Lost and found: music on the iPod

An iPod can store music in two ways:

  • Mounting the device as ordinary USB drive
  • Syncing content using iTunes

In principle the user experience for these two modes is different and incompatible. For example MP3s stored in the drive will not show up in the music selection. Meanwhile the iTunes content is in principle not visible as plain files that can be copied to another location by mounting the iPod as a drive.

It turns out “in principle” is the operative keyword there. One of my friends pointed out that she is aware of some special-purpose 3rd party applications that can recover iTunes content. A little bit of experimenting shows that nothing fancy is required; the basic functionality available in Windows XP+ will do the trick. (Note: following descriptions apply to an iPod formatted for Windows.)

Short version of the story is that iTunes places content in a hidden-folder and scrambles names of MP3s. That means recovery requires two steps:

1. Display the hidden folder– this is relatively easy. In Windows Explorer, navigate to the iPod drive, select Tools –> Folder Options, switch to the View tab, locate/select the radio-button for “Show hidden files and folders.”

This will reveal a hidden folder named “iPod_Control,” distinguished in the listing by its pale, faded color. Alternatively in a command line you can type “dir /ah” which instructs the shell to display files with attribute “H” for hidden. Inside the main directory is a series of sub-folders with names like Fnn where “nn” is a two digit number. Inside each folder is one or more MP3 files with cryptic names. But hovering over an MP3 show the ID3 meta-data, which includes information such as the song title, artist, album name and genre. This is good news because it suggests that the file is left intact by iTunes when transferring to the iPod.

2. But the file names no longer correspond to song names, which is probably what they started out with originally. Not that it is always correct: typically ripping software will contact an online database to retrieve song information. Accuracy of that database varies. This creates a search problem.
It turns out that even the primitive search capability built into XP is up to the task. Selecting “Search” from the File menu in explorer brings up a new window, with a picture of a dog wagging its tail and blinking its eyes in the lower-left hand corner. (Clippy strikes back? Apparently somebody forgot to remove the last vestiges of that abysmal UX experiment from Windows.) For example, entering “Dylan” for the word/phrase to search and selecting MP3 from advanced options finds all tunes performed by Dylan or written by Dylan, although it takes a while to search the files individually. An indexing-based approach such as the one built into Vista, Windows Live Toolbar or Google Desktop will likely yield the same results but faster.


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