iPod Classic: The day the music died

The new software update for the iPod Classic has left many users at their wits' end. Should Apple be doing more to help them? Rebecca Armstrong reports
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The Independent Online

It should all be so easy. You've just bought a shiny new iPod Classic for £159. It may not have the fancy functions of the iPod Touch, but you're thrilled to have a new, better-than-ever music player, with more storage space, better battery life and a sleeker case. So you take your new gadget home, plug it into the computer to charge the battery – and that should be all it takes to bring your new iPod to life.

But before the battery has a chance to start charging, a helpful message pings up on the computer's screen. It suggests that you might want to download a firmware update – otherwise known as a patch, a small piece of software designed to fix glitches with the way your iPod works. You decide you want the latest update, called version 1.0.2.

But what should you do if those innocuous mouse-clicks land you in the middle of an incredibly complex mess?

Ask any number of disgruntled iPod Classic owners this question, and you may wish to shield your ears from an explosive response. For most people, downloading the 1.0.2 update worked a treat. But many others found that the new software created major problems.

As it finished installing, the affected iPods would switch off – and would simply not come back on again. Instead, a whirring noise indicated that the hard disk inside each affected gadget was spinning, fast. Meanwhile, on the computer screen, iTunes didn't even register that an iPod was plugged in. As the disk kept spinning, the iPod would get hotter and hotter – and the users found that they had no prospect of playing music on it.

No one knows exactly how many people were affected by this problem, but internet user forums suggest it has been relatively widespread.

It seems to have been an unwelcome by-product of the trend for Apple (and many other companies) to issue more and more software updates over the internet. From Sat-Navs to electronic organisers, all kinds of gadgets are updated this way. Barely a week goes by, for example, without a new patch for computer operating systems such as Microsoft Windows.

In theory, updates are fine: their purpose, after all, is to improve the product. But updates for iPods have a mixed track-record when it comes to causing problems.

Earlier this year, a small number of the first batch of iPod Classics began to crash when owners tried to load the artwork from album covers by connecting to iTunes. Some also reported that browsing through menus and playlists was sluggish. So, Apple responded and released the first firmware update, 1.0.1.

Just a few weeks later, in early October, the company released the 1.0.2 update to make the menus work faster still. And that was where the recent round of problems began.

"Brilliant new Classic iPod software update – now my iPod doesn't work at all!!!" wrote Phil Jones in a post on www.ilounge.com. "Tried resetting, but just keeps switching itself on and off. iTunes doesn't recognise my iPod when connected now either." On the same forum, David B added: "I'm not touching this update."

Meanwhile, at www.engadget.com, someone registered as ScOObyDoo writes: "I've got the same problem. It also gets mighty hot when it's spinning this much."

Naturally, the first response of many users has been to call Apple for help. There, they are given the details of five steps they should take to sort the problem out. But these steps do not always work.

Even if you wanted to load the previous version of the firmware (the one that one worked, even if it wasn't perfect) the message from the website is simple: Apple does not support version 1.0.1 so, no, you can't have it.

"Always make sure iPod has the latest software from Apple, as engineers may find new ways to optimise battery performance," the website will tell now-irate users. "Put your iPod in its dock or plug it into your computer and iTunes will notify you if a new update is available."

All the firm's customer support agents can advise is that you return the now useless gadget to the shop where you bought it. If the iPod is more than a fortnight old, it'll probably have to be sent back to Apple for repair.

So what should you do? Well, Nik Rawlinson, the editor of MacUser magazine, says that it's not always a good idea to download the latest iPod updates: "It's a personal preference. Some people would do it, some people wouldn't."

But what about the idea that having the latest software or firmware upgrade will ensure that you have all the latest functions? "It's not normally the case that these upgrades bring great new functionality," says Rawlinson. "Normally, they're patches to fix specific problems."

So, before you next click to upgrade any product, it's worth checking online to see if there are problems with the upgrade. A list of good iPod websites appears in the box below.

While the iPod has sold more than 100 million units – making it hardly surprising that some customers have had a bumpy ride – the gadget does seem to have had its fair share of problems outside the field of software, too.

Since the original version launched in 2001, there have been complaints about the battery life and the fact that the batteries can't easily be replaced. Many other users complain that the iPods are somewhat fragile, and prone to breakage if knocked about.

Then there was a minor debacle in 2005, when the new iPod Nano screens showed a tendency to crack.

Over the years, all these have conspired to undermine the relationship between customer and corporation.

Even on Apple's own discussion boards some once-loyal customers are starting to revolt. One user, writing under the name CrispNClean, speaks for many iPod owners with his post: "NOTE TO APPLE/STAFF and EXECUTIVE STAFF – We, your customers, would like to enjoy products that work. We would also like some acknowledgment that you are aware of these issues and are working on them."

Apple, of course, will doubtless be trying to solve problems, presumably with another software update. When will that arrive? No one knows. The company seems unwilling to shed light on the matter. Despite a number of attempts to contact an Apple spokesperson, no one from the company was available for comment during the writing of this piece.

Fortunately, good advice on how to fix the 1.0.2 problem is available by searching the internet. An army of unofficial bloggers are marching to the rescue of those who feel at the mercy of slapdash updates. Web surfers willing to take the state of their consumer electronics into their own hands will find a slew of sites dedicated to giving them quick fixes.

The solution involves downgrading to version 1.0.1 of the firmware. The way it's done is to find the 1.0.2 file on your computer's hard drive, delete it, then select restore factory settings on your iPod. The computer has no choice but to put install 1.0.1.

But be warned, this vigilante approach will wipe your iPod, so you'll have to re-import all your music. And taking matters into your hands could leave you in a worse mess than you were to begin with. But for those who are tempted, it could mean the difference between sweet music and the sound of silence.

Pod squad: where to find help

www.engadget.com

The first site to report on the 1.0.2 spinning disk problem, Engadget is a self-styled "web magazine" that offers its readers obsessive daily updates on everything new in gadgets and consumer electronics. The exhaustive site was launched in 2004 and is the place to go to find out what's happening, good or bad, in the technosphere.



www.cnet.com

News, reviews, tips and tricks are what Cnet does best. There are also blogs galore on a range of tech topics – and the experts on this website really know their stuff. It may be packed with opinions, but Cnet is an objective source for reams of must-know info on what to buy and how to use it.



www.gabalot.co.uk

A site dedicated to helping the clueless iPod user. The people behind Gabalot have spent a serious amount of time researching the iPod and cover all aspects of it, from Live media, gadgets, changing a battery to fault-finding and so on. Also on the site are views on emerging trends or changes within the industry.

www.macgeekery.com

One for advanced Mac users only, this community-based site is "a place where more advanced users of the Macintosh hardware platform can get together and share tips, hacks and generally arcane things without fear of the user level of the recipients." Users can publish tips or post problems, but, as its name suggests, it's pretty geeky.



www.methodshop.net

As well as offering interesting snippets of technology news, Methodshop has an impressive section on iPod support. With topics ranging from "My iPod's battery won't charge" to "Erase your iPod – the super fix" and "I dropped my iPod in the toilet", there are plenty of user-friendly tips on managing your MP3 player.



discussions.apple.com

The first place to go if you're thinking about updating your Apple software or hardware – mainly because if there's a potential problem, there will be hundreds of people posting their opinions and horror stories about what went wrong. It's worth checking this forum out before trying – or buying – a new iPod.

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