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Thursday, June 2, 2011

More on the iTunes freezing problem with our iPhone

We wrote a few weeks back about a problem we were encountering with our otherwise wonderful iPhone. Whenever we plugged it into our Vista computer, iTunes would come on, but be stuck. It wouldn't allow any operation until the iPhone was disconnected, but as soon as the phone was unplugged, all was well. Windows Vista was recognizing the phone, but iTunes wasn't.

What made it crazier was that the problem was sporadic. Occasionally the gods would smile and the phone would be displayed and sync up as was supposed to. But usually it wouldn't -- frozen iTunes was what you got.

When we blogged about this, we were crowing that we had found a solution, but then we discovered that it didn't really work. And so it was back to the drawing boards. All the Apple forums we could find on the internet turned out to be of little or no help.

We never give up without a fight when gadgets aren't working, and after several weeks of fussing around in the middle of the night, we've learned some more about what is going on, and we've come up with some coping strategies that have had some success. Given that many others have encountered the same difficulty, we're posting an update here.

When the iPhone gets plugged in and iTunes freezes up, it's apparent immediately. But what's a little more subtle is that it doesn't stay frozen forever. After about three minutes of sitting there stoned, iTunes goes back to functioning properly, except that it doesn't show the phone as a connected device. Windows sees it (you can see it in Vista Explorer on "Computer"), but the iPhone doesn't show it.

We have discovered that once iTunes gets to this point, one can click on the "Help" tab in iTunes and run something called Diagnostics, which of course also works if iTunes is recognizing the phone the way it should. Under that tab, iTunes runs four tests on the system. It's the third and the fourth ones that are of interest here, and so you can uncheck the first two boxes. The third test is device connectivity, and the fourth is device sync.

When the phone is plugged in and iPhone doesn't display it (but has recovered from its 3-minute stone-out), the device connectivity test takes a while. But it eventually shows, among other results, a green light next to the line "iPhone found." Next, the device sync test fails. If iTunes is running properly in all respects, this test is performed in a separate DOS-looking box that opens up automatically. But when the iPhone is hanging up, it doesn't open that box, instead showing a red light next to the line "One or more sync tests failed." There's a help button next to that line, which sends you to a bunch of Apple support pages that have not, in fact, helped.

What's revealing is what happens when you click "Next" again. Up comes a report that shows the outcome of the tests just run. And it shows that iTunes in fact is seeing our iPhone:

Connected Device Information:

, iPhone 3G running firmware version 4.2.1

In real life, it shows the actual serial number of our iPhone.

Now that's interesting. When things are running properly, you get the same result, except that it reads:

Connected Device Information:

Jack's iPhone, iPhone 3G running firmware version 4.2.1

It's the same answer, except that it gives the "name" of the phone as well as the serial number. And so whatever problem we have is causing iTunes to almost recognize, but not completely recognize, the phone.

So what? Well, we've noticed a couple of things as we've gone through this drill a dozen times or more. First, at one point running the diagnostics itself unfroze the phone -- it immediately synced. Another time, the connectivity test seemed to be dragging, and we opened Windows Task Manager (via CTL+ALT+DEL) in the middle of the test, and that seemed to unfreeze the phone and start a spontaneous sync.

But perhaps the most effective step we've taken is to head over to Windows Task Manager before attempting anything and doing an "End Process" shutdown of a process called iTunes Helper. This program runs as soon as the computer starts up, and its sole function, as far as we can tell, is to have iTunes start up automatically as soon as the iPhone is plugged into the computer. With this process ended, we simply start up iTunes by clicking on it, either with or without the phone plugged in. Not having iTunes Helper running seems to be helping with the sync problem.

If we had to guess, getting iTunes running before plugging in the phone would be the better order, but we haven't experimented enough to know that for sure.

Another thing we've discovered is that turning the phone off and on just before attempting the sync, helps for some reason. We have also taken to turning the iPhone off, and then plugging it (with the phone's power off) into the computer, which sometimes (but not always) automatically powers up and boots the iPhone. For some reason, that seems to help.

These tricks shouldn't be necessary, of course. And they aren't always working. But we're getting a far better batting average with them than without them. Give how long these issues have been knocking around, it seems unlikely that Apple cares enough or knows enough to get to the bottom of the problem. And so if you're out there reading this with the iPhone freezing your iTunes, we hope we've helped.

UPDATE, 6/14, 3:32 p.m.: We think we have figured out the problem, and come up with a solution! Details here.

Comments (9)

Go with Andriod and MP3, no problems ever.

Yeah, right. That's what they said about the iPhone. That's what they all say.

I forgot to mention: We've turned the computer completely off and back on immediately before a couple of successful syncs. If the problem has to do with the way Vista assigns a drive location to the phone, maybe that helps. Curiously, Vista does not assign a drive letter to the phone, even though it sees it and displays it under "Computer."

Another observation: During this ordeal, we've noticed that every now and then, out of the blue and with the iPhone nowhere in sight, Vista will make the "ga-dunk" sound that indicates that a device was just disconnected. We are not doing a thing with any devices when this happens.

Also, sometimes when the iPhone is plugged in, we get a "ga-dunk" disconnect sound just before the two "ga-dink" connection sounds that Vista usually makes when the phone is plugged in. Vista drive assignment (or something like it) is apparently in play.

I assume that the reason for two connection sounds is that Vista is seeing both a phone and a camera? Ah, when Microsoft and Apple get together, the fun for the consumer comes in clusters.

Two observations which may or may not be of value: But perhaps the most effective step we've taken is to head over to Windows Task Manager before attempting anything and doing an "End Process" shutdown of a process called iTunes Helper.

Have you tried removing it? It seems problematic in your case.

As well, though it's a crashing pain: there are situations when a Windows system has been running for a long time - as applications are opened and closed, some of their associated processes continue to run. Eventually, they consume sufficient memory that the system may slow or become nonresponsive (unless you have enabled paging to disk, in which case it becomes very slow but not necessarily unresponsive).

You shut down the computer and wait ~5 minutes for the caps to discharge, and you've got clear memory when you reboot.

No fun, but I've had it work in some systems.

The process list is pretty clean, but those mysterious device-disconnect sounds at random moments are a concern.

If you continue to have problems, here is one more thing you could try:

1. Shut down your computer
2. Plug in your iPhone
3. Start up your computer in "Safe Mode"
4. Try to sync your iPhone
5. Restart the computer again and start it in regular mode.

I did something similar with my "sticky" CD/DVD drives the other day. Now both of the CD drives work properly after a couple of weeks of frustration.

Safe Mode was interesting -- took the computer forever to boot up. Then when we restarted in Normal Mode, it was almost equally glacial. No help with the phone, though -- iTunes didn't like Safe Mode, and Normal Mode is still where it was before.

First, ditch Vista and upgrade to Windows 7.

I realize that the issue doesn't seem to be with Vista, but Vista has a lot of problems that could be contributing to the issues you're seeing.

Second, I'm sure you've checked that you're running the latest version of iTunes. If not, do so.

Third, On my 3G, with 4.2.1, we have to reboot our phones about once a week or their performance is a joke. Might be something to try before syncing.

There are lots of issues with iTunes for Windows. Vista just adds another layer of potential trouble. Hate to say it, but its true. Much of that is due to Microsoft rushing products out the door and Apple choosing to not support Microsoft products as well as they doe their own (can't blame them, just annoying as a consumer)

Seriously, Jack. Maybe you need to get an Apple computer. No problems. Ever. Am I missing something here?

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