Q: I plan to switch from an iMac to a MacBook Pro. I have a very large iTunes library (300GB+) and plan to still acquire additional content. I understand I can store my iTunes library on an external hard drive, which is great. However when I travel, what should I do if I want to get a few TV show episodes and a couple of movies with me on the laptop (assuming my entire library is on the external hard drive and most of my Movies / TV shows are DRM protected from iTunes store)?

– Nicolo

A: There’s actually a fairly simple workaround for this based on the fact that iTunes will always temporarily fall back to looking in tis default location for any media that it can’t find in the specified location.

The key is to keep the iTunes database stored on your MacBook Pro and only move your actual media content to your external hard drive. This way, when you start iTunes with the external hard drive disconnected, your database of content will still be available, even though the actual files are not. In this state, you will still be able to see a listing of your tracks, although of course you won’t be able to play any of them since they’re located on your disconnected external hard drive.

However, when trying to access a given media file, iTunes starts by looking in the specific location (the external hard drive in this case), and then if it can’t find the track there, it next looks in the normal default iTunes Media folder location, which would be on your MacBook Pro hard drive’s Music folder under the “iTunes” folder.

This means that if you want to take content with you when travelling, all you need to do is copy it manually from your external hard drive to the corresponding iTunes Media folder location your MacBook Pro. For instance, if you’ve stored your iTunes Media folder on your external hard drive in a folder named Media, this means that your TV shows would be stored in Media/TV Shows and any specific TV show would be stored as Media/TV Shows/(showname). If you wanted to watch specific episodes of that TV show while travelling, you’d simply copy those episodes to your Music/iTunesiTunes MediaTV Shows(showname) folder on your MacBook Pro hard drive. When the external hard drive is disconnected, iTunes would realize that it can’t find the shows on the external drive and would fall back to looking for them in the default iTunes Media folder, which is where you would have copied them to.

Further, you can even continue to sync your iPhone or iPod to your MacBook Pro even when the external hard drive is disconnected, as iTunes will never remove a track from your iPod as long as it remains listed in your iTunes library, regardless of whether the actual file is available or not. You’ll only be able to add new content that is actually on your computer, but if you happen to import or purchase new content while you’re travelling, this means you can still get it synced onto your iPod in much the same way as you normally would.

This is all explained in some additional detail in our article on Transferring your iTunes Library. Specifically check out the section at the end on Using an External Hard Drive and a Portable Computer. Also keep in mind that there may be some subtle differences in how your files are organized in iTunes 9 depending on whether you’ve upgraded to the new “iTunes Media organization” or not. This is also discussed in the above article.


Jesse Hollington was a Senior Editor at iLounge. He's written about Apple technology for nearly a decade and had been covering the industry since the early days of iLounge. In his role at iLounge, he provided daily news coverage, wrote and edited features and reviews, and was responsible for the overall quality of the site's content.