then run the installer then. Doing this conversion is relatively straightforward but will destroy all data on the iPod so be absolutely sure that the iPod's owner has full backups.

The easiest way we found to convert a FAT32 iPod to Mac OS X, involves using both a Mac and Windows computers running iTunes and then following these steps (there are many other ways, this was just the quickest and most reliable we found):

  1. Plug in iPod to Mac using USB
  2. Select the named iPod in Mac OS X Disk Utility and format as an "MS-DOS" filesystem
  3. Unplug from the Mac and plug the reformatted iPod into the Windows computer and let iTunes load. Install the firmware update from Windows.

You may also need to re-plug the iPod to get it to boot afterward. FAT32 iPods are readable both from iTunes Windows and from Mac OS X.

Installing RockBox "by hand" can be tricky but there's good information and documentation on the process. We wrote our own installer which we encourage others to use. You can visit the iRony RockBox Installer homepage for more information or to download it. The installer has only been tested on GNU/Linux but will probably work (without the autodetection of iPods) on Mac OS X as well.

Alternatively there is good documentation on the RockBox wiki on installing the software "manually." A few great wiki pages to start with include:

Since the process of installation using each of these methods is documented in those pages, we won't go into details here.

We found that it was a good idea to help the users out with a few minor post-installation tasks before sending them off to enjoy their new iPod. These tasks, all RockBox specific, included:

  • Showing the user how to select an ID3 based database view (more like the standard iPod) (i.e., navigate to the file browser; hold MENU; hit PLAY until the desired view is selected; hit MENU to return).
  • Turning on auto-extraction of ID3 tags (e.g., General Settings -> File View -> Tag Cache; change the 'Auto Update' and 'Update now' settings to 'Yes').
  • Many users (especially users of Nanos) found the default RockBox font unreadably small. This can be changed by installing new fonts better suited to the iPods with smaller or higher resolution screens. Information and fonts are online on the RockBox wiki.
  • Many users were impressed with the RockBox ability to use custom themes so walking users through the installation of an appropriate custom theme was frequently a worthwhile process.

Finally, it's a good idea to have someone at the party to work with and talk to new users until they are comfortable enough that they can boot back to their original firmware and get help (online or in person) if they need it.


This section was originally published as an article in NewsForge.

Ultimately, the goal of an iPod liberation is education: education about software freedom, education about DRM, education about using RockBox and iPodLinux. As a result, it is communication, and not technology, that should be central. It's a good rule of thumb to spend more time talking than you think is necessary. Before an iPod is installed, make sure that ever users knows:

  • The process: Make sure that users understand what your installing one their iPod and roughly how you are going to do it before you begin.
  • The point: Every user should want RockBox and should have some idea of what its going to let them do. They won't take advantage of something they don't understand. Help them understand the DRM angle. At iRony, one user bought an iPod for the party. It is important to help these users understand that this is not something we can continue to support.
  • The risks: Ensure that each user has backups and is comfortable with the risks involved in installing alternate firmware.
  • The drawbacks: A reduced battery life and increased crashes while in RockBox is likely and loss of iTunes DRM-encumbered music is a sure thing -- every user should understand the the drawbacks of the system.

After installation, organizers should work with users to ensure that they understand a variety of issues around the maintenance and support of their new firmware. In particular organizers should:

  • Ensure that users know how to boot back to the Apple firmware (this usually entails pressing menu when the iPod reboots). Make sure that users know how to reboot their iPod if and when it freezes.
  • Ensure that users understand how to upgrade RockBox. You're installing daily builds and users will want to upgrade to the latest stuff. It's very easy but make sure they understand it.
  • Ensure that users know where to look for help. Make sure they know how to find the RockBox or iPodLinux wiki and that they have contacts in your group if they have serious problems.

Since much of this information will be repeated to every user -- and because one can only absorb so much -- it might be a good idea to create flyers to hand out at the event.