In Depth

Android upgrade report card: Grading the manufacturers on Marshmallow

Six months after Marshmallow's release, how have the major Android manufacturers done at delivering upgrades to their devices?

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Motorola (Lenovo)

Android 6.0 Upgrade: Motorola
  • Length of time for upgrade to reach current flagship: 65 days (51.6/60 points)
  • Length of time for upgrade to reach previous-gen flagship: 74 days for the unlocked model -- though with all U.S. carrier models abandoned (0/30 points)
  • Communication: Poor (0/10 points)

An Android manufacturer has never fallen as fast and hard as what we've seen with Motorola these past couple years. In a matter of months, Moto went from being the shining example of what an Android device-maker should be to being a bitter disappointment Android fans won't soon forgive. (So much for that "nothing will change" transition in ownership, right?)

Following last year's 65% "D" grade for Android upgrades, the Lenovo-owned Motorola gets a big fat embarrassing "F" for the mess it made of this year's Marshmallow rollout. While it did do a reasonably decent (though nowhere near the standard it had maintained in the past) job at getting Android 6.0 out to its current and previous-gen flagships, it did so with one major asterisk: the outright abandonment of all U.S. carrier models of its barely-one-year-old 2014 device.

Worse yet, Motorola stayed insultingly silent on the subject, without so much as an explanation -- let alone any sort of attempt to make things right with customers who had bought into its "ongoing reliable upgrades" message. It was a slap in the face to those who trusted the company, and even if Motorola recovers and manages to do decently well moving forward, it's an incident smartphone shoppers would be wise to remember.

Samsung

Android 6.0 Upgrade: Samsung
  • Length of time for upgrade to reach current flagship: 158 days (39.6/60 points) for Galaxy S6; 152 days (39.6/60 points) for Galaxy Note 5
  • Length of time for upgrade to reach previous-gen flagship: Still waiting (0/30 points) for Galaxy S5; 172 days (18.6/30 points) for Galaxy Note 4
  • Communication: Poor (0/10 points)

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 results -- well, they ain't great: Sammy took a full 158 days to get Marshmallow out to its then-current flagship, the Galaxy S6, which first saw the software in the U.S. via the Sprint model on March 10. (Verizon got the rollout almost a month later, at the start of April, while customers on other carriers are still waiting.) The then-current Note 5 flagship was in the same league, with Android 6.0 hitting the Verizon version on March 4 (and Sprint's version a few days later, with other models still on hold). No matter how you look at it, five-plus months is way too long for a current flagship to get a major OS upgrade.

But wait -- there's more! Things are even worse with the previous-gen flagship, where Samsung took a whopping 172 days to get Android 6.0 to its Note 4 in America (via the Sprint model, which alone received the software on March 24) and still has yet to get Marshmallow onto any U.S. Galaxy S5 phone.

(Samsung, like LG, does not officially offer unlocked models of its phones to consumers in the States -- which is a shame, as its devices did experience faster rollouts internationally. Well, to a degree, anyway: Even the unlocked Galaxy S6 didn't see Marshmallow until mid-February, more than four months after the software's release.)

Adding insult to injury, Samsung seems to have a policy of keeping its customers completely in the dark about its upgrade plans and progress. Once upon a time, the company did actually provide detailed info about that stuff -- 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), Samsung sealed its corporate lips firmly shut. And it's kept 'em glued closed ever since.

It's too bad, because while Samsung's sales numbers may be strong, the company's commitment to ongoing support is steadily slipping from bad to just plain awful. And its customers are the ones who are suffering.

BlackBerry

Android 6.0 Upgrade: BlackBerry
  • Length of time for upgrade to reach current flagship: Still waiting (0/90 points)
  • Length of time for upgrade to reach previous-gen flagship: n/a (not factored into score; current flagship adjusted to 90% of total due to lack of a previous-gen model)
  • Communication: Poor (0/10 points)

BlackBerry's first Android phone actually landed in November -- a full month after Marshmallow's launch and nearly six months after the release of Google's Android 6.0 developer preview. That makes it all the more baffling that the Priv not only launched with a year-old operating system in place but still to this day continues to run on 2014's Android 5.x Lollipop software.

On top of that, BlackBerry has spent most of the time since its phone's release staying silent about its plans for a Marshmallow upgrade. The company's CEO finally broke the silence during a press presentation at CES in January (what a way to communicate with customers, eh?), in which -- take a deep breath and try to read this next part out loud without pausing -- he delivered the news that the news about the update would be delivered sometime in the first quarter of 2016. (Hooray?)

Just this week, meanwhile, BlackBerry announced a "private beta" for a small group of users to test Marshmallow on the Priv. In April. Of 2016. One day shy of Marshmallow's six-month anniversary. Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeah.

Look: BlackBerry has done a commendable job of getting Google's monthly security patches out to its Android phone quickly, and there's something to be said about the significance of that. When it comes to actual OS updates, though, it's hard to look at BlackBerry's first year as an Android manufacturer as anything but a gigantic failure.

Some closing thoughts

The best way to sum this up, I think, is to borrow a line from my 2015 Lollipop report card conclusion: We can -- and should -- do better.

But you know what? At the end of the day, that's not up to us. You and I can't control what manufacturers do or how much of a priority they make timely and ongoing software support. All we can do is educate ourselves about their practices, decide how much that matters to us, and then make our future purchasing decisions accordingly.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: 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 often say that Android presents you with a lot of choices, and if quick and regular upgrades are important to you, you most certainly can have them. You just have to choose a phone that provides 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. It's a holistic arrangement, and the end result speaks for itself.

But continuing its trend from last year, HTC is looking increasingly good as a reliable second-tier option. Its upgrades aren't nearly as immediate as Google's, as you'd expect, but they're relatively quick and getting quicker each year -- and the company is continuing to make it clear that post-sales support is something it's taking very 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 flagship phones sit idle. We can optimistically hope the even earlier release of this year's Android "N" preview will help to some degree, but ultimately, it's up to each manufacturer to decide what level of resources it wants to devote to the upgrade process and how it wants to treat customers along the way.

The one bit of reassuring news is that as always, the power is completely in your hands. We may not be able to make manufacturers do better, but we can make ourselves educated consumers -- and then avoid down-the-road disappointment by making the right buying decisions for our own personal needs.

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