Unfinished Software: A Valid Excuse?
HTC has been the focal point of internet discussions since MWC 2015, for many reasons. After what the internet considered a lackluster flagship reveal presentation of the HTC M9, the Taiwanese company also made comments towards the competition, allegedly claiming Samsung was in the game for the money, and not user experiences. What’s more, early reports by The Verge set the drama ablaze once more as they claimed that the revamped camera featured in the M9 – arguably the thing that needed the most revision in the M8 – was not what it should have been to redeem their “ultrapixel” cameras.
A recent news report about the device overheating, however, is what truly got everyone talking. According to a test done by Tweakers, the HTC One M9 vastly overheats in comparison to previous devices, none of which feature a Snapdragon 810 processor. The new metal phone had the thermal camera reveal a homogenous distribution of heat of up to 55.4°C – definitely not something you want in your pocket. For comparison, the second hottest in this test was the LG G3 at 42.2°C, and this last device was notorious for overheating issues back when it released, something that even limited (periodically) the maximum brightness of the screen to prevent it from getting too hot.
Hard or soft?
This latest bit is alarming, as many jumped to the conclusion that the culprit here is the Snapdragon 810 found inside. This particular SoC has been the source of plenty of overheating rumors before its release, but according to the tests done by Anandtech and others, the chip doesn’t get hot enough to cause much of a problem. This directly clashes with what the LG G Flex 2 – the first commercial smartphone featuring the chip – had to show with its debut earlier this year. The curved device suffered from performance issues and severe throttling, both of which were very noticeable during subsequent benchmarks in long testing sessions. With each new test, the device tended to output significantly lower scores of up to 20% less than the initial one.
But in line with the tests that put to rest the overheating myth, both LG and HTC issued the same statement regarding the performance and heat outputs of these devices: the devices were running unfinished software. These claims steer away the criticism from Qualcomm’s chip and focus it on non-final builds that will see a revision in a software update. In the case of the G Flex 2, the update will have to be served over-the-air for existing devices. The M9 is not out yet, so with the time remaining towards the still-unspecified date and the possibility that they had begun addressing this a while ago, the new metal phone might not see the same issues once it hits the stores. But there’s still a few things one can ponder: is this justified, or is it a knee-jerk excuse?
Software is what ultimately makes a phone smart, and despite many bashing HTC, LG, and others in the past for pulling out this excuse, it can completely be in the right and justify a temporary shortcoming. Software updates have managed to do wonders before, and you don’t have to look much further from Android OS updates themselves to realize this. Project Butter, Project VOLTA, Project Svelte, TRIM, and countless optimizations got us from jerky and slow (and short-lasting) Froyo to smooth and fast Lollipop. But even then, other manufacturers have managed to issue what are seemingly hardware-centric problems through software updates as well.
There are countless of cases where specific updates were sent to fix certain device shortcomings. An update for the original Moto X, for example, dramatically upgraded the camera quality, which was previously one of the weakest points of this device (and it came to earn several awards for best phone of 2013). The Nexus 5 also had a major camera fix with Android 4.4.2 issued a few months after release that drastically improved the shooter’s speed and focusing (I can vouch for this). Then you had the seemingly miraculous battery bump that the Moto 360 received shortly after release, despite the old, juice-sippy processor and relatively small battery. The Nexus 6 recently had kernel optimizations in 5.1 that made it perform much more efficiently in terms of performance, mitigating the missing encryption drivers in Qualcomm chips meant to handle the job that originally earned this particular device some bad reputation.
Can we fix it?
Fixing overheating caused by a processor isn’t a problem that can’t be addressed, and some of the aforementioned issues that were fixed through software also had seen widespread criticism that was swiftly silenced. If this is a problem of the chipset’s performance, there are solutions that can be put to place. We can’t say for sure it is definitely a processor fault, and we can’t say that it is in the G Flex 2 either, given that both devices feature really tight and compartmentalized bodies that don’t allow for much breathing room. The metal body of the M9 re-distributes heat better, helping it disperse, but as seen in the previously linked report the temperature is still too high – and spread uniformly at that.
While the physical constraints of the external and internal architecture and packaging of the devices obviously can’t be touched upon, measures can be undertaken to prevent the processor from overheating. The simplest one would be a global limit on peak performance, but this would mitigate the upgrade in processing that these phones have seen. Then there are alternative limitations such as Dynamic Voltage and Frequency Scaling (DVFS), but this too can be rather aggressive at certain outside temperatures. For example, my Galaxy Note 3 would severely throttle at any given time during summers in South America, which basically forced me to disable it with help of XDA developers (thanks Wanam!).
There are countless permutations of different kernel configurations that they can come up with, however, to solve these issues. Here at XDA our developers come up with neat optimizations all the time, so a tech giant like OEM can surely mitigate (or even nullify) these issues with software revisions. But what rightfully bothers people is the attitude that these OEMs have towards these issues:
The apologists, fans, and the companies themselves use the “unfinished software” card without real explanations, no proper technical statements, and so sign of commitment towards issuing a fix. The way they keep their current or upcoming customers in the dark about make-or-break purchase concerns is not just somewhat condescending, but certainly frustrating. The fact that, for example, bad performance was seen in the G Flex 2 since its original demo, then carried on to the release, and it still hasn’t been revised doesn’t show much promise. The G3 got better over time, but the stigma of its original overheating controversy was never fully shaken off. The M9 has had public demos on a massive reveal, as well as test units being distributed. They surely knew about this issue, so a disclaimer ahead of time would have been nice, rather than await until the light got out.
Would it have been smart? Of course not – they are a business, and their image is of utmost importance. Managing expectations is a key aspect of every release. At the same time, HTC’s comments against Samsung and Xiaomi don’t reflect the purity of their reality, as these developments take points from both their product and their consumer reputation. Their device is, most likely, still an excellent phone. I personally believe that the design works, and that the M8 was beautiful in itself so there was no need for a huge upgrade on that front. As for the camera, which many reports also are quick to point out runs on unfinished software, we will have to wait and see. Battery life reports don’t show them doing too well, and the overheating is alarming. But all of these could be improved upon with software, as we have seen in the past.
Devices like the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge have shown prominent benchmark results, but you can still see them stutter in hands-on footage despite all of Samsung’s promises. There are also reports of it heating up as well. Many of the phones shown at MWC 2015 were, indeed, not final launch products and the experiences shown in test units are subject to change and, hopefully, improvement. These reports are not the most founded on the planet, either. But even then, being the sort of enthusiasts we are, simple tweet-like statements regarding these issues are not quite enough to sate our skepticism. In this regard I believe OEMs should be more transparent, at least if they intend to come off as real and honest – and they all do try. Right now, the Snapdragon 810 has received quite some flak over what appear to be shortcomings, especially in regards to the rising competition such as Exynos and promising HiSilicon developments. Hopefully these are, indeed, software issues and the M9 can deliver the spectacular performance the M8 delivered a year before – because the SD820 is not coming for a while. Luckily HTC delayed their release in Taiwan to try to fix this, and we expect them to improve upon it to some extent. Let’s also not forget that the OEMs are dealing with intricate development jumps to new internal architectures and a new operating system version (Lollipop). That said, it is disappointing that what was touted to be the most promising jump in performance in recent years is met with all of these setbacks. We all wish we had a more solid ground to speculate on, but as of now the story is as unfinished as the software.
What do you think of the problems surrounding all of 2015 phones? Tell us in the comments below!