Beginner’s Guide to Using iPods as Hard Disks

Beginner’s Guide to Using iPods as Hard Disks 1

iPods are made for music, right? Well, yes, but your iPod can do a lot more than that: you can also use your iPod as a hard disk to store files, back up your work, or transfer files from one computer to another. After all, an iPod is simply a tiny storage device with a screen, audio hardware, and a special case. Standard iPods use miniature hard drives, while iPod shuffles use memory chips. Both are as good at storing data as they are at storing music.

Many people – 44% of readers responding to an iLounge survey, in fact – use the iPod as a music and data device, and the reasons are obvious: it’s easy to carry between home and office; you can use it to back up work-related files during the day, just in case you lose your work; and you can use it for storing personal files as well, if you have enough room after you’ve filled your iPod with tunes (and possibly pictures).

Using the iPod as a hard disk begins with one step: change some settings in iTunes’ iPod preferences. After that, it’s as simple as dragging files to and from the iPod.

Setting Up your iPod (full-sized or mini)

To use your iPod as a hard disk, start by connecting it to your computer, then open iTunes if it doesn’t open automatically. Click the iPod in the Source list, then click the iPod Options button at the bottom right of the iTunes window. This opens the iPod tab of iTunes’ preferences.

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If you’ve set your iPod to manually manage songs and playlists, as in the example above, then it is already set to work as a hard disk. All you have to do is drag files to the iPod’s icon on your desktop, or in the Windows Explorer or Finder. You may want to uncheck Open iTunes when this iPod is Attached, so you don’t have to worry about iTunes getting in your way each time you want to connect the iPod and copy files to or from it.

If you want to use automatic syncing for your iPod, you need to turn on the Enable Disk Use setting. Display the iPod preferences the same way as described above, and check that option.


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Again, you may want to uncheck Open iTunes when this iPod is Attached; this will prevent a different computer’s copy of iTunes from trying to update your iPod when you connect it. Make sure, however, to quit iTunes before connecting your iPod.

Setting Up the iPod shuffle

The above explanations apply to both iPod minis and white iPods (either black-and-white- or color-screened). However, if you have an iPod shuffle, things are slightly different. While iPods and iPod minis automatically let you use any or all available space for files without using special settings, the iPod shuffle requires you to choose how much space you want to allocate for file storage. This setting is managed in iTunes, and you can change it at any time.

Practically speaking, this means that if you choose, say, 100 MB for files on your iPod shuffle, you won’t be able to use that 100MB of space for songs until you tell iTunes otherwise. From then on, the 100MB will be set aside and kept empty except for your data files.

To set up your iPod shuffle as a hard disk, open iTunes and click the iPod icon at the bottom of the iTunes window. When the preferences window opens, check Enable Disk Use, then move the slider to determine how much of your iPod shuffle’s disk space you’d like to keep available for files. This slider shows a number of songs on the left (this is an estimate) and an amount of disk space on the right; use the latter to set the disk space you want to use. (As with other iPods, you’ll find that unchecking Open iTunes when this iPod is Attached makes it easier to work with.)


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Copying Files to and from your iPod

To copy files to your iPod, just drag them onto the iPod’s icon in the Windows Explorer or in the Finder. On Windows, you can access the iPod from My Computer. On Macs, the iPod shows up in the Finder window sidebar and on the Desktop (unless you’ve set Finder preferences to not show external devices there). 

When you use an iPod as a hard disk, it really is just like any other external storage device – you copy files to it and from it as on any other device, hopefully setting up a folder for your files to keep them organized. You can even use the iPod as a destination for backup software, and, in some cases, mount it as a network volume on other computers, if you’re connected to a network.

However, if you copy music files to it in this manner, you won’t be able to listen to them on the iPod; only songs you’ve added to your iTunes music library are playable on the iPod. You can, however, use the iPod like this to transfer music files between computers, such as when you want to copy an iTunes library from an old computer to a new one.

You’ll need to bear in mind how your iPod is formatted. If your iPod is formatted for a Windows computer, you’ll be able to access its contents on both Macs and PCs. However, if it’s formatted for use on a Mac, you’ll only be able to use it on Macs. Mac users also need to be aware that they cannot copy some files to Windows-formatted iPods, or to iPod shuffles (which are all formatted for Windows, using FAT32 formatting).

Which files? Mac users can’t copy files to Windows-formatted iPods if their names contain any of the following characters:

* . ” / \ [ ] : ; | = ,

If you try to copy files containing any of these characters, your Mac will display an error message. If you try to copy a folder and any of the files contains one or more of these characters, you’ll get the same error message, but the alert won’t tell you which file is the culprit. So, if this occurs, you’ll need to check all your files to find out which are blocking the copy.

When you’ve finished working with the iPod as a hard disk, you must eject it correctly. If you use a Mac, click the eject button next to the iPod in a Finder window sidebar.


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If you’re using Windows, right-click the iPod in the Windows Explorer, then select Eject, or click the Safely Remove Hardware icon in the System Tray and select the iPod, then click Stop.


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So use your iPod not only for music and photos, but to store, back up and transfer files as well. It’s a great way to have a small, portable hard disk that you can access any time you need it.

Links to Additional iLounge Information on Using the iPod as a Hard Drive

Need to know more? Take a look at our past articles on podcasting, and join our Podcasting discussion forum to share experiences and advice with other people. Of course, your comments are always welcome below, as well.

Depending on how much free space you have on your iPod, our Guide to backing up iPod and iTunes music could help you transfer your entire library from one computer to another.

Our earlier iPod 201 Guide to iPod Connection and Synchronization can help users explore more complex alternatives for connecting their iPods to computers, and properly synchronizing their iPod and iTunes music libraries.

picKirk McElhearn is the author of several books including iPod & iTunes Garage. His blog Kirkville features articles about the iPod, iTunes, Mac OS X and much more.
  1. Copying Files to and From your iPod:

    Just for clarification–

    When the article says “Mac files containing these characters * . “ / \ [ ] : ; | = , won’t copy onto a windows formatted iPod,” I think you meant to say:

    Mac files containing those characacters “in the file name.” Correct?

  2. Question: I have 2 computers, one at work and one at home, both with my full music collection (copied using an external hard drive). I was looking at getting the shuffle for the gym and also for file transfers.

    I know for a full size iPod, you have to reformat in order to sync with other computers, does it work the same way with the shuffle? Can you change the file portion without reformatting? I figure reformatting wouldn’t take long since it’s so small, but would anything bad happen if I did this multiple times, switching between the 2 computers?

    Thanks for your help.

  3. I recently had to reformat my computer. Now when I reinstalled my itunes, my library is empty. Although in my music folder (I had saved on an external hard drive)is full of music with an itunes icon next to each song. When reading about using my ipod as a hard drive I’m a little confused on how to transfer my playlists, songs etc from my ipod to my library. When I first got it I accidentally deleted everything from my itunes library not realizing the update was only one way. Meaning it took all the info from my computer and put it into my ipod (which was nothing). How do I get everything from my ipod into my newly installed itunes library?

  4. Is it mandatory to have iTunes installedto use IPOD as a drive? Can’t I just plug into any computer and use it as an external storage?

  5. I tried using my ipod 20gig 4g as the target drive for imovie while importing video from the camcorder, and found that the data transfer rate appears to be inadequate.

    Has anyone else tried this?


    Yes…iMovie and external hard drives are dodgy (iPod is an external HD)…It’ll never be quite fast enough.

    Soon enough though Flash memory will become inexpensive and we will have 100GB iPod flash versions- and flash memory is far faster than Hard Drives.

    When Flash memory does come in large capacities cheap, mark my word- it will revolutionise the way storage and computers work…faster, more reliable, more flexible, more versatility etc etc…


    I dont believe you need iTunes installed on every computer you want to use your ipod with- but you do require iTunes to modify ipod settings such as music vs data ratios etc.

  7. I’ve found this great peace of freeware to use your iPhone or iPod Touch as external HD. Check it out at it’s called DiskAid. It’s Mac and PC, I’m pretty sure Apple will make this feature available soon, but in the mean time, DiskAid is really handy.

  8. Help. I have one ipod and two computers. I want to put my music on both computers and be able to download music from both computers. Is this possible? Ipod makes it very easy to transfer music that was purchased from one computer to another. Why don’t they make it easy to transfer songs that I downloaded myself?


  9. I have a mac, but it is running out of memory space. I don’t want to buy another external hard drive (i bought one for my former windows computer, may it RIP, but it doesn’t work with MAC) i want to use my ipod to store extra files on it. I was wondering if I can store for example my videos on it, and then access and watch (or maybe use them in imovie) them without copying them to my computer? any help would be appreciated.

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