Unfinished Phones, Excuses and The Industry’s Course

Unfinished Phones, Excuses and The Industry’s Course

It is hard to recall a phone that has had a perfect release – smartphones are complex devices that encompass all sorts of hardware bits inside. Software, too, can be rather complex, and OEMs typically decide to merge many intricate features into their skinned ROMs. These reasons and more force many devices to have bittersweet releases where a percentage of units see glitches, bugs, malfunctions and the like. This is commonplace by now, and all you can do is wait for user reports.

 

Devices with experience-breaking issues like the OnePlus One were slammed because of this, and rightfully so: a faulty touch screen touches on the core of the Android experience, as do malfunctioning displays and processors. Many of these issues spring from hardware, but OEMs don’t want people to believe that – instead, they blame the faults on software. It is easy to see why, as software can be rolled out to any device while hardware faults must be repaired or replaced. In many cases they are indeed correct and a software update can fix these problems with no downsides, as seen with the Nexus 5, M9 and Moto X 2013 cameras which saw huge improvements through software revisions.

 

snapdragonpuzzBut I think that the real issue comes when, on reiterated occasions, OEMs, PR and Marketing teams, and apologists fiercely deny these issues when they are tested and quantified. This is how after the Snapdragon 810’s initial failure in the G Flex 2, Qualcomm’s PR team built a new short presentation for HTC Utopia, to revive expectations for the device. This was futile, though, as early benchmarks and testing revealed that the problems were back and worse than before – until they throttled the phone. On both occasions, OEMs steered the blame away from Qualcomm and themselves by claiming that the devices were reviewed under “unfinished software”, and that this is a natural part of the development process; it might be, but sending unfinished devices out shouldn’t be natural, it should be avoided like the plague.

At the LG G4 Day event where said device was unveiled, Qualcomm once more took the stage to inform us that this time they would deliver no-compromise performance. For real this time! The problem is that while the Snapdragon 808 remains a solid chip, it is still not on par with Samsung’s Exynos and, in some aspects, with Qualcomm’s own 2014 Snapdragon 805. Last week, Qualcomm’s VP of Marketing spoke to Forbes and the company once more denied the Snapdragon 810’s issues, this time by misleading consumers with ambiguity and even clear lies. We dissected the statements on a piece-by-piece basis to show how the interview was, in fact, simple and pure damage control.
The LG G4 ended up boasting respectable UI performance, but the chip’s shortcomings show in gaming and benchmark results. This is not to say this is a bad phone, and review units seemed finished – finally, a 2015 Snapdragon chip that was finished from the moment it was tested! Except it seemingly was not. The G4’s reviews criticized the lack of fast-charging in the device through Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 2.0 standard, which is available in plenty of Snapdragon 800 series devices. The Snapdragon 808 in the G4 could, in fact, do fast charging, but review units did not have such feature enabled. Before the embargo lifted and reviews poured out, LG had also made it seem like the feature wouldn’t come. But then the Qualcomm Website listed the device under supported devices, and many websites claimed to get confirmation from LG saying that the feature was, indeed, coming.

 

So this counts 3 of the biggest releases of 2015 thus far that carried the “unfinished software” syndrome. These 3 were related to Snapdragon chipsets, but other devices were not ready for prime-time either. The S6 and S6 Edge came with a plethora of out-of-the-box issues such as scratched screens and imperfect camera modules. The S6 devices also came with serious memory management problems that affected the real-world UX by stealthily killing your background apps, something that cost it a race against the much-throttled M9. Even Samsung’s latest and greatest came with unfinished software in this regard, but the difference is that while the memory issues were entirely software-based, a large part of the rest of phones’ problems were hardware based.

And minor releases like the excellently priced ZenFone 2 have also seen plenty of issues this year, from the unusual battery drain reported in reviews to miscellaneous bugs that people widespreadly report on Asus’ ZenTalk forum. Now, smartphone releases were not perfect in the past – my Note 4 is coming back from repairs today, as I had sent it out due to a hardware defect. But the fact that Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 810 had so many devices’ fates sealed, and that the “unfinished software” became the default excuse for something that at this point everyone knows was originally a hardware issue are things that should make us worry… a lot.

 

 

When I think of what is going on right now, I see it as something very similar to what the gaming industry is going through. I’ve personally grown distant from the videogame scene, but whenever I catch up I see that game developers are getting away with buggy, messy releases with faults that many reviewers overlook, and that consumers end up experiencing first-hand. When they complain, they are called “entitled” and what not. And, just like when it comes to phones, this wouldn’t be such an issue if pre-ordering wasn’t become so rampant and if fanboys didn’t blindly buy into the hype machine . Both game developers and OEMs can get away with release woes due to the fact that they might already have an established franchise in place, with loyal customers who will purchase the latest no matter what. After that, all it takes to get pre-orders in is luring the consumers with authoritative arguments as seen with the G4 and Colby Brown, and flashy commercials plastered all over the media.
Not all OEMs are capable of getting away with it, though, and hopefully that will wake some of them up. HTC, for example, is in an even bigger financial pit due to their M9’s flop. Their revenue plummeted on April by an astounding 38.66%, and many analysts were quick to blame the Snapdragon 810 as part of this. HTC rested on its laurels, barely iterated over the M8’s design, and the power-hungry throttled chip and mediocre camera were enough to seal the M9’s fate. Not even the surprisingly positive reviews nor the apologist claims regarding the Snapdragon 810’s issues were enough to save them. And this is, again, something that we believe must be improved: we want finalized products, in both software and hardware, from OEMs and even Google itself (we could write one of these entirely on Lollipop). The sub-par performance from unfinished software and hardware, which most of the times is either undisclosed or mitigated by misleading reviews and journalism, is a matter that should concern all of us as Android users.

 

Alas, these matters are bigger than what a community of power users can tackle. The large majority of consumers – especially for the biggest players – do not care nor research these issues. Many watch whatever lifestyle review comes up first on their quick search and go with whatever that reviewer has to say. The ones of us that keep up with developments and news, however, know that that’s not the full story… At this point, all we can do is make our voices heard, and fight so that our beloved Android industry does not go the way of gaming and the like.

About author

Mario Tomás Serrafero
Mario Tomás Serrafero

Mario developed his love for technology in Argentina, where a flagship smartphone costs a few months of salary. Forced to maximize whatever device he could get, he came to know and love XDA. Quantifying smartphone metrics and creating benchmarks are his favorite hobbies. Mario holds a Bachelor's in Mathematics and currently spends most of his time classifying cat and dog pictures as a Data Science graduate student.