Android upgrade report card: Grading the manufacturers on KitKat

Android Upgrade Report Card: KitKat

Android upgrades are always a touchy issue. Thanks to the platform's open nature, manufacturers can modify the software in any way they see fit -- and that means it falls upon their shoulders to craft fresh updates with each OS release and get them out to existing devices.

Some manufacturers have gotten pretty good at the upgrade game, keeping customers in the loop about their progress and making post-sales support a priority. Other companies focus their attention elsewhere and continue to keep customers on hold and sometimes in the dark for long periods of time.

As a guy who maintains an evolving list of Android device upgrades, I see it all -- and now, it's time to put the data together and determine how well the various Android manufacturers are doing. This report card will focus on the Android 4.4 KitKat release, which became available to manufacturers just over three months ago, on October 31, 2013. The grades will be based primarily on each company's progress with its current flagship devices -- those that fall within the (for better or for worse) standard 18-month window for ongoing support.

So let's do this, shall we? Here's how the major Android device-makers are faring so far.

(Note: I won't be including Google Play Edition devices in any grade considerations, since those exist on a separate plane and are not indicative of a manufacturer's general approach to or performance with Android upgrades.)


Android Upgrade Report Card, KitKat: Motorola

No two ways about it: Motorola has absolutely been killing it when it comes to KitKat upgrades. The company started rolling out KitKat to its Moto X less than three weeks after the release dropped, 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.

The company has also been transparent with customers about its progress: Its upgrade support site provides ongoing updates on the upgrade status for all of its devices (including its pre-company-relaunch 2012 phones, which appear to be next in line for the KitKat treatment). And it's not only kept but actually beaten most of its promises so far.

We can only hope this trend continues once Lenovo has the reins.


Android Upgrade Report Card, KitKat: Google

I know, I know: Motorola stuff aside, Google isn't technically an Android device manufacturer. But since it's the one responsible for providing OS upgrades to its Nexus line of devices, it's only fair to include it in this list.

Google's Nexus devices come with the promise of near-instant upgrades -- and they usually get 'em, with rollouts typically starting within days of an OS release. This go-round, however, it took nearly a month for Google to get KitKat to many of its Nexus 4, Nexus 7, and Nexus 10 units -- which, in an unprecedented twist, actually put them behind some non-Nexus devices (see Motorola, above) in getting the upgrade.

In the grand scheme of things, though, we're talking about a pretty minor delay -- and one that was likely caused by some apparent last-minute bug fixes required for the devices. While it might not have been first out of the gate with KitKat upgrades, Google still did a commendable job of getting the software onto its devices in a timely (if a bit slower than its own usual standard) fashion.

(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.)


Android Upgrade Report Card, KitKat: HTC

HTC's been making a strong effort to step up its upgrade performance, and it shows: The company managed to get KitKat on its unlocked One model and the One Developer Edition in late November and then onto the regular European and Canadian versions of the phone in January.

HTC had promised to deliver KitKat to all of its One devices before the end of January -- an ambitious goal, and one it couldn't quite achieve. The Sprint model of the phone squeaked in with an upgrade starting on January 31. The Verizon model was a hair late, with a phased rollout beginning on February 6. The AT&T and T-Mobile models of the phone, meanwhile, are still waiting.

To the company's credit, it has been up-front and open with customers about its progress. HTC posted a public letter on January 29th explaining that it was in the "certification phase" with all North American carriers and that while it was missing its own original goal, it shouldn't be more than "one to two weeks" behind. That gives it one more day from today to catch up with its two remaining devices, but at this point, it's pretty clear the carriers are driving the last bit of delay.

We also have to consider that HTC decided it wouldn't bring KitKat to its One X+ phone, 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. That makes its abandonment difficult to excuse.


Android Upgrade Report Card, KitKat: Samsung

More than a quarter of a year after the release of KitKat, Samsung has yet to release any official information about its plans (or lack thereof) for upgrading its various phones and tablets -- including the high-profile Galaxy S4.

The company has reportedly sent a version of KitKat to a limited number of Note 3 devices in parts of Europe and Asia, for which it earns some credit -- but that's far from a widespread release. And Samsung's continued silence is the opposite of the transparent communication HTC and Motorola are conducting with their customers; as of now, the vast majority of Samsung device owners are still in the dark about if or when KitKat might make it into their hands.

A disappointing start for Android's most dominant manufacturer, to say the least.


Android Upgrade Report Card, KitKat: LG

LG has a pretty bad track record when it comes to Android upgrades, and unfortunately, the manufacturer isn't showing a heck of a lot of improvement with its KitKat progress thus far. User reports suggest some G2 devices in Korea started receiving the upgrade this month, but we're talking about an extremely limited partial release. LG has yet to announce any official details about if or when KitKat could reach the G2 anywhere else in the world -- or if or when it could reach any of its other devices, period.

(In Canada, LG reps reportedly told one publication that the G2 could receive KitKat late in the first quarter of 2014, but U.S.-based representatives with whom I've spoken have been unable to confirm any such official plans so far.)

Worse yet, the company is continuing to launch  and with no guarantee as to if or when upgrades will be provided.


Android Upgrade Report Card, KitKat: Sony

About a week after KitKat's release, Sony published a blog detailing its plans to upgrade five flagship devices to Android 4.4, which is certainly a positive step. But with no actual time frame for those upgrades to occur -- be it firm or even just general -- and no upgrades delivered within this first 14-week period, you can't give the company too great of a grade for its first-quarter-of-a-year KitKat efforts.


Android Upgrade Report Card, KitKat: Asus

Asus has traditionally been pretty good about Android upgrades, but with the first quarter of KitKat, the company has really dropped the ball. After weeks of radio silence, Asus told me in early December that it'd have details on which devices it intends to upgrade within a "couple of weeks." The company has issued no additional information since that time.

Asus did tell me in general terms that it expects to have "several devices" receiving Android 4.4 upgrades within the first quarter of 2014, which is great -- but until we have some firm and specific promises (or, you know, some actual observable progress), we have nothing upon which to base any form of a non-failing grade.


Android Upgrade Report Card, KitKat: Acer

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?

This is only the beginning

Let's be clear about one thing: These are not final grades. We may be a few months into KitKat's existence, but we're anything but finished with its spread into the world.

These grades reflect the various companies' performance with KitKat upgrades on their flagship devices thus far -- during these first few months. But while there's certainly a fair amount of disappointment in the early marks, the class isn't over yet.

Android Evolution

In the grand scheme of things, the variance 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. I'll revisit things in another few months to see how the manufacturers are faring as we get further along into KitKat's lifetime. With any luck, we'll have more rollouts and fewer frustrating grades by then.

[UPDATE: Android upgrade report card: KitKat, six months later]

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In the meantime, for the latest upgrade info on any Android device, you can always check my master Android 4.4 upgrade list. It's constantly kept up to date with the latest reliable info available for all phones and tablets.

[SEE ALSO: It's time to rethink the Android upgrade standard]

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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