The incredibly annoying case of the Apple TV update

The incredibly annoying case of the Apple TV update

Summary: Despite Apple's reputation for easy-to-use products, they're far from flawless. This weekend's Apple TV "update" is a case in point.


It's not that I dislike Apple products. Lord knows, between my wife and I, we certainly own a lot of them. It's not even that I dislike the people at Apple. I headed up a couple of projects there and still have friends who work for the company.

And it's not even that I dislike the Apple fans. After all, they're just fans. Well, except for a few crazy ones, but that's the case with all institutions that inspire fan loyalty.

No, what I have a problem with is Apple's reputation for flawless products and perfect execution.

It's not just that the fans believe it, it's that Apple tends to drink its own Kool-Aid. Whenever I bump into some new "gotcha" that Apple claims regular people can handle (or worse, claims it's their imagination), it just irks me.

Let's take this weekend's case of the Apple TV update. Saturday night, my wife and I sat down to watch a Star Trek: Voyager episode on Netflix. Yes, I have the coolest wife. She likes Star Trek. Anyway, we sat down to watch Voyager, and the Apple TV informed us it had an update. I said "No" because I just wanted to watch TV, not update another computer.

About 5 minutes into the program, the Apple TV insisted it had an update and this time, with a deep sigh, I pressed "OK". An hour later, the update hadn't finished. Finally, just before we went to bed, the Apple TV proudly announced that the update had failed. We never did get to watch our Voyager episode that night.

The next morning, I got up and did the usual. I unplugged the device, waited a little while, plugged it back in, and let it boot up. Then I tried running the update again. It didn't take an hour, but about 20 minutes later, it announced it had failed. I tried the whole process again, and this time got myself a second cup of coffee while waiting for the update to fail.

I decided to try one more time, with another complete power cycle, and this time I snagged the last slice of danish. And once again, the update failed.

Now, it was time to go to the Web. As it turns out, there was nothing by Apple about what was wrong, but a forum post turned out to have the answer. Are you ready?

Apparently, this update won't work on Apple TVs connected to the network by Ethernet. This update will only work on Apple TVs connected to the network over WiFi. Seriously. My house is wired with GigE in every wall (yeah, I did that!), and so I have my entire media center connected via GigE. We can pump full 1080p video across the house at speeds well in excess of anything even dual-channel 801.11n WiFi can handle.

My wireless network is also very locked down, so each new device needs to be registered with the router in a few different ways. In order to make the Apple TV talk to the wireless network, I had to go through an entire authorization sequence. There went another 20 minutes lost.

Finally, I had the Apple TV talking to the network over WiFi, ran the update, and it worked. This validated the forum claim that the update just wouldn't work on a wired connection. In any case, I then plugged the Ethernet cable back into the Apple TV, rebooted it again, and it's back online via my GigE.

Now, I just have to do this with the other two Apple TVs in the house. Joy.

What keeps getting to me is that while this was a trivial set of steps for a techie, for people like my parents, it would have been game over. It's almost impossible to explain to my parents how to configure a network, and if they had an Apple TV on a wired network (like their Tivo is), this bug would have simply rendered it useless until the next time I had a chance to visit them.

Last visit, I hooked up my dad's iPad to his iPad-ready Air Print printer. Since then, he did something and he can't print. He's now waiting on me to fix that, too.

My point is this: Apple, for all its popularity, is still not building devices that are trouble-free. They're also clearly not testing them out well enough, or the bug with wired Ethernet updates would never have happened.

Even with Apple products, real users still need hand-holding. And even with Apple products, bizarre technical problems and poor quality control can mess up the user experience.

In any case, Tim Cook now owes me two hours.

Topic: Apple


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Re:

    Well! Clearly this is your own fault for using ancient and cumbersome cable based technology! ;D
    • It's not a bug

      It's Apple way of forcing people to do things their way. We've seen it time and again. The latest being eliminating the optical drive on their new iMacs and moving the SD card slot to the back! Those ports on the iMacs are located in the most inconvenient place possible. At least the USB ports and SD card slot should be on the side. That would be more functional than making the edges super thing. Who cares about the edges of the iMac? It's not like you're staring at your iMac from the side.

      So what do you do if you want to watch your video? iCloud? AppleTV? That's right you got to stream your video preferably wirelessly. Or, spend another $100 to get needed function that was previously included making the iMac even more expensive.
  • I'm curious

    How does a program using the network know if its a wired or wireless network?

    I assume the issue is a race condition in their code that the lower speed and longer latency of WiFi covers up.
    • Very good question

      And even better question is... why would a program even need that?

      I mean, seriously. I can *maybe* understand checking to make sure you're connected...except that you'd have to be connected for it to even know an update is available in the first place. I could even see having a feature to detect the speed of the connection, so that it could at least give you an estimate on how long it would take to download the update.

      But to say, "sorry, even though your device has been streaming content from our server over the much faster Ethernet connection in your house, & even though the connection from your house back to our servers goes over wired connections [most likely through SONET-level or faster fiber-optic OC-192 rings], you can't download this update unless you use the wireless adapter in your device" just plain boggles the mind.
      • sort of...

        It's obviously a bug and I'm sure it was originally intended to be one of those insanely helpful unhelpful messages that would tell you that your wireless connection wasn't fast enough to stream the content you wanted to stream. I doubt they really meant for it to block the update over wireless.

        It stinks of poor QA or possibly no QA. More than likely the update was tested in an environment that was all wireless. Way to go Apple. This is what happens when you have a bad test manager and short sighted, lazy test engineers or even better, rely only on dogfooding for the sake of security. Don't know which this was. Doesn't really matter. In the end. the user experience stinks.
    • Yelling and screaming...

      Clearly one of two things occurred at Apple. Either one, they didn't bother to test the update with the AppleTV connected to GigE, or two, they did test it and concluded that the bug wasn't important because "nobody really does that".

      Decision to not test with GigE (assuming that if it could do it wirelessly, it surely could do it when connected to the cable) and decision to ignore a problem with GigE connected updates (assuming that the only likely cable connected users were some geeks testing the device in a lab anyway) are exactly the kind of choices one sees happen in a big meeting, with lots of reasonable people, concentrating on delivery dates, resource limitations and upcoming vacation schedules. They are the kind of decisions reasonable people are prone to make.

      That said, Apple is a company with $100+ billion in the bank that is dependent for their very value and existence on their reputation for flawless execution. A reputation brought about by one of their founders who very regularly and very unreasonably would go ballistic over trivial details that weren't exactly right. Apple needs desperately to maintain an internal company clulture that is inhospitable to reasonable people. Their continued success and future value depend on it. If Tim Cook is going to successfully carry the mantle of leadership at Apple, he needs to take a course in yelling and screaming...
    • eh

      "wired or wireless network?"

      I'm guessing different drivers but I could be wrong. I don't have a mac.
  • do you think?

    Apple is losing some of its luster?
    If so, HP is even dumber than a rock, tossing an alternative system to the dustbin. Google, Microsoft and what else for the average non-techie?
    Who will step into the void?
  • Weird.

    Both of mine are hard wired and had no issue updating them.

    Worse case scenario, one can update the Apple TV via micro-USB and iTunes.

    My set up is that off of my Cable modem I have a Apple Airport Base Station, which the upstairs Apple TV is hard wired into. I have an Airport express downstairs by my entertainment center that works as a wireless bridge, which is connected to my old Belkin Router that is working as as switch, which feeds my down stairs Apple TV, Xbox, and PS3. So the downstairs one is technically on the wireless network, but as far as the Apple TV is concerned it thinks it is a wired connection.

    I live in an Town Home Complex, and there is a ton of wireless routers around and the 2.4GHz channels are completely saturated. I went with the Airports from Apple, because every 5GHz router I had tried from Linksys, Netgear, or Belkin kept dropping my connections. Either flawed firmware or heat issues, so I finally just dropped the cash on the Airports, and have had no issues since. I even have a 2TB USB drive split with two 1TB partitions hanging off of the base station. One handles my Time Machine Backups, the other holds some Data and my Aperture Vaults.
    • Same here, I used GigE and it was fine for two out of three.

      For me, two out of three Apple TVs in the house worked fine, hardwired. The other one failed repeatedly. And, thanks to this article, I was able to update it over WiFi. I don't think it's EVERY Apple TV. Just a certain batch. David, did you try Hardwired for ALL of your Apple TV units? Or did you just focus on the one then apply the WiFi fix for all of them? Just curious.
  • With Apple it's all about the image

    Marketing rules. Apple really isn't "all that", just a pretty UI and marketed incredibly well. When you get down to nuts and bolts, the hardware isn't even that great and not nearly cutting edge. Using yesterday's technology in a pretty case helps keep their margins higher.
  • Only problem with your GigE assertion is...

    ...That Apple TV only has a 10/100 wired connection.

    Not a dig on you, mainly aimed at Apple. I have my Apple TV hooked up via wired connection too, and had the same experience as you.

    Except before I went to the net to find the cure (WiFi connection), I tried doing a complete Reset of the Apple TV. The first step of the reset, of course, is to download the latest update, and guess what? It failed. But my Apple TV did lose all of its settings of course.

    Apple has one of the worst quality controls for updates of any company. People rag on Microsoft? Ridiculous! They have RARE update problems. Apple has them all the time. I love their hardware, but I hate their updates .... and iTunes.
  • When Perfect is Imperfect

    @David Gewirtz: I agree with you that Apple itself plies the notion that they create perfect products, and consumers buy into this in droves. This sets up consumers for The Great Disenchantment when something goes wrong. I'm on-side with you, 100%.

    The flip-side to this same coin, is that even though Apple products aren't perfect, often, they're *really* good! I've run wireless LANS in my various houses for years, always dealing with failing or glitching routers from various brand names, but when I switched to Apple's AirPort Extreme wireless routers, I've been running trouble free 24/7 for over 5 years. I also have 2 first-gen Apple TVs with the 160 GB drive, and in spite of not being "perfect," they do what they do extremely well, and have a User Interface that's second to none. Ditto with my iPhone 5: I wish Apple did a number of things differently, but over-all, I love it with a passion. And keep in mind, I'm a PC guy on an XP box, by choice; not some Apple Famboi. But I do tip my hat to Apple for doing stuff well (though not "perfectly"), and I have no problem giving credit where credit is due (Note: I'm not accusing you of doing otherwise).

    But yeah, I sometimes share your frustration with Apple. But not nearly enough to switch to a competing product.
    • Apple WiFi not so great

      Getting an Apple product connected to the WiFi network has never been a big deal for me, but Apple has a King Kong-sized fail when it comes to syncing over WiFi to iTunes.

      It is literally *impossible* to keep an iOS device (iPad or iPhone) to continue syncing with iTunes day after day.

      Sometimes you have to reboot the iOS device. Sometimes you have to restart iTunes. Sometimes you have to restart the Apple Mobile Devices service. Sometimes all three, or some combination of them.

      A quick Google search will indicate that this is a massive issue, yet Apple continues to fail. Even the latest iTunes 11 does nothing to solve it.
      • I rarely sync my iDevices with iTunes

        At least not since I bought the iTunes Match Service. Just no need to. I will occasionally do a full backup to my laptop with iTunes, and even there I will just connect via the sync cable, much faster than doing it over Wifi, and the only reason I do it is to save application settings. Otherwise it isn't a concern for me anymore.
        • Speed of Wifi vs. USB is unimportant

          Who cares if USB syncing is quicker? The appeal of Wifi sync is that you don't need to connect it to the computer, not that it's quicker. Frankly, it does not need to be a speed demon, it just needs to work consistently. And it doesn't.

          I'm glad you have no need to sync. But I do, and it doesn't work properly over Wifi. That was why I posted the message here.
      • Not having your experience

        Never had issued with wifi sync between iOS and iTunes. I routinely sync my devices to iTunes while the iPhone is in my pocket and the iPad is in my travel bag, both "sleeping". I have even done the last iOS update to the iPad remotely via iTunes (as weird as this sounds).

        Perhaps you have bad wireless AP? I sometime have this problem with a cheap no-name AP, that access to my fileserver disappears and it is always fixed when the AP is power cycled.
        Might be worth checking.
        • No, of course not

          No, it has nothing to do with my network architecture. I think it has more to do with Apple's neglect of the Windows platform. Are you by any chance using a Mac for iTunes?

          Also, according to Apple, the WiFi sync only works after you plug it in to a power source, so I'm wondering how it is syncing while in your travel bag. Maybe it's not really doing what you think it's doing.
          • Yes, a Mac

            I have it running on my MacBook. Indeed, neither the iPhone nor the iPad need to be charging in order to sync with iTunes. Despite what the documentation says and I don't see any option to enable/disable this. They come in as soon as I start iTunes.

            It surely syncs songs, Safari safe browsing data and apps and as weird as it sounds, once I updated my iPad via iTunes over wireless! (the iPad could otherwise update on it's own via wifi)

            Anyway, it might be the Windows networking that interferes.
  • Apple had a bug in an update?

    Apple had a bug in an update? Wow.. amazing... this only happens like every couple of months.

    Does anyone really buy into the "trouble -free" claim some people make? I don't really recall anyone (that matters) making a claim that you will not have problems with Apple hardware/software... just some people claim its less likely.