Five Things You Didn't Know About Apple's iPod

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Apple's massively popular music player has practically spawned a blogosphere all its own, with sites devoted to uncovering the latest hacks as well as contrary blogs that sing the praises of iPod alternatives.

Meanwhile, Steve Jobs and company aren't sitting still, continuing to expand the iPod ecosystem with accessories to stoke sales.

However, buried amid all that information are some little-known facts and helpful workarounds that can help you get more mileage out of your music experience. Accordingly, we bring you five things you might not know about the iPod.

You can replace the iPod's battery yourself.

Problems with the iPod's battery became big news when an underground video, "iPod's Dirty Secret" was posted on the Web in late 2003. The video detailed New York artist Casey Neistat's claim that his iPod battery wouldn't hold a charge and Apple wouldn't fix it, suggesting instead that he buy a new iPod. The video, which cost $40 to make, got over a million hits and spawned stories in the Washington Post, and on Fox News and CBS.

Around the same time, eight iPod owners had filed a class-action lawsuit in California, claiming that the iPod's battery didn't last as long as Apple had promised and that the "battery's capacity to hold a charge substantially diminished over time." The suit was settled in 2005 with $50 coupons and extended warranties to owners of older iPods.

In the wake of the bad battery publicity, Apple moved aggressively, cutting the price of battery replacements from an original $99 fee to $59, plus $6.95 shipping, and it also began offering replacements at its stores, rather than just via mail-in.

However, if $66 is still too steep for you, there's the unofficial repair route of user-installable batteries. Here, the big roadblock is that the iPod wasn't designed to be opened or serviced by its owners.

That hasn't deterred dozens of vendors from offering do-it-yourself replacement battery kits on eBay. Many come complete with mini-screwdrivers and instructions on how to crack open the case.

More thorough are the instructional videos posted by Mac parts house Other World Computing to go along with the NuPower iPod battery replacements they sell. The videos helpfully walk prospective battery changers through a tricky process, which begins with squeezing the iPod's seam slightly to separate the back cover from its face. Next, a special, spatula-like tool has to be inserted and gently worked around the periphery. With the case opened, the hard drive must be removed to gain access to the battery.

Popular Science has put together similar instructions in written form.

You can rip your DVD movies to watch on your video iPod.

With video breaking out in a big way as the popular new medium to watch on handhelds, the iPod-friendly MPEG-4 (MP4) format could be on its way to becoming the dominant handheld video file.

In technical terms, MP4 is known as a "container format," which combines different multimedia streams in single file. It's supported by Apple's Quicktime and is the format of choice for video iPods. Accordingly, articles and blogs loaded with tips and techniques for converting both home-produced and Hollywood videos for handheld viewing are springing up across the Web. (Here's a piece focused more on how to create your own iPod video clips.)

There are a bunch of programs which promise to convert your DVDs and other videos to the MP4 format supported by the iPod. (Here's another article on the subject.)

As Wired points out, one impediment toconversion is that DVDs are encrypted with copy protection, which must be removed before a movie can be ripped. Several decryption tools are available online, though bypassing DVD encryption has been ruled illegal. (Though making a back-up copy of a video you own, isn't.)

For those looking for a cut-rate MP4-conversion solution, the open-source HandBrake program, running under Mac OS X and Linux, is available as a free download. A tutorial, complete with screenshots, details how to rip movies using the software. (Another tutorial is here.)

You can't access the iPod directly with Windows ME, 98, or Linux. (But there are workarounds.)

On the PC side, the iPod and the iTunes online music service is designed to run under Windows XP or 2000. (Apple users have at their disposal Mac OS X v10.2.8 or later.)

At first glance, that'd appear to leave Linux users, as well as those with PCs running legacy operating system such as Windows ME or Windows 98, in the lurch. (There are online petitions to try to get Apple to release iPod and iTunes software for Windows ME and Windows 98, as well as a separate Linux petition.)

However, there are several workarounds that allow you to use any of the three OSes.

The easiest and most popular cross-platform access tool is XPlay. The $30 program supports all iPods from the first-generation models to the Nano and video versions.

On the Linux front, the iPod and iTunes can run by installing a Windows API on your machine. One way to do that is via CrossOver Office, an environment from CodeWeavers Inc. that implements the Windows API on top of Linux. (CrossOver is based on the open-source Wine Project, begun in 1993 as away to run Windows programs on Linux.)

For those with command-line smarts, iPods can be run directly on Linux via a series of hacks. Mostly these involving getting the Firewireinterface of the Linux box to recognize the iPod, getting the correct drivers, and playing around with the file system.

There are viable MP3-player alternatives to the iPod.

It's true that the iPod is far and away the most dominant music player, but bloggers and gadget sites have long debated the merits of alternative platforms. (There's even a blog, called "Anything But iPod," devoted solely to non-Apple players.)

Since its 2001 introduction, many players have sought to dethrone the iPod. Most notably, Creative Technology Ltd. reportedly spent millions in an advertising war with Apple. Though Creative, with its Zen product line, holds about 30 percent of the player market, that's about half Apple's share.

The latest player to take a run at Apple is the YP-Z5 from Samsung. It's being positioned as a potential "Nano killer," because one if its designers is Paul Mercer, a former Apple employee and iPod designer hired by Samsung.

Other players touted as iPod alternatives include Dell's DJ Ditty (though it only comes with 512 MB of storage), Philips GoGear, and players from Archos, Olympus, and iRiver. Even Sony is in the act; the Japanese giant recently refreshed its Walkman family with a new line of flash-based players aimed at the European market.

Still, the widespread belief remains that it's going to be hard – if not impossible – to crack Apple's dominance. "Apple has a couple of things going for it that are tough to beat," JupiterResearch analyst and blogger Joe Wilcox said. "The iPod is a status symbol. Also, Apple delivers a great experience. I have yet to see any competitive offering that even comes close. My experience testing all the devices that rely on Windows Media Player is, it's more complicated, and I see ongoing issues with rights validation."

You can bypass Apple's DRM. (We're not saying you should.)

Apple uses FairPlay to encrypt the AAC-encoded audio files it uses for songs it sells on iTunes.

A number of bloggers have complained that Apple should license FairPlay so that other Internet music stores could sell to iPod users. In France, a move is afoot to require iPods to play music purchased from services other than iTunes.

On the other side, one blogger opines that Apple's DRM is a bulwark against Microsoft completely taking over the music market with its Windows Media format.

Software startup Navio has gone as far as reverse-engineering Fairplay as part of its business plan to separate DRM from the music files themselves.

A final — though not necessarily legal — way around DRM restrictions of all stripes is to exploit what's known as the analog hole. (This is something Hollywood is worried about on the video front.)

Copying a song using the analog hole can be as simple as playing the song on your computer while patching the output of the sound card back to the input. A separate recording program can capture that input and export the resulting track to an mp3 file, creating a non-DRM'ed song.

However, as one poster to a Playlist Magazine forum put it: "If you are too cheap to pay 99 cents for a song, then how the heck did you afford the iPod?"