After the review: how updates can kill a great product

By the time a reviewed product makes its way into your hands, there’s a good chance something about it has changed. It might not be much, but it also might be something major, and if you’ve ever wondered why something that reviewed so well doesn’t work remarkably for you, there’s a good chance it’s been updated post-review.

If you’ve ever seen the reviews desk at GadgetGuy, you know how much technology we’re writing up. There are loads of things to be written during the course of a regular working week. New phones, laptops, tablets, monitors, cameras, home appliances, and things that are just getting new categories setup for themselves.

Often, the technology we receive comes to us weeks before consumers will put their hands on it, which makes sense: we’re one of the places you’ll find if you type “review” into Google next to the product’s name, so it makes perfect sense to get the product to us before the stores, so people know what they’re buying.

But because of this lapse in time, the product may not be the same.

In fact, if you wait more than three months from when the review has come out, there’s a real likelihood that something about the product has changed.

It could be something small, like a colour scheme, and it could be something massive, like a different chipset or a new piece of software, but there’s a very good chance something about the product will be different from what we saw and reviewed.

And even if it hasn’t changed from when you bought it and when we reviewed it, subsequent patches and firmware releases that can open up new features can also change things about the product that you didn’t necessarily want changed.

Mobile phones are a good example of where this can happen, with more easily found updates available from websites and over-the-air (OTA) installs possible.

In fact, before the whole OTA update came along, you’d be hard pressed to find people who would apply updates to a device. Now thanks to the ability to download patches and install them on the go — with notifications provided from a simple auto check built into most mobile handsets — a product like a phone can be quickly brought up to spec with new features, better software, and more goodness from the manufacturer.

But it’s not always good, and sometimes the results can be problematic.

Personal experiences

When this reviewer isn’t trying out a new phone, he has one of three devices he’ll switch between: the HTC One (2013), the Sony Xperia Z2 and the Nokia Lumia 1020. They’re his favourites, and so when he isn’t sticking his SIM in a phone on the verge of coming out, he jumps between them.

But recent updates to the 2013 HTC One have made him reconsider his position on that phone, and have even brought to light the suggestion that his review — and plenty of ones written by other reviewers — are now totally out of date, thanks to the problems introduced by patches.

You see, when HTC first introduced its “One” in 2013, the camera was one of the most raved about features.

Here was a camera that lacked a lot of megapixels, but made up for it in some of the most impressive low-light support, as well as editable imagery.

HTC initially launched the One on Google’s Android 4.1 “Jelly Bean,” but there were subsequent updates for it that were reasonably timely, moving the One through to the other “Jelly Bean” variants in 4.2 and 4.3, and then finally just recently to 4.4 or “KitKat” before the new One handset for 2014 made its way into stores.

These updates brought security fixes, changes to the BlinkFeed news reading application, and even extra themes.

But it wasn’t all good news.

One of the problems introduced in an earlier update is still there, a fault which causes the camera to shoot images with a purple tinge that is next to impossible to get rid of, and makes everything turn out like a badly processed retro-inspired photo, as if Instagram decided to get drunk one day and make all your photos look as if they were shot on expired film.

It’s a known problem too, and one that can’t just be found on this reviewer’s device, with loads of complaints online asking HTC to fix a problem that should never have occurred. A bug like this is one that we’re surprised left HTC’s development floor since it so obviously corrupts the otherwise excellent camera.

At a recent briefing, we were told by one of HTC’s Australian representatives that the 4.4 update would fix it once and for all, and that it was rolling out that day, so we should grab it.

We did as we were told, and while we had the latest version of HTC’s One software on our phone, we also still had that annoying camera problem.

Images were still being shot in purple, videos were captured with a purple tinge, and in general, the feeling that we had a top of the line smartphone with an equally top of the line smartphone camera was being thrown out the window head first.

Low light performance is now useless on the HTC One (M7, 2013), with purple everywhere, and even on some daylight images, too.

What’s going on

No other area sees updates the way mobile phones do, with computers and tablets, as well as video game consoles following shortly behind. Very few people apply firmware updates to their cameras, though they do exist, and while we’ve heard of other devices getting an update here and there, it’s really things that you rely on from day to day that have an easily patchable system that will get an update.

In mobile phones, the updates tend to occur more frequently due to the operating system differences, security issues, and known bugs that can be patched up.

Take Apple, for instance, which will release patches across its devices all at once. The company now has quite a few variants, with several iPhones out in the world, and frequent patches and updates are released to solidify what has to be one of the most stable and frequently used operating systems.

Android and Windows Phone both apply updates as well, but none has it like Apple, because when Google and Microsoft want to release an update for its phones, generally it has to get past the mobile operator first, a process which often involves adding software specific to that provider — usually a news app or support for some of the provider’s functionality — as well as some testing.

Apple doesn’t appear to be limited by this, and can release things pretty quickly.

But no one tends to have as many patches and releases as phones running on Android, and that’s because Google makes the main operating system, but then manufacturers have to work closely with the operator — Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone — to make sure the phone will still work.

“Local operators often have specific requirements for handset launches such as pre-installed apps, widgets and/or network settings which may be impacted by firmware updates or patches,” said a spokesperson for Huawei, one such manufacturer who has to work with a mobile operator to make sure its patches will work within a set of guidelines.

“By working cooperatively with operators on any updates or patches and following established testing methods, both Huawei and the operator can be assured that updates will deliver a seamless user experience.”

So there are three levels to pass through here, starting with Google, and then the maker of the phone, and finally the company running the network, and that can make updates occur at different times. Just because Google announces a new operating system today doesn’t mean you’ll see in your device tomorrow, because there’s a lot that can force you to wait.

There is a catch to this, mind you, and that’s with Google’s own phones, devices badged as part of the “Nexus” family. While they’re not made by Google — usually LG and Asus, actually — these handsets run a stock version of Google’s Android, and like the Apple devices, don’t have to wait for the operator to get through with them.

But the other phones, they have to wait, because testing lots of devices and their subsequent updates isn’t the most speedy process, especially when there are lots of new phones out every year, and plenty of others from previous years that still have to be updated and tested.

These updates can bring new features, but can also corrupt others, and usually companies are pretty quick to fix the issues.

But that’s not always the case.

Samsung, for instance, has a modified operating system in Australia for its Galaxy smartphones, especially compared with the rest of the world, with our local version of the operating system that stops users from being able to customise the dock.

It’s a problem we highlight in every Samsung review, partially because it’s unfair to the customer who might not care about the four icons Samsung places at the bottom — phone, contacts, messaging, and internet — and also because we’re always curious whether Samsung will fix it for locals who might want to change them.

This wasn’t always the case, mind you.

Before the giant Apple vs. Samsung legal cases hit hurricane level, Galaxy phones had unlocked docks, just like all other mobile brands, and it was with a firmware patch for a security glitch on the Galaxy S3 that everything changed. From then on, no Samsung phone in Australia has supported an unlocked customisable dock.

Samsung has never given us an official reason as to why our docks are locked, nor has it told us why our cameras will always make a shutter sound effect, even when the volume is switched off, but we suspect they come from the same issue: the Apple lawsuits.

In fact, you generally find these changes to Samsung’s version of Android — equipped with its Android overlay TouchWiz — in places where the lawsuits haven’t gone as expected. We’ve heard that German phones are also affected by these issues, not just Australian ones, but devices from Asian providers — checked on a recent trip to Bali — didn’t seem to have them, and ran as they were supposed to.

In the case of HTC, the company wouldn’t tell us what had gone wrong with its patches, with a piece of errant software possibly breaking the hardware being one cause suspected by some.

As far as we can understand, quite a few of the HTC One handsets from 2013 (M7) had their cameras break after an update, because when we asked the company for a comment, they confirmed they were aware of the problem and that they could fix the broken piece of hardware for us.

That’s all well and good, but what about everyone else? If there’s a problem, why not just do a recall and be done with it?

And more to the point, how does the hardware work perfectly fine for release, and then break with a subsequent update?

It appears as if something in HTC’s software possibly caused the camera module to overheat easily, and while we’re not sure how this could have escaped quality assurance at HTC, the company should at least be acknowledging it.

We’re sure customers would be more appreciative of that, rather than grumbling beneath their breath that their mobile phone isn’t performing up to par.

It doesn’t help that after being told by an HTC representative that the Android 4.4 release would fix the bug that it didn’t, with subsequent requests for confirmation of this fact ignored by our requests for comments.

In fact, HTC didn’t provide a comment over the two months that we asked for one, and so we were ignored, for the most part, and it seems the consumer was as well.

But this sort of attitude on firmware information seems to be consistent in the industry, as we asked Samsung, Sony, Nokia, HTC, Apple, LG, and Huawei the same questions at the same time, and only three of them — the latter three, in fact — bothered to reply after our persistent attempts for the past couple of months.

The questions weren’t complicated, either, and settled around timeliness of patches, how thoroughly the releases were tested, and what sort of changes existed from country to country. Not complicated stuff, with answers we knew existed just to see if the companies would confirm them.

Unfortunately, these are questions manufacturers just don’t want to answer, so if you’re wondering why things change for the worse from when you read our review to when you bought your phone, send an email to the manufacturer and ask, because you might have more luck than we did.