The Android update trap

Updating your version of Android can cause more problems than it solves. Be careful what you wish for.

The Samsung Galaxy S II was supposed to be David Petty's dream phone. He'd watched the smartphone market for a couple of years, and finally pulled the trigger on his first Android handset when AT&T launched the Galaxy S II last October. For the first few months, it was perfect.

Everything changed when AT&T delivered Android 2.3.6--a minor update that included some tweaks to the user interface, but little else--to Petty's phone in January.

Suddenly, his phone wouldn't last more than 6 hours on a charge, even with light use. As Petty learned from fellow Android users online, a Wi-Fi bug was thrashing the Galaxy S II's battery life.

"It's at a point where, if I have Wi-Fi on, I have a battery widget on the front screen, and I can watch the battery drop, just sitting here," Petty, an environmental researcher based in Indianapolis, told PCWorld.

Petty isn't alone in his problems, and the Galaxy S II isn't the only Android phone burned by a bad update.

Here is a sampling of complaints we found in various online forums about Android phone OS updates gone wrong:

PCWorld counted 13 instances where phone makers or wireless carriers have suspended an update due to serious bugs. And that's only part of the issue. In many more cases, wireless carriers and phone makers are slow to notice problems after releasing updates--or they don't notice them at all, leaving their customers in the dark.

It's a hassle that Petty came to know firsthand, as he tried to bring his phone's problem to Samsung's attention. After making two calls to technical support representatives, both of whom said that they had never heard of the Galaxy S II's battery issues (despite widespread complaints in Android user forums), Petty mailed a letter to Dale Sohn, president of Samsung Telecommunications America.

"To have suffered this issue for this long, let alone have it ignored or denied by support, is intolerable," Petty wrote in his letter, dated February 13, 2012. Sohn never responded, and Samsung declined to comment for this story. (HTC, LG, and Motorola would not comment, either. Google declined an interview and promised to issue a prepared statement, but never sent one despite several requests from PCWorld.)

Why Android Update Problems Happen

No software platform is completely bug-free. Given the sheer amount of code involved, and the need to update that code to stay competitive, glitches are inevitable with any operating system. (Users of Apple's iPhone 3G, for instance, reported sluggish performance after updating to iOS 4, a problem that took Apple more than three months to fix. Some owners of the iPhone 4 have also complained about performance issues with iOS 5.)

Android, however, has two particular factors working against it. First, unlike iOS, which is designed for one kind of smartphone, Android must accommodate a wide variety of phone models, with potentially different screen sizes, screen resolutions, processors, RAM, storage capacities, and other specs.

Second, wireless carriers and phone makers tend to modify Android with their own user interfaces and software, complicating the issue. The companies enjoy much more latitude with Android than they do with the iPhone or with Windows Phone, so features found on one Android phone--such as Motorola's battery-saving Smart Actions or HTC's Sense widgets--may not be present on another. Although such tweaks can improve the user experience, they also put an extra burden on phone makers and wireless carriers to try to keep the software running smoothly.

PCWorld spoke with members of XDA-Developers, a community of hackers who modify the Android software for their own phones--and who often work to undo the damage that bad updates cause. Several of these developers say that when phone makers and wireless carriers meddle with Android, they risk wreaking havoc on users' phones, even if those phones haven't been rooted or modified in any way.

"From what I have seen, and from talking to other users and developers, a lot of the problems that users have come from the customizations that the carriers want to put into the ROM," says Mark Dietz, an XDA-Developers member who specializes in Samsung hardware. Carriers tend to preload their phones with software that users can't remove (known as "bloatware"), as well as other monitoring software that can introduce bugs, Dietz says.

Another developer, who uses the screen name "attn1," agrees that companies' modifications to Android can lead to more bugs. Phone makers are under pressure to develop and update their software quickly, says attn1 (who answered questions by email but declined to give a real name), and as a result the companies may take shortcuts, such as using deprecated APIs or performing inadequate testing.

Fared Adib, Sprint's vice president of product development--and the only wireless carrier executive who agreed to an interview for this article--defended his company's testing process for Android phones. Each new software update is tested in a lab, and then it goes out for field testing by about 1000 employees, Adib says. Sprint also rolls its updates out slowly, starting with about 10,000 users at a time, so that the carrier can put the brakes on an update if users report critical bugs.

Adib says that the number of Android devices on the market can lead to a perception of more problems with software updates, but he acknowledges that the carrier can't stop every bug from getting through. "It's almost impossible for a carrier or for an OEM ... to 100% test every use case of what we think the device will see once it receives that update out in the field," Adib says.

Undo the Damage

Getting a bad update might not be so tragic if wireless carriers fixed problems quickly; but as many Android enthusiasts know, waiting for new software releases can be a test of patience.

That's why Jimmy Bellerose of Kissimmee, Florida, wasted no time replacing his Samsung Fascinate on Verizon Wireless after a disastrous update to Android 2.3 last December. "Battery life dropped, and the phone would lock up, so I would have to reset it," Bellerose says. "It would vibrate in my pocket, and I would think I had a message, but when I pulled it out, it turned out it was resetting itself."

He assumed that either Verizon's bloatware or Samsung's TouchWiz interface was to blame. Bellerose then bought a Samsung Galaxy Nexus. He says he has had no problems with that handset so far.

In many cases users can resist updating their phones, but at a price: The phone may pester the user with notifications and reminders to download the latest software. Besides, refusing an update means missing out on new features--or, perhaps, other bug fixes--so staying with an old version of Android isn't necessarily the best option.

The challenges in updating Android are entwined with a broader issue for the Android platform: Google, phone makers, and wireless service providers all have a hand in updating and testing Android phones. That means users might wait months to receive new software as it works its way through the system. For instance, Android 4.0, nicknamed Ice Cream Sandwich, was released in December 2011--but as of this writing, only 3% of Android devices are running it.

Andy Dodd, another active XDA-Developers member, believes that wireless carriers are a major bottleneck for the upgrade process. Dodd, who has been following the Galaxy S II battery-drain issue closely, notes that Samsung has already delivered a fix for the carrier-unlocked international version of its phones, while the AT&T version remains unpatched.

"There's no sign that AT&T is even aware that there's a problem, because I see people just getting offered replacement batteries when they complain," Dodd says. Given that the Galaxy S II's problems began months ago, AT&T is likely aware of the situation by now.

Even when a problem is identified, wireless carriers may not deliver a fix right away, as they run the phone through more testing. Sprint's Adib says that the carrier can correct some problems in a day or two, but others can take weeks, especially if a security issue is involved, or if just a few users are having problems. Another carrier source told PCWorld that some issues are so severe that they require a restart of the entire testing process, which can last between 8 and 12 weeks. During the testing process, Google may issue its own updates, which also sets the process back.

"We evaluate the impact any software upgrade could have on the customer experience. The testing process can be shorter or longer, depending on the device," AT&T spokesperson Emily Edmonds said in a statement.

In other words, be prepared to wait a while.

What to Do When Updates Fail

If a bad update makes your Android experience unbearable, it can be hard to know where to turn. Some users air their grievances on Google's official help forums, but that's not always the best place to troubleshoot, given that Google isn't responsible for what phone makers and wireless carriers do to the phones they sell.

Instead, you can seek solace in online forums such as XDA-Developers.com and AndroidForums.com, where users tend to be more tech-savvy. Search those sites for the name of your phone and the problems it's having, and you might find forum threads with possible fixes--or at the very least, a place to commiserate. Some wireless carriers keep an eye on forums and blogs, so the more people making noise, the better your chances of getting a fix.

Ultimately, your wireless carrier may be your best resource. In the United States, carriers are usually the ones who deliver the updates, and if you visit a store, you may be able to get the phone reverted to an earlier version of Android, or obtain a replacement phone if all else fails. Reaching out to a company on Twitter might also help to call attention to your problems, but you're not likely to receive personalized support that way.

Of course, enthusiast Android users might suggest rooting a buggy phone to install entirely new firmware. But for average customers like David Petty, becoming a software hacker isn't a viable option. "I'm a fairly decent technology person," Petty says, "but that's kind of where I stop."

This story, "The Android update trap" was originally published by PCWorld.

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