iPod Connection and Synchronization | iLounge Article


iPod Connection and Synchronization

The iPod 101 Series was created as an introductory course for Mac and PC users totally new to iTunes.  We’ve covered many topics we have felt to be the most fundamental to the enjoyment of digital music in iTunes.  Here’s a full list of what we’ve covered so far:

iPod 101 Course List:

This week, we take iLounge’s basic iTunes training series to a new level.  This article launches the next part in our tutorial series.  Appropriately named “iPod 201,” this course will feature the same in-depth tutorial content, but will cover more iPod-specific tips and more advanced iTunes features.  Currently on the syllabus are:

  • iPod Connection and Synchronization
  • Copying music from your iPod to your PC
  • Using the PDA features of your iPod
  • Relocating your iTunes Music Library
  • ...
  • Audible content?  eBooks?  Submit your ideas!

At iLounge, we are looking forward to the iPod 201 series… we hope you enjoy it!

iPod Synchronization

One of the main reasons that the iPod has become the dominant portable MP3 player is its extreme simplicity.  The iPod’s simplicity is not just in the navigation of its menus… the synchroniztion process can be very simple, in most cases. 

Simply plug in your iPod for the first time, follow the easy pop-up instructions, and your whole library transfers to your iPod at 3-4 songs per second (via Firewire or USB 2.0).  Thereafter, it’s even easier—as soon as you plug in the iPod, iTunes launches and any changes in your library are seemingly immediately transferred to your iPod, all without you moving the mouse or touching one key.

However, this “Automatic Sync” mode is not the best choice for some iPod users.  Often, users will have too large a library for the iPod to hold.  In this case, for example, one should use another synchronization method.  Here, we’ll cover the purpose and use of the three main synchronization methods, and their advantages and disadvantages.

Getting Started:  The First Sync

To begin your first synchronization with your computer, make sure you have installed iTunes. (...and completed iPod 101?)

Then, simply plug in your iPod.  Depending on your iPod model, you may have several options as to how to do so:

  • 1G/2G iPod - Firewire Only
  • 3G iPod - Firewire via included cable OR USB 2.0 via add-on combo cable
  • iPod mini - Firewire OR USB2.0 via included cables
  • 4G iPod - Firewire OR USB2.0 via included cables

If your computer does not have USB2.0 or Firewire, you’re likely going to want to purchase an add-on card which supports one of them (PCI for desktops, PCMCIA for laptops).  Note that it is possible to use a USB2.0-capable iPod on the far more ubiquitous USB 1.1, but file transfers will be excruciatingly slow, and therefore is not something we tend to recommend.

Once you have your hardware connection chosen, connect your iPod.  Upon doing so, iTunes will launch and present you with the following setup dialog:


Here, you can name your iPod, Register your iPod, and select whether or not you’d like Automatic Syncing.  Automatic syncing will, upon clicking OK, load your iPod with your entire library of music.  If your existing library happens to be too large for your iPod, and you select Automatic Syncing, iTunes will you present you with the following dialog, create a selection of music that fits, and put your iPod in “Semi-Automatic” mode, which we’ll discuss later.



If you chose not to select “Automatic Syncing” on your initial setup dialog, you’ll be in “Manual Mode,” which we’ll also discuss in detail below. 

Worry not… regardless of which method you pick in this first dialog box, you can easily switch between the three main methods easily at any time.

Let’s move beyond the initial setup and take an in-depth look at each of the three syncing methods, and how to switch between them.

Automatic Syncing:  A Mirror Image

Automatic mode is, by far, the most popular method of managing music on the iPod due to its “hands-off” simplicity.

In this mode, the iPod and your iTunes library are essentially perfect mirror images of one another.  All of your songs are in both locations.  All of your playlists are the same.  Ratings and playcounts transfer both directions.  Even Audible.com bookmarks sync both ways, so you always pick up where you left off.

In most cases, if you have enough space on your iPod, automatic syncing is the way to go.

Note:  When in automatic syncing, you’ll notice that if you select your iPod in the Source column, all the songs are “greyed-out” and inaccessible.  This is normal.  You can’t access the music on your iPod directly when in this mode.  However, because your iPod is a mirror image of your iTunes library, you really have no reason to do so, anyway.

It is worth mentioning that because in this mode (and Semi-Automatic, below) iTunes and the iPod maintain copies of each other, songs cannot be deleted from iTunes and be expected to stay on the iPod after the next sync.  If you need to delete music off of your computer (to save hard drive space, for example), you’ll need to use Manual Syncing, described last.

It is also worth mentioning that the “Automatic” updates only take place when the iPod is first plugged in for each session.  If you have plugged in the iPod and made changes to your library, you’ll have to manually initiate the update sync.  To do so, right click on the iPod in the source column, and select “Update Songs.”

Semi-Automatic Syncing:  Selected Playlists Only

This mode can be useful for users with libraries larger than their iPods who still prefer a very simple, low-maintenance way to keep their iPod updated.

In this mode, you can select certain playlists to “automatically” synchronize with the iPod.  This can become very useful when used with Smart Playlists.  For example, create a few smart playlists, and limit each of them to a certain total file size.  Ensure that the sum of these maximum file sizes add up to the size of your iPod, and you have an easy way to keep your iPod full of music you like, without any hassle.

This method does have its limitations, however.  Not the least of these is the inability to create additional playlists on the iPod from the music that is on it.  Say, for example, that you have selected 4 playlists to automatically synchronize with the iPod.  These will be the only playlists on your iPod.

Like Automatic Syncing, you cannot access the songs on the iPod directly, but—again—you don’t need to, as all of the iPod’s songs are in the iTunes library.

To enter this mode, plug in your iPod, and click the fourth button from the right, in the bottom right hand corner.  This is the iPod Settings button, and has an iPod icon on it:



Clicking this will open the iPod Settings window, which allows you to select between the three synchronization methods.  Choose “Selected Playlists Only” for this mode:



Upon clicking “Done,” your changes will be made, and the iPod re-updated.

Manual Update

This method is the least intuitive method of syncing an iPod to iTunes, but is useful in several instances.

If your desktop’s (or laptop’s, more likely) hard drive space is running thin, Manual Updating mode will allow you to load your iPod with music, and proceed to delete the original copies from your computer.  (iLounge tends to recommend buying additional hard drive space and using an automatic method, purely because this habit of “sync and delete” is sure to wipe out a user’s music library due to loss or failure of the iPod.  Do this at your own risk.)

To switch to manual mode, use the same control panel described in the section on “Selected Playlists Only” above.

In manual updating, songs and playlists from your iTunes library are dragged (manually) onto your iPod in the Source column on the left side of iTunes.  If the songs contained in the drag selection are not already on the iPod, they will be transferred appropriately.  If they are already on the iPod, then no duplicate copy will be created, as iTunes keeps track—drag as you please without worrying about duplicates.

Manual updating also allows you to have different playlists on your iPod and iTunes.  To create an iPod playlist, select your iPod in the Source column on the left, and click the new playlist button, or select “New Playlist…” from the File menu.

With manual updating, you’ll notice that all songs on the iPod are fully editable and playable.  This allows you to listen to music directly off of the iPod, through the iTunes interface.  While the files can’t be copied to the computer due to copy restrictions, it is nice to listen to your iPod through the iTunes interface.

Another advantage of Manual mode is that songs can be added to (and listened to off of) the iPod from any computer.  Manual updating does not exclusively tie the iPod to any one computer, as does “Automatic” and “Selected Playlists Only.”

There is one crucial limitation that accompanies Manual Modes to keep separate collections on the computer and the iPod, and this is that ratings & playcounts do not synchronize from the iPod back to the computer.  For those who frequently listen to the iPod and use Smart Playlists often, this is a significant bummer.

If you like the additional control, the ability to delete your original music, and the ability to load the iPod from multiple computers, but don’t mind your ratings & playcounts being out of sync, then Manual mode may be for you.

Using the iPod as a Hard Drive

When in the iPod Settings window, you’ll notice the option to “Enable Disk Use.”  When checked, this allows the iPod to show up in the Finder (Mac) or Windows Explorer (Windows) as a standard removable hard drive.  (In Manual Sync mode, Disk Use is always enabled).

When the iPod is displayed as a hard drive, you are free to use it for whatever you’d like to do:  Backups, file transfer, etc.

You won’t, however, be able to access the music directory easily (enable “Show Hidden Files”).  If you do manage to find the music files, it is best not to tamper with them directly, as you may corrupt the database, requiring you to restore the iPod entirely.

It is important to note that when disk use is enabled, you must manually unmount the iPod before you unplug it.  To do so, select the iPod in the source column, and click the eject button in the bottom right of the main iTunes window:



Notes & Tips:

  • You can monitor your iPod’s hard disc usage at the bottom of the iTunes window:
  • You will notice that your iPod’s hard drive capacity is less than the number on the box.  This is normal.  Contrary to explanations often offered, the file system is not to blame for this discrepancy… marketing is.  The iPod, like any hard drive for any manufacturer, is marketed in decimal gigabytes.  In a decimal gigabytes, 1,000,000,000 bytes is 1 GB.  All computer hardware, however, uses 1024 bytes per kilobyte, 1024 kilobytes per megabyte, and so on.  For example, see the calculation for a “10GB” iPod, which yields around 9.3 GB of computer-interpreted space:



Jerrod H. is a Forum Administrator and Contributing Editor for iLounge.

« Copying music from iPod to computer (2004 edition)

Using the iTunes Music Store »

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This is a really useful article! I have just purchased a 4g iPod but have too much music to fit on it and was precisely wondering about these details, so thank you very much for the info.

I have a question though: If I synch some playlists (semi-auto synching) and some songs are duplicated between them, will the song be copied over once or twice/more times to the iPod?

If you don’t know the answer do you know a good way that I could test this for myself?

Many thanks! Simon

Posted by Simon in TX on September 20, 2004 at 1:04 AM (CDT)


The song will only be copied to the iPod once, regardless of how many playlists it is in.

Posted by Elithrar in TX on September 20, 2004 at 3:00 AM (CDT)


You’ve left out a key fact!

If you use automatic syncing, you can use the check boxes in your itunes library to tell itunes which tracks to put on your iPod.

Additionally, in my experience, automatic syncing is the only way to keep all ipod generated metadata - ie playcount, last played, etc.

Posted by Aaron in TX on September 20, 2004 at 6:29 AM (CDT)


Also if your library is bigger than your IPOD then you can use smart playlists to manage whats on your IPOD. I’ve got 3GB of my top rated music on my Ipod mini, 500mb of my newest music, and 200mb of my earliest ebooks with a play count of Zero.
I’ve noticed that the IPOD also manages the smart playlist, (did my 3g do this?) so my ebook place is always kept.

Posted by __redruM in TX on September 20, 2004 at 8:09 AM (CDT)


can’t WAIT for the rest of this series to keep up. 
The last block was awesome, and this sounds like I could soon be using some of these new features a LOT more.  Keep up the good work guys!

Posted by Eltharodo in TX on September 20, 2004 at 11:54 AM (CDT)


update checked songs only can be a critical part of automatic updating that should be in this article. Otherwise well done.

Posted by studogvetmed in TX on September 20, 2004 at 1:15 PM (CDT)


if anybody out there lives in roanoke, VA. knows if BEST BUY sells the usb 2.0 + firewire cables…

Posted by channing saunders in TX on September 20, 2004 at 1:56 PM (CDT)


My question is- if I change the rating of a song on the iPod, how do I get the back into my Mac?  It doesn’t do it automatically…

Posted by The D in TX on September 20, 2004 at 1:58 PM (CDT)


they seriously need to find a way to autosync but not delete the songs if it’s not your hard drive.  I love autosyncing but don’t enough space on my hard drive to keep all the songs that are on my iPod.

Posted by Vlad in TX on September 20, 2004 at 4:41 PM (CDT)


Smart Playlists stored on iPod itself work perfectly fine with manual song transfer.  They update whenever iPod is connected to iTunes (although not during portable iPod use of course).

Metadata of songs stored on iPod are also updated perfectly fine under manual control *and* with different computers.

Posted by Colin Laney in TX on September 20, 2004 at 4:56 PM (CDT)


Great article, came just when I am wondering how to make my usage of my new iPod as a portable disk easier…

It’d be wonderful if auto-sync can work even when working with 2 computers or more. I find it really a chore to manually sync my playlists because I keep changing them.

Posted by Trish in TX on September 20, 2004 at 6:41 PM (CDT)


I have a new ipod and am running iTunes on Windows XP.  I’ve tried unsuccessfully to get my MS Outlook Addresses (Contacts) into my ipod via the Export function.  The only alternative given on apple.com is to manually save each individual contact from Outlook as a vCard and then drop and drop to the ipod.  That is not a solution!! Who has time to do that?  Any suggestions?  Is 3rd party software required?

Posted by Mark in TX on September 20, 2004 at 8:45 PM (CDT)


use ipod agent to get your contacts onto you iPod it has worked well for me.

Posted by Braden in TX on September 21, 2004 at 9:58 AM (CDT)


I use a Mac at home and it have my music library on an external FW drive.  I use the semi-auto syncing method, even though my new 40G iPod could hold my entire library.  I have been thinking of changing to fully auto syncing, but that is another story.

I would like to use the iPod as my library while at work on an XP machine.  Is there a way to do this?  I tried it once and it wanted to reformat the iPod for Windows when I plugged it in.  If I switch the iPod to Manual update, can I use it as my library on the XP machine?  Can I then easily switch back to semi-auto at home and get my occasional updates without any hassle?

Thanks in advance,

Posted by Eric in TX on September 21, 2004 at 11:02 AM (CDT)


Good article.  But, do mention that if you are in auto-synch mode and switch to manual-manage mode that your ipod library will be totally deleted after the mode switch, and you have to update the WHOLE library all over again for the new mode of updating!  Very frustrating.


Posted by Eston in TX on September 21, 2004 at 1:00 PM (CDT)


Informative article.  Particularly enlightening to learn why my 20-gig 4G iPod only has a total of 18.6 gig on the hard drive.

Posted by JohnnieRay in TX on September 21, 2004 at 4:40 PM (CDT)


In response to Braden’s question: you can use your iPod on both XP and OSX, if you’re willing to go through with some short-term hassle.

Basically, XP can’t read mac-formatted iPods because it has no way to recognize Apple’s HPFS filesystem.  However, OSX will cheerfully operate with an iPod formatted with FAT32 (the format used for the Windows-based iPod).  The upshot of this is that if you’re willing to reformat your iPod on the XP machine, once, it will thereafter work on both machines.  You might have to use manual sync mode, though, as I’ve heard of people having problems with auto-sync when shuttling their iPod between two computers (of any stripe).

Posted by Halbyrd in TX on September 21, 2004 at 8:42 PM (CDT)


I have a similar question to Braden’s. I have an ibook I use at home, yet all the computers on campus use XP. So in order for me to use my ipod (3g) as a hard disc (basically to save papers on my computer at home and transfer them to XP computers at school) I will have to format my ipod to XP, which will allow me to use it on both operating systems.

Posted by Jon in TX on September 22, 2004 at 10:10 AM (CDT)


Thumbs up to this well-written and informative article!  Please keep them coming!

Posted by Yarish in TX on September 23, 2004 at 7:19 AM (CDT)


whats that extra button on the itunes screen shot of the bottom right corner next to the ipod button.
it says computer and has and up and down thingy and a volume icon.
i dont have that! is it becuase i is windows?!!


Posted by ijerry in TX on September 23, 2004 at 10:03 AM (CDT)

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