/ Technology

The operating system update lottery

Have you ever hit ‘update’ on your smartphone or tablet only to find that your device seems to end up worse rather than better? We shared this suspicion, so we put these updates to the test.

My phone is pestering me to accept the latest upgrade. I know I should because it’ll give me all the latest security patches and help protect my phone from leaky apps siphoning off my personal data.

But it’ll probably give me a few features I’m not interested in as well. For instance, I’ve got a yellow iPhone 5c and I love it, but updating it will add the Apple Watch app. And since I have no intention of buying the pricey Apple Watch, this app will take up valuable memory despite remaining unclicked.

That’s not the only thing putting me off from tapping the update button – sometimes upgrading can negatively impact key elements of your phone, such as its speed and battery life.

Does upgrading really downgrade your device?

To find out whether there was any truth to these suspicions we put the theory to the test in our lab.

We retested the battery life, processor speed and storage space on 26 smartphones and tablets after updating them to the latest version of Android or iOS. Of the 26 that we tested, 24 gained a lower mark in at least one of those categories, and 17 scored worse in two or more categories. In some cases they lost just a few minutes of battery life, or a few hundred megabytes of storage. But we also found some bigger differences – you can read all about these on our sister site Which? Tech Daily.

Pick and mix updates

So we’d like to see users given some control over what updates they apply to their smartphones. While security fixes should be mandatory, other updates such as new apps or cosmetic changes should be optional. And all updates should maintain or improve performance, rather than causing it to deteriorate. If manufacturers can’t guarantee this, then we think users should be able to roll back their device to the previous operating system.

Do you dutifully update your phone’s or tablet’s operating system? Did it make your device better or worse?


I had already read the article on Which? Tech Daily and seen the impact that updates can cause on battery life and available memory for apps, images, etc. Thanks very much to Jessica for starting what I believe is an important discussion. I update the operating system on my iPhone and iPad fairly promptly but not immediately, just in case there is a major problem with the new release. I don’t put heavy demands on either and so far have had no problems.

I believe that it is vital that the user has the opportunity to reinstall an earlier operating system – particularly with computers. My main concern is that updating a computer OS may prevent (paid for) software working. Online information can be useful but the only way to find out for sure is to do the update and cross your fingers.

Jessica: perhaps you can clear up some confusion for me. When you say we put the theory to the test in our lab can you confirm if this is Which?’s very own lab, or is it an outside agency? I wasn’t aware Which? still retained any of its own testing facilities.

You say you examined the impact of upgrades on three parameters: battery life, processor speed and storage space, and that almost all stored a lower mark on at least one category. But, in fact, the processor speed wouldn’t have changed in any way at all: that’s a pre-set function in the factory, so you would only be able to test two parameters.

Every upgrade does add something, of course, but more often than not it’s simply the tech companies attempting to stay ahead of the game with regard to the criminal fraternity. For reasons that would take too long to explain there is no such thing as a ‘bug-free’ or ‘totally secure’ operating system. It’s in the very nature of the game that there will always be ways that systems that can be compromised. These are often only discovered after a product has been released, which is one reason why you have repeating upgrades. Every security upgrade is going to change the ways in which your system operates: that’s inevitable, and almost all of the time it’s going to take up a little more space and make the battery work just a little harder.

If you’re making the point that you ought to be able to select which bit gets upgraded – such as the Apple Watch capability, for instance – then perhaps you should, but sometimes security upgrades are contingent on a new aspect being added. It’s by no means a simple problem.


Hi Ian,

Indeed this is a complex problem. We agree that security fixes are essential in keeping your device safe and should be pushed out to all phones and tablets. Our grievance is with the extra features and new apps, such as the Apple Watch app, which take up space yet and may remain unused.

We feel that you should get the choice to decide whether you want these extras or not. And when it comes to essentials such as battery life, the manufacturers should make every possible effort to ensure that this does not deteriorate.

With regards to the processor speed, I raised your question with Jess who explained that we re-ran the industry standard speed tests to see what impact the update had. The operating system governs how the processor is used and will therefore have an impact on how fast the device manages standard tasks.

And when it comes to testing, we use independent labs which means that we can ensure that the most qualified and experienced people in their fields test each product. Further information on our testing can be found here: http://www.which.co.uk/about-which/who-we-are/which-research/lab-testing/

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There are several issues with that list of Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVEs). The first is that the survey makes no distinction between severity of vulnerabilities in the list. A low-risk vulnerability (for example, something that can only be exploited by an authenticated local user with administrative privilege) is not the same as a remote code execution bug that’s easily exploited.

Second – and this applies to all platforms – many security bugs are cross-platform. A good example is libpng, which is everywhere from browsers to smart-watches. It may have had only had four advisories in 2015, but that will have drawn patches from a lot of other vendors.

Third: CVE Details seems arbitrary in its assignment of CVE to project. Hence, for example, a bunch of LibreOffice/OpenOffice bugs are counted as Debian CVEs, as are some Oracle MySQL bugs.

Fourth: CVEs only count reported vulnerabilities. They don’t count anything that’s being hoarded, whether by security agencies or by black-hats, for example. And there’s nothing good to come out of turning CVEs into some kind of marketing scorecard.

As everyone’s favourite infosec account put it:

As this chart (rather than the list favoured by most outlets) shows, Microsoft and Adobe both out-CVEd Apple for vulnerabilities “by vendor” across CVE Details’ Top 50.

Even that’s a problematic count. For example, by restricting the summary to CVEs in the Top 50 list, the summary is very kind to Cisco. Its IOS only racked up 84 vulnerabilities, but across all products, The Borg had a very busy 2015, recording 488 CVEs.

In short, as the Register put it “This Meaningless league table sparks silly schadenfreude”

With thanks to the Register.

Thank you for your explanation, Lauren, but when you say “With regards to the processor speed, I raised your question with Jess who explained that we re-ran the industry standard speed tests to see what impact the update had my concern was with the wording used in the article, which was clearly incorrect. I appreciate that the Independent Laboratory which ran the tests did not check processor speed. Had they done so, they would have noted it remained constant. What they checked was something very different: it was how the update affected the overall speed of the device to perform what the laboratory describes as “industry standard” tasks.

This may not seem important to many, but I believe words and their meanings are extremely important. There ought to have been no mention whatsoever about “processor speed”, since it’s almost impossible to check without dismantling the device and extracting the CPU. What they (and you) checked was how quickly the device performed on the same tasks prior to and immediately after an update. And it would have been much simpler (and far more honest) to say that.

And herein lies another problem. Since neither you nor they can be sure exactly what the update changed you cannot be sure any change was due to the installation of extra bits – such as the Apple Watch. You might think ‘common sense’ says it must be the update, yet ‘common sense’ suggests the sun moves round the Earth.

On the new features aspect, that, again, is no simple thing. And there are good reasons why it isn’t. Making software and computers is a highly competitive business, although only Apple does both. However, all software companies have to design their products to stay ahead of the game and, on the internet side of things in particular, changes are needed to deal with the varying design standards used by the browsers. That alone can slow your device down, but as processor speeds continue to increase browsers and software authors continue to design more features into their work. It’s a never-ending game of catchup. Consumers should not be led into believing that anything else is possible.

I do agree that cosmetic updates should be optional, but here’s another question: what, exactly, qualifies as ‘cosmetic’? Software’s appearance through its GUI is now largely indistinguishable from its function. How then is the consumer able to differentiate?

But the language and terminology must be more accurate. Which? used to enjoy an enviable reputation for accuracy and impartiality but dubious reviewing of this nature can only do a lot of harm to a hard earned standing.

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If we’re extending this topic to computers, then WC has a valid point with regard to software no longer working on a newer OS version. However, Apple at least has gone some way to sorting this issue out with the App store.

We have nine Apple computers, including the latest Desktop Mac Pro, so updating is important. Like WC, it’s always wise to wait before rushing ahead with an OS upgrade and I haven’t yet upgraded to El Capitan, although the signs are that it’s fairly good with existing apps. But what I now do is upgrade, then go onto the App store and download anything I’ve already purchased in the new form. As long as you’ve paid for it, Apple insists developers maintain up-to-date versions on the App store, and they’re free of charge. Just log in with your Apple ID and down comes the app.


Valid point about upgrades for security. The imposition of the Apples Watch software with an update is concerning,

Ian – Very good point if, as I understand the post, you buy once and if Apple changes the operating system then all the programs are made to work with it. However would I be right in thinking that any program re-vamped by the vendor would be a new purchase to up-grade.

I am a PC man as I believe it has more choices in hardware and software and also freeware.

If a new program is produced that is radically different, then obviously you pay. If, however, the company is simply ensuring it works with the new OS, then no; it’s free.

There’s plenty of freeware for Macs but the Hardware is Apple designed, Apple built and therefore Apple compatible in every aspect. It might be perceived as pricier, but considering what you get with every Mac it’s almost a bargain.

I’m sure that we can all agree on the need for updates to maintain online security, but I doubt it would be practical to have these alone because they could be addressing a problem with the operating system.

I was vaguely aware of the Apple Watch app and see that I have put it in a folder with unused stuff like Game Centre. It would be good to be able to choose what does get downloaded or even to delete what we don’t want.

Most proper PCs give you a choice of which updates you download and use. I think the issue lies more with so-called smartphones where life is made easy for dumb users by defaulting to the installation of all available updates.

I think you’re right. With Apple computers you can select and delete stuff that’s unnecessary.

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I agree: Wine is for drinking, especially at Christmas time 🙂

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I updated my 5c successfully so thought, mistakenly that updating my 2 year old iPad mini would work well….having previously had a PC with. Trojan all I can say is that my previously fully functioning fast iPad ground to a halt. 6 hours talking to apple and 2 restores later it was no better. A visit to my nearest Apple store 20 miles away resulted in yet another restore AND a lengthy phone call at my expense to reset my emails which had somehow failed during the back up. Another call to Apple resulted in the offer of a replacement refurbished iPad. Back to the nearest store and home again some hours later…NO IMPROVEMENT AT ALL. As a disabled person with MS I depend on my iPad considerably but now it takes twice the time it used to to open links etc. My husband’s iPad is still on ios7 and is as fast as it ever was so there is clearly no problem with our router even though mine continually tells me there is no internet connection. What do I do now?

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Tish, sorry to hear about the issues with the iPad Mini. The iPad ought not to have behaved the way you describe, and the only crumb of comfort I can offer is that it won’t have been a virus. But I have encountered something similar before.

Apple’s offer of a refurbished iPad mini for your two year-old mini is excellent: the refurbs are often brand new, having been items returned to Apple immediately after purchase for a variety of reasons, so I would take that offer. The problem with your mini could be several things but a newer model would definitely be the way to go.

I have 3 ‘devices’ – a PC running Windows XP, an Apple iPod Touch running iOS 4.2 and a Motorola Xoom running Android 4.0.4

On the PC, I get regular updates to the Firefox web browser, Thunderbird email reader and SKYPE.
On the iPod I no longer get updates to anything. On the Xoom I do get some updates.

The iPod has SKYPE installed – but SKYPE has changed so my version of SKYPE no longer connects – to upgrade the SKYPE would require that I upgrade the OS – but I am at the maximum version. I cannot install any new apps on the iPod because everything in the App Store requires that I first upgrade the OS. Other Apps also suddenly stop working.

The Xoom has a version of the ITV Player installed. Recently I had a notification that my version of ITV Player was old and that I should upgrade to the new version as the old one would soon stop working. Of course, the first thing I would need to do would be to upgrade my OS.

My problem is not that of battery life – it is that a fully functional device is being obsoleted because the Apps will only run on the latest versions of the operating system and the latest version of the operating system is only available for brand new devices.

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There seems to be a strong feeling of entitlement with phones and computers which doesn’t necessarily reflect the price paid for the software.
I am not convinced that manufacturers should commit to long term *free* support for Operating System software on computing devices because I don’t believe that it is financially viable.
Windows XP is a case in point. If you paid, say, £100 for it over 10 years ago (and I bought an OEM version for about a quarter of that) then who is expected to fund the “free” support? Applications software (paid for) doesn’t get perpetual free support. You are expected to upgrade to the latest version or live without bug fixes and new features.
For mobile phones, now that entry level phones can be had for less than £100 who again is going to pay for long term support? Who is going to force short term manufacturing companies in China to provide long term support.
I expect the market to sort this out. If the majority are happy to buy a new phone every 2 years for the price of the weekly grocery shop then there is no business case for long term support.
If support is important, then choose your next phone based on the long term support offering and not the price and “mmmm…..shiny!”. Apple, Google and Sony allegedly offer longer term support.
The mobile phone market is tracking where the PC market was years back – new hardware every 18 months to get more power and more features. Once the hardware hits diminishing returns then long term support will become more important.
Look to 3rd party freeware OS to become more prominent then.
Oh, and my Samsubg Galaxy S3 seems a lot slower but it is a year or so since the last update so I suspect that the constant updating of the apps is the source of the problem. Probably the developers test the newest features on the latest hardware and don’t worry about efficiency on out of date hardware.
So – our responsibilty. Don’t buy a phone without a long term support commitment. Or don’t complain. You usually get what you paid for.

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I think when we buy appliances, we expect/hope that their manufacturers will support them for a reasonable length of time.

For computer based devices, that support ought to include fixes for any significant bugs that are revealed over time – especially if security is affected.

One of the issues here is deciding how long a “reasonable” length of time is. Both Apple and Microsoft publish information on how long they will support their respective OSes for. If I remember correctly, MS typically supports its OSes for much longer than Apple does.

For even longer support, old Windows and Apple computers can be upgraded to run supported versions of Linux or Unix. This may usually involve some time and effort on the part of the user/owner, but can easily be accomplished at zero monetary cost. Using this option, I can still safely use XP-era PCs on the internet. I still also use XP off-line, for games and photography applications (etc.).

I am so pleased to see Which do an article on this very significant subject regarding software updates on smartphones. No one else has ever done an article like this so I am extremely grateful that Which have done so. I change my smartphones regularly and I have extensive experience of many different kinds of Android phones. My main point is to share that in my experience, the very worst manufacturer who’s phones suffer quite badly after software updates are Samsung. It seems that their Touchwiz skin, which is their own addition to vanilla Android, is just not made to be be updated. Battery life suffers, features are no longer functional, like the dual clock for roaming, for example. This is lost after update to Lollipop. In my opinion, the phones which benefit most from Android software updates are ones with plain Android, like Motorola or Google Nexus devices. For me, I suffered twice with Samsung phone software updates on both the S5 and S4. So I am now skeptical about buying another Samsung device. Plus have an incredibly high budget for marketing so if you’re the gullible type, you can end up believing that they are the best phones available, which is not factually true. Finally, there should always be a guarantee feom the manufacturer that if the software update makes the phone worse, then they should replace it or certainly have a system in place which allows the owner to reverse the update back to pre-update.

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Definitely not my scene this one but as I use a computer I am obliged to be involved
I bought this laptop a few years ago and without ever looking at or asking about windows 8 it arrived
Boy did i get a shock
Try as I could I absolutely hated the thing. It was obvious that W8 was designed with touch screen in mind
But they installed it in everything. Why?
After about 3 weeks I fired up my old laptop with wobbly keys and reached this to the son in law and ask him nicely to put W7 on it
He said there was various software’s to make 8 look and feel like 7 but there would always be that thing lurking so I said no W7 or its in the bin
I have W7 and I can operate W7. I dont seem to be alone either
Yes many here and elsewhere will simply say it’s moving with the times and later is best. It can do this and that and things I have never heard tell of but do I need or want that? no
I use my laptop to purchase things online
I have one email address. I’m told I’d be better with several but I dont know why apart from “it would be better” I only have one house address so why would I need two address’s

So lets say one is getting older
Lets say one falls foul of the various memory loss diseases.
One can operate and remember everything except the latest and this effects many long before they are 70 years old and have Dementia
It is simply not possible to “keep up”
I did. From 3.11 to W7 I managed just fine apart from the odd profanity but within days everything was fine
I have several CAD programs that my son uses more than I do but to open and adjust drawings it has to be here also
My laptop as my last one was is quite capable of running a system, actually 3 that are capable of designing near anything recognisable to most of us and once its designed and analysed it stays there
The hard drive is not 10% full so it looks like I could store all of a manufactures tech stuff and that would be correct because I do already have complete drawings and designs for a complete range of machines. Indeed I have all the info for over 20 years. Drawings, spread sheets. So much stuff I forget where to look but it is all in folders so searchable quite easily
Where am I going with this.
Why do we need endless new operating systems that some of us do not actually want. MS say W10 is their last and they will presumably make their revenue from updating W10
Thats being the case why can they not make revenue from updating W7 and let me be with my old decrepit out of date plastic box that I will never fill to the seams nor will it ever be so slow as to annoy me. The internet connection is not the laptops fault. That is the fault of my address apparently
So while everyone argues about the latest smart phones and tablets what about Granda’s and Grannies
I know a woman much older than myself who has no problem with a tablet but she is not in the majority of older people. Tech is in my eyes starting to freeze out older people
Any other golden oldies or nearly there’s have thoughts on this???

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I have come across an interesting challenge. A friend’s wife has an older unibody MacBook that has OS X 10.5 (Leopard), probably the OS that it came with. It needs updated to a later version to run her webmail service. I had a disk for Snow Leopard (10.6) but am not sure how to do further upgrades. I know that the machine will not run the most recent version of OS X. I tend to keep my own Macs reasonably up to date and this is the first time I have tried to do such a major upgrade.

Any suggestions, please?

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Snow Leopard was never made ‘obsolete’, Duncan; it was merely superseded.
Wavechange: you can download OSX upgrades to bring it up to El Capitan comparatively easily – I had to do it on one of my machines relatively recently. I will track down the relative links for you but it’s not a huge task. The usual issue with this sort of thing is, as Duncan suggests, the type of processor used on the Mac. All unibody models (from early 2008) use Intel processors, so there shouldn’t be an issue.

If she has an Apple ID and has ever bought from the App stopre then she will have all the available upgrades in the store. They will be under ‘purchased’.

Thanks both. The identifier is Macbook5.1 and it has an Inter Core 2 Duo processor and 2 GM RAM. I forgot to mention the key information that I don’t have the Apple ID. It took long enough for the owner to discover the password needed to log into the machine. The problem is that the chap has recently become almost blind and is unable to help his wife sort out her computer.

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It’s the first one you mention, Duncan and the owner said it dated from 2008/9. I might ask the owner to register it so we have an Apple ID. It turns out that they have a friend who used to run the Apple authorised repair workshop, so I’m not sure why I’m involved.

If he’s an Apple-authorised technician then he’s worth his weight in gold. The 2008 – onwards laptops are easily upgradable, but they obviously won’t run as quickly as the newer models.

The guy is director of a small company with a few employees. Although they still do Mac repairs he told me that it was too expensive to continue as an authorised repairer. His company is based on a trading estate and another company opened a smart store in the city centre, charging a lot more for servicing and upgrades from the quotes I have seen.

I have downloaded a later version of OS X from the App Store and will get the owner to register for her own Apple ID. The MacBook seems to have only been used for email and web surfing. What a waste.

“The MacBook seems to have only been used for email and web surfing. What a waste.”

I think that is what very many users now need home computers for.

I guess Google realise this too – hence they sell Chromebooks.

And possibly why tablets have enjoyed good sales.