When you buy an Android device, you want to know it's going to get reasonably prompt software updates into the future. So which manufacturers actually deliver on Android upgrades -- and which put their existing customers on the backburner?
I've been keeping track of Android upgrade progress for years now. Back in February, I compiled my data on Android 4.4 to create an Android upgrade report card based on the major manufacturers' efforts three months into KitKat's release.
We're now six full months past the launch of KitKat, so it's time to revisit the subject and see how things have evolved. The past may not always dictate the future, but looking at a company's current performance can certainly give you a general idea of how it tends to approach upgrades and what kind of customer commitment it has.
So grab some red ink and let's do this: Time to see who's making the grade and who's coming up short.
(Note: These grades are based primarily on each company's progress with its current flagship devices -- those that fall within the standard 18-month window for ongoing support. Google Play Edition devices are not factored into any scores, since those exist on a separate plane and are not indicative of a manufacturer's general approach to or performance with Android upgrades.)
Motorola's rock-solid score from the first KitKat report card carries over to this second round -- and why shouldn't it? Moto got KitKat out to its current flagship, the Moto X, less than three weeks after the software's arrival, beating even some Nexus devices to the punch. Its lower-end Moto G saw the update a month later, and its 2013 Droid phones -- which have more UI modifications than their non-Verizon-branded cousins -- got their upgrades about a month after that.
Moto's still committed to providing Android 4.4 to many of its older devices, too, including several phones that came out just shy of two years before KitKat's release. And the company's being transparent with customers about its progress, with an upgrade support site that provides current info on where all of its devices stand.
All eyes are on you now, Lenovo. Don't screw this up.
Google's grade is also the same now as it was at the three-month mark. The company -- which, while technically not an Android device manufacturer, is responsible for providing OS upgrades to its Nexus line of devices -- delivered KitKat to many of its Nexus 4, Nexus 7, and Nexus 10 units just under a month after the software's release. In a previously-unheard-of twist, that actually put them behind some non-Nexus devices in getting the upgrade.
It was still a respectably fast rollout, though, and earns Google good -- if not its usual head-of-the-class level -- marks.
(Note: A lot of people were upset about the lack of KitKat support for the Galaxy Nexus -- and understandably so. Since the phone falls outside of the aforementioned 18-month window, however, it doesn't factor into Google's grade. One could argue that the 18-month window is a silly standard, and I'd agree -- but that's another discussion for another time and place.)
Samsung didn't fare too well in my first KitKat report card, but it's made some meaningful progress since then. The company did take nearly four months just to tell its customers which devices it intended to upgrade -- and even then, the info it shared was decidedly vague, with not so much as a general time frame commitment for any of its products -- but little by little, it's been getting rollouts going.
Sammy started sending KitKat to Galaxy S4 owners in mid-February and continuing on through late April (with specific timing depending on the country and carrier). It took the company four to five months to get KitKat to most of its Note 3 customers, meanwhile -- though Verizon-based users are still waiting -- and just shy of six months to deliver the software to users of its flagship Note 10.1 2014 tablet. Right at the six-month mark -- today, in fact -- the first rollout for 2012's Galaxy S III was announced via Sprint (though the rollout doesn't appear to have actually begun as of yet).
Samsung has committed to upgrading a slew of other older devices, including the Galaxy Note II flagship, but has offered no estimates yet for when those upgrades might occur.
The bottom line: Samsung's not going to set any records for promptness, and it's anything but communicative -- but if you don't mind the waiting and the uncertainty, it tends to do a decent job at getting its devices upgraded. Eventually.
HTC says it wants to make reliable upgrades a priority, and with its primary flagship, at least, it's doing a reasonably good job at showing us it's serious. The company got KitKat onto the unlocked model of its 2013 flagship One phone (along with its One Developer Edition) in late November, just about a month after the software's release, and then onto European and Canadian versions of the phone in January.
Versions of the One in the U.S. and U.K., meanwhile, received KitKat upgrades starting in late January and continuing into late February. The company's Verizon-based Droid DNA, however -- which, to be fair, is a Verizon phone -- didn't receive its KitKat upgrade until late April. (Flagships aside, HTC also brought KitKat to its One Mini between February and March and its One Max between February and April, with specific timing depending on the country and carrier.)
We also have to consider that HTC determined it wouldn't bring KitKat to its One X+, an updated version of its 2012 flagship that launched in mid-November 2012. While the original One X device falls within a few days of the "disappointing but justifiable" 18-month-window category, the One X+ had been out for less than a year when KitKat arrived. HTC has said the decision was unavoidable due to a lack of support from Nvidia, which produced the X+'s processor -- but regardless of who's to blame, the phone ultimately got left behind.
On the plus side, HTC has promised to provide ongoing upgrades to all North American flagship phones for a full two years from their release date moving forward, making it the only major manufacturer to offer that type of explicit guarantee. Like Motorola, the company has also been transparent and communicative with customers about its upgrade progress.
After a slow start to KitKat upgrades, LG is finally making some progress in getting upgrades out to its devices. The company started shipping KitKat to G2 users in late February and continuing on through mid-April (with specific timing depending on the country and carrier). It took nearly six months to get the software to its flagship G Pad 8.3 tablet, meanwhile, as well as to its more recent G Flex phone.
Throughout it all, LG has said nary a word to its customers about what's going on or if/when an upgrade might reach their devices -- and aside from owners of those aforementioned products, most LG customers are still completely in the dark. A little communication would go a long way in helping customers feel like they aren't abandoned.
Sony provided some vague info about upgrades soon after KitKat's release, but the company took nearly five months to actually deliver its first KitKat upgrades.
In late March, it provided the upgrade to three of its phones -- the Xperia Z1, Xperia Z1 Compact, and Xperia Z Ultra -- but it still hasn't come through with an upgrade for its Xperia Z, Tablet Z, or Xperia ZL, all of which were initially slated to be in the "first wave" of updates the company had promised.
Sony's current U.S. flagship, the Xperia Z1S, is also still on Jelly Bean with no official info as to if or when it'll be upgraded.
Sony has promised eventual KitKat upgrades for a variety of other devices, but its poky progress isn't earning it any gold stars.
No way around it: Asus has really dropped the ball when it comes to KitKat upgrades. The company took nearly four months just to release any firm info about its plans -- and even then, it focused only on its PadFone devices, neglecting to address its various Android tablets. And six months later, we're still waiting for upgrades to start showing up.
At the three-month mark, communication counted for something. But come on: Six months after an OS release, we should be seeing some measurable amount of action.
No change here: Acer may not be a huge presence in the Android ecosystem, but the company does release a decent number of tablets -- and it determined that "most" of those devices would receive only "maintenance updates on Jelly Bean" from this point forward while it works on "introducing new Android tablets based on KitKat in 2014."
What more can you say?
Some closing thoughts
Let's end with a little perspective, shall we? To quote a wise and incredibly handsome writer I know:
In the grand scheme of things, the variance in upgrade timing is an annoying but inevitable side effort of Android's open nature. That open nature can be both a blessing and a curse: It opens the door to diversity and innovation, with the possibility of interesting takes on the platform both from manufacturers (on a hardware and software level) and from after-market groups like Cyanogen. With that freedom, though, you do lose out on the uniformity and control you see in a locked-down platform like iOS. For better and for worse, diversity is a core part of Android's essence.
And the truth is that Android presents you with a lot of choices. If quick and regular upgrades are important to you, you can get them; you just have to choose the type of phone -- Nexus, Google Play Edition, or, provided that Lenovo keeps up with Motorola's current path, Moto -- that delivers that type of experience. Other phones have their individual benefits, but as we've seen over the years, a guarantee of timely upgrades is not necessarily among them.
Of course, that shouldn't give manufacturers the excuse to keep customers in the dark for months while their flagship phones sit idle. That's why I track this data and do these analyses, so you can know what's really going on and gauge what type of experience each manufacturer is committed to providing.
Ultimately, we can't control what manufacturers do or how much emphasis they place on timely software support. All we can do is educate ourselves on how the various companies tend to approach Android upgrades -- then decide how much that factor matters to us and make our purchasing decisions accordingly.
If you're among those still waiting, the one reassurance I can give you is that I'll be here to keep tabs on your device's status. You can always find the latest upgrade info for any phone or tablet in my master Android 4.4 upgrade list. It's constantly kept up to date with the latest reliable info available.