In this post I explain how I hacked an iPod mini in order to get a good quality portable audio player for less than $100. I changed the operating system and the mini hard drive. The sound quality is excellent because of the iPod's DAC and also because the new OS has a parametric equaliser. The 32GB compact flash increased the iPod's capacity and improved its battery life. This process can be done to iPods video and other portable audio players.
A few years ago I got an iPod video 5th-gen by mistake. I don't like iPods because I think they are very limited. However I believe they have very good sound quality (Wolfson DAC). I investigated how to hack an iPod and I found RockBox, a free firmware (FW) that unleashes all the potential of iPods. It works just in old iPods and other portable audio players (new iPods have an encrypted FW). Now I decided to modify another iPod device (iPod mini).
The idea is to build a high quality and flexible portable audio player. Please note that I will give you a general description of the whole process and links to websites that describe the details.
I decided to use an iPod mini 2nd-gen as base system because it's small, inexpensive and I will just use it as audio player. I will upgrade the battery, change the FW and replace the internal driver for a high capacity compact flash card.
In 2012 I bought all components on eBay: iPod Mini 2nd-gen 4GB (AUD$36), KingSpec 32GB 50 Pin 600x CF Compact Flash (AUD$45) and 750mAh battery (AUD$10).
Be careful when you decide which CF to buy. Some of them are not compatible with RockBox. The one that I bought works perfectly well. You can find a list of some compatible CF in RockBox website. It's not necessary to change the battery but if you already opened your old iPod (and you have $10 to spend) it may be a good idea to do it.
After you get all the components these are the main steps:
At this point the device should work OK with the original Apple FW. You can check it sending some music and starting playback. If it works fine you are in the right path 8-D. Now you have to load the new FW:
When I finished this process I had one problem: after I installed the original FW in the new compact flash I was unable to install RockBox. My PC displayed "wrong device". I formatted the compact flash and tried to reinstall RockBox a few times until it worked. I don't know what happened but after that the device is working flawless.
After you installed RockBox properly you can try other RockBox versions just replacing the .rockbox folder in the iPod's CF root directory. The average playback time for my iPod is 11:40 which is reasonable. I was expected a better battery life after the modifications but it is enough for the normal day use. I think I got a 1st-gen iPod mini which has less battery life than the 2nd-gen one (the processor consumes more energy). They look the same so be careful when you buy one.
NOTE1: What RockBox installer does is to modify the iPod boot-loader. The RockBox OS is stored in the .rockbox folder in the compact flash. If you want to run the original OS you have to reboot the iPod and lock it while the Apple logo is displayed on the screen. The music that you copied using RockBox (not synchronised) will not be accessible from the original OS.
NOTE2: I'm currently using the Aiaiai TMA-1 Studio headphones. The phones are quite good but they have two problems: the glue used in the PU ear-pads and the female jack is terrible. I used epoxy glue to fix both problems. If you are interested in these phones you shouldn't pay more than AUD$270 (August 2012).
NOTE3: Before the TMA-1 Studio I had a "Bose On Ear phones" (AUD$210). I loved its sound but the left speaker broke up after one year of normal use. After that I bought the same model again and one year later it happened exactly the same but to the right speaker!!! I did a hybrid headphone using the good speakers of each headphone and this one last another year. Just to keep it in mind.
NOTE4: Batteries with different nominal capacities may not make any difference in the playback time. I bought 2 batteries (750mAh and 1300mAh) and I got exactly the same battery life with both of them. It's hard to believe that 2 batteries store different amount of energy if they use the same technology and they have the same size and weight...