Smartphone Stranglehold: Why Handset Testing Takes So Long

Then he said it. Those fantastic words that make my job so much fun: "The Galaxy Note II is coming to Australia!" proclaimed Samsung's local head of telco on the stage. Before the applause had even stopped, though, I was doing maths in my head. Unless telcos had already started testing the Galaxy Note II, we'll have to wait until next year to see it in stores. For Telstra, that is exactly the case. Why does it take so long for new phones to land in stores?

This is part three of Gizmodo's Top-Secret Telstra Test Lab Tour. Click here to read the first and second instalments.

To answer this all important question, we needed to go to the source. Deep inside Telstra's top-secret Mobile Innovations Lab, the Galaxy Note II is currently being tested, but what's it going through that keeps it off store shelves for so long? Other carriers like Optus and Virgin have it on sale today. What's taking so long?

More often than not at a press event loaded with complex details, the host will hand out fact sheets: A4 pieces of paper full of the vital statistics you've heard that day dutifully noted down so you don't forget them. Today is no different. On Telstra's network testing fact sheet is a swathe of numbers. Some of them are interesting, some of them are concerning. One of the most concerning numbers relates to how long it takes to get a handset fully tested:

15 weeks.

That's over 100 days from the time the testers get the handsets to when it can go onto store shelves, and that's the best case scenario. If something goes wrong, the handset goes back to the relevant manufacturer, and fixing the issue could take weeks longer.

That 15-week figure pertains to the test time required for a high-end 4G handset, like the Galaxy Note II for example, which is currently in testing for an early-2013 release. Within that 100 days, the Note II will go through 184 hours of 1800MHz radio testing and 2000 application tests over 320 hours, along with testing in the anechoic chamber and the international roaming room.

The Note II will also be taken outdoors on a 75km road trip, where engineers will make 340 calls, open multiple voice and data sessions and make sure everything that worked in the lab still works in the field.

Obviously, a 4G device takes a long time to test because it's a process that's still being developed. Other devices like 3G Android handsets, data cards and software patches take less time. A Next G/3G device will take 10 weeks of testing, as will data cards like dongles and hotspots, whereas something like a software retest will take two weeks.

Despite the fact that we now know how it's done, the awkward question is still on my mind: "Why are you so slow at getting handsets out the door around here?" I let a few questioners go before me while I formulate the polite phrasing. Finally, I ask the question in a more polite fashion. "Why does it take so long to test a handset?"

The Telstra engineers exchange glances with the Telstra communications staff before finally, someone speaks. As it turns out, getting handset testing right is important for the continued stability of the whole network.

If a handset goes out the door without adequate testing, it not only gives customers the irks, but it also jeopardises the quality of the rest of the network. In layman's terms: one mistake in the lab brings down the network for everyone. These network tests are complex sequences, and they can't be done in parallel to each other. It's not something that can to be rushed.

Telstra employs spectrum analysers to see how the handsets respond to different frequencies, basic radio functionality is put to the test and human interface functions like different versions of Android, iOS and Windows Phone are tested to make sure people can use them properly. Every single feature on the handset is subjected to rigorous testing to make sure it's working with the network. That means these engineers have spoken to Siri, spied into Voice Search, messed with Maps, Googled with Goggles and practised the Play Store for hours and hours on end.

These guys don't go and get devices from Australian manufacturers, either. These devices are securely shipped in from overseas so that testing can begin before Australian offices of the relevant manufacturers even know the handsets are coming. If the devices don't make the cut, the manufacturer has to change it, or it's game over. It's that simple. The range of Telstra handsets is decided in this room, and the job isn't getting any easier.

In 2009, at least 51 new devices came through the test lab, and 41 software maintenance releases were put through their paces. In 2010, that number increased to 68 devices and 63 software updates and in 2011, the number increased again to 70 new devices and almost 100 software updates.

It's a barrage of tests, numbers, data and sealed rooms, paired with cloak and dagger-style security measures to keep what goes on behind the scenes secret. We can't tell you who these engineers are, where their offices are, or what they're doing today. All you need to know is that they're looking at devices you're only dreaming of to see if they're worthy of the Telstra tick of approval.

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