New Year's hangover for Zune users

After countless 30GB Zunes froze up on New Year's Eve, users spent the first morning of 2009 trying to chip away at the problem, with mixed results.

Jon Skillings Editorial director
Jon Skillings is an editorial director at CNET, where he's worked since 2000. A born browser of dictionaries, he honed his language skills as a US Army linguist (Polish and German) before diving into editing for tech publications -- including at PC Week and the IDG News Service -- back when the web was just getting under way, and even a little before. For CNET, he's written on topics from GPS, AI and 5G to James Bond, aircraft, astronauts, brass instruments and music streaming services.
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Jon Skillings
4 min read

A leap-year issue with Microsoft's Zune music player is still leaving many users cold, despite the company's reassurance that all would be well by sometime on New Year's Day.

Postings on Zune message boards Thursday morning, as people tried out Microsoft's recommendations and fellow Zune users' suggestions, ranged from the hopeful...

"The wipe process should only take a minute or two. If it is hanging on this screen, disconnect it from power, let the battery drain, and then reconnect it to start the device again," user Raw Deluxe wrote on Zune Forums.

Zune image

...to the melancholy:

"Mine never made it back. The battery drained ok, but it tried to start one time and is now good and dead. I talked to support and they agreed - its a brick," wrote brotherdiesel.

Scores of Zune users on Wednesday -- the last day of a 366-day leap year -- reported that their 30GB Zune devices were freezing up. Complaints rippled across message boards as people booted up the gadgets and found they could not get to their songs or pictures.

By the middle of the day, Microsoft had identified the root of the problem: the Zune's internal clock was stumbling as it tried to handle a leap year. (See Microsoft's Zune support site for more details.) Things would start to resolve themselves, the company said in its Zune 30 FAQ, by noon GMT (4 a.m. PT), and it advised users with frozen Zunes to follow these steps:

1. Disconnect your Zune from USB and AC power sources.
2. Because the player is frozen, its battery will drain--this is good. Wait until the battery is empty and the screen goes black. If the battery was fully charged, this might take a couple of hours.
3. Wait until after noon GMT on January 1, 2009 (that's 7 a.m. Eastern or 4 a.m. Pacific time).
4. Connect your Zune to either a USB port on the back or your computer or to AC power using the Zune AC Adapter and let it charge.

One ZuneBoards forum user claimed to have identified the actual trouble spot in the clock driver code. (A tip of the hat to Ars Technica for spotting the post.)

"The Zune's real-time clock stores the time in terms of days and seconds since January 1st, 1980," wrote user itsnotabigtruck. "The Zune frontend first accesses the clock toward the end of the boot sequence. Doing this triggers the code that reads the clock and converts it to a date and time." The post continues:

Under normal circumstances, this works just fine. The function keeps subtracting either 365 or 366 until it gets down to less than a year's worth of days, which it then turns into the month and day of month. Thing is, in the case of the last day of a leap year, it keeps going until it hits 366. Thanks to the if (days > 366), it stops subtracting anything if the loop happens to be on a leap year. But 366 is too large to break out of the main loop, meaning that the Zune keeps looping forever and doesn't do anything else.

For those who hadn't yet run into problems, Microsoft said to refrain from connecting the Zune to a PC before noon GMT on Thursday.

To disconnect the battery, or not to disconnect the battery
Microsoft strongly advised users to ignore advice from forum visitors who suggested disconnecting the Zune's battery to reset the device:

This is a bad idea and we do not recommend opening your Zune by yourself (for one thing, doing so will void your warranty). However, if you've already opened it, do one of the following:
• Wait 24 hours from the time that you reset the Zune and then sync with your computer to refresh the usage rights; or
• Delete the player's content using the Zune software (go to Settings, Device, Sync Options, Erase All Content), then re-sync it from your collection.

Judging from forum comments Thursday morning, however, a number of users had indeed disconnected the battery.

"I got tired of waiting.....opened it up and did a hard reset. Seems that 'triggered' it cause now its telling me to connect it to my PC and then open the Zune software and restore the firmware. It seems to be seeing it.....hopefully all is on the road to recovery," wrote floozuki.

By midday Pacific Time on Thursday, some users found life returning to normal for their Zunes: "Mine came back today just as advertised.... all songs intact...no worries.....," wrote DadGuy, though it wasn't clear which recovery method he had followed.

But others griped that the New Year's freeze was just the latest in a series of problems they'd been facing. Said emilysuz:

I tried the button combo, it's currently stuck on 'Connect Zune to your PC' but it is currently plugged in to my PC. I have had trouble with this thing fopr days, before the widespread crash and I'm beginning to think this thing is just your garden variety piece of crap. I loved my Zune until the battery wouldn't charge. Maybe my Zune troiuble is not the same. It refuses to charge, it only charges long enough to tell me my battery is low and then it dies again, even if it's plugged up. It won't sync, wired or wireless. Again, I love my Zune, but if it's dead it's no good to me.

User JediFarfy sought to mollify emilysuz about the Zune's failure to sync:

Mine wouldn't at first, so I kept disconnecting it and reconnecting it on both ends (comp and Zune). Took about 4 times and it finally connected. Your Zune had a rough, confusing day, give it some love and it'll be fine.

See also:
I want to believe: Reflections on my Zune year
The new Zunes in action