Galaxy S7 Owners Fuming Over Locked Bootloader

Samsung's Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge may be getting rave reviews, but one feature could deter power users from opting for the new flagships. Disappointed T-Mobile customers are reporting that their new Galaxy handsets come with locked bootloaders, and almost 900 of them have already signed a petition to unlock the devices.

What on earth is a locked bootloader, and why does it have some people upset? Here's a quick breakdown.

MORE: A Complete Guide to the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge

What is a bootloader and what can I do with it?

A bootloader is the program that starts running once you turn your phone on, and it launches the operating system, such as iOS or Android. You'll recognize this as the screen with the Apple or Android logo that stays for a few seconds after you switch your device on. Being able to access this means you can, with the right kind of know-how, potentially change the operating platform.

This is important to power users or developers, who sometimes customize Android or other open-source software, and want to implement their own features into their devices. Locked bootloaders can also prevent rooting, which gives you access to internal properties such as CPU and scrolling speed. It's like buying a car and being locked out of the hood and not allowed to modify it or swap out components for optimal performance. The petition calling on Samsung and T-Mobile to unlock the S7 and S7 Edge loaders contends this "cripples the device."

Why would people lock a bootloader?

While it may frustrate some users, carriers and device makers have plenty of reasons to restrict access, with security as the biggest one. Installing unverified software on your phone could make it more susceptible to trojans or other exploits, since the phone maker has not had the chance to check for such vulnerabilities.

Carriers may opt to lock bootloaders to protect network performance, since open access to them can affect how the phone connects with the network. In 2012, Verizon told the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that the "addition of unapproved software could also negatively impact the wireless experience for other customers."

What does T-Mobile say?

After being tweeted at by vexed customers, T-Mobile CEO John Legere said the issue was "under Samsung's control, but my engineers are asking them for a solution that they can support." It appears that the Uncarrier, which has traditionally kept its devices open, had very little say in the matter.

However, Legere's statement should give its customers some hope that the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge might be freed in the future, depending on the solution the company's engineers work out with Samsung.

Traditionally, AT&T and Verizon have been known to be more restrictive than T-Mobile and Sprint, with the two larger carriers locking their devices more often than the latter two do. However, Tech Times reports that some AT&T variants of the new Galaxy devices have unlocked bootloaders. It's not yet clear whether the phones are similarly open on other carriers. We've reached out to Samsung on this issue and will update the story when the company responds.

After this story was published, Samsung's head of mobile product reviews Philip Berne tweeted in response to the post, saying that bootloaders have always been "locked by default, even on Nexus." This is contrary to the Tech Times report that suggests AT&T S7 devices have unlocked bootloaders, as well as TmoNews' observation that "some past Android flagships on T-Mobile have come with unlockable bootloaders."

Berne may simply be referring to the fact that no manufacturer makes a phone that has a mode to allow the user to unlock the bootloader. To do that, most owners would have to use third-party means that in many cases would void the manufacturer warranty.

Are you one of the people upset at the locked bootloaders? Or do you prefer leaving your device alone? Share your thoughts in our forums.

Cherlynn Low

Cherlynn is Deputy Editor, Reviews at Engadget and also leads the site's Google reporting. She graduated with a Master’s in Journalism from Columbia University before joining Tom's Guide and its sister site LaptopMag as a staff writer, where she covered wearables, cameras, laptops, computers and smartphones, among many other subjects.