I work for a company that has been developing mobile software for ~10 years. As such, every so often Engineering decides to clean up and recycle all the old, totally unsupported dev phones; in the same vein, many people in the company (including myself, if we’re going to be honest) are tech-forward frequent-upgraders and also have a stable of gently aged personal devices at home. Hence, I have ready access to ancient devices for any project I care to devise, at little cost.
I bought my first (original 2G) iPhone at launch, but I exited the Apple ecosystem long ago for a number of reasons, one of which being that the devices are reliant on cloud infrastructure. There’s no way to sideload old versions of apps, which is problematic as the cloud infrastructure deprecates old binaries and mandates a constant upwards march of SDK versions, CPU features, etc. So, an old device (if you can even activate it past the initial factory reset state) won’t have a lot of utility – except for whatever old apps are still extant on the App Store in a fossil state. Perhaps more irritating, though – there’s also no easy way to load content you already own onto the device except through proprietary connector software. As you can see from my recent post, I’ve moved essentially my whole personal computing life to Linux, and iTunes is not part of this reality.
With all that said, I mentioned in a work Slack room a couple of weeks ago that I was interested in acquiring an old 1st-gen iPad to see if my cat would be entertained by it, using apps such as Cat Fishing by Friskies. One of the engineers offered me a seven-year-old 64GB Retina 3rd gen iPad with cellular for a few dollars, and I took it to see if a) there were any ancient compatible cat toy apps still on the App Store (there are!), and b) if my cat would be interested (she isn’t!). So, I figured it was worth seeing if I could find other uses for it – such as being my airplane media player – before giving it away.
This generation iPad is a 32-bit device capped at iOS 9.3.5. First surprise to me is that while this is essentially the same hardware as the iPhone 4S (though the iPad is clocked slightly faster, and has more RAM) – the iPad is vastly more performant than the 4S; it feels sluggish at times, sure, but the 4S is almost too slow to navigate, whereas the iPad is quite usable (some things, like the App Store, have noticeably slow UI updates). To get the easy part of the equation out of the way, then – there are still a surprisingly large number of 32-bit iOS 9-compatible apps on the App Store, and Netflix is one of them. It works fine, and even allows you to download items for offline playback. Obviously it’s a bit of a crapshoot as to whether any given app will still be available; 32-bit devices are “double deprecated” now. The rules for submitting and superseding iOS apps are a bit arcane but most if not all of the 32-bit apps you’ll find in the store now are likely leftovers that could vanish at any moment when the next purge of “old/non-updated” apps occurs.
For now, there’s Netflix. Netflix doesn’t help me for music, however – I don’t really listen to much music, more old radio plays from archive.org, so I need a way to get my curated collection of vintage MP3s onto the device.
I was vaguely aware of software like gtkpod, and I also knew that rhythmbox had some passing mention of iPod support, so I had assumed that there is software on Linux that can deliver content to the proprietary areas of the device that the Apple music app reads. To save you wasting a bunch of time: There isn’t. However, there is a workaround: The Linux drivers for iDevices mount both the photos folder and “file sharing” folders from the iPad in the Linux shell. VLC supports this file sharing interface, and it is both available in the App Store and compatible with this iPad. When VLC is installed on the iPad, after connecting to your Linux machine over USB you’ll see a VLC icon in the “Documents…” mount point. Double-click this and you’ll be in a sort of restricted filesystem that only VLC can see; you can place any VLC-playable content in there, and VLC will be able to browse and play it.
If you connect a device loaded this way to iTunes, you’ll notice an odd thing; the file sharing interface in iTunes doesn’t support folders. You can’t drag and drop a folder into iTunes, and you can’t view the contents of folders either (you’ll just see the root level directory in the iTunes dialog). But, as long as I use Linux to do the file transfers, all is well.
For the moment, then, this old iPad does have some utility as a media playback device. There are some other apps, particularly games, that also work, so if you were giving it to a smaller child it would probably still give them quite a bit of enjoyment. This particular unit still gets 10 hours of battery life playing movies at ~30% screen brightness, which is quite surprising. I think I’ll keep it as an airplane media device for a while.