Managing Audiobooks on a Small-Capacity iPod

I have a collection of audiobooks — purchased on CDs and downloaded from Audible and the iTunes Store — that runs to more than 30 gigabytes. I also have a couple gigs of podcasts, and a few hundred CDs worth of music. In all, my iTunes library runs to almost 50 gigs, in terms of the disk space it requires to store it.

Holding all of that on a full-size hard disk-based iPod, with capacities up to 160 gigabytes, would be no problem. But I personally choose to carry an iPhone, and for working out I use (and recommend) an iPod nano. Both of these devices have far smaller capacities, holding a maximum of 8 gigs of content. That requires careful management of what goes onto my iPod / iPhone, and I’ve developed a few tricks to make it relatively easy.

This article is intended to explain a few of those tricks, but to understand them, you should first understand my goals:

  • As much as possible, I want to use iTunes to automatically manage what gets sync’ed to my devices.
  • I want to have a large number of unread audiobooks available, so I always have a good selection to choose from.
  • My target ratio of content is 4:1:1 gigabytes for audiobooks, podcasts, and music, leaving 2 gigs for videos, photos and free space.

Use track checkboxes to control what syncs

The first and most important trick is to set your iPod to Sync only checked songs and videos on the device summary screen:

Device summary in iTunes

Note: This device-specific screen can only be accessed while the device, iPod or iPhone, is actually connected to your computer. Simply connect, allow the device to sync, and then make changes.

Once you’ve made this change, only tracks which are checked will be synced to your device. This lets you use each track’s checkbox to record whether you’ve listened to the track or not. A check mark means a track has not been listened to, i.e., it’s an active track to be synced and listened to:

iTunes Audiobooks Source List

Use a playlist to limit audiobooks to a specific size

The next important trick is to only sync specific playlists to your iPod, rather than the entire contents of your iTunes Library. These playlists build a groomed subset of audiobook and other tracks for syncing to your iPod, and allow you to specifically limit how much of your iPod’s capacity to dedicate to specific content types.

Here’s what my Music sync settings look like:

Device sync settings for music in iTunes

Specifically, note that I am syncing Selected playlists, not All songs and playlists, and I am also not syncing the Audiobooks source list.

The playlists that I am syncing require some explanation. The idea is to build up a list tracks to sync to my device, where the overall size of the tracks in the list will be smaller than the capacity of my device. Otherwise, you get the dreaded “could not sync” message when trying to sync:

Too much content!

Here’s how it works. First, create a new Smart Playlist named “Audiobooks (xx gigs)” where xx is the amount of your device’s capacity you want to dedicate to audiobooks. I dedicate about 4 gigabytes, roughly half of my iPhone’s capacity. The playlist definition should find only tracks with a genre that starts with “Audiobook”, that are checked, and limit the list to e.g. 4 gigabytes, ordered by name. This is what my Smart Playlist definition looks like:

Smart Playlist definition

This will create a playlist that always contains 4 gigabytes of audiobooks that have not yet been listened to:

Playlist results

As soon as I listen to an audiobook, I uncheck its track(s) in iTunes, and it instantly disappears from this playlist (that’s the “smart” part of Smart Playlists), replaced with other tracks that are still checked, and therefor not yet listened to. The next time I sync, I’ll lose the tracks I’ve heard, and get new tracks to replace them. Just by unchecking the box when I’ve finished a track.

Selecting by name might seem strange; it means that the playlist only contains tracks with titles that come earlier in the alphabet (in my case, I usually get A through F or so). Why would you want to limit yourself to only books with titles that start with letters at the beginning of the alphabet? The problem is that it’s common to have audiobooks that are broken into multiple tracks; if you sort by any other criteria, you can end up with a playlist that is missing (random) parts of a book. Which can make it hard to listen to that book. Sorting by name is the only way to guarantee that all tracks of a book will be grouped together, and in the right order. (Album and artist come close, but name is the most reliable.)

The “Listen Now” playlist

So what do you do when you want to listen to a book with a title that’s further down in the alphabet, e.g., “Tropic of Night” by Michael Gruber? Create a second playlist, this one a standard (manually managed) playlist, named “Listen Now”, and add a couple of the books that don’t appear in the Audiobooks smart playlist. I generally have 3-4 books in this list, that are titles I want to listen to next, or soon:

Listen Now playlist

Now you can set your device to sync only these playlists, as illustrated in the earlier screenshot.

Limiting music to a subset

I have a similar “Now Playing” playlist that I use for syncing my music. There are a number of articles about creating smart playlists of music (here’s a good one), that keep things interesting and in rotation, rather than a static list. You can simply add a size limit to any of those clever playlists to keep your music to a reasonable percentage of your device’s capacity.

Personally, smart playlists for music are too much trouble, plus I like to listen to something for a while (or get stuck in a rut, depending on your perspective), and I just have a standard playlist for my music, that I keep to a gigabyte or so. If you’re more of a music person, you might find that too small; feel free to play with the ratio of audiobooks to music, to find something that works well for you.

Keep your podcasts under control

The final trick is to make sure podcasts don’t overwhelm the capacity of your device. (When I get into a long book series, I can go weeks or even months without listening to podcasts, and they build up.) The main thing is to only sync a subset of the podcasts, by choosing specific podcasts to sync, and to only sync a few episodes at a time. This is pretty easy to accomplish on the Podcast sync settings screen:

Device sync settings for podcasts in iTunes

With all of these tricks, I am able to keep a ratio of 4-5 parts audiobooks, 1 part music, and 1 part podcasts, with room left over for contacts, photos, a couple of short videos, and the free space that seems necessary to keep an iPod or iPhone running smoothly. Hopefully these tricks will help you do the same.