Adam's Apple

My Low-end iPhone 3G: Bugs, iOS Updates, and Keeping It Working

Adam Rosen - 2010.07.13 (updated) - Tip Jar

The whole thing started with a software update on my iPhone 3G. I should know better.

I'm not referring to the most-recent iOS 4 update and 3G speed disaster - I performed this one too, but that comes much later in the story. In this case, the headaches began with what was then called iPhone OS 3.1 back in Summer 2009.

My iPhone 3G is two years old, now virtually obsolete in the world of iDevices. From Cutting Edge to Low End, all for want of a Retina Display and more RAM - sheesh! But I digress....

I had held off on the jump from iPhone OS v2 to v3 when that came out in June 2009. My phone was working fine, and I could wait for the new features. I recall several other Apple consultants chiding me about lagging behind on this update - it's a phone, they said, not a Mac - but to me that wasn't the point. It's a computer, and I use the thing daily - why tempt fate?

Back in 2007, I wrote an article for Low End Mac discussing The Benefits and Possible Pitfalls of Software Updates. In that piece I noted:

Computers are tools; they need them to remain stable and productive. Updating more than you need to has a downside besides potential cost: it increases the potential for things to go wrong.

The key to update sanity is knowing when an update is really necessary. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does the update add a feature or capability I need?
  • Does the update fix a bug or problem I have?
  • Does the update address a major security concern?

If you answer yes to any question, backup your system, then update. If you answer no to all questions, if it ain't broke don't fix it!

All sage advice (if I do say so myself). I took it again last summer, and all was well. For a while.

Act 1: This Will Only Take a Minute

I had skipped the (retroactively renamed) iOS 3.0 update, but since I work full-time as an Apple consultant I could only hold off for so long. It's important that I stay familiar enough with Apple's software to support my clients' needs. Version 3.0.1 came out in July 2009, so I backed up my iPhone and upgraded without incident.

My phone ran fine: I enjoyed having Cut and Paste, and iLife was good for a few weeks. Apple soon released the 3.1 update, which addressed even more bugs and issues than 3.0.1, so I took that plunge too.

Wrong decision. It wasn't broken, but I fixed it.

Soon after the 3.1 update, I began to notice strange behavior in Mail. When one or more new messages arrived in my inbox, the oldest in the list would appear briefly, then immediately disappear from the list. You have 3 new messages - no, wait, make that 2.

Check Mail again. Message number 3 reappeared, then disappeared. Quit to the Home Screen, relaunch Mail. Message reappears and stays there.

Okay.

Until the next batch comes in.

Soon even quitting and relaunching Mail didn't help; I needed to fully reboot the iPhone to get things working normally again. (If you have an older iPhone, you know this isn't the quickest experience.)

This Was Really Annoying.

I tried the usual troubleshooting routines over the course of a few days, in order of procedure length and headache inducing potential:

  1. Delete my account in Mail, reboot, recreate account. (5 minutes)
  2. Erase my iPhone and Restore from Backup. (over an hour for my 16 GB phone)
  3. Erase my iPhone and Restore as New, setting up everything again from scratch. (several hours)

None of these solved the problem. I use email more than any other feature. The hardware was working fine, and Apple wouldn't be able to do anything more than this at a Genius Bar.

This Was Really Getting Annoying.

Now I was eagerly awaiting the next update. I was rebooting my iPhone daily. A month passed until 3.1.2 came out. Download, update, restore, and . . . no dice, same problem.

I couldn't be the only one experiencing this, but Web searches revealed nothing. I recalled hearing once that the best way to submit bug requests to Apple is through the Apple Developer Connection - they maintain a bug form and submission routine you can use once you join (ADC basic membership is free).

Worth a shot. I performed all the instructions to specify and duplicate my problem, then submitted it to Apple.

A few days later I got a response with a request for more information. Apple asked me to duplicate the problem and extract the logs from the iPhone. I didn't know I could get to the logs; it's possible using the iPhone Configuration Utility. Way cool!

Recreating an intermittent bug on demand is like getting your car to make that noise when the mechanic is listening. It will predictably fail to do so. Fortunately, in this case I was able to get Mail on the iPhone to trip up again fairly quickly, so I submitted the log to Apple and waited for a response.

And waited.

And waited.

I was wearing out the Sleep/Wake button on my phone with all the reboots.

Three months later (January 2010), Apple finally responded and said my bug was a duplicate of an existing issue, so the cases would be merged. That was the last I heard from them.

The 3.1.3 update came out in February. Of course, that didn't fix things either.

This Was More Than Just Annoying. I Was Getting Pissed.

Four more months of disappearing emails, and that brings us to a few weeks ago. The debut of iOS 4 for iDevices worldwide.

Act 2: Bend Over and Cough

I knew iOS 4 was a major update, targeted primarily at the iPhone 3GS and new iPhone 4. I had read that the new OS had high overhead and would only run with limited features on the older 3G iPhones. It was also a "Point Oh" release, so likely to have bugs of its own.

Under normal circumstances I would have stayed far away until a few patches were issued.

But this was a New Major Release of the OS, and Apple had acknowledged the bug I was experiencing. I was desperate - anything to fix the disappearing emails.

I took the plunge. I backed up my phone, upgraded, and tried things out.

The phone seemed a bit slow but otherwise okay. I went to Mail and checked new messages. So far, so good, but it's an intermittent bug.

I tool around with iOS 4 a bit more. Mail now has a unified inbox - messages from multiple accounts now appear in the same list. I've wanted this feature for some time. But my iPhone is definitely more poky.

Folders in the Home Screens are nice, a great way to organize and cut down clutter. Cool, that's actually useful. And the camera has a digital zoom. Awright!

Back to Mail. Messages were still coming in okay. I was starting to hope again.

The phone now seemed really slow though, like molasses running uphill on a cold winter day. When I tapped on Settings, it took about 15 seconds to display the options. That's a long time. Opening up my messages took about as long, as did the contacts list.

Oh crud. I rebooted the phone again. Check Mail, all working okay. Is the Mail Bug fixed?

I gave things a couple days. The iPhone crawled along, and at last I could finally say the Mail Bug is Fixed! Yay!!!

It felt great. It was actually a mixed blessing, as the iPhone now performed horribly. It didn't always recognize the "unlock slide" when turning it back on, the keyboard took 10 seconds to appear on each message, every app was affected, and it kept getting worse.

Reboot again and again. No difference.

Aarrgghhhh! I just traded one performance issue for another.

I thought about buying a new iPhone 4 - something many people with this problem have considered - but that isn't yet in the cards. Besides, the new iWonder is having plenty of problems of its own (Death Grip anyone?) What to do?

Most non-Apple people probably would have cursed out Steve Jobs, ditched the iPhone, and just bought an Android. But I like the iPhone, and I can't switch platforms, given my career. What I can do is search the Internet: maybe somebody else is having this issue and there's a fix.

I quickly learned I was not alone in my problems.

Act 3: iPhone Voodoo and the Double Hard Reset

To use a technical term, slow as dog shit performance is a common problem with iOS 4 on the iPhone 3G. Nobody initially had a fix. Lots of anger at Apple and desperate attempts at downgrading to 3.1.3, but no magic bullet. It was going to be another long wait until 4.0.1 was released.

Then I found a comment on MacInTouch that mentions how doing a Double Hard Reset would fix the problem. A Hard Reset involves holding down both buttons on the iPhone past the "slide to power off" message, until it reboots on it's own.

That seemed pretty random, like iPhone Voodoo, but the writer said he did it himself and it worked. Well why not? Worth a few minutes to give this a shot.

I held down both buttons for a few seconds, bang, rebooted my iPhone. Checked things out. No real difference.

Hard reboot again, startup, and wow!

My iPhone was fast again. I mean, for about a half-hour it had never run faster. Mail opened right up, Settings launched quickly, even normally slow apps ran respectably. I was stunned! I never thought this would work. What's going on?

I Googled around to see what happens during such a reset, but I really couldn't find much. Some people surmise that various caches and buffers get cleared this way. That would be the nonvolatile memory on the iPhone, which survives through a standard restart. Well, that makes some sense. Seemed to have an effect.

I wrote a post about the issue for the Cult of Mac website, Speed Up iPhone 3G + iOS 4 with a Hard Reset? I explained the technique, said how it had worked for my iPhone, recommended giving it a try if you're having problems and let me know if it helped.

The article quickly became one of the most read topics on the whole site this past month, and it continues to draw heavy traffic weeks later. Clearly I was not alone in this problem. Oh iPhone, why doth thou taunt us so?

The short of it: Yes, many people are having this problem, and yes, the double hard reset appears to help many (though not all) people. It's now being discussed in a number of places around the Web. Performing a Backup and Restore also seems to help for some people.

Is the double hard reset a new form of iPhone voodoo? Maybe - but like other forms of voodoo, it's based on some kernel of truth. It doesn't seem to be a permanent fix - the iPhone gets sluggish again with regular use - but it still runs better than before. I may need to do this incantation every few weeks.

As things stand right now, my low-end iPhone is running - slowly but usably - with iOS 4, and Mail is behaving normally. I do not plan to change anything until I read that a 4.0.x. update fixes performance issues on the 3G, and then once I do that - as long as Mail is okay - I'll leave it alone forever!

My iPhone is my office in my pocket. Email, calendar, maps, phone, Solitaire - it's got it all. Even if it's not cutting edge, my low-end iPhone is worth keeping around. It's been quite the saga. I just want it to work. LEM

This article was originally published on Adam's Oakbog website. It has been adapted and reprinted here with his permission.

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Adam operates Oakbog Professional Services and The Vintage Mac Museum. He publishes The Vintage Mac Museum Blog. If you find Adam's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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