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Pointers: the iOS troubleshooting and device maintenance guide
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NewsPoster
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Jul 31, 2015, 09:28 PM
 
Today's Pointers column was inspired by a real-life incident in which an acquaintance asked me for help in picking out a new iPad. Knowing that they had a fourth-generation iPad -- not far removed from the iPad Air 2 that I have -- I asked why. "Doesn't work anymore," they grumbled resentfully. "Lots of crashes, some apps don't even launch now." I asked if it had ever been turned off. "Every night," they said. I said, "no, not put to sleep -- turned off." "You can do that?!" they exclaimed.

You may laugh -- you tech-savvy, power-user, good-looking MacNN reader, you -- but you would be shocked how often I run across people who have never, ever, in the three or so years since they got their iOS device, restarted it or powered it down. Ever. Or extremely rarely, like the last time they had troubles with it a couple of years ago. It's a real testament to how solid iOS is, but no OS is impervious to faults, particularly with a long uptime and limited RAM as the iPad has.

Rebooting does not mean buying new boots

Even power-users often forget to restart their iPad or iPhone every now and again, chiefly because it actually needs to do this pretty rarely -- but yes, the iPad should periodically be powered down and then back up again, or at least do a system reset (which does not erase the iPad). With yearly releases of major iOS versions, you'd think this problem would take care of itself, since those require resets, but you'd probably also be surprised how often non-tech savvy users don't immediately (or in some cases, ever) upgrade.

In the case of our acquaintance, they had never done either a restart or an upgrade since buying the machine nearly three years earlier. Doing both set everything back to working like new, which utterly dumbfounded the owner, who then said another little pearl of enlightenment: "if I'd known maintenance was so easy, I'd have done it now and then!" One wonders about the state of their lawn, or house plants.

Part of the intimidation factor that fills older users with fear about computers generally if they didn't grow up with them as youngsters is that they don't understand the workings or concepts well enough to know what to do to maintain it. While the iPad specifically was designed to overcome these fears, it and the iPhone have ironically created the opposite problem: a belief that neither one of them never needs any maintenance, and cannot be fixed if a problem does develop, beyond replacement of the entire unit.

If you haven't done it in a while yourself, do it now: turn off your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad. If you're not sure how, you just press and hold the sleep/wake button for a few seconds, and a red slider bar will appear which you can then slide. Depending on how full your device is and how long ago you last did this, you may get a feint "busy circle" symbol for a few moments on a black screen before the unit goes entirely black, indicating that it is finally off.

Once that's happened, you can turn it back on in the same way: you'll see an Apple logo to assure you that you've turned it on, and shortly the familiar login screen will appear. For those in a big hurry, there is a faster method: press and hold both the home and sleep/wake button for a few seconds. This will trigger an immediate reboot.

How often should you do this? As preventative maintenance, I'll say once every few months, let's say quarterly. On the equinoxes, if you like. It's up to you, but don't wait too long. If your iOS apps start crashing, a restart is the first and primary step you as a user can take, and the good news is it works 90-plus percent of the time.

In the extremely rare event that this doesn't fix the issue, and there's no obvious other cause (you shouldn't have taken it in the bath with you), you can also try deleting the troublesome application (if it is a third-party one) by holding the home button until the icon start to "wiggle," then press the tiny "x" in the upper left corner of the icon (Apple's built-in apps won't have this, since those apps can't be deleted directly on the iPad). You can then try re-downloading the app (at no charge) from the App Store app. If your unit is jailbroken, none of these things may work, and the fault is squarely on you for having deliberately sabotaged your system. Restore it back to factory settings (more about that later on) and things will probably -- miraculously -- right themselves.

Stay up-to-date

Another great tip for avoiding issues with software is to keep said software up-to-date. This involves tapping the App Store icon on your home screen every so often, and then the "Updates" section to see what needs updating. This process can take a while if you've neglected doing this for a bit, so pick a time when you can take a moment to read about what's changed with the apps, it's usually fun to discover the new features developers are constantly adding. Occasionally the release notes are -- I'm not kidding -- hilarious.

You don't have to "stick around" to watch the circles rotate and fill up as part of the upgrade process: you can put it down (leaving it on, however) or work with/play any app not being updated while it does its thing. For a variety of reasons, it is a good idea to keep the software up-to-date, from a security standpoint as well as the many extra abilities or bug fixes that are often included.

Once a year, Apple issues a new major upgrade to iOS, and periodically throughout the year it issues minor bug-fix updates as well. You'll get a notification about this, and it would be wise not to ignore it (though you can put it off temporarily if you are busy at that moment). You can update the system itself by going to the Settings app and tapping on the "Software Update" section, then letting it do any update or upgrade that may need to be done.

Broadly speaking, devices stop being compatible with the latest and greatest iOS upgrades after about four years or so. With iPhones having a cycle that barely extends past the standard two-year contract, this isn't a big deal -- you may have upgraded to newer models at least once by the time your old iPhone is no longer compatible with the latest iOS or app update, so it never becomes an issue. With the iPod touch or the iPad, however, usually generally hang on to the one they bought until it literally can't be updated any longer -- and then they starting thinking about maybe getting a new one ... pretty soon.

As a working tech editor, I naturally have to update my equipment (with rare exceptions) a bit more often, but even I have thus far held on to my iPads for approximately three years each, so this iPad Air 2 I'm writing this on will be getting "handed down" to some friend or family member on or around fall 2017, barring some spectacular new innovation that makes it a must-have rather than an incremental hardware improvement. One of the reasons the yearly updates of the iPad seem less compelling than those of the iPhone is that Apple got the iPad and iPod touch fundamentally right out of the gate, whereas the more diverse nature of uses for the iPhone (now expanding with things like Apple Pay and the Apple Watch) means new models have more "gotta have that" new features.

Because they are largely bulletproof, the iPad in particular and iPod touch to a slightly lesser extent tend to be held on to until they are just about useless. Restarting them periodically and keeping the software up-to-date will play a big role in getting the most out of them, along with (my opinion) the investment of a good case and Bluetooth keyboard. That's what I'm using to write this, in a cafe as I nibble on afternoon tea (tea as in meal, the UK meaning, not tea as in the drink alone).

One last weird old tip

You've all seen those gimmicky ads for various miracle cures or get-in-shape things that rely on "this one weird old tip." Well here's one for iOS devices that is taken from the Mac, and his been a "best practice" technique that I've recommended since at least the mid-90s: leave some storage space free at all times.

This is particularly noticeable on the Mac -- OS X really doesn't like it (and indeed no OS on any platform likes it) when you fill up the available startup ("boot") drive all the way. Operating systems need a little "elbow room" to write to cache, to log things, to move files around for optimization purposes, and in particularly they need storage space for temp files generated by user activity (that's you) -- from working on your novel in a word processor to editing video, more than just the system RAM is required to make things go smoothly, and a lot of temp files are created and cleaned up in the process. There's a lot going on with your computer that you don't know about while you're hunting for the "r" key.

Although iOS is distinct from the Mac's OS X, they spring from the same source, and so this "rule" still applies on iOS. Since the flash-based storage of iOS devices is your "boot drive," and there's not generally any other option for storage (wireless hard drives nonwithstanding), it's important to leave some "wiggle room" in place so the storage management part of iOS has room to do its work. The more complex a thing you are doing on your iOS device, the more room it likely needs, until you close the app.

There's no hard-and-fast amount you should leave free, because this all varies a great deal by the type of user you are: video editors should probably plan to leave more free storage space open at all times than someone who just uses their device to text friends. Broadly speaking, I'm going to suggest a guideline of 10 percent on an iOS device and let's say 15 percent on a Mac (since Macs tend to get more complex jobs than iOS device) as a minimum.

You can check your free space at any time by doing a sync of your iOS device with iTunes or wirelessly through your Mac, or by tapping Settings, General, and then look at the "Available" space. Right above it is the available "Capacity" of the device (which may not be the exact number the package said on the box; this is because the total storage of the device printed on the package doesn't account for the space taken up by iOS and the built-in apps.

On my 64GB iPad Air 2, the capacity is 55.7GB, and the current available space is 29GB (so a little more than 50 percent). If I was down to 6GB or so, I'd be thinking about how I could free up some space, either by lowering the amount of media I have on the device (the main space-stealer) or maybe looking at moving such things to iCloud libraries. The ability of the built-in storage to be able to leave some room for temp files means things will work at peak speed, and avoid the risk of crashing because the storage has reached capacity (however temporarily that may be the case).

Should you be close to the edge, you might see apps "crash" or be unable to save things. A restart may recover some space by flushing out the temp files, but you could also lose the work you've done since you opened or started your current document, so don't get into that position. Sync or check your free space often enough that you know when you're getting close to full, and if you're starting to think about your next iOS device purchase, more space always seems to work out better for the money spent than going too small (though Apple is trying to mitigate this, by offering to put more media and other such files into cloud storage, which takes a toll on data usage but vastly increases the ability of smaller-capacity devices to still access an enormous media library).

If you've done all the tips and best practices listed here, and you are still having issues with your machine, the next step is generally a full erasing and reformatting of the device, followed by a restore of a fresh system (and, if that goes well, the restoratation of your backed-up data and settings, because you did read this My Stupid Fault column, right?). Beyond that, the problem is likely mechanical in nature and will need an Apple Store or Apple Authorized Service Provider to fix.

Pointers appears every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday -- so check back often for more great tips and tricks to learn more and keep your Apple device humming along happily!
( Last edited by NewsPoster; Aug 2, 2015 at 05:57 PM. )
     
panjandrum
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Aug 1, 2015, 12:52 PM
 
Another nice article, thanks. I've mentioned before that it's great to see a high-profile Mac news site delve a bit more deeply into troubleshooting articles, tips, etc. Because most people are better at remembering things they do as a routine rather than once in a blue moon, I generally advise people to turn their iOS devices off and back on every day; such as right before going to bed (because iOS turn themselves back on when plugged-in, this is very easy. Turn device off. Wait until it is done, then plug it in.) That's definitely overkill, but once it is routine it usually gets done. The author(s) of this article sounds like they have had some issues with jailbroken phones in the past (for the record, my family has been running jailbroken phones continuously since approx. the iPhone 3 era. with zero problems beyond the "wait to updated" scenarios, but I would never recommend it to anyone not tech-minded.). But for those who have jailbroken their phones (*cough* *cough*) there is a nice little utility called OSLite8 that cleans caches on iOS devices (similar to the same function on Macs). And finally, yes, your iOS device will run *much* slower as you near storage capacity. This performance difference, especially on older hardware, can be considerable. If your device is suddenly running very slowly, this is one of the first places to look (after a reboot).
     
Charles Martin
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Aug 1, 2015, 05:38 PM
 
I used to jailbreak my iPhone (originally to unlock it for travel, later to see what apps were available that had features not possible in App Store apps), and we've run innumerable articles about or reporting on jailbreak methods, since it is not illegal to do so.

However, we've always discouraged the app-piracy aspect of the hobby, and over the years we've realized that jailbreaking is a massive security risk that, these days, really can no longer afford to be taken, as the black hat community increasingly focuses on trying to attack the iOS platform through that security hole users have themselves installed. Jailbreaking has, sadly, become the province of only the most advanced users who can manage the now-considerable risk, in our view.
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Aug 1, 2015, 07:36 PM
 
WARNING: The two-button (Home and Power) reset should ONLY be used if your device is locked up, or if directed by Apple support. That FAINT–WAY too faint–"busy circle" symbol is because the device is busy, ending network sessions, closing files, and doing other things that kind of prevent data and system corruption.
     
Steve Wilkinson
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Aug 1, 2015, 08:02 PM
 
Unless, of course, it's an older device (i.e. 512K) running iOS 8, in which case.... that's just the way it is (cue Bruce Hornsby). Hope for better times to come with iOS 9 or start saving for a new device.

Also, I think it was Apple (or the Apple press) that used to go on and on about not having to quit apps or stuff like that because iOS just took care of it. I've been in a reboot and quit unused apps for years, and have always been told I'm just old-fashioned in my thinking. Finally vindicated!
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panjandrum
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Aug 1, 2015, 09:21 PM
 
@Charles: I agree. Jailbreaking makes me much more nervous than it used to. But, as far as I can tell the general guide remains the same: Don't install an SSH function, DO change your root password and mobile password (personally, I also use only the barest handful of utilities, all of which are pretty well known, and I don't ever go out and just "play" with unknown apps). There are, unfortunately, a number of things that I require my phone to do that I can't accomplish on the iPhone without jailbreaking, otherwise I also wouldn't bother to touch it. Here is hoping that Apple eventually opens things up a bit more and allows authorized apps to perform everything (or, at least, nearly everything) that jailbroken apps can do. If you don't need to jailbreak your phone, or you aren't tech-savy, then definitely don't do it!
     
msuper69
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Aug 2, 2015, 02:18 AM
 
iOS isn't Windows. Rebooting/power cycling is necessary for iOS updates only; the amount of time the system has been running is irrelevant.
     
panjandrum
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Aug 2, 2015, 03:49 PM
 
@msuper69. That's simply incorrect. Yes, both the Mac OS and iOS are very, very good at running for extended periods of time with few or no issues, but anyone who uses these devices on a regular basis knows that occasional reboots are still a good idea, and often resolve small glitches.
     
Charles Martin
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Aug 2, 2015, 05:20 PM
 
Perhaps what msuper69 was saying is that if one routinely updates one's iOS install with the regular updates, this practice by itself will "reboot" the OS often enough that "maintenance" rebooting will be unnecessary. If that's what he meant, then I agree. Otherwise, I've seen rebooting fix little issues far too often to discount the usefullness of it -- even UNIX systems need to be rebooted once in a blue moon.
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msuper69
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Aug 3, 2015, 03:16 AM
 
Charles: Actually, what I meant was that if an OS needs to be rebooted to keep running properly, there is a software bug(s) that should be fixed. Rebooting is a band-aid. Any OS should be able to run indefinitely without rebooting to fix an OS problem (like leaking memory). Normal maintenance reboots not included.
     
Mike Wuerthele
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Aug 3, 2015, 09:14 AM
 
An often overlooked problem with systems running forever is cosmic rays and radiation sources. Not even including bit-flips because of computer errors, a periodic cosmic ray can come in and flip bits as well. This is less of a problem with (expensive) ECC RAM. As the density of RAM increases, the problem is slightly aggravated.

Periodic reboots aren't a bad thing. Keeps the bit rot down.
     
panjandrum
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Aug 3, 2015, 05:22 PM
 
@Mike. That's a great thing to mention. I remember an old study that showed that computers at high altitudes crashed more often due to cosmic rays than those a sea-level. Fascinating stuff.
     
Steve Wilkinson
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Aug 4, 2015, 05:03 AM
 
@Mike, heh, yea we forget about the cosmic rays... not everyone is running a Mac Pro. @msuper69, I've yet to meet an OS that doesn't need to be rebooted... it's a matter of some more than others.
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