Rockboxing the iPod Classic (6g and above) (was The Forbidden iPod: HFS+ on Windows)

UPDATE (May 2013): For the record, I’ve formatted my iPod back to FAT32 so I could install the open source Rockbox operating system for music players. (Rockbox will run on the iPod Classic if you first install the opensource Emcore firmware). I’m happy to run open source software on hardware that was difficult to reverse-engineer.

Yes, there are bugs, and no, none of the 3rd party hardware that I had to extend the iPod features (radio, wireless control, etc.) work anymore. Not all my videos will play as they had before. Rockbox does crash my iPod, way more often than with the original iPod operating system did. For now, Rockbox classifies its 6g build as “unstable.”

On the other hand, it’s a remarkably robust operating system for one classified by its developers as unstable. Syncing my iPod is now a much more straightforward process. (I use Microsoft’s SyncToy tool).

Setting up Album Shuffle wasn’t as straightforward as I would have liked but it works. It requires using a handy script “random folder advance config” that is located in the plugins/applications directory. First generate your folder list, wait a while until the script finishes, and then play shuffled. You can save your folder list so you don’t have to that each time.

Even random track shuffle isn’t exactly straightforward, and I can’t say that I’ve mastered the process well enough to provide my own documentation for folk yet either. I learned it helps to have all your folders as children of a single root directory that you can generate a single playlist from. You should be fine so long as your Playback Settings are then set to shuffle.

Most importantly, I finally have control of the track data and cover art displayed on the iPod (see below). The themes I’m using are “Terminal” for the Base Skin and “Widescreen” for the Now Playing Screen. The original “Widescreen” theme by Humberto Santana didn’t display all the information I wanted, but this was the joy of using open-source software. I was able to read the theme documentation and adapt Humberto’s theme to one which showed exactly what I wanted. If you want you download my hack of “Widescreen” for the iPod Classic, here.

IMG_20130526_203135 IMG_20130526_203208

I use the Rockbox Utility to manage the player, install the themes I want, backup my settings, and update the operating system occasionally. (Note that to download the themes I display above, you’ll have to lie and tell the utility that your iPod is a 5th gen model.)

If you’d like to install Rockbox+Emcore on your iPod Classic (a/k/a iPod 6g+), this wizard from the good folk at Emcore helped me out immensely.

That’s about it. The article below on how to use an HFS+ formatted iPod on Windows is showing it’s age. I’m keeping it up just in case folk might still find it useful.


Last year around this time [2007] I was thinking about mp3 players. My trusty old Archos Jukebox 20 Studio just wasn’t cutting it anymore, even with its ROM flashed with open source Rockbox firmware. Yes, the Archos was a solid brick of an mp3 player, had a simple yellow LCD display, USB 1.1, and a very short battery life which required me to carry around its AC adapter wherever I went, but that’s not the reason I gave it up. I wanted “Album Shuffle”: the means for shuffling your songs by random album rather than random song. This is an important feature if you want to listen to any album that isn’t an 80s pop album with only one or two good songs on it, like for example, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Pink Floyd’s Wish You were Here. The order of tracks, representing movements or songs in a larger themed composition, matters. (I’ve written more about Album Shuffle here.)

Then I noticed that the ipods had album shuffle. The new players from Cowon and Archos did not, nor any others that fancied themselves as ipod competitors. But I still wasn’t convinced to buy an ipod yet. My trusty if heavy and slow Archos had a (then enormous) 100gb hard drive that I had installed myself and the largest ipod then available was 60gb. Ahh, but just before my birthday Apple announced their release of a new 160gb ipod. I was won over. Soon I gifted myself with a new Ipod Classic 160gb.

iPod Management

When it arrived, the ipod’s hard drive came formatted with Apple’s native file system, HFS Plus (HFS+). As the Windows operating systems cannot natively read HFS+ drives and my Thinkpad runs Windows XP, iTunes reformatted the ipod with FAT32, a file system engineered by Microsoft. At the time I didn’t think too much of HFS+ vs. FAT32, I was just happy that the ipod was working. And so, I put all concerns about file fragmentation and the need to periodically defrag FAT32 volumes to the side, and got to work filling the ipod up with good music and videos.

Over the last year I’ve learned how to corrupt my ipod’s database (and how to fix it painlessly) by avoiding iTunes as much as possible. iTunes had the advantage of supporting Album shuffle, but I preferred to use Winamp with the Album List plug-in for listening to albums on my computer. I had some success using Floola (which does not support Album shuffle) and Floola is my choice ipod manager on my Linux boxen. But on my Thinkpad running Windows XP, I was more interested in whether there were any plug-ins for Winamp that could suffice as a fully featured alternative to iTunes.

Looking at Winamp I discovered that it supported iPods through a plug-in bundled with the Winamp installer called pmp_ipod. Trying it out I was underwhelmed by its poor support of album cover art on the ipod, a feature I had really come to love. Then I discovered ml_ipod — an open source winamp plugin written by independent developers that could do (almost) everything pmp_ipod could do but better. The only thing I would need iTunes for would be for occasional firmware updates. ml_ipod support was fairly well documented on an online wiki and any further questions could be pursued on an active support forum hosted at Winamp. I’ve been using ml_ipod since January and have donated money to the further development of the plug-in.

File Fragmentation in FAT32 vs. HFS+

A few weeks ago I began to wonder again what my ipod’s FAT32 volume file fragmentation looked like. Unsurprisingly, after tens of thousands of file transfers, the ipod’s music, video, database and artwork files were critically fragmented according to Diskeeper, a windows defrag tool. A fragmented file system meant that my ipod needed to work harder and slower than it should have to. The answer to a fragmented ipod file system isn’t defragging it though. Ever wonder whether you should defrag your ipod? Don’t waste your time. Defragmenting an ipod over USB takes a LONG time. It is much much faster to simply do a full restore from your computer’s existing archive of music. (Before doing so, make sure you have an archive of all your iPod’s music.)

Even after I initialized and reloaded my FAT32 ipod, I found that the the iTunes database of music files as well as the artwork database of cover art were still fragmented — just less so. I began to explore what benefits there might be to manage the ipod with its original HFS+ over FAT32. I was impressed to find that HFS+ drives do not suffer from the same fragmentation problems as FAT32 drives. As this comparison of file systems shows, the main reason for the lack of fragmentation in HFS+ is because unlike FAT32, HFS+ supports Extents. Wikipedia explains:

An extent is a contiguous area of storage in a computer file system, reserved for a file. When starting to write to a file, a whole extent is allocated. When writing to the file again, possibly after doing other write operations, the data continues where the previous write left off. This reduces or eliminates file fragmentation.

Additionally, because HFS+ was specifically engineered to minimize disk access and quickly access individual files, its specific utility for the iPod seems obvious. This specific advantage of HFS+ over FAT32 was summarized well by the user, “Millenium,” over on the macnn web forum in a 2006 thread on HFS+ vs. FAT32:

You may hear that HFS+ is slower than FAT32. That’s true in some cases, but not in others. In particular, HFS+ does not do very well in tasks where you need to access many small files at once…

For looking up individual files, however, HFS+ is actually one of the fastest filesystems out there, and has been for a long time. This all comes from the way that HFS+ stores its data: when you’re working with relatively few files it’s better, but when you’re working with many files at once it isn’t as good. It’s a design tradeoff, and whether it will be better or worse for you in this regard really depends on how you use your computer.

The original Macintosh File System (MFS, from which HFS and then HFS+ directly descend) was created in an era when most people used floppies to store all of their data. The same is true of FAT16, which is where FAT32 comes from. Apple’s engineers decided that since floppies were so slow, people and applications would try to minimize disk access in general, and so they optimized their filesystem to work best under those conditions. It worked extraordinarily well for the time, and even today there aren’t many better filesystems for people who work under those conditions.

In other words, one of the best file systems available for the iPod is HFS+ (especially compared with FAT32). Unfortunately, FAT32 is not a comparable alternative to HFS+. FAT32’s presence as an alternative file system for the ipod simply reflects the lack of support in Windows OSes for the more advanced HFS+ file system.

Perils of FAT32 to HFS+ Conversion

As a result of learning this, I became increasingly interested in converting my FAT32 ipod to HFS+. Besides fragmentation and reliability, I also wondered if a change in ipod file systems might affect the file transfer speed over USB 2.0. File transfer speeds over USB 2.0 with my FAT32 formatted ipod averaged around 6000 kB/s. Would HFS+ perform worse or better?

General information on converting the iPod from FAT32 to HFS+ was plainly lacking and specific recommendations advised iPod users to accept FAT32. I was on my own. To access HFS+ formatted drive volumes on Windows I’d need to install special software like MacDrive by Mediafour. So to begin, I downloaded the MacDrive software and formatted my ipod to HFS+. So far so good. I wanted to make certain that my firmware was installed correctly so I proceeded to initialize my ipod with iTunes, and then re-transfer my mp3s and mp4s to the newly formatted ipod with winamp + ml_ipod. This seemed to work fine (although I didn’t see any discernible change in file transfer speeds). But afterward, I was surprised to find that my ipod was still formatted with FAT32! I soon learned that as part of its restore sequence, iTunes for PC will automatically format HFS+ formatted ipods with a FAT32 file system. It also copies ipod for PC firmware that seems tailored specifically for FAT32.

In my next attempt, I reformatted the ipod to HFS+ with Macdrive, ignored iTunes altogether, and did a full restore with ml_ipod in winamp onto the Ipod. ml_ipod recognized the drive and transferred the files. This time the file transfer speed was much higher: 9500 kB/s vs. 6000 kB/s. I was impressed but once the transfer completed, I found the ipod would not recognize any of the files that had been transferred. The itunesDB database was not corrupt and the actual data files were all present so what could be the problem? Was it a problem with the iPod’s firmware not being able to read HFS+?

I found the answer on a wiki page written for Gentoo Linux users on how to update ipod firmware. Simply formatting the ipod’s drive to HFS+ would not work because HFS+ formatted ipods have three partitions: the first partition contains the partition table, the second partition the ipod for mac firmware, and the third partition the media files and databases. (FAT32 formatted ipods have two partitions: a hidden one for the ipod for pc firmware, and the other for the media.) The ability to create these HFS+ partitions on the iPod aren’t available on Windows, even with MacDrive. MacDrive can format a disk to HFS+ but does not provide the ability to create three separate partitions on the disk. And to make the ipod work, I would also need the correct ipod firmware installed in its respective partition. Could iTunes solve the problem? iTunes for PC will neither create the three HFS+ partitions nor copy anything but ipod for PC firmware to a FAT32 partition. The only solution I could imagine for copying the correct firmware and creating the correct partitions would be by connecting my ipod to a computer running OS X and restoring my iPod using iTunes for Macintosh.

So iPod USB cable in hand, I visited my friend Isaac S. and his Macbook, and soon afterward I had a functioning ipod with the correct HFS+ partitions and firmware. (Thanks Isaac!) Back home, I found that with MacDrive installed on my Thinkpad, ml_ipod and winamp had no difficulty recognizing the HFS+ volume. Transfer speeds hovered mid 8000 kB/s. Success!

The conversion did not come without any caveats. After the full transfer was completed I did notice that there was less free space available on the ipod. The ipod with HFS+ used approximately 5% more storage for the same files than when it was formatted with FAT32. (116gb/FAT32 vs. 122gb/HFS+ out of 148gb total.) I don’t know why, but perhaps it has something to do with the extents allocated for each file in HFS+ (described above). (See update below on this weird problem.)

Because ml_ipod was designed to restore fat32 formatted ipods, I don’t think I’ll be able to use ml_ipod’s “restore or initialize ipod” feature anymore, nor will I be able to rely on iTunes for PC for the occasional firmware update. Rather than buy a whole new Apple computer for this task, I’m looking at vmware workstation, an emulation environment that I can run OS X on within Windows. Another option is to use another piece of software by Mediafour called Xplay.


I hope this story helps anyone else out there wondering whether to get their FAT32 ipods converted back to HFS+ (and how exactly to go about doing that). I think it’s a worthwhile project because of the advantages that HFS+ provides in speed and reliability over FAT32, the lack of file fragmentation in HFS+, and some moderate file transfer speed advantages. The disadvantages are the need to purchase HFS+ software for Windows like MacDrive and no longer being able to depend on iTunes for firmware updates or ml_ipod for occasional full restore and ipod initialization. (You can probably get around the latter problems by installing Mac OS X in a vmware emulation, but then you’d need to buy a copy of vmware workstation and OS X as well. Or you can buy a mac mini, macbook, or other Apple computer.) If this doesn’t faze you, then you should also expect that due to differences between the two file systems, that HFS+ will utilize more storage space on your ipod than FAT32. On my ipod, HFS+ used 5% more drive space with the same files loaded onto it.

If you want to run an HFS+ formatted ipod on a PC running Windows, follow these steps:

  1. If your ipod is formatted FAT32, restore it using iTunes for Mac on a friend’s Macintosh computer. (iTunes for PC will only format your ipod to FAT32.)
  2. Install HFS+ reading/writing software for Windows like MacDrive by Mediafour.
  3. Optional but recommended: Install ml_ipod for winamp and transfer your files to your HFS+ formatted ipod.

In the comments please let me know if you’ve found other ways to partition ipods correctly for HFS+ without using iTunes for Mac. Besides file transfer speed changes and degrees of fragmentation, I’m also interested in documenting any other reported benefits of using HFS+.

UPDATE: A week later and I’ve reloaded my ipod once more under slightly different conditions. The important difference is that this time, the strange 5% storage space loss from my earlier adventure didn’t manifest. Instead of restoring the iPod using ml_ipod, I used XPlay (ver. 3.0.2), another piece of software by Mediafour. I’m not exactly certain what made a difference… but my iPod certainly seems happier having been reformated with MacDrive and restored with XPlay. XPlay has a trial period of 30 days or 20 times running, and I’ll be curious to know whether the software makes any difference to managing an HFS+ formatted iPod besides using its restore feature. I’ll provide another update to this post when I do.

About Aharon N. Varady

Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, the Yiddish Forverts, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words. If you find his work helpful to your own or you'd simply like to support him, please consider donating via his Patreon account.

2 comments to Rockboxing the iPod Classic (6g and above) (was The Forbidden iPod: HFS+ on Windows)

  • dangerfar

    Very good stuff. I’m not sure if HFS+ will be the way to go for me (at least for the time being), but nonetheless this article provided me some very good info I’m sure I’ll make use of at one time or another. I’m glad I stumbled upon this. Thanks.

  • Cj

    Do you know if this bypasses the USB write lock applied on Windows PC’s via the registry?


    A normal FAT32 iPod will complain the device is write locked. I wondered if your HFS+ trick gets around this problem.

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