On Tuesday, September 9, 2014, Apple finally killed off the iPod. After almost 13 years on the market, the iconic portable music player was retired without fanfare. The pocket-sized device with the click wheel and a small color display simply disappeared from Apple's online storefront just as the products that were announced that day—the Apple Watch and the iPhone 6—were being added.
Soon thereafter, reports circulated that new-in-box models of the last iPod bearing that original design—then called the "iPod Classic"—were selling on internet auction sites for at least double the retail price. Clearly, some people were not ready to face up to a future that felt inevitable: a move away from vast collections of MP3 files stored on dedicated music players and toward a world of streaming music delivered over the air for a $10 monthly fee.
Six years later, in 2021, Apple let the 20th anniversary of the iPod pass as quietly as it had let the iPod Classic fade into obscurity. Fans of the iPod, on the other hand, have been growing in number as vintage players are dusted off, repaired, and upgraded with new parts. Groups of hardware modders are adding things like Bluetooth capability, Taptic Engine feedback, custom colored cases, and terabytes of silent, power-sipping flash storage to their iPods, bringing the device fully into the 2020s—all without Apple's blessing.
Kick Out the Jams
The original iPods were modular, breaking down into a screen, motherboard, headphone assembly, battery, and hard drive, all connected with tiny ribbon cables. With a bit of know-how, it's now possible to add terabytes, not just gigabytes, into late-model iPods by swapping out the older spinning hard drive in favor of a newer solid state drive. Flash storage is more durable and more compact, uses less power, and gets rid of all the whirring and clicking typical of mechanical hard drives. And since SSDs are smaller, installing one frees up space inside the iPod’s case that hardware hackers can use to squeeze in additional niceties.
Reviving discarded gadgets is something the hardware hacking scene loves to do. By adopting the iPod platform, hackers turn e-waste into blank canvases for expression and symbols of rebellion against artist-unfriendly streaming services. Cara Esten, electronics enthusiast and musician, stumbled back into iPods after years of streaming music. “I ended up going to a garage sale, and somebody was selling a 30-gig iPod,” Esten says. “So I just picked it up. And I was like, there has to be a way to do a modern conversion … it just runs off of a pretty basic kind of standard interface.”
She cracked open her secondhand player and added flash storage, a new battery, and a shiny blue faceplate, making it immediately recognizable as better than the average 'Pod. After reentering the iPod lifestyle with her reborn music player, she took to Twitter to post a simple manifesto promoting offline music listening:
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Esten says carrying an iPod with her is critical, especially when she loses data service on a commute that takes her into the cellular dead zone inside the train tunnel running beneath San Francisco Bay. “There were so many times I was listening to an album … I'd duck under the Transbay tunnel, completely lose signal, and it starts cutting out,” she says. “I think that’s the cool thing about the iPod. No matter what, [my music's] there. I don't want to have to make decisions about what I'm listening to beforehand. My phone could be dead, Spotify could be down. Knowing I can just put headphones on and listen to my music is so nice.”
College dropout Austin Lucas noticed something while working at a small-town mobile phone repair shop. A lot of customers were coming in with iPods that the shop—which had long since adjusted its business to meet the demands of the iPhone era—was no longer equipped to fix.
“Someone came in with a [seventh-gen iPod Classic] and my coworker was like 'I don't want to touch it.' It clicked that every day, hundreds, if not thousands of people are going to repair shops with iPods and they're being turned down. They're being told it's easier to go buy one online somewhere.”
That's when he saw his opportunity. Quitting the phone biz, he started a shop with a focus on iPods, called Elite Obsolete Electronics. Since 2019, EOE has had a front-row seat to the iPod renaissance. In his Kansas lab, Lucas parts out iPods bought in bulk from electronics recyclers, tests the various bits, and reassembles working iPods with a mix of new and used components.
Thanks to renewed interest, more custom iPod components are available now than ever before. “When the iPod Classic was discontinued, the availability of custom parts was a shell of what it is now … you could really only get batteries and real Apple parts,” says Lucas. “2020 was when the purple, green, and blue faceplates came out for the sixth- and seventh-gen iPods, and then that fall the rainbow, blue, and purple backs came out. That added a little freshness and excitement … people would log on and they'd see a green iPod. Woah! When was that possible?”
Through the iPod subreddits and Discord communities, Austin Lucas became a trusted supplier to those working on their own 'Pods. It was there, about two years ago, that he met a budding YouTuber who wanted to focus on iPods and their contemporaries. “I got a message from Wade, and he was looking for some parts. So I sent them to him and we started talking.”
Wade Nixon, whose channel is called DankPods, has been a unique booster of the iPod world during the Covid-19 pandemic. Based in Australia, Wade was a professional drummer in the Before Times, selling repaired iPods as a side hustle. His quirky videos demonstrate the resiliency of the iPod as an idea and as a literal object that he upgrades, uses, and abuses for show.
When Lucas first met Nixon at the beginning of 2020, the YouTuber’s channel had “1 or 2 thousand” subscribers. Now, he has 1.16 million. A video featuring a mod built with Elite Obsolete's colorful parts titled “I turned my iPod into a bee” has over 750,000 views, with Nixon’s other iPod-based content rocketing past the million-view mark. “Once I saw him blow up it was like, wow, this market's wide open. I'm not sponsored by him or anything … I owe basically all of my success to him in a sense,” Lucas says.
“I feel the iPod has come back because it never stopped being good, it always did the job it set out to do as well as it ever had,” says Nixon. “Combine that with the overwhelming power of nostalgia and the annoying modern trend of everything being a subscription service, it’s nice to have something not connected to the internet full of content that you actually own. No one can touch the tunes on my iPod in my pocket.”
Nixon says the most impressive mods are the prebuilt circuit boards that let standard computer solid-state drives work with the iPod. He also sings the praises of SD card storage upgrades, which make the iPod almost bulletproof while using less battery. “Stick it in, format it, and you’re good to go. It’s a fun way to get over 1,000 GB in a manky old nugget pod, what with flash storage getting so cheap.”
If there was a white whale for the iPod modding community, it would have to be Bluetooth. After all, what's more retro-futuristic than pairing a 2007-vintage iPod to the latest Apple AirPods? Although it’s possible to plug an off-the-shelf Bluetooth transmitter into the iPod’s headphone jack or 30-pin port, modders were hungry for an elegant, internal solution that didn't require soldering a bundle of tiny wires. Even then, signal strength would suffer as the Bluetooth radio struggled to send a clear signal through the iPod’s metal case.
A recent post on the r/iPod subreddit reveals the best attempt yet to incorporate modern wireless tech into the old iPod's chassis. Amir Rees, an iPod modder, has come up with a self-contained Bluetooth addition that lives in the iPod's chrome back half, along with the battery and headphone jack. “I decided to create a mod that simply refined what others had done—a Bluetooth kit that looked professional, performed well, and did not require soldering,” Rees says in an email. “It's completely plug-and-play.”
Rees’ design turns the iPod's hold switch into a dual-function button, assigning it Bluetooth pairing duties. The most meaningful innovation might be the antenna cutout in the rear housing, which boosts the range and performance of the Bluetooth radio by giving its signals a clear passage through the metal case. Rees hopes he'll be able to create an even better version of the product with a custom circuit board and more features in the future.
Bluetooth may seem like an obvious upgrade, but of course the iPod community is working on some utterly superfluous mods as well. Modders have ported some new-school Apple tech—the iPhone's Taptic Engine—into the iPod. The Taptic Engine is a linear actuator motor that gives an iPhone its lively buzzes and tactile bumps; you'll feel the Taptic Engine at work whenever you get a phone call or press and hold on an app icon. Brave hackers discovered the Taptic module had hidden test pads under a strip of tape and delicately connected them to the iPod. Instead of a tinny audible click, modders feel the bump of a modern motor when flying around the device's click wheel.
Coming full circle, an intrepid inhabitant of the iPodModding server on Discord added what they call "hard drive feedback"—using the Taptic Engine to vibrate the iPod whenever data is read from the internal flash drive, simulating the whirrs and clicks of the old hard disk that used to live inside.
The wilder mods—creating 3D-printed shells, adding a Taptic Engine, converting the iPod’s 30-pin port to USB-C, loading the device with custom firmware, and even adding Bluetooth—seem to be edge cases. Most modders keep it simple, upgrading the internals and giving the exterior some personal flair.
In a better world, the 20th anniversary of the iPod would have been a way bigger deal. To be clear, the iPod name does officially still live on, just in diluted form. The last product carrying the moniker is the iPod Touch, a phone-less touchscreen iPhone that hasn’t been updated in about three years—hardly a celebration of the product that vaulted Apple to superstardom.
Icons in other industries are often produced continuously for decades with little change. One can hardly imagine KitchenAid killing its stand mixer or Bialetti binning the Moka Pot. Yet the original iPod was abandoned as soon as a gadget with louder bells and whistles, promises of greater convenience, and magical always-on connectivity came along.
Wireless streaming aside, the act of listening to music hasn’t changed significantly since the early 2000s. Wired headphones are sold in abundance and are even hip again. High-resolution digital downloads are widely available from platforms like Bandcamp, 30-pin iPod cables can still be found for a few bucks, and—shock!—Apple’s desktop software still supports syncing songs to an iPod. This is true whether they are AAC files bought from the iTunes Store, MP3s downloaded with a code that came inside a vinyl album, or WAVs ripped from a CD. And all of these options are superior to streaming, according to iPod fans like Esten.
“People look at how they listen to music now and they're like, ‘Wait a second, this used to be different, and in a lot of ways, this used to be better,’” she says. “You end up listening to a song on YouTube and you have to watch a 15-second ad beforehand, or on Spotify you have to pay for a monthly plan, you also get ads, and sometimes there's a dispute with an artist and the song goes away. These things are baked into how we consume things now, and they didn't used to be.”
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