One of the biggest selling points of Google's new Galaxy S4 and HTC One Google Play Edition devices -- stock Android software aside -- is the promise that the phones will follow in the footsteps of Nexus devices and receive fast OS upgrades in the future.
But wait a minute: What exactly has Google promised in that regard? When you start trying to find a firm answer to that question, you realize it's not completely clear.
From the get-go, Google's been saying these new devices will receive future upgrades "quickly." Within the world of Android, though, "quickly" is a relative term; "quickly" could mean a phone will get an upgrade alongside the current Nexus devices, within days of the software's release. It could mean it'll get an upgrade three weeks after Nexus rollouts wrap up. Or it could mean it'll get an upgrade a full month later. Any of those definitions could be interpreted as "quickly" compared to the wait for upgrades on many non-Nexus Android devices.
The first big question we need to address is who controls the upgrades -- and that answer is surprisingly complex. When HTC first announced the One Play Edition device last month, the company said the following:
Out of the box, this special edition HTC One will run Android 4.2.2 with subsequent software updates provided by Google.
Samsung, for its part, has stayed mum on the matter. And the Google Play Store description of the phones just says the devices "automatically receive updates of the latest Android software," which doesn't really tell us much of anything.
I reached out to Google to ask what was going on -- who specifically would provide upgrades to the Google Play Edition devices and how their timing would work compared to the regular Nexus update rollouts. A Google spokesperson told me the following:
We will be working very closely with Samsung and HTC on future software updates for these devices and they will receive software updates shortly after a new version is released.
So, yeah -- all considered, we're basically left with more questions than answers.
What we can say is this: It sounds like both the manufacturers and Google will be involved in the devices' upgrades in some capacity. It sounds like the upgrades will not take place as part of the exclusively-Google-managed instant Nexus rollouts but should happen sometime "soon" after a new Android version is released. (For the techies among us, this all lines up with what the crew at AnandTech.com discovered about the nature of the kernels in the new Play Edition devices.)
In other words, if you're the kind of person who wants an OS upgrade within days of the software's debut, you'd be taking a gamble with these phones. The devices will probably (hopefully?) get upgrades before most other Android devices, but at this point, there's no specific guarantee as to precisely when or how that will occur.
Is that a deal-breaker? For most people, probably not. For most people, even a vague promise of a "quick" Android upgrade is more than enough. But for the type of people who are going to be interested in these particular phones -- many of whom are bound to be Android enthusiasts -- the ambiguity of the devices' upgrade situation is certainly something to consider.
If you want a guarantee of immediate OS upgrades, unlocked Nexus devices remain the sole option for that explicit assurance. The Google Play Edition phones should get upgrades "quickly," relatively speaking -- but the process is unclear and untested, and what "quickly" means is still open to interpretation.