Extending the life of my iPod mini

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Second-generation iPod mini — Introduced in February 2005, discontinued in September 2005

I own a second-generation 4 GB blue iPod mini that my wife passed to me when she was given a first-generation iPod touch in 2007. This iPod was never heavily used, and so it has remained fully operational — and with good battery life — for ten years, until sometime around October 2015 its internal hard drive (Hitachi 4 GB MicroDrive) failed while transferring some files. That saddened me. For some reason, despite the obvious convenience of using my iPhone to listen to music, I’ve always preferred the classic iPods for that activity. And my third-generation 10 GB iPod already died in 2008 (another hard drive failure), so now that my iPod mini stopped working too, I was left with just my iPod shuffle.

But while the easiest way to repair a third-generation iPod is to find another small-sized Toshiba hard drive for it, the iPod mini is notoriously easier to upgrade. These iPods used MicroDrives as internal storage solutions, and they are essentially small hard drives with the same dimensions (and most importantly, same connection) as CompactFlash cards. Which means that you can replace them with CompactFlash cards and enjoy a few advantages in return:

  • Today, you can easily find 8, 16, and 32 GB CompactFlash cards at reasonable prices. These cards are usually designed for heavy-duty usage with professional DSLRs.
  • They are long-lasting and offer much higher transfer speeds than the old MicroDrives.
  • Along with having more storage space (iPod minis originally came with 4 GB and 6 GB MicroDrives), CompactFlash cards do not have moving parts, which means better battery life.

The original 4 GB of storage space never felt really tight for me. While I do have a lot of music in digital form, I was never one of those people who have to copy their whole iTunes library on an iPod. I’ve always transferred just a small selection of favourite albums I love listening when out and about. I also didn’t want to get too big a CF card for fear of some unexpected incompatibility or similar issues, so when it was time to purchase a CF card to make the upgrade, I opted for a conservative 8 GB card:

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Then I looked online for tutorials on how to proceed with the part replacement. The first stop was iFixit, of course, but this tutorial over at Instructables helped too.

The process isn’t extremely complicated, you just need to be a bit cautious, but the hardest step is definitely the first: removing the white plastic on the top bezel. If you look at the aforelinked iFixit guide, this step appears deceptively simple:

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Source: iFixit.com

The problem is that the piece of white plastic is securely glued to the metal underneath, and it won’t come off easily. If you don’t proceed with patience and keep pulling up with a screwdriver, you’ll likely bend or break the plastic. Instead of a screwdriver, I used a small putty knife and tried to gently separate the white plastic from the metal casing. But the best tip to make this step even easier was given to me by Peter Emery on App.net (and it’s also suggested in the Instructables tutorial): use a hair dryer to soften the glue.

I know it sounds dangerous to expose the iPod to heat this way, but my iPod wasn’t harmed in any way. Just to be cautious, I used the hair dryer on the minimum setting and directed hot air on the top of the iPod in short bursts. After 5-6 times of gently prying and heating the plastic, it finally came off. It’s virtually impossible to avoid scuffing the white plastic top a bit — just think that, at least, you’ll have a working iPod later.

Same story with the piece of white plastic on the bottom (surrounding the 30-pin Dock connector), but in my case this came off much more easily. I didn’t even need to use the hair dryer. The iFixit tutorial has the best images, so follow the steps until it’s time to remove the MicroDrive. This tutorial is for a hard drive replacement, so once you get to Step 13, what’s left to do is to carefully remove the MicroDrive from its connector (get rid of the black tape and the blue bumpers), insert the CF card (make sure you keep the label on top — see Step 4 of the Instructables tutorial), and reattach the connector to the iPod’s motherboard. Another great advice is given here in the Instructables tutorial: You don’t need the rubber bumpers or tape but you will need a small piece of double sided foam tape to attach the card to the motherboard and keep it from rattling around inside your Mini. I suggest you follow it. The CF card is lighter and thinner than the MicroDrive — it will rattle if you don’t secure it.

The hardware part of the upgrade was done, but before reassembling everything, I wanted to make sure the iPod was properly recognised and formatted, so I connected the ‘naked’ iPod to my MacBook Pro and iTunes 12 immediately recognised it as a Windows-formatted 8 GB iPod mini. I tried copying an album to it, and the copy went smoothly and was insanely fast compared with the original MicroDrive. But since I read online that a good practice at this point is to do a full Restore using iTunes, that’s what I did, and iTunes 12.3.2 failed to complete the operation, throwing a ‘1430 error’. This Apple Support article (unsurprisingly) wasn’t really helpful. The solution was connecting the iPod to my PowerBook G4 with Mac OS X Leopard and iTunes 10.6.3, which correctly recognised and restored the iPod right away and without problems.

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Now the iPod was ready to be reassembled:

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Since upgrading the iPod, I’ve roughly filled half of it with music, and I’ve instantly noticed the benefits of having a CompactFlash-based iPod: file transfer is really fast, the battery appears to last more than before (I’m still testing, but in the last period with the 4 GB MicroDrive, battery life was quite poor), and the iPod remains cool. With the MicroDrive, the iPod started getting warm after a while; I don’t know if it’s normal for a MicroDrive to get warm or if that was a sign of imminent failure, but with the moving parts of a hard drive and the heat, it’s no wonder battery life was impacted. Now the situation is definitely better on this front, and I’m actually amazed that a 10-year old battery is still capable of holding such a charge.

Here are a few more photos. As you can see, the backlight is still very bright after all these years. Long live the iPod mini!

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One thought on “Extending the life of my iPod mini

  1. Hi there Riccardo love the blog! Funny I’m currently looking at the same issue…have a third gen iPod (I always liked the touch sensitive controls that light up red) and two 2nd gen iPod minis (all with battery life issues) I really need to put in new batteries (and looked at the CF option a while ago) so your post has given me a bit of impetus…! (Hmm…I remember that the 3rd gen iPod plays some tracks at a lower volume than others so I find I have to jump up to lower the volume when I switch tracks! Might be a software issue on the iPod – the minis don’t do that- but also could be the volume settings for the tracks involved…will have to check iTunes or wait until I get around to the refit to do full restore! We’ll see…)

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