Percussive maintenance, with a twist

Seen the “sad iPod icon” recently on your iPod? I was greeted by it yesterday on my 4th generation podlet:

The sad iPod icon (SII). Usually accompanied by a generic, unhelpful URL, which just makes it all the more sad.

Unlike most people who see this, I didn’t seem to have the symptoms of major hardware failure (the disk making a repetitive ticking noise) that they diagnose before employing the rather hard-core fix discussed below.

I’d upgraded to the newest iTunes on the purple iMac we kick around as a “media centre”, and then plugged my iPod in, forgetting (who wouldn’t?) that Apple software upgrades invariably require several clicked agreements to their T&Cs. You click once when you start downloading it, once when you start installing it, once when you first use it after installation, once at the next full moon….

I watched, dismayed, as the iMac got horrendously confused, as it tried to start up handler software for the iPod that wanted a T&Cs agreement click but wasn’t showing the window; everything slowed, slowed, and then finally stopped. The iMac was mid-software-start; the iPod, more distressingly, was mid-transfer (and yelling “do not disconnect”). Taking a deep breath I pulled the power on the former, and watched the latter intently.

The iMac restarted fine, and I got into iTunes to click all the relevant boxes; the iPod, sadly, continued to show “do not disconnect” until I finally bit the bullet and took it out of its cradle. After this, it would show its Apple logo for a while before inevitably switching to the SII. Trying all the boot-time key combinations didn’t work: booting up in disk mode seemed successful until I connected the USB cable; and diagnostic mode checked everything out, except the hard-drive test which just hung.

By this point a note of despairing hysteria had crept into my frantic plugging and unplugging of devices into different laptops. I remembered something that a co-worker had pointed me to a few days ago, took a deep breath, and googled.

Now, there’s a way of fixing podlets that’s a recognized repair method (if only by the sinister, shadowy iPod underground rather than anyone who would need to disclaim the advice). It’s a bit extreme, and should only be attempted when the only other option is to inflict on yourself Apple’s massively inflated repair costs—I mean, as a last resort. Ready?

You drop it.

From at least several inches up.

Onto a hard surface.

Maybe when it’s switched off, maybe when it’s showing the Apple logo (advice differs on this detail, but frankly by this point it feels like splitting hairs on a big old smashy coconut).

Anyway, I think I’ve found the motherlode for this advice: the author of the fix-for-free article threw his dead iPod out of the window while testing a brand of protective case. Unfortunately, this only seems to fix iPods that are making “the sewing machine noise”. Mine certainly wasn’t: it was quite quietly dying each time I turned it on.

In the spirit of scientific enquiry, though, I gave the rather brutal repair method a whirl. Three inches or so above a wooden desk, and: drop.

The result? My iPod started… making a noise like a sewing machine! Oh, no! I’ve only made it worse, was the first thought that crossed my mind. But wait, I continued, as the inexorable mental PASCAL, that I employ to reason on my behalf at times of great stress, kicked in. My iPod is now… making the whirring noise… that lots of other people have fixed… by dropping it on a hard surface….

Could it be true? Had I put my iPod in a fixable state, by dropping it so as to forcibly break it? Hardly daring to breathe, I dropped it again.

I now have a fully-working iPod, which has behaved very happily since: iTunes on both my iMac and my laptop have talked to it quite convivially, and there’ve been no obvious problems.

That one can fix an iPod by dropping it isn’t news. But that one can fix it by dropping it twice, now: that’s news.

Exit gracefully: there is nothing graceful about Apple technology, on the rare occasions when it doesn’t work as a coherent whole. Nor is there anything graceful about whacking hardware on a desk. But if you can get your system to a state you recognise, even if that seems like a retrograde step, then sometimes you can end up fixing it by breaking it. Sometimes, of course, you can end up breaking it by breaking it. Trust in Allah, but tie up your iPod.


This actually works on just about anything electronic (and expendable) and there's a valid reason for it: it can re-seat chips, flex circuit boards with loose connections, and so on. Things might happen to land the right way.

On the iPod it might have been the hard drive; they also "stick" and can benefit from shaking/dropping at times.

I call it "The Fonzi Method" of repair. (Fonzi on Happy Days would smack the jukebox to make it start playing.)