All right, gang: With Google's still-pseudonymous Android "N" release on the horizon, it's time to start thinking about upgrades -- specifically, which manufacturers you can actually trust to provide 'em in a timely and reliable manner.
This is the prime time to think about that always-loaded topic. We've just hit the point where we're six months past the launch of the most recent major Android release, Android 6.0 Marshmallow -- and that gives us an ideal opportunity to step back and look at the big picture of how the various device-makers are faring when it comes to getting the software into consumers' hands.
Now, let's be fair: No one can predict the future. And a company's priorities can certainly evolve over time. But looking at a manufacturer's current performance with upgrades can give you a good general idea of how it tends to approach the area and what kind of commitment it tends to have to ongoing support.
That sort of knowledge is invaluable ammo when it comes to future Android purchasing decisions. The platform's open nature means manufacturers (and anyone else) can modify the software as they see fit -- and that, of course, means it inevitably falls upon each company's shoulders to process each OS update and roll it out to its own devices.
And while Google's ongoing deconstruction of Android and introduction of standalone monthly security patches has helped make OS upgrades less all-important than they once were, there are still significant foundational improvements that only a full OS upgrade can provide. Timely ongoing upgrades aren't everything, by any means -- but they are without a doubt a significant and valid factor to consider.
So arm yourself with knowledge: It's time to see who's making the grade and who's coming up short.
(Feel free to read over the following box if you're interested in the nitty-gritty of how these grades were calculated -- or just jump down to the grades if you want to get right to the good stuff.)
(One last side note: You may notice that Sony, which has been present in past report cards, is missing from this year's analysis. That's because Sony is no longer an even remotely relevant player in the U.S. smartphone market, and so it no longer made sense to treat it as such and include it in this lineup. BlackBerry, on the other hand, is a major player making a major play for American consumers, and so I've added it into the mix in order to provide important perspective for potential consumers about its handling of OS upgrades. Most of the other newer niche players are focusing on the budget realm in the States as of now, meanwhile, and consequently are not included in this flagship-focused report.)
- Length of time for upgrade to reach current flagship: 0 days (60/60 points)
- Length of time for upgrade to reach previous-gen flagship: 0 days (30/30 points)
- Communication: Mediocre (5/10 points)
Google isn't technically an Android smartphone manufacturer, but as the driving force behind the Nexus line of devices and the sole provider of upgrades for those devices, it serves the same practical role for the purposes of this list.
Google is also a bit unusual in that its current flagships at the time of Marshmallow's debut -- the Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P -- actually shipped with Android 6.0 already loaded. Since that's a core benefit of buying a current Nexus device, I thought it made sense to consider that a "zero day" upgrade for our purposes.
At least some owners of Google's previous-gen flagship, 2014's Nexus 6, started receiving the Android 6.0 upgrade on October 5th -- the same day the software was officially released. Google infamously rolls out updates "in waves," which means some people end up waiting days or even weeks longer than others -- a deliberate process designed to minimize the risk of unexpected bugs or issues affecting large groups of users before they can be identified and addressed -- but the start of a rollout is what we consider for our measuring purposes.
The Nexus 6 was also a bit unusual (for a Nexus device) in that it was sold via carriers in addition to being sold directly from Google -- something that invariably leads to some level of complication and delay. Not surprisingly, many users with carrier-specific variants of the phone ended up waiting an extra month or two to get the Marshmallow update.
The real issue there -- and it's one we've seen with Google's rollouts before, both with and without carriers present as a complicating factor -- is that Google's communication could stand to be better. Following its initial announcement of a general rollout beginning for Nexus devices, Google didn't provide much else in terms of official info about its process. That means those users who were waiting were essentially in the dark, with no sign of the upgrade and no idea what was going on or how long the wait might be.
Between its less-than-stellar communication and the frustrations that sometimes result from its staged rollout process, Google's Nexus devices are by no means perfect when it comes to OS upgrades. They are, however, still without question the most reliable way to receive ongoing updates in a timely, if not always immediate, manner.
- Length of time for upgrade to reach current flagship: 80 days (49.2/60 points)
- Length of time for upgrade to reach previous-gen flagship: 59 days (26.7/30 points)
- Communication: Excellent (10/10 points)
HTC's story with Marshmallow is eerily similar to its story with Lollipop last year -- which is to say that it's doing pretty darn well and continuing to make impressive improvements to its upgrade delivery time. Once again, though, there's still room for the company to get better.
HTC's unlocked version of its One M9 -- the current flagship at the time of Lollipop's release -- started to receive Android 6.0 on December 23. Though the carrier-connected models of the device didn't start their rollouts until early February (just like last year), the unlocked M9 was readily available for purchase from HTC in the States and so its rollout counts as the first time the software became available to U.S. consumers. (Given the option, going with a carrier-connected phone model is rarely the best choice for speedy OS upgrades -- or maximum financial value.)
The previous-gen flagship, the One M8, somehow fared even better than its younger brother: The unlocked model of that phone (which was also available for direct sale to U.S. consumers) started to receive Android 6.0 on December 2, just under two months after Marshmallow's release.
As we've come to expect as of late, HTC's communication was outstanding all throughout the process. The company has established a detailed and frequently updated software update status page on which you can see the exact state of progress for any specific model and variation and can also get a clear overview of what steps are involved with every part of the process. In addition to maintaining that resource, HTC does a commendable job of providing regular updates on its progress for all models via Twitter.
While its turnaround time could stand to be faster, the fact that HTC continuously keeps its customers in the loop on what exactly's happening, why things are being delayed when they are, and when they'll get back on track goes a long way in making the process feel tolerable.
It's safe to say that HTC has firmly established itself as the second-only-to-Nexus manufacturer of choice for reliable OS upgrades -- a valuable distinction to hold for a company in its position. If it can keep up the trend of speeding up its process more with every passing year, it'll solidify that standing and make second place seem like even less of a compromise.
- Length of time for upgrade to reach current flagship: 80 days (49.2/60 points)
- Length of time for upgrade to reach previous-gen flagship: 135 days (21.6/30 points)
- Communication: Poor (0/10 points)
Just like it did with the 5.0 update last year, LG actually got Android 6.0 out to some of its flagship phones quite quickly this go-round. Quickly enough, in fact, to serve as fodder for marketing-friendly bragging rights (again) about being the "first" to roll out the software. But rushing out Marshmallow in what was effectively a small-scale single-country soak test isn't the same as actually getting it into the hands of most consumers (or into the hands of any consumers in the U.S., which is what we're measuring).
Marshmallow first hit the G4 in the States on December 23, when the Sprint model of the phone saw its rollout begin. (The update was technically announced on the 17th, but the first user reports of delivery didn't happen until a few days later.) T-Mobile's model trailed in a good while after that, in early February, followed soon by AT&T and Verizon's versions of the phone. LG doesn't sell unlocked versions of its phones in the U.S., so there's no carrier-free option available to speed things up.
The previous-gen G3, meanwhile, got its taste of Lollipop in the States starting on February 16 with the Verizon model. (Other carrier models are still waiting.)
Aside from the poky previous-gen flagship performance, what hurts LG the most is its complete and utter lack of communication: Following its self-serving "Hey, look what we did in Poland!" press release, LG stayed mum throughout its entire upgrade process -- providing no real information to its customers about the state of its rollout or when the software might reach different devices.
All in all, it's not a situation worth celebrating. And unfortunately, things only get worse -- much worse -- from here.