Tuesday, December 21, 2010

iPad button problem, looks like a software issue

This issue I have recently encountered on one of my iPads supports the unfortunate fact that there is a lot of computer and electronic hardware that gets returned because the products seem to exhibit hardware problems. When in fact, there are either software bugs or 'software features' that make it appear that there are problems with the hardware, but the hardware is just fine.

I started to see the home button on the front of the iPad to quit responding. You would push it and nothing would happen, so you could not exit apps, bring up the task manager or any other function that required the button to respond to a push. The problem was very intermittent, sometimes it was completely non-functioning and other times worked fine. I tried cleaning the button area and removing the iPad from the Apple case, at first this seemed to improve the issue. But then it came back. The button does appear to be a mechanical button, unlike the capacitive buttons that many of the Android devices use.

I should note here that, sad but true, I own three iPads, and this unit was the only one showing the problem. This was reenforcing my belief that I had a hardware issue on just the one iPad.

I searched Google and found others with similar symptoms. A number of people were going to the Apple store and getting their iPads replace. I decided to make an appointment with the local Apple Genius Bar at the Santa Barbara store. I went in and the helpful technician was able to duplicate the problem with me there, though I sensed she remained skeptical. Her next step was to request that the iPad be totally reset, wiped and reinstalled as a new iPad. We did this in the store and I gave it another 'button pushing' spin, with the iPad cleared of all apps and data. I thought that I could reproduce the problem still, but it seemed to have significantly reduced. The technician at this point was willing to swap out my iPad for a replacement unit.  She was multitasking and helping another person at the same time, so I continued to test by button. After about 10 minutes, I told her that I felt the problem might have been fixed, and before swapping the hardware I wanted to reinstall my data and apps and test the unit further.

The Apple Guru continued to be very helpful and said that since we had done this first 'software' reset step, and the fact was logged in the Apple Support system for this iPad, I could come back and go directly to the hardware swap step.

Well, two weeks later, I  will report that I have NOT seen the problem again. It has been a real PIA to reinstall apps and data in the unit. The Apple Guru recommended NOT restoring the backup image to the iPad. I think this has been the right route to the solution, it does appear that something in the operating system or in one of the apps I installed was causing the button to misbehave. I had installed beta releases of the iOS operating system on this machine along the way to its current state with a production release of iOS 4.2.1 (8C148).

If the problem is due to a bug in one of the apps I have on the machine, or an interaction between two or more apps, I may not have yet hit this ignition point. And there is still a small possibility that the problem is mechanical hardware related and has just gone into hiding.

However, as I said at the beginning of this post, I feel strongly that my experience and what I read in the press support the fact that there is a huge number of electronic returns that are working just fine from a hardware perspective. Electronic hardware today is amazingly robust!  But us humans are extremely fickle and quick to point the finger at incorrect sources of problems. This combined with the unfortunate fact that it is often simpler, quicker and less expensive to use a 'swap' rather than diagnose and fix route to the solution is a sad truth that poor software is causing.


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