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Real World Computing

Should you upgrade your mobile OS?

Posted on 26 Jun 2012 at 14:06

Paul Ockenden wonders whether it's worth the effort and risk of updating your phone to the latest OS version

This month’s column is inspired by a tweet from PC Pro reader James Franklin, who asks: “I’m confused by the various versions of Android. I found most of the web resources confusing – can you explain the differences?”

That’s a really good question, and James isn’t the first to ask it. You don’t normally get any choice over which version of Android (or indeed, other mobile OS) is installed on your phone when you buy, but during ownership of that device several updates and upgrades are likely to become available, so it’s important to understand what enhancements each of these offers, and whether that makes it worth the hassle of upgrading.

Why might you choose not to upgrade? Surely it’s always best to keep a phone up to date? First, there’s a risk – albeit slight – that the process may fail and end up “bricking” your phone. (For those unfamiliar with this term, it means trashing the ROM so the phone will never switch on again, making it useful only for propping up table legs.)

Why might you choose not to upgrade? Surely it’s always best to keep a phone up to date?

Second, in certain cases updating may wipe your phone’s memory, which would result in you having to reinstall all your apps and restore your data, music, documents and so on.

Third, depending on the OS involved and how full your phone is, you may easily spend an hour or so updating it. Fourth, there’s a risk that the update may introduce new bugs, or change how functions work in ways that annoy you.

Fifth, you may find that apps you’ve paid money for no longer run properly. And last, of course, maybe you’re happy with your phone just the way it is.

Update advantages

All that said, updating can bring advantages, too. You may find a new release adds useful features to your phone, and battery life may be significantly improved running newer code. Sometimes 3G and Wi-Fi performance will be enhanced.

You may also find you need a new OS version to run more recently developed apps, which seems to be especially true of Apple’s devices. If you stick with an older OS version you’ll find the range of apps, and even the updates available for older apps, starts to trickle away.

Updating to the latest version of a mobile OS isn’t always easy. For a start, some older phones aren’t physically capable of running the new version, since they don’t have enough RAM or other resources.

Manufacturers don’t always release updates for their older handsets, to encourage you to upgrade to a newer model. For those of you with network-locked handsets, you won’t only need its manufacturer to release new firmware, but also to wait for this to go through the network’s own testing and approval process, which may involve an additional delay of weeks or even months.

Manufacturers don’t always release updates for their older handsets, to encourage you to upgrade to a newer model

Depending on your mobile OS, you can get round some of these problems by downloading unofficial ROMs from sites such as MoDaCo, xda-developers, CrackBerry and more. Some sites even have “kitchen” facilities that enable you to “cook” your own ROM by selecting a base version of the OS and then including or excluding various features – by removing the bits you never use, you’ll end up with more free storage for apps and other files.

Apple updates

So, you have an elderly phone still running an old OS: what does each new release bring to the party? Let’s start by looking at iOS on Apple devices, which is the simplest case because the number of models available is so small.

Often a new iOS release will coincide with new Apple hardware – for example, the original iPhone was supplied with iOS 1, and 2 came along with the iPhone 3G.

The big feature that iOS 2 added was access to the App Store – so frankly, you’d have to be bonkers, or some kind of Apple fundamentalist, to be still running iOS 1 (not that they’re mutually exclusive). Many believe Apple’s App Store was the first phone app download shop, but that isn’t true, since both Windows Mobile and Symbian had app stores way before “the” App Store.

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User comments

Going back

Biggest problem with updating is the difficulty in reverting. There seems to be no way to revert on iOS which makes the decision to upgrade difficult. I use a 3GS as my primary work phone and while iOS 6 is compatible, I fear it will be a retrograde step, but I have no obvious way to try before I buy, as it were.

By Dannyt on 26 Jun 2012

Wait until Service Pack 1...!

Many thanks for the article Paul - it made for an interesting read.

My own experiences are as follows...

I got an iPhone 3GS back in September 2009 just after iOS 3.1 had been released (I waited for cut & paste to be introduced before taking the plunge). It worked very well, speedily and I didn't find any obvious faults with it. The last version was v3.1.3 which was very stable.

However when iOS 4.0 was released, it slowed down the phone significantly and was buggy (application crashes, poor battery life, etc.). I felt then Apple had made a mistake not keeping iOS 3.1.3 available for people with the 3G & 3GS handsets (as they were built to run with.

I eventually upgraded to an iPhone 4 and found it only started to "work properly" from iOS 4.1 onwards. Even the first releases of 4.0.1 & 4.0.2 had poor battery life and were buggy. It eventually got to iOS 4.3.5 which was stable and worked well.

Then iOS 5.0 came out - after the disaster that was the upgrade (and my phone was effectively bricked for a couple of days whilst iTunes was stuck in an upgrade cycle, it worked OK-ish (certainly more smoothly than when 4.0 was released), but again with battery problems on both the iPhone 4 & 4S.

So my personal view? Treat it like the old Microsoft releases of old. Don't upgrade to the latest "x.0" release unless you're prepared to put up with bugs and (usually) poor battery life (i.e. bleeding edge). Usually Apple follow it up quite quickly with a "x.0.x" release to fix the obvious flaws and start to stabilise it.

Other people's experiences may be different, but I usually drive my iPhone pretty hard (perhaps too much so?) so any errors or bugs usually surface pretty quickly.

What I would like to ask fellow PC Pro-ers, is the other half has HTC Wildfire from Vodafone. It's gotten painfully slow in the past 6 months and I'm considering upgrading it to Android v2.3 (it's currently on v2.2.1). Has anyone done this and had it improved the handset's performance at all?

Any thoughts would be greatfully appreciated - thanks!

By mrmmm on 26 Jun 2012

Re sluggish Wildfire

Regarding the sluggish Wildfire:
I have an aging Hero updated to (I think) 2.1. Recently it became unusably slow. Couldn't figure out why (virus???) but a factory reset (Settings>Privacy) has fixed it. Also of course it's forced me to think about what to reinstall.
Might be worth a try before upgrading.

By stevehayes on 26 Jun 2012

ICS on Galaxy S2 - Pah

Hi Paul. Spurred on by this article in the mag (old-timer subscriber) I upgraded my Galaxy S2 to Android 4. It went very smoothly (although firmware upgrades always give me that sphincter-tightening feeling). However, I've been underwhelmed by the new version. Admittedly I'm not a power-user (for example, I recently discovered that you can make calls with the thing:-)). I've noticed the UI is less responsive that 2.3 (yes I did click on that button) and had a nice bug (incoming call with the UI totally dead - power recycle needed). The only feature I've really liked is panorama mode in the camera. Summary: not worth the upgrade (for me).

However, may I finish on a VERY positive note. I've just discovered the Swype keyboard (probably always there?) and it is just a joy to use. Training time was 5 minutes and I can now out-pace my teenage daughter in texting ("Portuguese cork forest" with 3 elegant sweeps of my thumb - don't ask). Now, you've probably mentioned this in your column, but if not, may I suggest a column dedicated to how smart this bit of technology is?

Regards, Kev

By RosslynDad on 26 Jun 2012

Biggest reason...

Paul, you forgot to mention (or I missed it), that the biggest reason to upgrade is security.

There are new exploits coming out all the time and none of the manufacturers, including Apple, are very responsive at getting security fixes out (although I did get 4 small updates from htc in 2 months).

As to ICS, on my Sensation, it is much faster and smoother and the battery life has improved. The downside is that Sense 3.5 is still a memory hog and a lot of bigger games kick it out of memory, meaning exiting a game and going back to the "desktop" takes a few seconds as it has to reload Sense.

The one annoying thing about ICS is turning the phone on, every time I turn it on, it goes through a 20 second period where it "optimises" about 30 apps for use with ICS. Why doesn't it save these optimisations? :-S

Other than that it is great and I only turn the Sensation on when I swap SIMs around, generally, so it isn't much of a problem.

By big_D on 27 Jun 2012

@stevehayes - Thank you!

I hadn't thought about a possible virus slowing down the phone, many thanks for the tip!

I'll try the factory reset before attempting an upgrade to 2.3 as well.

By mrmmm on 27 Jun 2012

Downgrading IOS

@Dannyt - you can downgrade from IOS 6. I put it on my iPhone 4 last week and found it reliable but slow (not doubt due to a lack of any optimisation). I downgraded is back to IOS 5 using this guide: http://osxdaily.com/2012/06/18/downgrade-ios-6-bet
a-to-ios-5/

By Chatan on 27 Jun 2012

ICS Upgrade

What's all the fuss about ICS?
After getting very frustrated that it took Google over 3 months to sort out teething problems, I eagerly awaited ICS (Nexus S)- after all the hype, to say I'm totally underwhelmed is a bit of an understatement. New font - big deal, contacts/people slightly improved, tiling/grouping apps is a waste of time, seems no more stable or faster than Gingerbread. As regards other improvements like seeing recent apps, swiping to clear notifications, screen shot, swype etc, they're no big deal either, as on rooted devices you have been able to do that for ages in Gingerbread. So to people still thinking of upgrading, I'd say you're not missing much and unless you're really sure of what you're doing I wouldn't bother.

By tonyaude on 27 Jun 2012

ICS Upgrade

I have a Samsung Galaxy S2 and the ICS update has been terrific. Not a huge amount of feature additions, but let's face it, these phones do everything anyway! It's more about day-to-day use of the phone. What I have noticed is it starts a lot faster, runs a lot faster, battery life is better now, speech-to-text is brilliant and types "as you talk" not when you've finished talking. It is more accurate than it used to be (very accurate - way more accurate than iPhone text-to-speech for people with non-American accents).
I love the updated Recent Apps previews and swipe to remove.

As for the issue with dialing a number and phone screen going black ... put the phone to your ear and then pull it away again. All is back to normal. It locks when putting the phone to your ear to save battery and avoid accidental pressing of on-screen buttons with your face/ear. When you first dial the feature kicks in prematurely before you get the phone to your ear. Mine hasn't done this for ages, so maybe there was an update that fixed it?

By cooloox on 5 Jul 2012

ICS Upgrade

I have a Samsung Galaxy S2 and the ICS update has been terrific. Not a huge amount of feature additions, but let's face it, these phones do everything anyway! It's more about day-to-day use of the phone. What I have noticed is it starts a lot faster, runs a lot faster, battery life is better now, speech-to-text is brilliant and types "as you talk" not when you've finished talking. It is more accurate than it used to be (very accurate - way more accurate than iPhone text-to-speech for people with non-American accents).
I love the updated Recent Apps previews and swipe to remove.

As for the issue with dialing a number and phone screen going black ... put the phone to your ear and then pull it away again. All is back to normal. It locks when putting the phone to your ear to save battery and avoid accidental pressing of on-screen buttons with your face/ear. When you first dial the feature kicks in prematurely before you get the phone to your ear. Mine hasn't done this for ages, so maybe there was an update that fixed it?

By cooloox on 5 Jul 2012

Apps

There are apps available for Android that do the upgrade for you. Rom Manager from CyanogenMod installs a secure Bootloader (which prevents you bricking your device) and then, with a couple of taps, will download a new ROM for your device, backup the existing ROM and all your data, reboot the phone, install the new ROM and reboot you back to a brand new device.

And, if you don't like the new ROM or something doesn't work as you wanted, open up ROM Manager and restore the backup. 5 minutes later you'll be back where you started.

It will even check for updates to the ROM you currently have installed. It takes all the hassle and pain out of updating your device. That said, I'm on an old San Franciso and still find gingerbread (2.3) runs better than ICS. I've tried half a dozen ICS ROMS but none seem quite as fast and feature complete as 2.3. My 1.2GHz tablet runs OCS find.

By Bassey1976 on 10 Jul 2012

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Paul Ockenden

Paul Ockenden

Paul is a contributing editor to PC Pro specialising in smartphones, mobile broadband and all things wireless. He's technical director of a combined IT and marketing company, which works on websites and intranets for several blue-chip clients.

Read more More by Paul Ockenden

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