Android Upgrades

Android Upgrade Report Card: Grading the manufacturers on Oreo

Six months after Oreo's release, how have Android device-makers done at getting the upgrade into users' hands? A sobering but important analysis.

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LG

Android Oreo Upgrade: LG 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)

What's there to say about a company that doesn't even seem to be trying? LG has yet to deliver Oreo to its current-gen G6 or its previous-gen G5. It's made no real effort to communicate anything with its customers about its plans for either product.

It's ultimately a black hole: If you buy a phone from LG, you're accepting the fact that you'll be waiting in the dark — likely for a very long time — to see if or when you'll ever get any future updates.

Samsung

Android Oreo Upgrade: Samsung 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)

And here, at the very bottom of our report card on upgrade performance, is the top-selling manufacturer of Android devices. Samsung has always done poorly with upgrade deliveries, but this year marks a new low — with not a single non-beta rollout to any of its current or previous-gen (S-series or Note series) devices in the U.S. And, as usual, there's been no official communication whatsoever with customers about its progress or what can be expected.

Just today, unofficial reports suggest an S8 Oreo rollout has started anew in Germany, but that's neither here nor there (in either timing or scope) for the purposes of this analysis. For the largest and most profitable Android manufacturer, this isn't a matter of resources. We can talk about fixing bugs and getting things right all we want, but the cold, hard truth is that Samsung has had access to Oreo since March — just like everyone else — and has had the software's final build in hand since August.

Particularly for a company of Samsung's size and with its immense financial and engineering resources, not being able to deliver updates to customers after all those months is about one thing and one thing only: priorities.

Sony and Nokia: Two quick footnotes

This report card focuses on the companies most relevant to the U.S. flagship market, as explained in the methodology section below, but I wanted to quickly call out a couple other notable Android players.

Sony, which has become increasingly irrelevant in the U.S. market over time, managed to get Oreo onto its current-gen Xperia XZ flagship in late October — just two months after Oreo's release. It then took about three months to send the software to its previous-gen flagship, the Xperia XZ. Its communication efforts were minimal, with a vague list of devices to be updated early on and not much beyond that. All considered, if we were including it in this analysis, it'd have earned a solid "C" score — nothing particularly awe-inspiring, by any means, but at least something semi-respectable (especially in a relative sense, since that'd give it a higher score than any manufacturer outside of Google this year).

And then there's Nokia — a newcomer to the Android game just as of this past year. The company's sole flagship phone thus far, the Nokia 8, wasn't released in the U.S. But I thought it was worth noting, regardless, that Nokia delivered Android 8.0 to the phone in late November, three months after the software's arrival, and then bumped the device up to the newer Android 8.1 version of Oreo earlier this month.

That's not enough data to base even a theoretical grade on, but it is enough to call it a promising start — especially given Nokia's effort to make the notion that its devices are always "up to date" and secure" a core part of its marketing message.

Putting it all in perspective

There's not much to say here that I haven't said before, time and time again, so I'll look to my past words for inspiration: 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.

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.

At this point, that basically means Google's own Pixel phones. In addition to being the only flagship devices that receive regular and reasonably fast OS rollouts, they're the only devices that come with a guaranteed three full years of said support. (Two years is the typical standard for an Android flagship, and even that often doesn't get met.) On the midrange to lower-end, of course, you also have the choice of phones that belong to Google's Android One program — a program that, just as we suspected, is being positioned as a lower-cost Nexus-like supplement to the Pixel lineup, with software controlled by Google and timely and regular (though certainly not Pixel-caliber) updates as a result.

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 costly flagship phones sit idle. This year, once again, 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.

(And yes, Google's deconstruction of Android and introduction of standalone security patches have helped make traditional updates much less critical than they once were — a significant progression for the platform, no doubt — but our devices still have meaningful foundational improvements that only full OS upgrades can provide. Timely ongoing upgrades aren't everything, by any means, but they are without a doubt a very significant and valid part of the overall device-owning experience.)

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 about their strategies and behaviors — 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, all in a consistent manner.

Each manufacturer's overall grade is based on the following formula, with 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 8.0 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 — in a public, official, and not opt-in-beta-oriented over-the-air rollout.

(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. in some official capacity in order to be considered a "U.S. model" of a device. I also don't include Android One devices as part of this analysis, as they (a) don't tend to be flagship-caliber devices, and (b) are part of a separate program in which Google handles the software — much like Nexus devices of the past — and thus aren't indicative of a company's upgrade behavior with its own self-controlled flagships.)

By looking at the time to Oreo'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 8.0 was released into the Android Open Source Project: August 21, 2017, 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 primary analysis — and why BlackBerry, which I included for a couple of years as it tried to recapture some of the American enterprise market, is also now out.

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 specific-sample-oriented and flagship-focused report.

[NEW: Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld!]

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