Want to copy a song from your iPod back onto your PC? You'll need some specialised software, and potentially infinite patience. Here's the lowdown on what you need to know.
It's not a particularly unusual scenario: your PC has entirely died, taking your music collection with it, and you've been sloppy about backup. But all your carefully ripped CDs and downloads are still stored on your iPod. What could be easier than copying them back?
Possible answer to that question: home dental surgery. It is possible to copy songs back from an iPod to an entirely different PC, but it's not particularly easy, and you may well have to try more than one approach.
Why can't I just copy songs from my iPod to another PC?
The short answer is: because Apple designed the iPod and iTunes so you couldn't. Music isn't stored on an iPod as a simple and predictable series of files, so copying it requires specialised software. In Apple's view of the world, you'd always use iTunes, but not everybody is happy with that — partly because some iTunes updates just flat out refuse to work on some machines, and partly because iTunes is designed to restrict the copying of music to protect the interest of copyright owners (and hence ensure that record labels stay nice with the iTunes Store).
If you plug your iPod into a different machine that already has iTunes on it, iTunes will respond by saying that the iPod can only be synced with one library at a time, and thoughtfully offer to wipe it for you. You can click Cancel and use the connection to charge an iPod via USB, but you can't add or subtract any music or other content. To get around this, you'll need to use a separate software package. (Even though DRM has now been largely removed from the iTunes store, the same basic model remains in place.)
OK, how do I go about it?
We've published a pretty comprehensive guide to copy music and movies from an iPod before, and that's certainly a good place to start. However, something that the guide perhaps doesn't emphasise enough — and which I didn't fully appreciate myself until I tried it — is that one person's software solution is another person's nightmare.
One common complication is that some software will refuse to run with iTunes running in the background, but won't recognise any connected iPod unless iTunes is running in the background — I've always found this a problem with YamiPod. You could try uninstalling iTunes altogether, but there's no guarantee then the device will get recognised at all in that case. All you can really do in these circumstances is keep downloading different software packages and trying them out. The forums for many of the products offer some basic advice, but in practice I suspect it's quicker just to keep on the install/remove cycle until you find something that works.
Our original guide concentrated solely on free software, but there's also lots of shareware designed to perform the same trick (and some packages, like Pod To PC, have made the switch from the paid to free market).
In my tests for this writeup, the only software that actually got the job done with my Nano without endless errors was the shareware package iPodRip, which costs $US19.95 but lets you transfer up to 100 tracks in trial mode for free. Given the variable performance that goes with any software working with the ever-changing and Apple-guarded iPod ecosystem, I wouldn't invest in any shareware package that you can't test first, but it's worth considering if the free options fail you.
Note that transferring songs or movies this way won't, in and of itself, remove any copy protection — if you're not signed into iTunes with an authorised account, you won't be able to play the tracks. You can attempt to remove the protection with software like doubleTwist, but you'd be in violation of Australian law in doing so.
Lifehacker 101 is a weekly feature covering fundamental techniques that Lifehacker constantly refers to, explaining them step-by-step. Hey, we were all newbies once, right?