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Downloading iTunes

Downloading iTunes is slow

Let’s face it, iTunes is slow. It takes forever to download a movie or TV show. Albums download quickly, only because they are relatively small in size. A one hour HD quality TV show, however, is approximately 2GB of data. This is not necessarily an issue, as most people have fast broadband connections capable of downloading 1GB in at least 30 minutes. The iTunes backend, however, is dead slow. It doesn’t matter how fast your ISP is. The bottleneck is Apple’s data center. In this tech tip, I will provide some helpful information for downloading iTunes on your iOS device. I will focus on the iPad, however, you can use the same techniques on your iPhone or iPod Touch. All of these devices run the iOS operating system and have essentially the same user interface and functionality.

When you are downloading from iTunes, it is important that you do not lock your device, if it is unplugged. By this, I mean pressing the power button to turn off the screen or using the auto-lock feature. Locking your device can halt the download process. This doesn’t always happen, which seems to indicate it is a defect. It seems that if anything stops the download (Apple’s slow servers or ISP issues), if your device is locked the download will not resume. This can be frustrating! Ideally, one would like to start a download, lock the device to save power, and just forget about it. This is not advised, at least if you want to watch your program in the near future.

You can set the auto-lock feature to “never” by going to settings -> general -> auto-lock and select “never”. Remember to change this back if you rely on this feature to save power. If you plug your iOS device into a charger, then you can lock the device without interrupting downloads. Perhaps the defect is related to power conservation. My hunch is that if nothing is happening on the iPad, and it is not charging, it goes into a deep sleep.

Even though iTunes will let you download multiple items at a time, the downloads will typically run serially, instead of in parallel. If you select 3 TV episodes to download, it will download one completely, then the next one, and then the last one. iTunes is slow. Even with a fast internet connection, you can measure the download speed in seconds per megabit, rather than megabits per second. 😉 It can take anywhere from 10-50 seconds to download one megabyte (which is 8 megabits). That’s really slow.

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Why is it so slow? One could say Apple is a victim of its own success. Many people are using iCloud and iTunes, so their data center is quite busy. I think this is unacceptable and demonstrates greed. They need to invest in more servers and bandwidth, rather than making customers wait a day to download a one hour HD TV show. It seems like bad business as well. If it takes a day to download a show on iTunes, I’m not going to buy a lot of shows. This definitely dissuades impulse buying. I know that I have succumbed to impulse buying with iTunes music, as I can start playing an album within 2-3 minutes. Their devices, particularly the iPhone, are by far the most profitable. Perhaps iTunes, which is a mere fraction of Apple’s revenues, is not worth the investment in a viable data center. If Apple starts to feel the squeeze of diminished profits, they may invest in improving their data center.

It takes forever to download Breaking Bad from iTunes

The only reason I put up with iTunes slowness is due to quality. I am a fan of Breaking Bad. While I am watching season 5, I am also revisiting older episodes on Netflix. Unfortunately, Netflix HD is not as good as iTunes HD. Netflix is a streaming service. They use “lossy” data compression to facilitate instant viewing. The difference between Netflix HD and iTunes HD is quite noticeable. In fact, I have season 4 of Breaking Bad both on iTunes and Netflix. I am putting up with the hassle of re-downloading season 4 from iTunes because it offers superior quality. That said, it should not take all day to download a 1.5 GB TV episode.

iTunes is SLOW! If Apple can’t get their data center in shape, they will succumb to the competition. At a certain point, people are willing to trade off quality for instant gratification. Breaking Bad is awesome. It has fast action and features breathtaking cinematography. This TV show is better than most blockbuster movies. If a show isn’t as good, but still worth watching, Netflix quality is sufficient.

Plan ahead. This is common sense, but some people think they can buy a show on iTunes and watch it within minutes. iTunes is not “on demand”. Consider yourself lucky if you start the download in the morning, and are able to watch it by the evening. If you are a “cord-cutter” and have ditched cable, it is essential to plan ahead when watching iTunes content. I not only have to plan ahead, but also need to continually pause the download. I often need the full speed of my internet connection. I’m not sure why iTunes is so slow, yet seems to hog my internet connection. I checked on, and I have more than enough bandwidth for iTunes’ trickle-download and my web-surfing activities. Yet, for some reason, downloading from iTunes and surfing the web, even on a different device, doesn’t work well. Sometimes I will just use my iPhone and its 3G connection.

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If possible, run the download overnight. At least on the West Coast, iTunes is much faster after midnight. It “only” takes about 4 seconds to download 1 MB. I would suspect, on the East Coast or anywhere else in the world, this might not be the case. Maybe it will be reasonably fast at 4 AM on the East Coast? If this is not possible, start a few downloads and let them run all day while you are at work. You will probably be able to download one or two hours of HD video by the time you get home. Weekdays tend to be faster than weekends.

If you are following a new series, keep in mind, iTunes doesn’t always send you a reminder when a new episode is available. You probably want to keep track of when new episodes are released and set a calendar event or reminder. The last episode of Breaking Bad was available on iTunes, yet I never received an email reminder. It’s typical for Apple these days. Their iTunes ecosystem is flakey and buggy. Set your reminder for the morning, so you can start the download early.

Plug in the charger. This will not only save your battery, but it seems to download faster. I tried this a few times, comparing the unplugged speed vs. the plugged-in speed. It always downloads faster when plugged in. This may be by design. The iPad’s wi-fi reception seems to work better when plugged in. In either event, if you are downloading a TV episode and it takes 6-10 hours, you will use up a whole battery cycle just for one show. The iPad’s battery can handle about 1000 charge cycles before the battery starts to lose capacity. Plug it in! If this is not an option, at least turn down the brightness all the way. Remember — you shouldn’t lock the screen unless it is plugged in, as it may cause the download to cease.

Close other apps to speed up iTunes downloads

Close every app except iTunes. Some apps may run a “thread” that downloads in the background. Even if the app is not downloading files, it may download updated information, such as weather or stock updates, as well as notifications. This will hog up bandwidth and slow your iTunes download. You can close apps by either using the 4 finger slide up gesture to reveal the “app tray”, or double clicking the home button. Then hold your finger down on any app in the tray until the apps start to wiggle. Once the apps in the tray are wiggling, you can close them by clicking on the “x” button at the top left corner of each app. Make sure not to close iTunes!

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Turn off iCloud backup. Plugging in your iPad has the side effect of starting iCloud backup. This will slow your download. Unless you are OK with watching your show sometime next week, I would suggest turning off iCloud backup. You do this by going to settings -> iCloud -> Storage & Backup and then switch off iCloud backup. Remember to turn this back on, if you find it useful. I find it completely useless. Apple’s backend is so slow, it takes 5-10 hours to backup a few megabytes of data on my iPad. Furthermore, this completely chokes my internet connection, as like most people, my upload speed is a fraction of the download speed. However, applications need to upload in order to download. For example, when you click a link on a web page, you upload information and the remote server then downloads the web page. Even downloading requires the client to upload information that it received a certain amount of data. Cable, DSL, and 3G/4G Internet connections all have much slower upload speeds than download speeds. This causes iCloud backup to completely choke one’s Internet connection. I turned it off on all of my iOS devices. It it not only useless, but it completely kills my internet connection. You can backup to your Mac or PC using iTunes. Make sure to backup the backup, in case your computer gets wiped out!

It’s ludicrous. If Apple is wondering how to spend that pile of cash, may I suggest beefing up their data center?!? Maybe investing more in quality assurance and fixing bugs? I have to wonder if this is the ivory tower syndrome. Perhaps these wealthy top-level Apple execs have no idea of iTunes’ and iCloud’s poor performance. After all, they live in big, fancy houses with dedicated T1 lines (which, by the way, is tax deductible!). Cities like Cupertino, Mountain View and Palo Alto have much better ISPs than the rest of the nation. While this will not speed up Apple’s backend, it enables use of a feature like iCloud backup, without completely shutting down one’s Internet connection. Perhaps Steve Jobs’ famous line should have had an addendum — “It Just Works in my big fancy house with an ultra-premium internet connection.” I would not be surprised if select Apple employees connect to a special Apple data center. The cobbler’s children are wearing the best shoes, I guess…

The iTunes ecosystem could use many improvements. It is buggy and has design flaws. Their data center is so slow, it makes broadband seem like 1990s dial-up. This “tech tips” article is one of several upcoming pieces intended to help Apple users cope with these frustrating issues. Follow me on Twitter, G+ or Tumblr so you can get the latest from Appledystopia.


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