How One Little Android Update Caused a Big Headache

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Jared Newman/Techland

My Samsung Galaxy S II had been great to me. It’s a thin, light phone with a gorgeous Super AMOLED Plus display and a dual-core processor that handles Android with ease. When people asked me if I’d ever return to an iPhone–my previous handset was an iPhone 3GS–my answer was a cheery “nope!”

That was until last week, when AT&T delivered an Android 2.3.6 update to the Galaxy S II that destroyed its battery life. Before the update, the phone could easily last through a day of moderate use. After the update, the phone would lose about 8 percent of its battery per hour in standby. Even if I rarely touched the phone during the day, it was dead by bedtime.

(MORE: Motorola’s Droid Razr MAXX Almost Achieves the 24-Hour Battery)

I’m telling this story not just to rant–although I’m grateful for that opportunity–but to point out a risk that Android users face: An update that’s supposed to deliver nothing but good things could carry unforeseen consequences. Another example of this popped up this week, with users of Asus’ Transformer Prime reporting lock-ups and graphical glitches after updating to Android Ice Cream Sandwich.

I wasn’t alone in my battery drain problem. Similar complaints have appeared in forums on AT&T’s website, XDA-Developers forums and Android Central (where some T-Mobile users are reporting the same issue), but other users said they weren’t having any issues. This is both the best and worst kind of Android bug, because it’s less likely to merit immediate attention from the phone maker and wireless carriers when it doesn’t affect everyone.

When I asked Samsung Support over Twitter what was going on, the support team said it had passed my info on “for further evaluation.” After following up today, I was told to factory reset my phone (more on that shortly).

The Galaxy S II battery drain issue has even stumped the hackers at XDA-Developers, who haven’t been able to come up with a reliable fix. Some people are rooting their phones and rolling back to an earlier version of Android, but that can apparently introduce other problems, such as buggy Wi-Fi. Besides, rooting your phone voids the warranty, which is exactly what you don’t want to do when something goes wrong.

So today, I took Samsung’s advice and went nuclear, backing up all my data and resetting the phone to its factory defaults. Google’s built-in backup only restores apps, system settings, contacts, calendar info and e-mail, so before resetting, I coughed up $5 for MyBackup Pro so I could easily restore my home screen layout, text messages, phone calls, and photos as well. Neither process went smoothly, so I still have to spend a bunch of time tweaking my phone to get it back to its old state.

For now, I’m not quite sure whether the factory reset completely solved the problem. After about two hours of idle time, my phone’s battery is down about 10 percent, which isn’t stellar but seems better than it was before the update. Either way, I shouldn’t have to start from scratch whenever a system update comes around.

In fairness, buggy updates can happen on any smartphone platform. Windows Phone users and iPhone users have been victims too. But Android’s presence on many phones, with many slight variations in software, across several wireless carriers–yes, I’m talking about the dreaded “F” word–makes problems trickier to identify and fix.

If you’re really unlucky, like me, the companies who made your phone won’t be in any rush to help. The best you’ll get is some generic advice that may or may not solve the problem. If it doesn’t, and you don’t want to attempt hacking a fix on your own, getting a new phone under warranty is your only option.

Are my battery woes enough to make me swear off Android when it’s time for a new phone? No, because a lot can happen between now and then. But this is the first issue I’ve had that’s given me second thoughts.

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