Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Worst Thing about iPods

I'm very happy that Apple has provided Firewire for fast data transfers for so long. However, if you asked me to name the worst thing about the whole Mac / iPod / iTunes system, I would have to name Firewire as my #1 gripe.

How do you stop an iPod from charging? Plug it into a Firewire port! When the iPod first came out, I read how you could trickle-charge it by leaving it connected to the Firewire port on a Mac instead of using its own power brick. Well, I've tried that more times than I can count, with iPods from different generations, and it's never worked. I've left an iPod plugged in for 2 days straight, and the battery indicator didn't budge. I've plugged in iPods that were near the end of their battery charge, and had them shut off in the middle of synching because of low battery.

How do you stop an iPod from synching? Plug it into a Firewire port! Macs have some sort of fuse to prevent Firewire from overloading the power capacity of the computer. Frequently for me, the fuse gets tripped, possibly because I've got some external hard drives daisy-chained off one Firewire port. When this happens:
  • Plugging in the iPod leads to about a 20-minute wait before the computer announces it can't read the contents of the iPod and I should reformat it. (Don't fall for this trick!)
  • The Finder, file dialogs, and anything else that tries to check available volumes also lock up during this period.
  • The iPod icon never actually appears in the Finder, so there's no way to eject it properly.
  • Unplugging the iPod causes warnings about how the volume wasn't ejected properly, with subsequent rise in system instability.
  • The iPod's hard drive keeps spinning this whole time, leading to excessive heat buildup, loss of battery power, and often the need to reset the iPod by mashing down the buttons in combination.
  • If the iPod has to be physically reset, it frequently forgets any ratings I've assigned using the iPod controls since the last synch. (Sometimes, this results in losing ratings for >100 songs.)
Once the fuse is tripped, it doesn't matter if the iPod is plugged directly into the computer's Firewire port or daisy-chained off one of the drives. It doesn't work in either case.

The fuse seems to trip spontaneously without any help from the iPod. That is, it gets fouled up just from having the external drives going, so even the very first iPod connection fails. Meanwhile, the hard drives all keep working happily; the fuse doesn't cause any problems for them.

Rectifying the problem requires serious disassembly of a system with lots of external components. I've found that the computer must be powered down, all external hard drives must be powered down, and all the Firewire cables must be disconnected -- computer to drive and drive to drive. I also unplug the power cables from the drives, just to be safe. Leave everything turned off for 1/2 hour, then most times the problem will be solved when everything is plugged back in and reconnected. Not always though; I've had to go through this process multiple times just to synch an iPod successfully once. Then the problem might happen again later the same day. Leaving the iPod connected in its cradle while the computer is asleep seems to exacerbate the problem.

Apple seems to have woken up to this problem, and lately all the iPods come with USB connections. My Nano charges perfectly well over USB, and I've never experienced any similar problem with USB, either for the Nano or my older iPod that I can connect either way using a dual-connector cable. However, those of us with older Macs don't have USB 2.0, making it an all-morning proposition to synch a Nano, or an all-day proposition to synch a larger iPod.

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