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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Major breakthrough in iPhone iTunes freeze problem

We've continued to bang away at the problem we've been encountering with our iPhone, in which iTunes wouldn't recognize the phone and would freeze up whenever the phone was plugged in. (We are on Vista and a cheapo iPhone 3G; see our previous posts here and here.) It appears that an external hard drive that we have hooked up to the computer might have been getting in the way and causing the mess.

The drive in question is a Western Digital MyBook, and it's been known to hang our Windows Vista computer up from even booting. Leaving aside the iTunes issue, quite often when starting or restarting the computer we have found it necessary to cut power to the MyBook drive and let Vista boot up before plugging the drive back in. We tried changing the drive boot sequence at Windows startup, but that didn't solve the problem.

Anyway, the other night, a lightbulb went on above our head. Maybe that drive was also contributing to our iTunes-iPhone freeze problem. After some trial and error, we strongly suspect that's the case.

Here is the procedure we have come up with to work around the conflict. Some of these steps may turn out not to be necessary, and we'll work on trimming them down, but this sequence has resulted in successful recognition and syncing of the iPhone twice in a row now, which is something. These steps may or may not work for you, and they could brick something on your system, and so try them at your own risk. But they are:

1. Disconnect the power from the MyBook drive.

2. Power off the computer and iPhone. Wait five minutes.

3. With the computer and iPhone disconnected from each other, and with the MyBook still completely off, power both the computer and the iPhone back up. Wait a few minutes.

4. Do nothing on the computer or phone until the rest of the sequence is complete.

5. In Vista Task Manager (available at CTL+ALT+DEL), do an "End process" on iTunes Helper.

6. With the iPhone still unplugged from the computer and the MyBook still out cold, run iTunes on the computer.

7. Go to "Music," single-click on a song, but don't play it.

8. Plug the iPhone into the computer.

For us, at that point, the phone's been syncing. Hurray!

Only after the sync is done do we power the MyBook back up.

We have tried simply disconnecting the MyBook while we've been locked in the iPhone-iTunes freeze hell, and that hasn't worked. Once Vista and that drive have a conversation, the iPhone recognition appears to get toasted. Only disconnecting the MyBook and rebooting everything has worked so far. We'll continue to play around with lesser work-arounds, but this one's a hit for us so far, and we hope it helps somebody else with the same issues.

We may actually have satisfaction here at last.

UPDATE, 6/15, 4:50 p.m.: We do indeed. And after further testing, here's all that we have to do: With neither the iPhone nor the MyBook connected to the computer, shut down, wait, and then start the computer. Plug in the iPhone with the MyBook unplugged. It will sync. No need to reboot the phone or stop iTunes Helper. The whole problem is the MyBook. Why the phone worked flawlessly for nearly two years with the MyBook running is a mystery. But it's clear that they don't get along now.

UPDATE, 7/5, 3:43 a.m.: Not so fast. This solution stopped working after a while. But we've come up with another one, just as easy: Plug the phone into a different computer, then into the one we're having trouble on. Details here.

Comments (12)

Ooh. I always recommend avoiding Western Digital, and especially that model. Combine it with Vista and...ugh.


My MyBook works fine. It's the Vista that I would be wary of.

If you're using Vista you need to move to Windows 7, the improved version of Vista they should have waited to release. I hate Microsoft but if you're going to deal with the devil...

"Move" from one version of Windows to another? No way. There's a week of my life that I'd never get back.

BTW, I have several Western Digital external drives. An older, self-powered one called Media Center and a newer unpowered little guy called MyPassport both work fine with Vista. The MyBook, not so much.

I moved from Vista to Win7 on my laptop, and it took about 20 minutes. It was a seriously easy upgrade. Back up everything ffirst. If it goes badly you can always restore.

PS Run the upgrade advisor firstt and do everything it says.

The chances of that solving this particular problem do not seem high. And it's the only problem Vista has given us. I think I'd rather run my drill than mess with converting.

I considered converting from XP to Win7 - until I found that you have to essentially do a clean install. Way more time and money than I'm willing to spend.

FYI: Your booting problem is most likely completely unrelated, and I'd say it's more likely a problem with your motherboard/BIOS than Windows Vista or your MyBook. A number of older PCs have trouble booting when there are USB mass storage devices plugged in. Usually, this is either due to the machine attempting and then failing to scan the device and then attempt to boot to it, or because of crazy conflict with USB keyboards and mice when the system tries to do something it shouldn't when presented with these modern USB storage devices.

What you're going to want to do is reboot your computer, look for the prompt to enter CMOS/BIOS or perhaps "Setup Utility", where you'll most likely either hit the delete key or F1 while the machine is booting to get into the BIOS configuration. Once you're in there, look through all the menus and see what options you can play with. Most likely the options we want will be in a category called "Integrated Devices" or something along those lines, but maybe not. Also the "boot" menu.

First, look for settings for USB "legacy" mode or "DOS emulation" — these settings make USB hard drives appear to the computer as regular hard drives, make USB mice look like old PS/2 mice, same for keyboads, etc. You do not need this if you have a modern OS — Vista should apply too. If your problem is that your BIOS is failing to do it's crazy legacy mode/emulation dealio, this will fix it.

Next, we're looking for anything with "USB" and "timeout" in the name. If you have this option there's a good chance it's disabled right now — we want to set this to whatever the lowest amount of time is. Most BIOSs do not present this option but some do. This option might fix your problem so that instead of sitting on some black and white screen forever when the system is started with a USB HDD, it'll give up after some number of seconds.

Next, go to that boot menu, and see if you can remove your MyBook from the boot list if it's there. It might show up as just USB:WDCXXXXXXXXXXXX with some big ugly product number instead of something recognizable, look for WD, and USB. Be careful not to remove your internal HDD (but it's trivial to readd it to the list if you must). It might also just say "USB". The only items you really need on your boot list is your main internal HDD so Vista starts, and perhaps your optical drive so you can use bootable media. Finally, look for an option like "boot other device", this is an option that tells it to look for other devices to boot to besides those listed, disable it.

Also, make sure you've got the latest iTunes. You occasionally need the newest version of iTunes to communicate with the newest version of iOS on your iPhone.

Also, remember these terrible experiences when you're looking for a computer next time. There really is a better way that isn't so frustrating where things tend to work. I've worked with computers all my life, I've built and loved a number of PCs, and I'm a computer janitor for a living. I gave up on Microsoft in 2001 for my personal computers, used Linux since. Then in 2006 I got a special deal on a Mac Pro and threw Linux on it, but not before giving OS X a quick audit. After a week of being back on Linux, I was converted. I switched to OS X on my personal machines. I was the biggest hater out there. Their hardware is exemplary, but I already knew that. What really surprised me was their software. I really didn't get it. I thought they dumbed things down so slow and old people can use computers, but what they somehow did is design better software so that people can use computers. The thoughts that race through your mind of "I probably can't do..." are almost all going to end up being false. You'd be surprised. Even if you really do have some one-of-a-kind software that only runs on Windows, there are solutions with virtualization.

(else, you really should upgrade to 7 at some point. It's better. Or, if your computer is as old as I'm guessing it is, give it to FreeGeek and get yourself a newer PC!)

If your problem is that your BIOS is failing to do it's crazy legacy mode/emulation dealio, this will fix it.

Should have made it clear: you'd want to turn that option off.

My computer is three years old.

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