Letter from America: To update, or NOT to update? THAT is the question!

Ah, things were so much easier in the “good old days” of analogue and early digital products. You sold them to a client, configured, installed and tested them, and unless something broke down the road you were done until it was time to upgrade. Yes, in these days an upgrade meant taking the existing product out and replacing it with something new.

Yes – ah, for the good old days.

Suffice to say, things have certainly changed. The move to software-based products with broadband internet connectivity has made it possible to update or upgrade a wide variety of consumer products, most notably smart phones, tablets, AVRs and processors, displays, Blu-ray players and more. On one hand, that is a boon to both you and your customers, but after experiencing some update demons in my own home and office ecosystems it seemed worthwhile to offer some thoughts on the subject…

In a social media-driven world, even the most technophobic client will hear reports about updates to this device or that. That may lead them to some troublesome conclusions, so let’s start there.

When it comes to smartphones, the announcement of a new OS is often well in advance of the release date. Please keep up on these, as you’ll be asked “Why can’t I upgrade my phone?” In some cases, the simple answer is that the new OS hadn’t been released yet! iOS 12 announced back in June, but it won’t “ship” until some time in the fall.

On the Android side, it gets more complicated. Android “Pie” was announced at about the same time as iOS 12, but it is already available as an update.. MAYBE!

While Apple typically has a longer list of backward compatible hardware, and since they control the phones, once it launches, it’s out there. iPhones all the way back to the 5S and SE will be able to handle it, as will iPads back to the Mini 2, iPad Air and the Gen.5 models. Not bad!
Huawei Honor 6 Update screenshot on mobile phone

With Android, things are different. First, the upgrade cycle seldom goes back further than two or rarely three model cycles. This is because Android phones differ from manufacturer to manufacturer and they add their own features and skins to the underlying OS. Think of it as “one size does not fit all”. The version of Android for a Samsung phone cannot run on an LG, Lenovo, HTC or any other phone, and vice-versa. That means that each manufacturer must customise their software, and that takes time. A recent article investigated the roll-out time for the current “Oreo” version of Android. The results were that it took anywhere from release date for Google’s own Nexus and Pixel phones to well over 230 days for others.

And, again, keep in mind that older phones won’t get the updates at all. My Nexus 6P has had three updates, but that’s it. No Pie for me! My collection of older Android phones and tablets are stuck anywhere from Android 4.1 to Android 7.

This is important to note given that the increasing reliance of home entertainment, control and automation products on apps may require a phone newer than the custom has, due to version miss-match.

Image (right): Even though this 3-year-old Android phone will no longer update to the latest OS it (importantly) still receives security patches

The issue will even exist with current version phones. Thanks to Blackberry, I am currently testing their latest Key2 model, which is an interesting device full of impressive security features and protection and it is still the choice for those who are more comfortable with a physical, rather than an on-screen keyboard. It came out of the box with 8.1 and the July 1 security patch.

My other current Android phone, the Huawei Mate 10 Pro, has 8.0, and the security patch was not released day-and-date. However, both manufacturers have told me that Android 9/Pie will be pushed out, but the timing on both models is not set.

“In today’s security-conscious world, it is as important as perhaps any other feature.”

That brings us to some important items. In today’s security-conscious world, it is as important as perhaps any other feature. Regardless of the device type it is important to make certain that every device in a client’s home has the latest software updates. In some cases this is done automatically, but in other cases it is not. For the latter, any time someone from your team visits a client, assist them with checking for security updates that may be available or downloaded, but not installed.

Herein lies a conundrum: “To update or NOT to update? THAT is the question!”

In some cases an update may “break” a needed feature in the system or cause poor ongoing performance with another device in the chain. For that reason, a few notes are in order.

For many devices, particularly streamers and AV products, if you don’t do so already it is always a good idea to keep a log of the system information for every device in the home. Then, if possible, when a major OS update is announced, see if the device can “roll back” to an earlier version if needed. Or, at the very least, try the update out in the shop before running it in the client’s home. Yes, in some cases, as with the more recent updates to the Apple TV 4K that allowed more flexibility on video outputs, the update is essential. In other cases, often not so much.

That leads us to “auto update” or “check and download”. Depending on the device, there might not be a choice; sometimes the update blows in whether you like it or not. Sometimes it is always manually downloaded and installed, and sometimes there is a choice. My preference, when possible, is to do it manually, but have an office with a dozen streamers, phones, tablets, IoT devices and more. I can always update, but when the client is in the next county over, that isn’t always a good idea. Make your choice carefully given the above.

Speaking of the streamers, which in my case include multiple Roku devices, two Fire TVs, an Apple TV 4K, two Sling products, a Tablo off-air DVR and my favourite Android TV device, the Nvidia Shield, they almost all seem to share a commonality with some Android and iOS devices. That is that while in some cases the underlying OS will automatically update, the individual apps often do not. That’s yet another reason to check all the devices and their apps anytime you are on site. Fortunately, notifications often alert the user to update. This is a key item to always check.

Appstore automatic updates choice on screen

With any update, but particularly with major OS updates, many products will now present an on-screen “apps notes” notification that lets the user know what the update has changed or added. Make note of these, so that any product behaviour that is different than what the customer is used to may be explained to them.

To be sure, our world has been made easier thanks to the widespread implementation of software-driven products our lives have, to some extent been made easier. Bug fixes are pushed out to solve problems that would have otherwise required a truck roll. Features and capabilities may be added to increase product value – how good is that?

Most of the time it is a good thing. However, as with any technology it must be managed carefully. Do what you can to be sure the products allow to always have the latest security package even if the OS may be old; the two are not always connected. Just as you would shop test a new system before installation, why not have a collection of streaming devices to be certain that anything you update doesn’t cause collateral damage somewhere else in the system.

Final thoughts…

So, to answer the age-old question: “To update, or Not to update?”. The answer is usually yes, but not always. As with everything else in our business, caveat emptor. Most importantly, manage and document any change to a system; a software update or upgrade might have an impact as great as any physical change!

Since it is only a few weeks before CEDIA in San Diego this is likely the last of my “Letters” you’ll read before the expo. As has been the case with every CEDIA (other than the one when the doctors made me stay home after surgery), I’ll be there. Some might say that they will “be there with bells on”, but in my case you have to look, not listen. What to look for? My (in)famous test pattern jacket! Please stop me and say hello, it’s always great to meet readers from around the globe.

Enjoy the rest of the summer!


Michael Heiss is a technology consultant and journalist, CEDIA Fellow, CEDIA ESC 2 Certified, and US correspondent for HiddenWires magazine. You can contact Michael via the HiddenWires LinkedIn Group or follow him on Twitter @captnvid.