Monday, March 16, 2009

iPods and Ubuntu Linux: Yes, you can!

Apple sucks.

I don't mean Apple products. Macs are a bit pricey, but they're very reliable. OS X isn't my cup of tea, but it's a solid and attractive OS. And the iPod set a standard for mp3 players that its competitors are still struggling to meet.

No, when I say "Apple sucks", I mean Apple, the company. And why, you ask, do I say this even though I freely admit that I like its products? Because Apple, even more than Microsoft, likes to lock you into using their products by making them interdependent on each other and incompatible with other hardware and software. The iPod is an excellent example. You can't just use any file manager to add or remove files from your iPod, as is the case with most other mp3 players. You have to use a program specifically designed to work with iPods, which typically means iTunes. You can use other programs, of course, but because of Apple's secrecy when it comes to interfacing with the iPod, few of them come close to matching the functionality of iTunes. Unfortunately for Linux users, Apple hasn't seen fit to release a Linux version of iTunes. So it's a good thing we have gtkpod. (Ubuntu users can install it by clicking this link.) According to Wikipedia's comparison of iPod managers, gtkpod is the only such application that matches the features of iTunes when it comes to managing your iPod — except possibly for a Java application called MediaChest which I was hesitant to try because of its unimpressive website that uses a Java applet that failed to run in my browser. (Oh, the irony.)

In keeping with the Linux philosophy of doing one thing and doing it well, gtkpod isn't fancy. It doesn't play music or videos, display photos, or manage your media library. It doesn't rip songs from CDs or transcode movies to an iPod-playable format. It just manages the files on your iPod. So if you use Linux and want to rip songs from a CD, complete with album art, to add to your iPod, then you need a couple of other programs.

First of all, you need an application for ripping CDs. A number of such apps are available, but the simplest is Sound-Juicer. (Ubuntu users can install Sound Juicer by clicking this link.) You might want to change some of the preferences as far as where and how songs are ripped, but the basic operation is extremely simple: insert a CD and click "Extract".

Of course, it would be nice to include album art for the mp3s you want to put on your iPod, so you have something nice to look at when browsing your music using Cover Flow. For that, we need another separate but incredibly simple application called Album Cover Art Downloader. This program pulls album cover art from any of several websites including Amazon and Yahoo, and like Sound Juicer, it's operation is exceedingly simple. Just select the mp3 files to which you want to add cover art, and click the download arrow.

Now that you have a number of mp3s with cover art, open gtkpod and plug in your iPod. The program will automatically detect your iPod. To add files to the iPod, simply make sure you have your iPod selected in the left pane, click the large "Add Files" or "Add Folder" button, and after you've selected the files to be added, click the large "Save Changes" button. Unlike some other iPod managers, gtkpod is equally capable of adding videos and photos to your iPod.

And if you're interested in converting DVDs or video files to play on your iPod, Handbrake is your new best friend. Ubuntu users can get the latest version by adding the Handbrake PPA to your Software Sources, and you'll probably want to install the unstripped versions of the ffmpeg libraries as well.

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