Really Testing iPod Hard Drives

If you’ve worked inside an iPod before or were simply curious how the little white devices work, you’re already aware of the smaller than usual hard drives used to store your music, videos, and other media. What you may not know is how to determine if one of these hard drives is functioning 100%, or on its last legs. Damage to the hard drive can result from any of a number of ways, but may not be immediately apparent.

All iPods except the Shuffle have a hidden diagnostic menu which includes, among other tools, the ability to run a full disk scan and report the status of the its hard drive.

The absolute best way I’ve found to test iPod hard drives is to actually open it up, attach the drive to a desktop computer using it’s native IDE interface, and run a full suite of disk tests on it. A while ago, I mentioned an adapter from Addonics which converts the iPod’s 1.8″ connector (seen here) to a standard 2.5″ laptop drive connector. (Several people commented on my iPod Super hack that any old laptop to desktop hard drive adapter will do, but the iPod does not use a standard laptop drive). From there, a second adapter will bring your iPod drive in line with a regular 3.5″ computer hard drive connector, ready for testing.

Once everything is hooked up, the assembly looks like a serious hack, but there’s no trickery involved other than the changing of connector sizes. The iPod’s drive is pin-for-pin and signal compatible with the hard drive in your computer right now, and is easily recognized like any other hard drive. At this point, you can run any disk scan on it you prefer. Personally, I swear by Hitachi’s Drive Fitness Test, which can be easily run as part of the Ultimate Boot CD (PC required; sorry Mac-only buddies!). DFT will run a quick interface test, a S.M.A.R.T. report, and then do a lengthy surface scan for bad sectors and other errors which could mangle your music or cause your iPod to fail at startup. I’ve tested dozens upon dozens of iPod and desktop drives with DFT, and I’ve never had a single false positive report. As such, DFT is my gold standard for all iPod, laptop, desktop, and SCSI hard drive tests. Best of all, it finishes with a concise and colorful status screen — green is good, red is bad.

With some fundamental technical skills, a couple of adapters, and some free software, you too can easily determine the health of your iPod’s hard drive… IF you’re willing to void its warranty by opening the case. However, if your iPod is already out of warranty and having issues, this procedure will put an end to questions about the most expensive part of your favorite music player.

Really Testing iPod Hard Drives

30 thoughts on “Really Testing iPod Hard Drives

  1. Thanks to legacy BIOS support from Apple, Intel Macs can now boot standard x86 discs such as Windows XP. I don’t have the hardware to confirm or deny that they can boot the above mentioned Ultimate Boot CD and run DFT. It seems logical that they can, but I’ve no proof or way to test this at the moment. If any technical-minded readers care to open up their Intel Mac and give it a shot, I’d appreciate an email.

    8/8/07 Update
    Intel Macs will boot the Ultimate Boot CD (v4.1.1), but lock up almost immediately after CDShell loads and the menu displays. Short of some other method, it doesn’t appear that DFT will run with the new EFI BIOS system. Same is true for Acronis True Image 9.1 boot CD — locks up as well. A shame.


  2. Ok, so if you can salvage the drive, what are the steps to reformat, and get it up and recognizable to the ipod? Thanks
    That’s a good point, Terry. Here’s how to get the drive ready again:

    If the drive is salvageable and you’ve got any and all bad sectors remapped using DFT or SpinRite, the next step is to reformat it so that the iPod doesn’t try to boot corrupted software.

    Theoretically, starting the iPod up and immediately putting it into Disk Mode should force it to ignore any system on the drive, but I’ve seen it attempt to load a system on several occasions. Wiping the drive with zeroes will clear out EVERYTHING on the disk, and may not be a bad idea as a final “proof” of complete functionality.

    A utility like Darik’s Boot And Nuke (a.k.a. DBAN), which is also on the Ultimate Boot CD a page or two over from DFT, can wipe a drive many times over. In this case, once is plenty. Be VERY careful when using this utility if you have more than just the iPod drive attached. DBAN has the capability of erasing ALL data on ALL drives attached to your PC. To be absolutely sure your important files stay safe, DBAN should be run with only the iPod drive attached. That said, just type ‘autonuke’ after loading DBAN, and the program will begin zeroing all attached drives. When it’s complete, shutdown your computer and remove the iPod drive. It’s now empty and ready to be put to use again.

    Plug the drive back into the iPod, tap a button to power it up, and hold the Disk Mode buttons immediately after. The iPod will then load it’s OS from the built-in FlashROM and go into Disk Mode. (If you mess up, hold the Reset keys and try again. Since there’s nothing on the drive, no harm can come from resetting the iPod mid-boot). Finally, plug the drive into your computer and Restore it with the latest iPod software.


  3. Eric Cone says:

    Very good article! Perhaps someone can enlighten me on a related subject. I need to test not only 1.8 Toshiba drives, but also the 1′ microdrives from Hitachi and Seagate.

    Presently, Hitachi’s DFT does not support microdrives (the 1′ CF+ drives in iPods).

    Hitachi link to DFT stating no support for Microdrives

    Does anyone know of an alternative.



  4. Eric Cone says:

    Wednesday I get the gear from Addonics to test these iPod drives. On the software side, I’ll be using SpinRite, OnTrack, & SeaTools to see which serves me best. Afterwards, I’ll post my results.

    I’m very curious how ‘bad’ some of these really are, especially after after zeroing them out. Next step will be creating ghost images for the various iPod makes and models to expedite drive loads.


  5. Cool, keep us posted!

    Most iPod drives I run into that are “bad” have unreadable/unwritable sectors, but I’ve yet to find software that will reliably fix them. I’ve read that when a drive starts developing bad sectors, it’s on it’s way out anyway, but I’m not sure how true that is. All I know is that when I run DFT or SeaTools and it tells me the drive needs to be returned to the factory, I don’t want it in my — or anyone else’s — iPods.

    Creating Ghost or TrueImage disk images of iPod formatted drives (one for each generation) works great! I maintain Ghost 2003 images of a number of iPod models to instantly create a testing drive when needed.

    I wish there were utilities like Ghost for Mac hardware, but the PC software works just fine. I’m also not sure I want to dedicate a fairly expensive Mac to something as mundane as testing hard drives ;-)


  6. Eric Cone says:

    Got the goods today from Addonics! I’ll get some pics together tomorrow. Good news too. I had a 20GB 4th Generation that simply would not let me access it while inside the iPod. I took it out, attached it to the IDE bus, ran Hitachi DFT (all good), and then DBAN. Everything went perfectly, although I had no idea DBAN would take 2 hours to complete. After DBAN, and a reboot into Windows, the iPod Updater prompted for a Restore, and voila–all is good!


  7. I’m following up as promised. Here’s a top view photo of the CF to IDE adapter reading a Seagate ST1 drive pulled from an iPod mini:

    Front view:

    And here’s the ‘contraption’ that is used to connect the 1.8′ Toshiba drives to an IDE bus:

    I thought I’d also chime in on the topic of unreadable/unwriteable sectors. When a drive has unreadable/unwriteable sectors it may be going bad physically, suffering from data corruption, or a combination of both. I think what is crtitical is to determine its state, and then take appropriate action. Any decent drive diagnostic will let you know whether the disk is going bad physically. Just make sure to full the full test–not the quick version. I’ve seen many drives pass a quick test, only to fail the full version. If the drive passes your physical test, you need to determine whether these unreadable/unwriteable sectors are worth trying to recover. If data recovery is your goal, I recommend using Spin Rite. Also, I recently read a forum thread discussing a product named HDD Regenerator that is supposed to be more thorogh. Here’s the thread:
    Spin Rite
    HDD Regenerator
    Both Spin Rite and HDD Regenerator have options for recovering data from unreadable/unwriteable sectors that are time-tested and proven in the field. The next time I’m involved in a recovery operation I’ll document the process and share it with everyone.


  8. HDD Regenerator is also available on a suite called Hiren’s Boot CD, which I’ve seen on some usenet servers. I’ve yet to determine how successful it can be with failing sectors…


  9. JWHITE says:

    I have a Hitachi 4GB microdrive which I have had probs with in my ipod mini. I’ve got it to a state where I can add and remove files when in window, with it atached in a CF to IDE adapter. I’ve formatted it FAT32. 2 questions. I have a good disk that works fine in my ipod. will ghost copy everything including MBR to the other disk. If not what do I now have to do to the disk to get it back in my ipod?.. thanks


  10. dan van says:

    omg. Ive had such an ipod video dilema. It took me two days of scowering the web to find this article. Basically, my ipod got ran over with a car and i’m trying to bring it back to life. I ordered the connector stuff and hopefully ill be able to bring my ipod back to life.


  11. I already had this idea before I found this blog. But the insight and software suggestions helped me out a lot. I’ve tested so far about 2 dozen 3rd & 4th gen ipod hard drives (15GB & 20GB) I found that Seatools works a little better on these drives than DFT.
    I have a old Pentium III 500mhz Emachines I’ve been using for years testing old PC100/133 Memory, and it does a great job testing these hard drives.
    I bought my 1.8″ drive adapter on ebay. It is direct to 40 pin desktop model so you don’t need to go through two adapters to connect it.
    I was a little surprised to see how many of the drives I had would not even mount to the system. The bios wouldn’t even see them. It was actually a bit disturbing. Because it wasn’t one or two, but almost half, and even a couple would mount but cause the system to hang after the post screen.
    Next week I’m getting in 2 Dozen more ipods. I’ll be able to get a more accurate percentage of good to bad.
    Shame they don’t have an adapter for the Video Ipod Drives yet.. :(
    I hope this helps someone else or at least answers some questions


  12. David Mulligan says:

    In order to really test an iPod hard drive you would also need to monitor the current draw of the hard drive. Zeroing and checking its data integrity is a very good first step but I believe that we also need to make sure that the hard disk is not a battery killer.

    Does anyone know of any good DIY projects or otherwise cheap current/ammeter logger for PCs? I am also considering making an iPod exerciser/tester that will charge up the iPod, play it till it drops, record the time it played and repeat as necessary. Any hints? Please assume that I know the correct end of a soldering iron to use and have the necessary knowhow to build such things. Am I over complicating things?


  13. Mark says:

    Now I’ve wasted a good amount of $$ buying those two adapters, however they do not work with a G5 iPod.

    The G5 iPods have a very thin brown ribbon cable that snaps into the drive and is about 2/3″ wide. The adapters you mention require a microdrive with ide prongs in it much like a laptop hard drive.

    Buyer beware!


  14. @Mark: Sorry for the trouble — you are correct, however. 5G iPods have switched to using a much thinner, smaller ZIF cable (that’s nearly impossible to hack with if you don’t have the proper connectors or very fine solder skill).


  15. After reading this I was fired up enough to get into the mix by updating a 1st gen iPod with a MK2004Gal 20GB drive. The drive is blank ( no apple logo) but as you say It;s just a sticker. The first one gave every indication it was bad by “ticking” head noise as it spun up. The second one does the same. “head movement”, head movement, head movement during restore and of course restore fails. Reinstalling the org 5GB drive works fine.
    Is a 20Gb to much for the 1st Gen iPod?


  16. Phil says:

    Does anyone know if a hitachi 30 gb drive can be replaced by a Toshiba 30 gb both being 1.8in wide, as I can find lots of Toshiba drives for sale.



  17. Jim says:

    My computer hard drive is connected via a SATA cable, not a ribbon cable. I tried connecting the iPod drive to the CD ribbon cable, but the computer would not recognize it. Then I tried connecting my iPod drive to the computer’s motherboard using a SATA cable and the Addonics adapters mentioned in this article. Still couldn’t get the computer to recognize the iPod hard drive. My question is, can the iPod hard drive successfully get tested using either a SATA cable connection or what about a USB connection? Has anybody tried this and been successful? Perhaps I need to adjust my computer’s Setup when it boots (I have made several attempts at this, but no luck). Any guidance is greatly appreciated.



  18. I really like this writeup. You did a great job with getting all the drive information and also sharing some useful resources for finding adapters. We use the Addonics adapters for iPod repair at iPod Repair Guys as I am an iPod repair technician there. I recommend them over the cheaper version ebay ones you will find. We also sell iPod Hard Drives if anyone should need one or be having a hard time finding a specific model give us a call at 1-866-979-IPOD Oh, btw the ultimate boot cd is terrific have been using it for a long time. Great recommendations here from someone who obviously knows his game.


  19. Mr. Coconut says:

    Hi, I read all the post and comments around here trying to find a solution tho my ipod problem.
    I have a 5th generation iPod Video, 80gb, and i am unable to sync the full capacity with my computer. I thing is that the syncing process stops ones it reaches the 14.34gigas, and then it stops.
    I tried to copy/ paste the music usind the HD mode, but it stops at the same point.
    What can i do?


  20. Dean Palmer says:

    Anybody know how to tell whether an iPod Classic 120GB has a Toshiba or Samsung (etc,) hard drive inside? Can this be gleened from the iPod’s serial numbers? I’d like to be able to know this so I can order a new drive before I bother opening up a unit.



  21. Dean Palmer says:

    I need a controller board from a broken (dropped?) Toshiba 1.8″ 120GB Drive (model MK1231GAL). Dropped drives should still have working controller boards. Anyone have a couple of these they want to sell??? Thanks.


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