In Depth

Android Upgrade Report Card: Grading the manufacturers on Nougat

Six months after Nougat's release, how have different Android manufacturers done at delivering upgrades to their devices? A sobering analysis.

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LG

Android Upgrade Report Card -- Nougat: LG jr
  • Length of time for upgrade to reach current flagship: 91 days (47.4/60 points)
  • Length of time for upgrade to reach previous-gen flagship: Still waiting (0/30 points)
  • Communication: Poor (0/10 points)

After some sloooooow but steady improvements over the past couple of years, LG is yet another company seeing a slip in its Android upgrade performance -- and its resulting score -- for the 7.0 Nougat cycle.

The company's first U.S. Nougat rollout was with the Sprint model of its G5 flagship on November 21, about three months after Nougat's debut. The T-Mobile model followed about a week later, with the Verizon version coming in a couple days after that and the AT&T G5 trailing in earlier this week.

(Not working in its favor: 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. That being said, the company's first international rollout for unlocked phones was only slightly ahead of its U.S. schedule, with a starting date of November 8.)

LG still hasn't made a peep about its plans for the previous-gen G4 flagship, meanwhile. Forums around the web are filled with messages from frustrated G4 owners asking for any info about if or when Nougat might be headed their way.

And that gets at LG's other persistent upgrade downfall: its essentially non-existent efforts at communicating with its customers. Aside from its traditional self-serving press release boasting about a symbolic limited-scope rollout ("FIRST!!!!!!"), the company has stayed silent on both its plans and its progress.

All in all, it's not a situation worth celebrating. And, believe it or not, things only get worse from here.

Samsung

Android Upgrade Report Card -- Nougat: Samsung jr
  • Length of time for upgrade to reach current flagship: 179 days (37.2/60 points)
  • Length of time for upgrade to reach previous-gen flagship: Still waiting (0/30 points)
  • Communication: Poor (0/10 points)

Samsung has never excelled at Android upgrades, but this year marks -- yup, you guessed it -- a new low for the company. The first sign of Nougat on a U.S. Samsung flagship showed up only last week, with the rollout of Android 7.0 for the T-Mobile Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge. That's just a hair less than six months since Nougat's release.

The AT&T and Sprint versions of the phones saw the software within a few days of that, meanwhile, while the Verizon version is still waiting as of this writing.

Samsung's previous-gen flagships -- both the 2015 Galaxy S6 and 2015 Galaxy Note 5 -- are also still awaiting their Android 7.0 upgrades.

I should note a few things here: First, I'm aware that Samsung offered a beta program this year that allowed users of certain devices to try out an early build of the software. That's a positive step -- but beta software isn't what we're assessing here. We're looking at final, official software delivered to regular consumers.

Second, I typically include both the Galaxy S and Galaxy Note as co-flagships for Samsung, since the company essentially treats them as equal in flagship status. Since the Note 7 was cancelled and recalled this year, however, that obviously isn't relevant or possible for the current-year flagship category.

And finally, 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 international unlocked Galaxy S7 didn't see Nougat until late January, nearly five months after the software's release. (Correction: Evidently, Samsung did actually offer an unlocked S7 model specifically for the U.S. market this year. My mistake. That phone, however, has yet to see a Nougat upgrade -- so...yeah.)

On the communication front, Samsung continued its policy of keeping its customers mostly 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 some strongly worded negative publicity over the way it handled those failures), Samsung sealed its corporate lips firmly shut. And it's kept 'em mostly glued together ever since.

BlackBerry

Android Upgrade Report Card -- Nougat: BlackBerry jr
  • Length of time for upgrade to reach current flagship: Still waiting (0/60 points)
  • Length of time for upgrade to reach previous-gen flagship: Still waiting (0/30 points)
  • Communication: Poor (0/10 points)

It's now six months since Nougat's release, and neither BlackBerry's 2015 Priv flagship nor its curiously named 2016 DTEK60 flagship has seen any sign of the software. Worse yet, the DTEK60 actually launched in October -- two months after Android 7.0's arrival -- and yet still shipped with 2015's Android 6.0 software out of the box.

On top of that, BlackBerry hasn't provided a word of official info to its customers about what's going on -- and if or when their devices will see last year's "new" Android software.

It's the same situation we saw with BlackBerry last year. The company has, by most counts, done a commendable job of getting Google's monthly security patches out to its Android phones quickly -- and there's absolutely something to be said about the significance of that. When it comes to actual OS updates, though, BlackBerry has been consistent only with its disappointing performance.

Closing thoughts

The best way to sum this up, I think, is to borrow a line from my past report cards: 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.

Google's own Android devices -- first Nexus and now Pixel -- continue to be the most reliable options. They truly are in a league of their own. If you were to make any comparison to iOS, Google's phones would be the closest equivalents to iPhones in that their software, updates, and entire user experiences are controlled completely by a single company. It's a holistic arrangement, and the end result speaks for itself.

Continuing the trend from the past couple years, HTC is about the only other manufacturer making timely OS upgrades any sort of priority. Its speed and communication have both slipped this cycle -- which is disappointing to see, given its impressive improvements over my past two report cards -- but compared to basically everyone else out there, it's at least still making somewhat of an effort.

And 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. This year, the manufacturers had more time than ever to prepare -- and yet they somehow still took longer than ever to deliver. At the end of the day, 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. That reality has never been more apparent than now.

The one bit of reassuring news is that, as always, the power is ultimately 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 disappointments by making the right buying decisions for our own personal needs.

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In detail: How these grades were calculated

This report card follows the same grading system used with last year's upgrade analysis -- which features precise and clearly defined standards designed to weigh performance for both current and previous-generation flagship phones along with a company's communication efforts.

Each manufacturer's overall grade is based on the following formula, with all final scores being rounded up or down to the nearest full integer.:

  • 60% of grade: Length of time for upgrade to reach current flagship phone(s)
  • 30% of grade: Length of time for upgrade to reach previous-gen flagship phone(s)
  • 10% of grade: Overall communication with customers throughout the upgrade process

Upgrade timing often varies wildly from one country or carrier to the next, so in order to create a consistent standard for scoring, I've focused this analysis on when Android 7.0 first reached a flagship model that's readily available in the U.S. -- either a carrier-connected model or an unlocked version of the phone, if such a product is sold by the manufacturer and readily available to U.S. consumers.

(To be clear, I'm not counting being able to import an international version of a phone from eBay or from some random seller on Amazon as being "readily available to U.S. consumers." For the purposes of creating a reasonable and consistent standard for this analysis, a phone has to be sold in the U.S. by a manufacturer or a carrier in order to be considered a "U.S. model" of a device.)

By looking at the time to Nougat's first appearance (via an over-the-air rollout) on a device in the U.S., we're measuring how quickly a typical U.S. consumer could realistically get the software in a normal situation. And we're eliminating the PR-focused silliness of a manufacturer rushing to roll out a small-scale upgrade in somewhere like Lithuania just so they can put out a press release touting that they were "FIRST!" The same analysis could be done using any country as its basis, of course, and the results would vary accordingly.

All measurements start from the day Android 7.0 was released into the Android Open Source Project: August 23, 2016, which is when the final raw OS code became available to manufacturers. The following scale determined each manufacturer's subscores for upgrade timeliness:

  • 1-14 days to first U.S. rollout = A+ (100)
  • 15-30 days to first U.S. rollout = A (96)
  • 31-45 days to first U.S. rollout = A- (92)
  • 46-60 days to first U.S. rollout = B+ (89)
  • 61-75 days to first U.S. rollout = B (86)
  • 76-90 days to first U.S. rollout = B- (82)
  • 91-105 days to first U.S. rollout = C+ (79)
  • 106-120 days to first U.S. rollout = C (76)
  • 121-135 days to first U.S. rollout = C- (72)
  • 136-150 days to first U.S. rollout = D+ (69)
  • 151-165 days to first U.S. rollout = D (66)
  • 166-180 days to first U.S. rollout = D- (62)
  • More than 180 days to first U.S. rollout (and thus no upgrade activity within the six-month window) = F (0)

There's just one asterisk: If a manufacturer outright abandons any U.S.-relevant models of a device, its score will default to zero for that specific category. Within that specific category (be it current or previous-gen flagship), such behavior is an indication that the manufacturer in question could not be trusted to honor its commitment and provide an upgrade. This adjustment will allow the score to better reflect that reality. (No such adjustments were made this year, though there was one instance where it happened in the past.)

Last but not least, this analysis focuses on manufacturers selling flagship phones that are relevant and in some way significant to the U.S. market. That's why Sony is no longer part of the analysis and why BlackBerry (which is certainly trying to make a major play for American consumers and is a company plenty of people are watching) and OnePlus (which is quite popular among Android enthusiasts and explicitly touts its phones as being flagship caliber) are.

Most of the other players are either still relatively insignificant in the U.S. market or have focused their efforts more on the budget realm in the States so far -- and thus don't make sense, at least as of now, to include in this flagship-focused report.

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