Me, my Mac, and iPads.

Back in mid-September of 2014, we decided to test the full range of our Brentford iPad cart in an effort to maximize our time saved and minimize our collaborative headaches. For those that don’t know, an iPad cart is like a miniature apartment block, designed to closely house up to 30 iPads simultaneously, all connected via USB cable, so that they can be charged, updated, and even manipulated synchronously. After all, if one must install an app across 30 iPads, they might as well do it all in one go.

In practice, one connects as many iPads as they want (in our case, 20) to the Brentford cart, then accesses them for updates and installations from a single Mac computer that connects to the cart with a separate USB cable. All iPad work is done through the program Apple Configurator, a management app that is easily picked up through the iTunes store.

We hit our first hiccup in the process when Apple Configurator would not recognize the presence of iPads 5 or 15. We disconnected and reconnected the two tablets repeatedly to no avail. While iPad 15 showed that it was at least connected to the cart on its own interface, iPad 5 could not do even that. We encountered an error message regarding the USB cable. We switched some of the tablets around and determined that the problem for iPad 5 was, indeed, in the cable, as no other iPad would function with it. iPad 15, however, was more of a mystery.

It’s worth noting that in the early stages of experimenting with the Brentford cart, the Mac itself was prone to freezing completely when hooked up to the cart with Apple Configurator open. It occurred twice before we called Brentford for help. Every time it froze, it was necessary to hard reset the computer.

Our next issue arose when we decided to move ahead with synchronizing, or “preparing”, the devices that the cart did recognize. Often, the Mac would freeze and need to be restarted. Other times, the synchronization time given by the program was well over an hour per tablet. While the program does take time to configure 20 devices, an hour per device was obviously wrong and indicated a problem. We restarted the cart as well as the computer in an attempt to “start fresh”. Within one of these troubleshooting attempts, Apple Configurator alerted us that one of the connected iPads had entered recovery mode. Once an iPad has entered recovery mode, it must be “restored” before being usable again. In layman terms, the iPad had been wiped. Before venturing further, we decided to explore our troubleshooting options.

We called Brentford first to determine if any of the problems could possibly be coming from the hardware of the cart itself. With Brentford on standby, we addressed the faulty cable issue first. The specialist, Brad, had us switch the cable with a neighboring one to determine if the issue lie in the cable itself or the USB port at the back of the cart to which it connected. This test told us that the port functioned perfectly and the cable was to blame. When we brought up the freezing issue of the Mac as well as the iPad that self-reformatted, Brad could only suggest contacting Apple directly, as they both indicated either a software or hardware issue with the devices themselves. Our only other question for Brad involved the charging lights of the iPads that were supposed to remain solid green while connected, but blinked instead. It turns out that all 20 of our iPads are, in fact, iPad Airs which draw significantly more power than a first gen iPad while charging. We were assured that the extra power draw of the iPads and the subsequent blinking lights were all within normal parameters and should not cause any problems.

With the cart eliminated as a potential disturber of the proverbial peace, we turned to Apple to figure out a) why the Mac continued to freeze while using Apple Configurator and b) why the iPads were reformatting themselves. After several attempts to use Apple Configurator with Apple Support on the line, and the Mac subsequently freezing each time, Apple told us flat out that the problem most likely lay within the Mac. The next step was to install Apple Configurator onto one of the Apple laptops and use it as the default configuring machine from that point forward. After installing Apple Configurator onto the laptop, we plugged it into the Brentford Cart and hoped for the best. Everything worked perfectly. It recognized every iPad, supervised them without issue, and quickly and effectively updated them all. We have yet to have another issue involving Apple Configurator and the Brentford Cart to this day. Unfortunately, it meant that the Mac desktop was the source of all of our ills.

The next stage of our journey was to determine whether the Mac was malfunctioning due to a software issue, or a hardware one. In the end, we reinstalled the operating system. The reformatting cleared the Mac of issues for about a month or so before it began to act up again, freezing halfway through the boot up sequence. In an attempt nip the problem in the bud, we immediately called Apple. With Apple on the line, we tried to enter repair mode, safe mode, and even a disk repair to no avail. We proceeded to try an OS refresh, a process where the computer connects to the internet and attempts to download and reinstall any corrupted system files. The OS Refresh was initially successful in that the Mac was able to fully boot and maintain normal functions. However, it resumed freezing during boot up within two weeks of the OS Refresh. Having more bugs than an entomologists store room, we determined that the fault must lie within the hardware of the machine. As of this writing, we are in the process of replacing the machine outright. In order to do so, we will be contacting Apple one last time. May the odds be ever in our favor.

 

Addendum: The most elegant solutions are often the easiest. After trying time and again to figure out what could possibly be wrong with such a new computer with so few programs on it, we stumbled across the answer. The lab Mac is connected to a Smart board, one of those electronic screens that doubles as a chalkboard in the sense that you can write on it with specialized “markers” and share an image of your computer screen with others in the room or even in online conference calls. It just so happens that booting up the Mac while the Smart board is connected (not even ‘on’ mind you, but simply connected) will play havoc with the Macs processes and programs. After so much work and so many attempts to discover the problem, it boiled down to disconnecting the Smart board before booting the Mac, and reconnecting it whenever we wanted to use it. A Pyrrhic victory though it may be, we solved the final issue with the Mac.

Scott Stewart RA

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