The Care and Feeding of Your iPod

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Before I ponied up the bucks and bought my first iPod, I had one of those peewee flash memory MP3 players that held about 32 megabytes of music and sucked down AAA batteries like a Tampa Bay linebacker guzzling Gatorade on a hot Florida day. When I saw the light and bought an iPod, the realization that I was not going to have to keep feeding the Energizer Bunny every other day was a joyous one. The iPod’s rechargeable battery promises hours and hours of music on the go, and all I had to do was remember to plug it into my Mac or an AC adapter to charge it up when it needed more power.

I became much more familiar with the ins, outs, ups, and downs of the iPod battery when I was writing iPod: The Missing Manual earlier this year. After months of research for the book, which included regular wading through Apple’s Knowledge Base and discussion boards, lurking on Web forums, and listening to anything iPod-related within earshot, it soon became apparent to me that battery life was a rather toasty topic among iPodders. People are not just comparing play time between charges, but battery behavior, overall life span, and other factors that affect the iPod’s ability to keep the tunes spinning.

Apple estimates that the battery in the first two generations of the iPod, (those released in 2001 and 2002), can last for up to ten hours of playback time. The 2003 iPods, with their slimmer size, have a smaller battery that is supposed to last for up to eight hours of use. There are a lot of factors to consider in attaining these numbers, and many folks complained that they just weren’t getting ten or even eight hours of life out of their Pods before they had to rejuice.

To keep the music playing as long as possible, here are ten things to consider about the battery and how to use its power effectively.

1. Just Press Play

The iPod can hold thousands of songs, but be-bopping all over the unit to go from one unrelated track to the next can burn down the battery because the iPod’s hard drive has to keep spinning to keep up with you. Settling into a nice long playlist and not jumping around lets the iPod buffer the tracks into its memory, take a load off its hard drive, and ease the need for more battery power.

2. Size Matters

That same memory cache that the iPod uses to store songs and keep them from skipping also works best with song files that are smaller than nine megabytes in size. This isn’t too much of an issue with pop songs compressed in the MP3 or AAC formats, but if you’ve got hefty, uncompressed AIFF files, large batches of songs cobbled together into one giant megatrack, or other music files bigger than nine megs, you’ll probably burn through your battery faster than someone cruising through a playlist of AAC files.

3. The Price of Illumination

The iPod’s bright white backlight makes it easy to see your songs in the dark, but at a price. The power-hungry backlight can put a real drain on the player’s battery, so use it sparingly to preserve more time for songs between charges. You can adjust the amount of time your backlight stays on automatically when you do have to turn it on. Just go to the iPod’s Settings menu and select Backlight Timer. You can have the backlight stay automatically on for two, five, ten, or twenty seconds when you need it, or opt to just keep it always turned off.

4. The Big Turn-Off

The iPod will go to sleep after a few minutes of inactivity, but you can shut down when you’re done with it by holding down the Play/Pause key for a few seconds. This might be a good habit to get into anyway, lest you have set your iPod to repeat an album, playlist, or library over and over. If you forget to turn it off, you may return to an iPod with a depleted battery and no music to share until you charge it back up again.

5. The Handy Hold Switch

There is a Hold button located on the top of the iPod, as well as one located on the remote control for those of you who purchased iPods with the full swag bag of accessories right out of the box. Flipping on the Hold switch disables the controls on the front of the iPod, which can keep it from jumping around, or turning itself off when something nudges the controls. Likewise, if you’ve tossed your iPod loosely into your gym bag or purse or been in some other situation, like a jam-packed subway car where the controls can get bumped, the Hold switch is quite helpful in preventing the iPod from accidentally being turned on and running down its battery.

6. Don’t Go to Extremes

Excessive heat or cold not only makes people cranky and sluggish, but these factors can also affect your iPod’s performance. The iPod works best in temperatures between 50 degrees to 95 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees to 35 degrees Celsius), and might behave erratically otherwise. Don’t leave the iPod in direct sunlight or in a hot parked car.

If you accidentally leave it out in the cold for too long, let the iPod warm up to room temperature before turning iton, else the iPod might flash its dreaded Low Battery icon in your face. And when you do charge it up, let it breathe–place it upright in its charging dock and take it out of any case or cover you might use with it, so the heat of the charging battery doesn’t get trapped within.

7. Check the Charging

Remember, not all FireWire ports are powered, especially when it comes to Windows. When you plug the iPod into a computer or an AC adapter to juice it up, make sure you see the animated “charging battery” action graphic on the display screen. If you plug it in to charge and nothing happens, you may have a bad AC adapter, malfunctioning FireWire port on either end of the connection, crimped cable, or an unpowered FireWire port.

8. Feed When Not In Use

It may seem sacrilege to have an iPod and not use it for a few weeks, but if this is the case, you’ll still need to recharge it. If you haven’t been using it, the iPod still requires a small bit of power while it’s sleeping away in a drawer. To keep the iPod gassed up and ready to rock and roll, charge it at least every 14 to 18 days.

9. And Now, This Update…

The ability of the iPod system software to efficiently manage the battery’s power is often the subject of great debate among devout Pod People. A huge howl went up from many users after version 1.2 of the iPod software was released because the then-new Clock feature generated a noticeable reduction in average battery life between charges. This was not a pleasing option for some folks, who promptly ditched the new software, skipped the Clock, and went back to iPod software version 1.1 so they could enjoy long hours of music again before they had to come home and recharge.

Apple, of course, recommends that all iPod users download and install each new software update as it is released. The past few updates for the 2001 and 2002 iPods have included efforts to improve battery and power management issues. The latest iPod system software for all Macintosh and Windows models is at http://www.apple.com/ipod/download.

10. The Replacements

There comes a time in every battery’s life when it just won’t hold a charge. Don’t take it personally–it’s just the nature of chemistry. Age, the amount of use, and the number of charge cycles all affect a battery’s overall life span, and sometimes, you just get a dud in the first place. If you find your iPod is barely holding a charge and constantly flashing the Low Battery icon at you, take action. If you’re still under Apple’s one-year warranty, contact them about the problem. There’s an online form at https://depot.info.apple.com/ipod/index.html. Even if you’re beyond the warranty, you can get a repair estimate from the company and decide it you want to mail your Pod to the doctor for a battery transplant.

If you’re a fearless do-it-yourself user or just want to save some money, you have other options. If you have a 2001 or 2002 iPod, you can get a replacement battery to install yourself for $59 at http://www.ipodbattery.com. You can also get a new battery for the same price at PDASmart.com. But if the thought of prying open your Pod gives you the heebies, PDASmart has a mail-order service, wherein you mail your iPod to them and they swap in a new battery and mail it back to you for a mere $68. Details are at http://www.pdasmart.com/ipodpartscenter.htm.

First published at O’Reilly’s MacDevCenter.

iPod: The Missing Manual
not only covers all iPod models for both Mac and Windows, including the super-slim 2003 series, it’s also the ultimate guide to iTunes, MusicMatch Jukebox Plus, and even the new iTunes Music Store. With humor and authority, New York Times tech columnist J. D. Biersdorfer lays bare an astonishing collection of useful tips, tricks, and shortcuts. No matter what kind of music moves you, iPod: The Missing Manual will help you get much more out of your iPod–and much more into it.


The Care and Feeding of Your iPod
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About J.D. Biersdorfer
iPod: The Missing Manual not only covers all iPod models for both Mac and Windows, including the super-slim 2003 series, it's also the ultimate guide to iTunes, MusicMatch Jukebox Plus, and even the new iTunes Music Store. With humor and authority, New York Times tech columnist J. D. Biersdorfer lays bare an astonishing collection of useful tips, tricks, and shortcuts. No matter what kind of music moves you, iPod: The Missing Manual will help you get much more out of your iPod--and much more into it. cover
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