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HOW-TO use an iPod as a bootable drive


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This week's HOW-TO is a handy one for the Mac folks out there who want to run multiple operating systems, but not install them to their hard drive, all using an iPod as a bootable FireWire drive. This HOW-TO is also helpful for trying out new software (on another OS), running developer versions of Mac OS (like Mac OS X Server or Tiger) as well as having a way to repair your Mac if for some reason it cannot boot on its own. At the end of this article, we also point to a way to simply back up your home directory (or anything else to your iPod) which can be handy too, and even used in conjunction with this HOW-TO).

Ingredients for this HOW-TO...
  • iPod (most iPods should work, but the mini will not)
  • Mac OS X 10.3.5 is what we're using for the target machine
  • Operating System to install to iPod (we used Tiger and Mac OS X)


Before we get started, we should warn you that doing this can and will use your iPod in a way it was not intended and may severely shorten the life of your iPod. The reason is that the little iPod hard drive wasn't meant to be a full-time operating system drive. It's okay to boot from it from time to time, but the little drives are rated to about 20,000 hours while desktop drives are usually rated to 750,000 hours or more. But, even with that said— the biggest reason thus will eventually kill your iPod is—the heat that will be generated inside the iPod from this much use isn't what the iPod was designed for, so at some point you can and will fry your iPod.

Preparing the iPod...
Also, to do this we're going to completely erase the iPod, making it useless for anything else beside booting in to another operating system (until you restore it using the iPod update utility).>

You may not need to erase the iPod completely, in our tests we found that it worked better (in most cases) and if you're going to use a PC iPod then you need to format it to a Mac File system any way.

Now that's out of the way, let's get started.

For our example, we're going to use a 3G, 30GB iPod. The first thing we're going to need to do is erase the drive, formatting it— in preparation to install the new OS to it.

Our OS is Mac OS 10.3.5

Plug the iPod into your Mac (for our example, an iMac).

Open Disk Utility, it's usually located in the Utilities folder.
disk util

In the left pane, click the iPod and select "erase" in menu to the right. Choose "Mac OS Extended (Journaled) and name the drive (we named ours booter).erase

Click erase. It will ask to confirm, click Erase.

confirm erase
The drive will be erased and partitioned. Quit Disk Utility.

Installing the new Operating System...
Pop the DVD/CD/or disc image in and start the install, choose the drive we just created on the iPod.
You may need to reboot prior to the install, just make sure you leave the iPod plugged in.

When you start the install, choose the drive "booter" or whatever you named it, this will install the operating system to the iPod.
choose ipod
If for any reason the install hangs, reboot the Mac and start again. To reboot the iPod, press and hold the menu + play buttons for 10 seconds. For the 4G iPod (click wheel) flip the hold switch, flip it back, then press and hold the center button for 10 seconds.

It'll take about 40 minutes to install Mac OS X to the iPod, once it's finished— unplug the iPod and reboot the Mac.

Without the iPod plugged in to the Mac, reboot in to your regular operating.

After you reboot and you've logged in, plug the iPod in. Feel free to inspect its contents as well as add any other files you wish to use once you boot to it.

Booting up...
Open up System Preferences and click "Startup Disk".
start up
In the list of disks, choose "booter" or whatever you called it.

Confirm, click restart.

After rebooting you'll be in the new operating system, running directly off your iPod! You might need to set up the new system and transfer files from your other drive if you need them, but that's pretty much it.

Here we are in Mac OS X "Tiger" (10.4).
mac os 104

Search, Gadgets, RSS in Safari...

on 104
Keep in mind it'll be a bit slower than running off your regular hard drive and don't do this all the time as we mentioned at the start of this article as it will shorten the iPod's life span quite a bit.

A couple last things...

Another easy way to do all this is to use "Carbon Copy Cloner" with this utility you can make an exact copy of your system to the iPod, very handy for when you need to boot up in case of emergencies.

The Future of iPod booting...
We're big fans of the bootable Linux CD we always carry around which has KNOPPIX-STD — a collection of GNU/Linux software, automatic hardware detection, utils and more— it doesn't install anything to the hard drive, very handy for lots of good things. We're thinking of doing an OS X flavor (for our own use) with all our favorite tools, utils and more and have that in our bag for when we want to boot in to a totally different system.

And with that said, we might try and see if we can install and boot from a Linux distro on the iPod, we'll let you know if it works out (it seems possible).

Backing up to the iPod...
iPodBackup v1.1b3. is a Mac OS X utility based on a shell script that allows you to backup your OS X "home" directory to your iPod. You'll need to follow the instructions on this page, but it's pretty simple. If you extra space on your iPod this is really worth it, and you don't need to erase/format like our HOW-TO. That said, you could make your iPod bootable like we showed here, then use iPodBackup to backup to the bootable iPod with a fresh copy of your home directory, you'd always have a bootable version of your Mac wherever you go.

Awhile back, there was a rumor of "Home on iPod" built in to Mac OS X, from Apple, but so far it hasn't presented itself more than once, then it was pulled off the Apple site.

Here's the text before it was pulled from Apple's site.

Home away from home
Ever thought you could carry your home in the palm of your hands or in your pocket? You can. Panther's Home on iPod feature lets you store your home directory  files, folders, apps on your iPod (or any FireWire hard drive) and take it with you wherever you go. When you find yourself near a Panther-equipped Mac, just plug in the iPod, log in, and you're home, no matter where you happen to be. And when you return to your home computer, you can synchronize any changes you've made to your files by using File Sync, which automatically updates offline changes to your home directory.

But, last week "YouPod" was released... (Shareware, not Apple) so who knows what's going to happen; it might show up in the next version of the OS, or maybe it'll only be a 3rd party app.

Well, that's it for now— good luck!

Phillip Torrone can be reached via his personal site, or

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