Partitioning an Ipod to FAT32 and ext3

I recently inherited my sister’s “defective” (but fixed for 5$) 120GB Classic Ipod and managed to partition it the way I wanted. It was not a trivial process so I tought I’d share my experience with the web so others can benefit from it.

My music library is far from being 120GB so even if I feed the Ipod all my tunes, I’d still have a lot of free space on it. Granted, you can mount the Ipod as a mass storage device and stuff the rest with anything, but here’s the catch: Ipods will only format to FAT32 or HFS+ file systems if you use iTunes. As a consequence, if you pick HFS+, you will not be able to use them on windows and some *nix (if they lack the HFS+ support module) and if you choose FAT32, backup solutions such as backtintime will not work (they need a journaling file system).

So I took to partitioning my Ipod with two different partition using a different file system for each, FAT32 and EXT3. I tough it would be a simple task, but turns out that it wasn’t. Just formatting the Ipod and letting gtkpod rebuild it did not cut it; the device would stutter, only play the first few seconds of each track and give off artifacts while displaying the CD covers. And when plugged in iTunes, the software would report the device as corrupted and offer me to reset it. I thought that gtkpod must be missing on something so I should use iTunes instead yo rebuild it, but iTunes would still ask me to reset my iPod. Here is what worked after a fair amount of tinkering:

  1. Reset the iPod with iTunes (on a different computer since this tutorial assumes you are using a *nix).
  2. Plug it on Linux and run the following command on the user partition. My Ipod is a 6th generation classic, there is no partition for the firmware, it sits somewhere on the MCU flash, but it appears that older Ipod use a firmware partition so leave it alone. Paying attention to that particularity, here is the commands you need to run:
    1. Unmount the plugged int Ipod with umount  /dev/sdXY Where X is the device letter of your Ipod and Y is the partition number.
    2. dd if=/dev/sdXY of=ipod.bk bs=512M Where X is the user partition of you Ipod and Y is the partition number. This will effectively copy 512MB of raw bytes from you Ipod partition and save it to the ipod.bk file.
  3. Next, take your Ipod and format it the way you want using fdisk. If you have a firmware partition, do not destroy it! Keep the following points in mind:
    1. Use a Master Boot Record (MBR)
    2. All partitions should be primary
  4. Finally: dd of=/dev/sdXY if=ipod.bk bs=512M Where X is the user partition of you Ipod and Y is the partition number. This is going to copy back that 512MB file we extracted earlier from the Ipod, setting that partition the way it was before the repartitioning.

Voilà! Plug your Ipod in, upload music with you favorite app and do backups with your file system of choice. Mine is happily working with that setup: Ipod stuff on FAT32 and backintime on EXT3.

The quirk I got with this technique was that both iTunes and the Ipod report the full size of the internal hard drive as being available for music while in reality its not; it looks like the firmware keeps a record of the empty space withing the files of the user partition (why it is not computing it is anyone’s guess). You should probably be careful not to fill it up to a point where the two partitions would overlap (although that should not happen if the firmware is paying attention but then again, not tested).

Enjoy!

5 thoughts on “Partitioning an Ipod to FAT32 and ext3

  1. You, sir, just made my day. Thank you for this very useful tip! I’ll be now trying to boot a Debian system from a ext4 partition on my iPod classic :)
    Did you have any heat-related issues when writing large amounts of data to the iPod?

  2. You’re most welcome!

    I have not had heat related issues, but since I suspect the ipod’s hard-drive spends most of its time turned off during normal usage, it’s possible that running it for long periods could overheat the device.

    Let me know if you get the booting to work.

  3. Unfortunately I did not manage to boot Linux off my iPod classic – the Debian installer detected the iPod as a 30GB one. I then tried installing Arch Linux, but after it installed, the booting process hangs at the “GRUB loading…”. I will try with another computer, as for now I have no computers with real USB booting support – I was using PloP Boot Manager CD to start from USB.
    I’ll try to do some further research on the topic :)

  4. I’m suspecting a custom MBR made by Apple, which causes problem with booting from the iPod. Have you ever tried changing the partition table?

  5. Yep, I tried changing the partition table, but no success. I also suspect a custom MBR or a partially implemented support because internally, my IPod does not quite detect that it has been partitioned and still detects its full hard drive as being available for music and such.

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