Phones and smartwatches are expensive – we shouldn't be their beta testers

Annoyed man with phone
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

It’s becoming a depressingly familiar story: you pre-order a new phone or wearable on the strength of its specs, only to learn that one of its most interesting perks will be unavailable when you pull it out of its packaging.

Case in point: Samsung has just received the green light to enable the blood pressure monitor on the Galaxy Watch Active 2, seven months after users first started strapping it around their wrists.

The monitor still isn’t actually useable – hopefully it'll be unlocked soon, but so far it’s only approved for use in South Korea.

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2

(Image credit: Future)

This often seems to happen with watches and phones that need approval as medical devices. Shipping devices before getting approval might be a play to win over the authorities and get a faster decision ('See, it works, approve it!') but it's at customers' expensive.

It’s a similar story with the Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2’s electrocardiogram (ECG) feature. The hardware is there, and was originally due to be enabled in the first quarter of 2020, but Samsung has now confirmed it’s dropped behind schedule. It’s enough to make early adopters' blood boil.

The waiting game

Samsung is far from the only culprit here. The Fitbit Versa, Versa 2, Versa Lite, Ionic and Charge 3 were all equipped with an SP02 (estimated blood oxygen saturation) sensor at launch.

It's a great tool that could help detect potentially dangerous sleep apnea, but it wasn't activated until January 2020 when the company finally received clearance from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

That means Versa owners were waiting well over a year to use a sensor they’d paid for. Considering the device cost $199.99 / £199.99 / AU$299.99 at launch, that’s a pretty rough deal.

Apple Watch

(Image credit: Apple)

Sticking with matters of the heart, the 2019 Apple Event featured touching videos from people who credited the Apple Watch’s ECG sensor with alerting them to potentially life-threatening medical conditions. However at launch, that feature was only available in the US.

Apple has since sought and received approval to enable it in many more countries, but it’s disappointing that one of the world’s biggest tech companies didn’t look beyond its home country earlier – especially considering the Watch 4’s launch price of $399 / £399 / AU$599. It was released on the same date globally; users outside the US just had to bide their time.

Yes, getting medical devices signed off takes time, but shouldn't it be factored into the production and release schedule earlier so users aren't left with something that fails to live up to expectations – and the ambitions of its designers?

Testing times

It’s not just medical tech, though. All phones in the iPhone 11 series apparently have the hardware necessary for two-way wireless charging (which would allow you to use it to power up your Apple Watch or AirPods), but the feature was disabled before the phone hit shelves – possible due to the issues that led to it canning the AirPower wireless charging mat.

It’s great that companies continue to support their products with new tools and features in software updates months and years after release, but it’s disappointing when an important hardware function is unusable at launch.

That’s especially true when, as one of my colleagues wrote recently, smartphones have a particularly short life. Their makers often nudge you towards upgrading after just a couple of years – if they don’t end support for older devices entirely.

Google Pixel 3a XL

(Image credit: Future)

The Google Pixel 3’s Night Sight camera mode, a cool software feature that helps you take clearer pictures in low light, was touted at the phone’s release, but wasn’t available to use until a month later.

That might not sound like much, but considering Google stopped issuing security updates for the original Pixel just three years after it launched, any may well abandon the Pixel 3 just as fast, it’s pretty disappointing.

If you’ll only be able to use a phone for three years, it doesn’t seem unfair to expect to have access to its full feature set for that entire time.

So what can we do about it? Well, apart from voting with your wallet and refusing to support companies that make you their beta tester, the best thing is to stay informed if you've got your eye on an upcoming watch or phone, it's a good idea to keep a watchful eye out for any news about its features (or potential lack thereof).

In addition to checking TechRadar's news channel regularly, setting up a Google Alert for the product name means you'll receive a daily email digest of stories related to your future purchase, including any murmurings about delays.

Holding fire until the first reviews appear is a good idea, too. It might mean holding out a few days before placing your order, but that's better than paying for a set of sensors and monitors, then waiting months to use them.

Cat Ellis

Cat is the editor of TechRadar's sister site Advnture. She’s a UK Athletics qualified run leader, and in her spare time enjoys nothing more than lacing up her shoes and hitting the roads and trails (the muddier, the better)