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How Sprint tests its phones

CNET has often wondered why it takes some phones to go on sale so long after a carrier announces them. A recent visit to Sprint's testing labs gave us the answer.

Here are typical factors that Sprint might consider when planning its product portfolio. LTE is here only as an example as Sprint has not announced any LTE plans. Kent German/CNET

When carriers announce exciting new phones, rarely do they also reveal exactly when that new handset will go on sale. We usually hear promises like "summer" or "second half of the year" and then we wait for the actual release date to drop. More often than not, it can take a while and cell phone fans and tech journalists begin to get impatient. "Just what's taking so long?" we wonder. Or even worse, "Could there be something wrong with the phone?"

Of course, you can't really blame us for always wanting the next best thing. Yet, this week I learned that perhaps I could be just a bit more patient. And I owe that realization to a two-day visit to Sprint's headquarters and testing labs in Overland Park, Kans. Though I had been to Sprint's "campus" near Kansas City, Mo. before--and trust me that it really looks like a college--this was the first time I saw something outside of a conference room. I joined CNET News Senior Writer Roger Cheng and a small group of reporters for briefings with company executives, including CEO Dan Hesse, and a behind-the-scenes tour of the painstakingly thorough process that Sprint uses to evaluate new devices and ready them for its network.

Filling a slot
It all begins as Sprint reviews its product portfolio and identifies an open "slot" for a certain type of device. This slot could call for just about anything, from a simple messaging handset to a powerful smartphone. The carrier then relays the need to manufacturers, who will in turn offer candidate devices. Meetings with manufacturers can take place throughout the year, but they always happen at big technology trade show like CES or CTIA.

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Building the device
Once it selects a device for the portfolio, Sprint then will work with the manufacturer on design and testing. As the candidate device is just a prototype at this early stage, it will undergo many external and internal changes before it's unveiled to the world and sent to stores. Heck, at this point the phone may not even turn on. The entire process can take anywhere from one year to 18 months, during which thousands of tests are run by both parties. The manufacturer typically focuses on the durability of the hardware and the reliability of the software, while Sprint tests network compatibility, audio quality, battery life, and the performance of features like GPS, streaming video, and multimedia.

Running the tests
As the above slideshow will demonstrate, there's a lot to do and it can take as little as a few weeks or as long as a few months. As Ben Bellinder, Sprint's handset director, reminded us, a typical smartphone has millions of lines of code and 1,000 components from 150 suppliers. Ensuring that all of those parts work efficiently and properly on Sprint's network is what Bellinder's team hopes to accomplish. So, go ahead and continue to clamor for those new devices. But now you might understand why it can take so long.