The elusive iPod Touch album shuffle

3rd November 2008 – 8.47 am

When listening to music I generally listen to whole albums, played start to finish, rather than individual tracks. I find that, unlike for some other media, a great deal of satisfaction in listening to music comes from the expectation and gratification of knowing what is to come, so while random play of single tracks can produce some interesting results the progression of playing through an album appeals to me greatly. Not quite embracing the expanding market of digital downloads and instead sticking to buying CDs, coupled with listening to artists that care to make good albums is further encouragement to listen to whole albums at a time.

iTunes and the older iPod models have a nifty feature where you can turn the shuffle mode to 'album' and hit play, either on a playlist or on the whole stored collection, and a randon album will play from start to finish before jumping to the start of another random album. This is an excellent feature as it enables me to listen to music the way I most enjoy it without burdening me with having to choose what to listen to all the time. I may not have embraced the idea of digital downloads for music but I can certainly appreciate that having my entire music collection available for playback through a single device offers enormous potential for automation, particularly when the device is a programmable computer.

Because of the album shuffle mode being available in previous models of iPod, and still being present in iTunes, it is incredible that the option is not present in the iPod Touch. The Touch only has a simple shuffle mode, one that only distinguishes between single tracks. It is not possible on the iPod Touch to pick a selection of albums, or the entire collection, and set it playing whole albums at a time, with it instead randomly picking music from the selection on a track-by-track basis. Quite why this feature has been removed is a mystery to me. It is possible that the new user interface made it difficult to integrate an album shuffle mode. It is also possible that Apple is embracing the digital download market a little too much, believing that buying and listening to single tracks is what people really want. But surely if anyone can resolve a user interface issue it would be the mighty Apple, and I believe there is the option to buy whole albums at a time on the iTunes Music Store, so there clearly is a demand for albums.

It comes as quite a surprise, as well as a beacon of hope, that a search reveals that there may be an album shuffle for the iPod Touch already programmed, merely disabled in the device. Quite why it is disabled is even more of a mystery, and the problem with enabling the feature is that it requires 'jailbreaking' the device, installing custom firmware. Never the less, the lack of an album shuffle on the iPod Touch has meant that I am listening to my music less whilst on the move, so I took the relatively drastic measure of breaking in to my Touch.

I did some rudimentary research on what is involved in jailbreaking the Touch. After rummaging through various sites I found some instructions to jailbreak an iPod Touch that were straightforward to follow. I only went as far as the third step, as I didn't think I needed the extra source or the functionality it mentioned, but it is a good resource to get the initial jailbreaking step complete. The software was easy to get, although it needs a torrent downloader, and the installation instructions were clear. I soon had Cydia and on my iPod Touch.

With the first part done, I then needed to be able to copy files to and from the Touch. For that task I found a page with instructions on how to SSH in to the iPod Touch, which were easy enough to follow and I already had Cyberduck installed. Once done, I had a whole new filetree to explore. I poked around, having a look here and there at what was available, before returning to the original forum post about enabling the hidden album shuffle mode. I copied the folder to my desktop machine, made a copy, and then poked around in the files. I didn't really want any of the other changes, just album shuffle enabled. The files are stored on the Touch in a binary format and the instructions on how to change the files, for localisation but they apply to anyone curious enough too, mentioned a utility to download. The link was dead, but OS X Leopard comes with plutil built in to the command line. All that was needed was to type plutil -convert xml1 <filename> in a terminal window and the file could then be read in TextEdit.

It became clear soon enough that I really didn't know what I was doing, so I instead downloaded the modified folder, with all of the tweaks and changes, and copied that across to my Touch. The changes appeared to be successful! I had an option now available to select between shuffling albums or single tracks, and it seemed that all the work had been worthwhile. Unfortunately, when I tested out the new functionality it didn't seem to work, with the Touch skipping from random track to random track, ignoring album order. It is likely that the changes in firmware since the original post about finding the hidden feature have changed the configuration sufficiently that the hack no longer works.

I couldn't find any other hints on how to get album shuffle enabled on my iPod Touch, with the exception of an ugly workaround for album shuffle that is too much overhead for what should be a simple selectable option. I had a quick look at what else my iPod Touch could do now that I had it jailbroken, but it turned out that there wasn't much else I actually want it to do. It is great to have notes, an e-mail client, a browser, a couple of games, and an EVE Online skill training tracker, but I bought my iPod Touch to play music; everything else is a bonus, not required functionality.

Portable music players are extraordinary devices. All of my music is digitised and stored in a handheld device that I can take with me wherever I go, enabling me to listen to any of the vast number of songs I own whenever I want. The power and miniaturisation of computers also allows for software to be written that can arrange and compile music playlists with amazing flexibility. Because of the potential that has been realised, it is truly disappointing that the iPod Touch will not let me listen to albums without forcing me to make a manual choice each and every time I want to play some music. This is a step backwards in portable music playing technology.

  1. 2 Responses to “The elusive iPod Touch album shuffle”

  2. You can edit .plist directly (instead of using plutil + TextEdit) with "Pref Setter 2.0". It's an indispensible freeware.


    By RupertGee on Nov 8, 2008

  3. Thanks, I'll grab myself a copy of that and have a poke around.

    By pjharvey on Nov 10, 2008

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