One iTunes Library, multiple Windows XP Computers

I wanted to access the same iPod with multiple Windows XP computers without hassle. I followed pieces of several tutorials on the iLounge site, experimented with three computers at work, and  finally, here is how I did it.

First, I formatted a miniature portable hard drive, a Western Digital My passport. It's about the size of the iPod. I formatted it as NTFS but could have used FAT32 except I don't trust Fat32 for large drives.

Next, I updated iTunes on all my PCS. Under task scheduler you can find the Apple updater  set to run periodically; it's task is called:
    "C:\Program Files\Apple Software Update\SoftwareUpdate.exe" -task

Next I plugged the iPod in to the computer I last used iTunes on and backed it up; select it in the sources list, right-click or use the context key and pick back up from the context menu.

I restarted all computers and plugged the portable drive in to each in turn. With the drive connected, I went to Programs-Administrative Tools-Computer Management-device manager-storage-removable storage-Disk Management. There a list of my drives is displayed. I selected my portable drive and right-clicked on it to get the context menu, where I chose Change Drive letters and paths. Then under the next dialog, I chose change; I could have also chosen Add and pinned it to a particular path on my system, but that would have added unnecessary complexity.
So I changed the drive's letter to I. I figured I could remember I for iTunes. If the drive had already been assigned letter I, I would have selected "I" here anyway, to force it to be permanent.

I restarted each computer to verify that the portable drive consistently showed up as I:\.

Next I ran iTunes, but held the shift down while I started it. This caused iTunes to prompt for a new library location. If you just zap your itunes folder, it will create a new empty one on your local hard drive under your user name. It will create an empty library and everything you add will go there, making it difficult to sync an iPod with multiple computers. To further confuse advanced users, some files are referenced, meaning that iTunes keeps them in their original location but tracks them in its database, while others are "managed" which means iTunes stores them inside its iTunes media folder and indexes them as well.

I told it the new location was I:\. I was prompted for a name and I named my library iTunes-Debee. It created an iTunes-Debee folder on drive I, where it would store all its data, including the files that constitute its database. The actual content would go in i:\iTunes-Debee\iTunes media". The library management files, which are pretty small, go in the root of that tree: i:\iTunes-Debee".

I only needed to do this for the first computer. On subsequent computers, I started iTunes, holding down shift.   The same message appeared: "itunes needs a library to continue" with an OK button which I clicked. Then I could choose between two buttons: "Choose iTunes library" or "create a new iTunes library". On the first computer, I chose "Create". I described above what happened after creating a new library.

On the other computers, I selected the "choose" button and got a standard Open dialog box. The file I wanted was I:\Itunes-Debee\iTunes Library.itl which is part of the database. At least it is the file iTunes needs to see in order to find your library.

After that, I could work with the library on my portable drive on any of my computers that had been set up this way. iTunes still puts some stuff in the Windows registry, for example, your library's name and your preferences, so I had to go to Edit-Preferences on each computer and verify that my settings matched each other. For example, under Preferences, devices, I had to check the box "Prevent iPods, iPhones and iPads from syncing automatically". I also had to sign in to the Apple store on each computer using my Apple ID and "authorize "each computer. Five computers can be authorized and this is done under The store menu on the menu bar. Your authorization is saved in the registry. 

To ensure that my content would be managed by iTunes, rather than just being referenced, I went to Edit-Preferences-Advanced. Under there, I checked the box "Copy Files to iTunes Media Folder  When Adding to Library".  This would give me two copies of any content I added to my library, but at least I would know where it was stored and how it was indexed. I can remove the originals at any time without fear of fouling up the library.

Also under preferences, I checked "Keep iTunes folder organized". This tells iTunes to create folders with artists under the main music folder, and do similar things with other content. It only affects what is actually in the iTunes media folder. (This is different from the "Consolidate library" option under File-Library - organize library, which converts all referenced content to managed content.)

I double-checked that my preferences were set the same on all the computers I use.

One concept many tutorials explained which I found helpful is that a particular iDevice is not tied to any account but it is best to keep it synced with a specific library. A computer on the other hand has to be authorized in order to acquire most things, including free content from iTunes. When an iPod is connected, you can select it in the sources list and manage its content independently from the library, for example, checking boxes to tell it not to automatically sync audio books. But you cannot without third-party software move that content back to the PC. iTunes cheerfully deletes stuff from the iDevice, if you set it to automatically sync, so checking the box to manually control sync settings is important. It also tries to remove items, but warns you first if you sync with multiple libraries. And not only must you check that box in Preferences-Devices, but you must also check boxes for inhibiting auto-sync under the actual iDevice, since those settings are also stored on the device and not just in the library or registry of the Windows computer.   

One other note about the advanced tab in preferences. Here, you can change your iTunes media folder location, but this will not actually change the location of the library database. I could have changed the location here to "I:\iTunes-Debee\iTunes media", but by having iTunes create a brand new library in I, it no longer needs an iTunes folder at all on my PC. And one of the early mistakes I made was to have my content on the removable drive, but the library indexing it still on the PC, meaning I confused iTunes when I tried to work with that drive using another computer.

Next I started adding stuff, AudioBooks, Music, recordings of broadcasts, podcasts, MP3 audiobooks, etc. To do this I chose File and Add folder to library. After it was added, I had to select the new content, do File Get Info (CTRL-I) and changed its Media Type under Options , if it was not music. iTunes thinks everything you add that is audio is music, but you can select multiple files, do Get info and tell it otherwise. I could add files from multiple computers this way, thereby organizing audio that was scattered throughout multiple machines, but eliminating anything I wouldn't want on my iPod anyway.

The reason it's important to categorize your media is that once it is on the iDevice, you no longer have access to its filename. The song's artist, album and descriptive info from the ID3 tag are easy to sort and view, but you have no idea what the file was called. I was unaware of this when I first got my iDevice, and expected it to behave like other players I'd owned.

Also if you have spoken-word recordings the speed button will not appear unless the iDevice knows that this is an audio book or podcast. It can be a human or computer narrated audio file, but you cannot categorize it as music if you either want to speed it up or slow it down.

 The next step was to connect my actual iPod. I have stuff I bought on it using its wi-fi, and I needed to ensure that it was also in my new library. As soon as it gets connected, it appears in the sources list on the lefthand side of the screen. I selected my iPod, pulled up the context menu and chose "Transfer purchases". This copied the apps, ebooks, podcasts and iTunes U lectures I had downloaded wirelessly to my library.

Finally, I deleted the iTunes files on my actual PC. They were in documents and settings\debee\my documents\my music\itunes. Under Windows 7, I understand the directory arrangement is a bit different. I removed the entire iTunes folder, and verified, by running iTunes again that it was no longer looking for or attempting to create an iTunes folder on that PC.

 This system lets me now connect my portable drive to any of my PCS but still sync the iPod with a single library. I am not fully enamored with iTunes yet, but at least I am now in control!

Since I originally wrote this for people with different disabilities, it's important now to include a few notes for screen reader users. Screen access doesn't read the tabs in the preferences dialogs; you'll need to arrow between them and use the mouse cursor (JAWS cursor) to verify you select the appropriate one. You can sometimes access a context menu with Shft-F10, sometimes with the context (applications) key and sometimes the only way is to right-click. Most buttons need spacebar and not enter to activate them.  Tabbing does indeed take you all the way through the interface, first through tabs at the top, then to the main content which is HTML-based but only sometimes accessible with a virtual cursor. F6 moves between panes. Turning off the iTunes sidebar is a good idea for screen reader users as it makes the interface a bit less confusing; do this by tabbing until you get to the Hide Sidebar link.

Here are more hints for screen access users: it is not necessary to press Enter on any search as it is incremental; items are found as you type. When tutorials tell you to drag and drop, which is Apple's favorite way to get stuff in to iTunes, think copy and paste. Find the thing you want, either in iTunes itself or in Windows explorer (my computer). Do ctrl-C or Edit-copy. Now find the place where you want it to go, for example, the iDevice, and do CTRL-V or Edit-paste. When you dump something to the iDevice directly, a copy also ends up in your library. 

I hope this helps reluctant adopters understand iTunes better.

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Additional Thoughts

Now that I've been using this system for a couple of weeks, let me remind readers that when you use an external drive with multiple PCS, you often get the message when starting iTunes, that it cannot continue without a library. No need to panic.
Simply pick the "select library" button and browse to the library on your removable drive. If you haven't connected your drive, just cancel out of the dialog, or let it create a new library and remove it later.

Remember that the default library is under your user name, my documents, music itunes. If iTunes fails to find a library in another location it will create or add to the library there. Not monitoring this will have you scattering files all over the place.

It is easy for this to occur if you plug in the iDevice to charge it without first connecting that external drive. iTunes runs automatically and starts using the default library, or complaining that no library exists.

More caveats

I've been using this system for about six weeks now, and found a few glitches.

For one thing, iTunes by default stores your backups (those made of your iDevice) in
C:\Documents and Settings\USERNAME\Application Data\Apple Computer\MobileSync\Backup

and not on your removable drive, and I'm still trying to find a way to get it to put everything on the removable drive. So because it has a lot of other xml files and such in the Apple directory under Application data, it looks there as well for info and can determine that your iPod was synced with another library and restore an old backup. It asks for confirmation first, so you can decline, but then it refuses to sync sometimes. So it looks like you can manage the library with multiple computers, but it's harder to manage the iDevice with multiple Windows PCS. Looking on forums, I see that Apple Mac users have the same troubles, and that some stuff is stored in /var/root and other stuff is stored under user names. I don't know nor have a Mac for testing, but I know BSD and can imagine data scattered everywhere. I'll continue to seek out solutions and post my findings here. In the meanwhile, be warned!