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Hacking away at the iPod

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“Apple has been in the news a lot these days” is almost a comical understatement, but it’s true, and the consumer electronics market hasn’t fully assessed the impact that the iPod shuffle has yet to make on the market for MP3 players. Any way you look at it, Apple is still the dominant name in portable personal audio players–how else do you explain the iPod’s status as the “must have gift” for Christmas 2004? And 2003? And… well, you get the idea. The white music player is so prolific here in New York that one of my friends (a certified Mac technician, by the way) has taken to calling users of the device members of the “cult of the white earbuds.”

As great as the iPod (and its elegant software partner-in-crime, iTunes) may be, there are plenty of uses for these pieces of technology that enterprising consumers have devised, but that Apple isn’t exactly racing to embrace. This is why O’Reilly’s iPod & iTunes Hacks by Hadley Stern (ISBN 0-596-00778-7) is so useful. It runs the gamut from the simplest of iPod “modifications” (and I mean simple, as in buying a case for it–see Hack #2) to multi-day, overly ambitious projects that might make even the most skilled of home workshoppers cringe (i.e., creating a custom-designed center console dock/cupholder/armrest/charger for your car, complete with backlit Apple logo–see Hack #11). Fortunately each project’s difficulty is clearly noted, so you aren’t likely to somehow accidentally get yourself in over your head.

The book is divided into six main sections, entitled “iPod Hardware,” which encompasses the hacks mentioned above; “Non-iPod Hardware,” which describes such nifty tricks as controlling iTunes via a Palm device or PocketPC (see Hack #23, probably officially my favorite, since I now love controlling iTunes from my Palm Tungsten C from the couch); “iPod Software,” which details software that can actually be run on the iPod itself, including games and utilities; “iTunes,” which includes hacks for not only iTunes, but also complimentary pieces of software; “AppleScript for iTunes,” which explains how to use the AppleScript language to carry out certain functions, including cleaning up song titles (Hack #75); and “Beyond iTunes,” which provides instructions on some fairly obscure techniques, such as playing music from the command line (Hack #93).

The selection of hacks presented certainly does run the gamut, and even the most casual of iPod users is likely to find one or more hacks in this book of interest. However, I do have to question the inclusion of a few of the hacks that seem… well, tacky, like Hack #21, “Craft an iPod Case from Cardboard,” which tells you how to do exactly that–cut an iPod case out of corrugated cardboard. Equally obvious are hacks like #14, “Use Your iPod as a Dictaphone,” which essentially informs the reader that Belkin makes a microphone attachment for the iPod, and that plugging it in allows you to make voice memos. While there aren’t a large number of seemingly extraneous hacks included, there are enough to make the book a little annoying.

My only other complaint about the text is its frequent inclusion of nebulous and non-specific directions. For example, take this particular direction from the aforementioned Hack #11, “Install Your iPod in Your Car, Permanently”: “Look for the spot in your car that will best house your iPod, and then come up with a design.” Granted, in this particular case it isn’t as if Stern can walk you through the creation of a center console for your particular car, but “come up with a design” is a bit vague and not very helpful. This seems to be the case, however, primarily for the more hands-on hacks featured in the book; those that involve code, such as those included in the AppleScript chapter, are much more straightforward, and in many cases, step-by-step.

Happily, though, the bulk of this book is chock full of useful suggestions and innovative solutions, regardless of your level of expertise. Casual users will enjoy knowing how to diagnose and solve potential problems with their iPods without having to send it off to Apple (Hack #34), and advanced users will enjoy the challenge of turning the iTunes visualizer into a screen saver (Hack #67). In all, it’s a handy reference for anyone who owns an iPod, and a thoughtful gift for the new user who, two months after Christmas, is probably just getting the hang of their new toy.

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About Ryan Eanes

  • This sounds like a helpful read for the growing “cult,” Ryan — thanks for this review.

    I was amazed, non-techie that I am, to have a friend show me how to change the brightness of the text on my iPod recently. I was going blind trying to tell what I was listening to during the day!