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Why—and how—to upgrade cell-phone software

Consumer Reports News: February 03, 2009 05:08 PM

As cell phones increasingly resemble pocket computers, with robust operating systems to support sophisticated applications, it's become more important than ever to update their software, much as you do for your PC.

Some software updates are patches to address problems. A recent case in point: Some of our online user reviews (available to subscribers) dinged the BlackBerry Storm soon after it launched in November, complaining that "the screen would not respond to touch commands, and would freeze up" and "it takes too long for the screen to switch." We, too, encountered such problems when we began testing and Rating the Blackberry Storm (available to subscribers). But the problems all but disappeared when we downloaded a software patch from Verizon, which became available a few weeks after the phone's release.

An older example: The battery-life problems with the iPhone 3G, which were addressed by Apple via a software update within days of the phone hitting the market.

However, software updates aren't only to remedy problems. Manufacturers and carriers also use them to add new cell phone features or capabilities. For example, Apple recently enabled the iPhone to download iTunes songs over the cell network, so customers can now get their music fix anytime, not just when they're in range of a Wi-Fi hotspot. And this spring, RIM will open its own download site exclusively for BlackBerry users, which will certainly require a system update.

Updating software is simple on an iPhone; iTunes checks for, and prompts you to download, any updates to the phone’s software every time you sync the device with your computer. And iPhone apps like Pandora and Documents to Go will often "ping" your iPhone when they have updates.

On other phones, you'll need to take a more proactive approach to updating:

On your cell phone. Look under the settings menu for an update option, and follow the instructions. Make sure you're in a good reception area to ensure the file downloads are fast and error-free.

On the Web. Once a month, visit your carrier's Web site and look up your phone—even if you aren't experiencing problems. You may also discover new features or learn how to use the ones you know more effectively.

If these approaches are too much for you, call customer service for the carrier. Or simply bring your phone to one of the carrier's stores and ask for help.

—Mike Gikas

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