The incredibly annoying case of the Apple TV update

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.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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