Saturday, May 11, 2013

Silence Is Not Golden

Most people who know me understand that I am something of an Apple geek. The Apple Harvest ecosystem is almost entirely Apple based. The bits that aren't are mainly there because Apple doesn't make them, or because of necessities like work (yup I have to use a horrible old Lenovo Thinkpad for my current contract). I do most of my own work on the new 27" 2.9GHz i5 iMac with 24Gb of RAM and the 3Tb Fusion disk. Outside base I use a combination of my 2 year old 13" MacBook Air and a 3rd generation iPad, my iPad Mini and of course an iPhone 5. The network is glued together from a Virgin Superhub in modem mode, with the wireless network driven from a 3Tb Time Capsule, and extended across the house through an Airport Extreme. There are a couple of Apple TVs and a new style Airport Express box completes the multimedia set-up with an AirPlay™ link to my stereo system.

99% of the time I consider myself to be a very happy bunny. My cable based broadband connection is rated at 100Mbps (soon to be upgraded to 120Mbps) and by using the 5GHz wireless channels I can get wireless transfer rates of unto 40Mbps. And for 99% of the time everything works as I expect it to.

The remaining 1% of the time I'm unhappy because of the silly little things that occasionally go wrong and divert me from what I want to be doing to what I have to do to fix them. Because that's one of my problems - I can't live with a system that isn't working the way it's supposed to! I'm a little tinkerer!

My most recent bugbear has been with Apple's AirPlay™ system. Ever since I bought my first Airport Express I've been using AirPlay to hook into my stereo system which lives downstairs from the main Apple Harvest office. Over a multitude of system configurations it has worked faultlessly. Until just recently when the iMac refused to connect to the Airport Express. The MBA could connect, as could all the iOS devices, and everything could connect with the Philips Fidelio AirPlay speaker in my bedroom. And everything connected OK with the Apple TVs in the house. So AirPlay itself didn't seem to be the problem.

There are hundreds of similar problems mentioned in the Apple support forums, but not many are fully resolved. I spent a couple of hours rebooting different parts of the system with no success before trying that catchall of solutions - repair disk permissions - which of course worked…! For a few days…

A week later the same problem manifested itself so naturally my first inclination was to repeat the previously successful process. Nada. Rebooted all the systems. Nada. Scratched head and returned to Apple support forums. A few folk appear to have resolved the problem by turning off IPv6 protocol settings but these were already switched off. So, unaware that I had made any system changes, I gave up trying to fix the problem and went for a beer having wasted most of the morning. Later that afternoon I had to do a reboot on the iMac, and for some reason decided to see if AirPlay would connect this time. Of course it did, and has now continued to work as expected for ten days during which time there have been several more reboots to one or more parts to the system.

And I still have no understanding of the root cause or how to fix the problem again in the future.

My second big problem recently has been with the 3rd generation iPad. I bought this last July and it has been a stellar performer, far exceeding the original iPad which I still consider to have been the greatest disruptive technology to have hit the consumer computing industry in my lifetime. However, after upgrading to iOS 6.1.2 I had nothing but problems. These included:
  • iPad went into recovery mode. Then took 5 attempts to recovery from a previous backup - repeatedly returning to recovery mode during restore
  • When connected to iMac it often only displayed the "Welcome to Your New iPad" screen 
  • Random video glitches usually resulting in reboot
  • Video glitches in folders
  • Intermittent app updates - sometimes waiting for 24 hours or longer. Almost always required reboot
  • Could not install iOS 6..1.3 - error downloading
  • Last restore from backup took 3 days to complete
  • Generating much more heat than before (on both battery/mains)
  • Random reboots when launching apps
  • Random reboots using apps
  • Sometimes took 4+ attempts to launch apps - usually requires reboot
  • 8 apps went into update mode (waiting) - could not remove them, even by removal and reinstall from iTunes 
  • Restarts about 10 times each day
In other words the machine became pretty much unusable. The only solution was to make an appointment with the genius bar which I duly did. However, I have quite a trek to get to the nearest Apple Store so I decided to have one last go at fixing the problem myself. I managed to get the iPad connected to my MBA, did a backup to computer and to the cloud and wiped it. I then did a clean restore onto the "new" iPad which now allowed me to install iOS 6.1.3 and within a couple of hours all was well. There are still a few random reboots and app issues, but nothing like the problems before.

But once again, I have no explanation as to what happened or why. Whether it was a corrupt iOS 6.1.2 installation or not, I shall never know. I'm just grateful to have my favourite toy back up and running!

Ultimately, the whole point of this post is that while Apple kit and software generally works brilliantly, it's the occasional time when it doesn't that drives us crazy - because it's gone outside the normal parameters of tolerance that we have become so used to. We don't (well I don't) expect Wintel systems to last a day without some grief so this becomes the norm. We expect Apple systems to last for weeks or months on end, and even if they don't, there are usually relatively trivial fixes that are easy apply.

It's said that Apple don't monitor the support forums, but I would like to think that one day they may at least put triggers in place so that when a discussion hits a certain number of pages that someone in the company would look into the problem and do something about it, or at the very least acknowledge the problem. Even the most loyal Apple supporter wants to know that someone in the corporation has one ear open to the occasional plight of the customer, and in this area of customer service, silence is not golden.

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