The iPod 3G that should have been (and eventually was)

In hopes that some may not have to suffer the same fate I did, I write this piece.

Back in 2017 or so, I got my hands on a third generation iPod. Not touch, not nano, the full-size iPod that released in 2003. I only ever got to see these in school, and by the time I could afford my own iPods they were very out of favor for iPod touches and iPhones. Unfortunately at the time, I didn’t have the facilities to really do much with the third gen iPod; it requires FireWire to charge, and I had no FireWire-capable computers nor chargers. So I handed it off to a friend who dealt more in iPods than I did at the time.

Recently, however, I got the iPod back. Kind of. The friend I gave it to actually had two third gens and combined them to make one good condition iPod, and that’s what I ended up with. Armed with the knowledge to make this thing work, I figured things would be simple. All I wanted to do was flash mod it and give it a new battery. What resulted, of course, was everything going completely wrong.

Problem the first: The new battery broke.

In this case, I just got a generic replacement battery for the iPod because they’re easy to come by and these iPods just need a battery with a JST connector and a LiPo pouch that’ll fit in the channel cut out for it within the iPod. What ended up happening was as I was trying to fit the battery (and definitely being gentle in the process!) the positive wire snapped right off the battery’s PCB. Given that I’m decently skilled in soldering, I wasn’t about to let this get me down, so I unwrapped the top of the battery, exposed the PCB, and found the point at which the wire was soldered. I got it reattached and carried on with the repair.

This, of course, was a foreshadowing to how bad things were going to start going…

Problem the second: Flash adapter fun time!

This one was on me.

I decided to roll the dice this time and try the red CF-SD adapter that is so commonly found around the iPod communities. One of DankPods’ first videos was actually using these adapters. I had tried to use one with my old iPod mini, but it never worked and I had to return it. As such, I was expecting trouble, and that’s exactly what I got.

Except…this time, I wasn’t getting anything out of the iPod. No folder icon. No disk mode. Nothing. Just perpetual Apple logo and maybe a sad iPod if it felt up to it. Something wasn’t quite right, so I plugged the red CF adapter into my computer and it came up fine. My hunch started to shift over to the CF-to-IDE adapter, and I was right: The solder joints on the IDE connector were looking a little sickly. Once again, I brought out the soldering iron, flux’d up the joints and reflowed everything.

At that point, the iPod finally began behaving as expected…and by that, I mean “misbehaving exactly as expected.” The iPod wouldn’t actually restore properly. I tried my Windows machine. I tried my PowerBook G4 (which was doomed to fail from the get go, more on that later). If there’s one piece of advice to take away from this section, it’s that at least going on my own experience with the third gens: Do not bother with the red CF adapters. The third gen iPods are particularly picky. Get a green Digigear or get an iFlash CF-SD adapter. Save yourself the hours of work.

What I ended up doing was pulling the Digigear adapter out of my 4th gen iPod and using that in the 3rd gen. The red adapter ended up working fine in the 4th, though only as a Mac-formatted iPod. Which is fine, as I do most of my playlist management from my MacBook anyway, so it’s no big deal.

(An aside: There have been some people that reported success removing the iPod’s SD card, sticking it in a Windows machine, and editing the drive with a program such as Victoria. In this case you want to change the first two characters of the header from EB/EA/whatever to 00. This didn’t work for me, however.)

At this point, I was really flustered, and unfortunately, that’s when we start making some bad mistakes.

Problem the third: hold switch woes (and headphone jack woes, too)

Something to keep in mind: On the 1st, 2nd and 3rd gen iPods, the hold switch is actually on the iPod’s main logic board itself, unlike in newer iPods where it’s all on a separate board mounted in the back panel. This presents two caveats: 1. If you need a new hold switch, you better hope you know how to work with surface mount components, because you’re in for some board repair, and 2. If you’re putting the back panel back on you better make damn sure the hold switch on the back panel and the iPod itself are aligned, because if you don’t, you’ll hear a nice SNAP when you put things back together, and you’ll no longer have a working hold switch.

As is my luck, the latter happened. Cue panic because 3rd gen iPods aren’t exactly plentiful anymore and they’re not cheap on eBay. Here I am thinking I just inadvertently trashed something valuable.

Thankfully, I also had my 4th gen mono open for repairs of its own, as I was also swapping the battery in it at the same time. I noticed the hold switch mounted on the headphone jack PCB looked very similar to the one I just trashed on the 3rd gen…and sure enough, the switch is the very same. I have a 4th gen photo that I don’t care much about, so I opted to grab the hold switch off its headphone jack PCB seeing as parts for the 4th gen iPods are far, far more plentiful (and cheap!) than 3rd gen parts.

With a decent soldering station and some hot air, I was able to make the swap and I’m pleased to report the transplant was successful, and the hold switch once again functions on the 3rd gen. HOWEVER there is one thing to keep in mind: At least for me the hold switch when perfectly lined up with the solder pads on the logic board wouldn’t engage all the way once installed in the iPod. I’d have to slide the switch over with some force to get it to actually toggle once the back cover was on.

If this happens to you, what you’ll want to do is actually shift the new hold switch ever so slightly to the right, assuming you’re looking down on the logic board and the dock connector is facing you, or towards where the headphone jack would normally be sitting. This way when the hold switch on the back panel is in the unlocked position, it’ll take the switch on the inside to the actual end of its throw, not just before (and thus requiring some jiggling/persuasion). The solder pads should still line up enough for you to get everything connected up.

Of course, if that wasn’t enough, in the middle of all this the connector for the headphone jack began coming off its flex cable. This was a surprisingly easy fix, however, I just flux’d it up and spruced it up with some fresh solder and now the connector is back on VERY tightly and it works great.

Goodbye FireWire sync! And other things

The unfortunate problem with flash modding a 3rd gen (and the 1st/2nd gens too) is that doing so completely kills FireWire sync capability. Not sure why that is, but if you do this and you’re wondering if something went completely wrong because your iPod just throws a fit trying to connect it to an older Mac to sync, don’t fret. This is unfortunately normal. FireWire charge still works, of course.

(This also means you can’t actually restore this iPod on a FireWire-equipped Mac. Why? Because iTunes is too smart for its own good and will tell you to connect the iPod over FireWire to initiate the restore. Which we can’t do. So don’t bother trying this on vintage Macs, it just won’t work.)

This presents an issue, however. A healthy battery is absolutely a requirement. Because 3rd gen iPods cannot charge over USB, but they can sync over USB. So your iPod will run off the battery whilst syncing with modern computers. Apple addressed this by including a Y-cable with these iPods in the box, so that ostensibly you could plug the FireWire end to a power brick to let it charge while you plug the USB end into a Windows machine to sync. Problem is those cables are extremely rare and very pricey if you DO find one. So your only means to sync is to connect it to USB and hope the battery lasts long enough to complete a sync. (In my case, it was able to last well into a 2400 song sync. Bigger syncs may need to be split up into parts.)

Also, when testing, something I’ve noticed: The back panel may well be required for this thing to operate normally. My hypothesis is that the back panel is providing some kind of grounding, because I noticed it would barely even work if the headphone flex wasn’t connected (which also provides connection to the back panel). It would either not boot at all, or boot and freeze at the Apple logo. Keep this in mind if you’re testing it with the back panel off and it’s acting extremely erratic.

These iPods also tend to get very uppity with flash mods. Mine in general just seems to be really unstable. Freezes happen a lot more than I’d care to admit, sometimes music just quits playing for whatever reason until I interact with the iPod a bit. But for the most part? It works! And maybe some of those issues can be sussed out with another restore, but meh. I got it working, that’s what matters. Maybe I’ll deal with it later.

For now though, it works well enough for me.



, ,