Android Upgrades

A word of warning about Android upgrades in 2019

As a certain Android device-maker's actions remind us, it's more important than ever to think carefully about what you're actually getting when you buy an Android phone.

Android Upgrades 2019
Clker-Free-Vector-Images/geralt/JR Raphael

Android Upgrades

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Hear ye, hear ye, citizens of the Android-using world. You no doubt know by now that Android upgrades are, by and large, a steaming hot mess (to use the technical term). But there's new reason to remain alert and think extra carefully about any Android phone purchase you might one day consider.

You're probably already aware that no Android phone-maker other than Google treats timely and reliable software upgrades as a top priority and explicit guarantee. That's nothing new, and we've seen the results of that reality time and time again — both with the platform's monthly security patches and with the larger operating system updates that surround them (and yes, both elements absolutely matter).

But beneath the painfully slow rollouts and the insulting lack of communication by the companies that make these devices, there's always been an understanding that at the very least, top-tier Android phones will receive significant OS updates for a minimum of two years from the time they're launched. It's an implicit agreement that's long existed, originally as an 18-month window and then eventually (mhmm) up to the two-year standard we know today. Google alone increases that guarantee to a full three years with its Pixel products, but two years is the understood ecosystem-wide bare minimum.

Well, gang, it appears that agreement is now null and void. Motorola just launched a new phone, the Moto Z4, and is presently planning on providing only a single OS update for the device. The website Digital Trends first reported the news, and I confirmed it directly with Motorola myself: The Moto Z4, according to its maker, will be upgraded to Android Q (at some point). While Moto will "continue to evaluate additional OS upgrades," however, the company is not committing to anything beyond that one single bump.

Now, there's an argument to be made that the Moto Z4 isn't technically a "flagship" phone. The device is priced at $499. But at the same time, it is part of Motorola's typically flagship-caliber Moto Z line — and it's the closest thing to a top-tier phone in the company's lineup this year.

(Update: Motorola has also reneged on its commitment to provide most U.S. models of the Moto Z2 Force, a top-tier device launched in August of 2017, with the Android 9 Pie upgrade — despite the fact that the device had barely been out for a single year at the time of Pie's release. So clearly, this is not just an anomaly.)

The broader point, though, is that it ultimately shouldn't matter. There's simply zero justification for spending several hundred dollars on a phone and not knowing it'll be up to date and optimal to use for more than a single measly year. Remember, OS upgrades are about more than just superficial features and interface changes; they contain significant under-the-hood improvements along with important security and privacy enhancements — things that go beyond the fast little fixes provided in those separate monthly patches. And they introduce both expansions and restrictions to APIs, which are what permit third-party apps to interact with your phone and data and perform a variety of advanced functions. To say they aren't important is to fundamentally misunderstand how Android actually works.

Earlier this year, I used that logic to create a new set of practical guidelines for assessing a phone's value — by thinking of a phone as a multiyear investment and evaluating its worth accordingly. The gist of it is that once a phone is no longer receiving OS updates, it's no longer advisable to use for anyone who prioritizes an optimal level of privacy, security, and performance in their mobile device. So with that in mind, we can take the device's total price and perform some telling calculations.

Power up your mental calculator, my comrade. It's time for a little eye-opening math to illustrate just how absurd Motorola's single-upgrade proposition truly is.

Mobile math

Up first: If you bought Google's Pixel 3 around the time of its release and planned to keep it for the full three years it's guaranteed to receive timely software updates, you'd essentially be paying $267 a year for that experience and everything it entails — as the phone costs $800 and is advisable to use for the three years in which it's supported.

Next: If you were thinking about the Galaxy S10, you'd have to take its $900 starting price and divide that by two — for the two years it's guaranteed to receive operating system updates — which brings you to about $450 a year.

Now, for the Moto Z4: With that device, you'd be looking at only that single year of guaranteed support, which means you'd ultimately be paying $500 a year for the phone — more per year of advisable use than even the already-inflated Galaxy S10! The lower starting price suddenly isn't so enticing when you consider it with that full perspective.

And you know what? It's even less enticing when you consider the fact that Google is now selling its Pixel 3a phone for $399. That phone, like its higher-end Pixel 3 sibling, is guaranteed to get OS updates for a full three years — which means, with our advisable-device-life math, it costs you a mere $133 a year if you buy it close to the time of its launch. And that's for an experience that's objectively superior to the Moto Z's in pretty much every meaningful measure.

Android Upgrades: Cost of Ownership JR

Effectively paying almost $500 a year for a decidedly so-so phone when you can get a superior experience for a fraction of the price — let alone a top-of-the-line experience for significantly less shekels per year — is pretty darn crazy. And I'm not sure how anyone, including Motorola, can possibly justify it.

The Android landscape is constantly evolving, and now more than ever, as Android device-makers try to cut corners by shying away from established practices and norms, the responsibility falls upon you as an educated and practical-minded phone-owner to figure out what you're actually getting with any given phone — not just in terms of first-day features but in terms of the device's entire likely life span — and then to make your purchasing decisions accordingly.

As has always been the case with Android, the option for optimal software support most certainly does exist. It's simply up to you to decide how much of a priority that is for you and then to choose a device that provides the type of experience and longer-term value you want.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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