Hard to believe, but it's been half a year since Lollipop first entered our lives.
Google's Android 5.0 OS officially launched last November, and it's slowly but surely been making its way to devices ever since. For many of us, of course, the key word there is "slowly."
Let's face it: Android upgrades are always a contentious topic. With the platform's open nature, manufacturers (along with anyone else) can modify the software as they see fit -- and that means it inevitably falls upon their shoulders to process each OS update and roll it out to their devices. That approach certainly has its share of positives, but it also means upgrade timing is anything but consistent across the platform.
That's why I like to track how each manufacturer does from one release to the next and let you know how the various players are performing when it comes to Android upgrade reliability. Prompt OS upgrades aren't everything, but they're absolutely one factor to consider in any device-purchasing decision. And while the past may not always dictate the future, looking at a company's current performance can give you a general idea of how it tends to approach upgrades and what kind of commitment it has to ongoing customer support.
So grab your favorite red pen, and let's do this: 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.)
- Length of time for upgrade to reach current flagship: 0 days (60/60 points)
- Length of time for upgrade to reach previous-gen flagship: 14 days (30/30 points)
- Communication: Mediocre (5/10 points)
Google isn't technically an Android 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 flagship at the time of Lollipop's debut -- the Nexus 6 -- actually shipped with Android 5.0 already loaded. Since that's the main benefit of buying a current Nexus device, I thought it made sense to consider that a "zero day" upgrade for our purposes.
Owners of Google's previous-gen flagship, meanwhile -- the Nexus 5 -- started receiving the Android 5.0 upgrade on November 17, putting it right on the edge of our 14-day A+ window and giving Google a top-notch score across the upgrade spectrum.
Google's communication throughout the upgrade process, however, could stand to be better: The company announced a broad rollout of Android 5.0 for "most Nexus devices" on November 12 -- but while the two most recent Nexus phones received the software fairly quickly, things didn't go so smoothly for everyone. Owners of some Nexus tablets, for instance, were left waiting in the dark for months with no sign of the upgrade and no word from Google as to what was going on.
(It's a feeling that's now familiar to owners of the flagship Lollipop tablet: The Android 5.1 maintenance upgrade was announced in early March and yet didn't reach the Nexus 9 until a couple of weeks ago -- with not a word said that whole time about what was happening or when the upgrade might arrive. That doesn't factor into this particular analysis, which is focused specifically on the Android 5.0 upgrade, but it's another example of Google's lack of ongoing communication in these sorts of situations.)
Between its mediocre communication and the frustrations that sometimes result from its "staged rollout" process -- in which a subset of device owners receives an upgrade immediately while other users don't get the software until days or weeks later -- Google's Nexus devices are by no means perfect or frustration-free when it comes to OS upgrades. They are, however, still without question the most reliable way to receive ongoing Android upgrades in a timely, if not always immediate, manner.
- Length of time for upgrade to reach current flagship: 71 days (51.6/60 points)
- Length of time for upgrade to reach previous-gen flagship: 94 days (23.7/30 points)
- Communication: Excellent (10/10 points)
HTC has made great strides in its upgrade reliability over the last couple of years, and its performance with Lollipop reflects that trend. But make no mistake about: There's still room for improvement.
HTC's unlocked version of its One (M8) -- the current flagship at the time of Lollipop's release -- started to receive Android 5.0 on January 13. Though the carrier-connected models of the device didn't start their rollouts until early February, the unlocked M8 was readily available for purchase from HTC in the States, 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 for maximum financial value.)
The previous-gen flagship, the One (M7), wasn't far behind: Both the unlocked model of the phone and the Sprint-connected model started to receive Android 5.0 on February 5.
Notably, HTC's communication was outstanding all throughout the process. The company has established a detailed and frequently updated software update status page and provides regular updates on its progress through its blog and through social media as well. While the company doesn't always meet its goals -- like its promise to get Lollipop onto all M8 and M7 models within 90 days of the software's release -- the fact that it continuously keeps its customers in the loop on what exactly's happening, why things are being delayed, and when they'll get back on track goes a long way in making the process feel tolerable.
Add in the fact that HTC is still the only Android device-maker to answer my call for a full two years of guaranteed upgrade support for flagship phones -- as opposed to the silly and rather arbitrary 18-month standard used by most manufacturers -- and the company is doing an admirable all-around job at the upgrade game.
If it can just manage to speed up its turnaround time a little, it'll be a true force to be reckoned with.
- Length of time for upgrade to reach current flagship: 99 days (47.4/60 points)
- Length of time for upgrade to reach previous-gen flagship: 147 days (20.7/30 points)
- Communication: Poor (0/10 points)
LG has traditionally been terrible when it comes to Android upgrade reliability, and while the company showed some signs of progress with Lollipop, its efforts still leave something to be desired.
To its credit, LG did get Android 5.0 out to some of its flagship devices -- the G3, at the time of Lollipop's release -- very quickly. Quickly enough, in fact, to serve as fodder for bragging rights about being the "first" to roll out the software. But rushing Lollipop out in what was effectively a small-scale soak test isn't the same as actually getting it into the hands of most consumers.
Lollipop first hit the G3 in the States on February 10, when the AT&T model of the phone saw its rollout begin. Sprint followed a few days later, while T-Mobile trailed behind in late March and Verizon trickled in in mid-April. 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 G2, meanwhile, got its taste of Lollipop in the States starting on March 30 with the Verizon model.
Aside from its initial "Hey guys, look what we did!" press release, LG stayed mum throughout the upgrade process -- providing no information to consumers about the state of the rollout, which devices would receive the software, or when the software might reach different models.
- Length of time for upgrade to reach current flagship: 147 days (41.4/60 points)
- Length of time for upgrade to reach previous-gen flagship: 155 days (19.8/30 points)
- Communication: Fair (6/10)
Sony effectively has a dual set of flagships with its Xperia Z3 and Xperia Z3 Compact. The company made it easy, though: Both phones got Lollipop at the same exact time, with the software hitting the unlocked models (which are sold to U.S. consumers via Sony's website) starting March 30.
The T-Mobile-connected version of the Z3 hasn't been so lucky: It's still waiting for Android 5.0 today, in mid-May, which is pretty sad. (It's listed as being in the midst of the carrier's "certification process testing" as of this writing.) The same applies to the custom Verizon variation of the device, the Xperia Z3v.
Sony's previous-gen Xperia Z2, meanwhile, started to receive Lollipop on April 7.
When it comes to communication, Sony seems to say a lot: The company posts a fair number of blogs about its plans and progress, which is a good thing. But much of the info it provides is vague and non-committal, and large gaps of time go by without any updates. Lots of devices end up being omitted from the discussion along the way, too, like the aforementioned T-Mobile Z3 and Verizon Z3v.
But communication aside, there's just no getting around the fact that for current flagship phones in particular -- ones that run close to stock Google Android software, at that -- Sony takes an astonishingly long time to get its upgrades out. It's something the company has struggled with since the start, and it continues to be a perplexing issue with its otherwise accomplished devices.
- Length of time for upgrade to reach current flagship: 91 days (47.4/60 points) for Galaxy S5; 122 days (43.2/60 points) for Galaxy Note 4
- Length of time for upgrade to reach previous-gen flagship: 155 days (19.8/30 points) for Galaxy S4; 122 days (21.6/30 points) for Galaxy Note 3
- Communication: Poor (0/10)
Like Sony, Samsung has two phones that are essentially equal in flagship status: the Galaxy S and the Galaxy Note. So for its score, I measured performance for both lines of devices and then averaged the figures together.
The Galaxy S5 -- the current flagship in that line at the time of Lollipop's release -- first saw Android 5.0 in the U.S. on February 2, with the Verizon model. Sprint and T-Mobile followed soon thereafter, while AT&T didn't get Lollipop to its version of the phone until the second week of April.
The Galaxy Note 4, meanwhile, got Lollipop first on Sprint starting on March 5. The AT&T model of the phone came in next, late that same month; the Verizon model's rollout began in early April; and the T-Mobile model started at the end of April.
With the previous-gen flagships, the Galaxy S4 saw Lollipop first on AT&T on April 7. The Note 3 started its Android 5.0 upgrade in the States with the T-Mo model on March 5.
(Samsung, like LG, does not offer unlocked models of its phones to consumers in the States -- which is a shame, as all of the devices experienced significantly faster rollouts internationally. But again, what we're measuring here is the soonest you could realistically get an upgrade from a manufacturer as a typical U.S. consumer.)
Interestingly, Samsung used to provide detailed info about its Android upgrade plans and the status of its rollouts, way back when -- but after it repeatedly failed to keep up with its promises (and, ahem, received a fair amount of negative publicity for the way it handled those failures), the company started an unspoken policy of saying nothing. With Lollipop, as with other recent releases, Samsung kept its customers completely in the dark about what devices it planned to upgrade, when rollouts could be expected to arrive, and how things were evolving along the way.
- Length of time for upgrade to reach current flagship: 9 days (60/60 points)
- Length of time for upgrade to reach previous-gen flagship: Still waiting (0/30 points)
- Communication: Mediocre (5/10)
Oh, Moto. Moto, Moto, Moto. We had such high expectations for you after your phenomenal performance with the KitKat upgrade. What went wrong?
First, credit where credit's due: Motorola actually did ridiculously well with the first half of its Lollipop upgrade process. Its current 2014 Moto X flagship got the software a mere nine days after its release, which is pretty darn insane. That was the unlocked version of the phone, but the Verizon model wasn't far behind, with a rollout starting less than two weeks later. (The only other carrier model, AT&T's, plopped along with a rollout in late February. Yet another reminder: If you want timely upgrades, avoid buying phones from carriers whenever possible.)
That's all fine and good. But then there's the previous-gen Moto X -- the star of the KitKat upgrade show. It's somehow still waiting for its turn at 5.0 today, with no Lollipop rollouts to any models -- including the unlocked version.
Motorola has typically done a great job of communicating with customers about its upgrade progress, but once the second-gen Moto X rollout wrapped up, the manufacturer fell strangely silent. All those months, there was no official word about what the heck was going on with the first-gen Moto X rollout. Even the company's once-useful support site lists the phone as being eligible for the upgrade but provides no further info.
Just last week, a Moto product manager took to Google+ to acknowledge the delay and to vaguely blame a "lack of support" from some "partners" -- but that message came well over six months after Lollipop's release. And while who's actually at fault is anyone's guess, all that really matters is that owners of Motorola's first-gen flagship have been waiting in the dark for a very long time.
From Motorola in particular, that's incredibly disappointing.
Some closing thoughts
Not exactly an uplifting picture, eh? But let's end with a little perspective.
When Google announced Lollipop at last year's I/O conference, it did something new: It gave all of us -- not least of all the companies that manufacture Android devices -- a functional preview version of the software months ahead of its formal release. The idea was that with more advance notice, manufacturers would be able to get a head start on prepping their devices and then be able to roll out upgrades faster than they could in the past.
Yeaaaaaaah -- that didn't quite work out for everyone, did it? One possible explanation is that for all of its beautiful design and compelling features, Lollipop had plenty of problems at its launch -- some of them core issues with performance and usability. So no matter how primed they were for the software's arrival, manufacturers were greeted with an operating system that was rough around the edges and full of pesky quirks.
On the one hand, we have to keep that in mind when considering the manufacturers' performance. On the other hand, all of the manufacturers started with the same software -- and their performance did vary considerably. So take from it what you will.
With Android's open nature and the level of diversity that allows, Android OS upgrades are never going to be completely consistent across all devices. That's par for the course. I've often said that Android presents you with a lot of choices, and if quick and regular upgrades are important to you, you can have them; you just have to choose a phone that delivers that type of experience.
Nexus devices continue to be the most reliable (if occasionally imperfect) options; if you were to make any comparison to iOS, they'd be the closest equivalents to iPhones in that their software is controlled and updated solely by Google. Warts and all, the end result speaks for itself.
But you know what? HTC is also looking really good lately. Its upgrades aren't as immediate as Google's, as you'd expect, but they're relatively quick -- and the company is making it clear that post-sales support is a priority it takes seriously.
As for everyone else, what can you say? Regardless of who's to blame, there's no excuse for keeping customers in the dark for months while their flagship phones sit idle. We can -- and should -- do better. That rings true for Motorola more than anyone, since we've seen how efficient and effective that company can be.
Google's 2015 I/O conference starts next week, and there's a strong chance we'll hear about the next big version of Android (Android "M") while there. Here's hoping the Lollipop upgrade experience serves as a lesson for everyone involved as to what does and doesn't work and how the process can be conducted more smoothly.
For now, I'll end with my standard closing thought: 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.
Being an educated consumer is the best weapon you have -- and if there's one thing I can promise, it's that I'll continue to provide all the ammo you need.