How smartphones fail

A new survey identifies the top causes of hardware problems in smartphones. The biggest issue? User behavior!

How smartphones fail
Credit: Agam Shah

Modern smartphones are a pretty hardy lot. In most cases, they take a pretty good lickin’ and keep on tickin’. But of course failures do occur, sometimes due to a short list of relatively fragile components. More often, though, the real problem isn’t with the device, it’s with the user.

According to a recent survey by Blancco Technology Group, up to three-quarters of smartphone hardware failures are NTF, or no trouble found.

What’s really going wrong?

The State of Mobile Device Performance and Health Trend Report: Q4 2015 reveals that worldwide, the top 5 trouble spots account for 39% of all mobile phone failures. The camera is the most trouble-prone part of a smartphone, responsible for 10% of hardware issues. The other top problem areas were the touch screen (9%), battery charging (8%), the microphone (6%), and performance issues (6%). According the Blancco Technology Group, “The report’s findings are based on aggregate, anonymized data” collected by the company’s SmartChk platform.”

Surprisingly, smartphone trouble spots varied widely by region. North American users, for example, seemed to be more picky about performance, with 17% of hardware problems attributed to slow operation. That was followed by the camera (8%), battery charging (7%), headset (6%), and microphone (6%). In Europe, by far the biggest problem was carrier signal, which accounted for a whopping 42% of hardware problems, followed by the ability to make a call (14%), and then by camera and Wi-Fi issues.

What users think is going wrong?

You might be wondering how “carrier signal” is a hardware problem? Well, it often isn’t, but many users perceive an inability to pick up a signal as a device issue. In a larger sense, according to the survey, user behavior and misunderstandings are very often the cause of perceived hardware problems. In North America, for example, almost three-quarters (74%) of all smartphones returned for hardware issues were deemed NTF, or “no trouble found.” NTF return rates in Europe were 71%, while Asia NTF represented about half (50%) of the total, according to the survey.

Those are absurdly high numbers, and they point to lingering complexity in smartphones that continues to perplex users and cause problems for enterprises and carriers.

According to the survey, the high rate of NTF device issues can be particularly troublesome for enterprises: “The ability to quickly triage mobile device issues – be it legitimate or specious—will mitigate these impacts and deliver on the promise of mobile connectivity for businesses supporting employees’ smartphones, be they corporate-issued or BYOD.”

True enough, I suppose, but this isn’t really a problem enterprise users — or even carriers — can solve. It’s really up to the device makers to build products that are easy enough to use and understand that the people who use them won’t get so frustrated they’ll try to send them back.

According to the survey’s authors, Apple is doing a better job of this than its Android competitors. The survey said that “85 percent of the issues found came from Android devices” with only 15% coming from iOS devices. But those numbers don’t seem to account for vast differences in market share, not to mention the much lower price points of many Android devices, so I’d take that conclusion with a bucket of salt.

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