By JR Raphael, Contributing Editor, Computerworld |
Not your average Android news — a diverse mix of advice, insight, and analysis with veteran Android journalist JR Raphael.
In the world of software, six months is an eternity.
Heck, look at how much has happened over the past six months since Android 12 came into the universe. Google started and then finished a hefty 0.1-style update that lays the groundwork for significant large-screen improvements to the Android experience. And it’s now well into the public development phase of its next big Android version, Android 13 — which is the rapidly forming release on most folks’ minds at this point.
And yet, plenty of people out in the land o’ Android are somehow still waiting for last year’s Android 12 update to arrive on their extremely recent, not-even-remotely-budget-level phones.
That’s why I started doing these Android Upgrade Report Cards some 6,942 years ago — because from an average phone-owner’s perspective, there’s really no way to know what’s gonna happen six months after you buy a device and how well the manufacturer is actually gonna support it.
Maybe I’m just old-fashioned (and/or old, in general), but that doesn’t sit well with me. You’re the one paying good money for a piece of technology. You should have the context you need to make an educated and informed decision about which product is right for you — not just for the first few weeks that you own it but for the entire two- to three-year period that you’re likely to carry it around.
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This year’s a slightly strange one. One of Android’s longest standing core device-makers is no longer in the picture, a couple of new contenders are on the brink of stepping into the arena, and atypical patterns are popping up left and right with some of the most typically consistent (for better or for worse) players in the Android game.
In spite of all of that, though, data doesn’t lie. And goodness gracious, do this year’s numbers speak volumes.
Now that we’re six months past the launch of Android 12, it’s time to step back and look at who’s making upgrades a priority and who’s treating ’em as an afterthought. Only you can decide how much this info matters to you (hint: It oughta matter — a lot), but whether you find post-sales software support to be a top priority or an irrelevant asterisk, you deserve to be armed with all the data that empowers you to make fully informed future buying decisions.
So without further ado, here it is.
(Want the full nitty-gritty on how these grades were calculated? You can find a detailed breakdown of the formula and every element taken into account at the very end of this article.)
The Android 12 rollout was a slightly atypical one for Google — told ya it was a weird year! — in that the company’s delivery of the latest and greatest Android software didn’t coincide with the software’s release.
More often than not, Google starts its Pixel rollouts at the same time a new Android version is announced. This year, we saw an awkward gap of just over two weeks between when Android 12 was out there, in raw code form, and when anyone was actually able to use it on a functioning phone.
Still, 16 days is a perfectly reasonable amount of time to wait, and Google was crystal clear from the get-go about when its current Pixel phones could expect the update to arrive. It also managed to get the update to Pixel owners well ahead of anyone else in the Android ecosystem in spite of that slightly-later-than-usual start.
(For the purposes of this analysis, by the way, it’s the start of a rollout — to a flagship phone model in the U.S. — that counts, as you can read about in more detail here.)
What’s most impressive, though, is the fact that Google treats all of its phones as equals — meaning even if you own a previous-gen device or a lower-priced Pixel “a” model, you get major updates like Android 12 at the same time as the current-gen flagship phone owners. That’s a sharp contrast to the way every other device-maker handles its lineup, and it’s the way things very much ought to be.
And while Google’s usual “rolling out in waves” asterisk always applies to a certain degree, with some Pixel owners not receiving the software on that very first day, Android 12 made its way to all supported Pixel devices within a reasonable amount of time and without the need for any extra communication beyond the company’s initial announcement.
For the standard caveat here: Sure, we could argue that Google has a unique advantage in that it’s both the manufacturer of the devices and the maker of the software — but guess what? That’s part of the Pixel package. And as a person purchasing a phone, the only thing that really matters is the experience you receive.
And as usual, the results tell you all there is to know: Google’s phones are without question the most reliable way to receive ongoing updates in a timely manner on Android. Google’s the only company that makes an explicit guarantee about upgrade deliveries as a part of its devices’ purchasing package, and it’s absolutely the only one that consistently delivers on that front, year after year.
Continuing our “weird year” theme, Samsung’s in the midst of a transition with its device lineup and thus which models make the most sense to treat as actual flagships. In 2021, Samsung made it clear that the once-flagship-level Note line was out of the picture and that it was viewing its foldable Fold model as the future of its flagships — an equal, for the time being, to the primary Galaxy S brand.
So for our current-gen analysis, we’ll look at a combination of the Galaxy S21 and the Galaxy Z Fold 3, since the two were framed as equal in flagship footing in the 2021 product release cycle.
In 2020, though, it was a slightly different story. At that point, the Note was still present and treated as an equal to the Galaxy S line in its flagship-level standing. And the folding phones were still more of an experiment and less of a mainstream entity. So 2020 will follow our previous model of treating a combination of the Galaxy S and Galaxy Note model of the moment as the co-flagship phones for the year, and it’ll likely be the last year where such a combination occurs.
With all of that being said, Samsung did decently well this go-round — a noticeable tick up from its surprisingly poor showing with Android 11 last year, though still not quite the story of pure glory you’d be led to believe from all of the slightly misguided headlines surrounding every Samsung rollout.
For its official grade, Samsung came in at just over two months for bringing Android 12 onto its current-gen U.S. flagships — but remember, that’s an average of the company’s performance with its two co-flagship products. For the Galaxy S21, it was actually a 44-day wait, while with the Z Fold 3, it was a far less commendable 86-day delivery delay.
As usual with Samsung, it’s on the previous-gen flagships where things really take an unfortunate turn. The company came in at 95 days — more than a quarter of a year — for bringing Android 12 to its Galaxy S20 and Galaxy Note 20 phones. (The timing for the two was pretty darn close: 96 days and 93 days, respectively.) It’s not a terrible result, relatively speaking, but it certainly isn’t great.
Still, it marks Samsung’s best scores and fastest performance with Android upgrade delivery to date. In fact, this year is the first time Samsung has ever crept down into double-digit territory with its upgrade timing; in every other year since I’ve been analyzing this, its delivery times have been well into the triple digits of days.
Another area where Samsung saw significant improvement is in its communication, which has traditionally been a major weak point of the company’s Android upgrade operation. Typically, Samsung makes no effort whatsoever to communicate with its customers about its upgrade process or what can be expected along the way.
This year, thankfully, that changed: The company actually released a specific breakdown of which phones it was planning to upgrade and when! Granted, it didn’t do so until well over a month after Android 12 came out, and it shared the info only within a limited-access Samsung Members app as opposed to publishing it publicly in a way that’d be likely to reach more people — hence the not-quite-perfect communication score — but it’s still a massive leap forward and one we can only hope becomes the new norm.
All in all, it’s a positive story for Samsung this cycle. It’s too soon to tell whether the new trends will stick or whether we’ll see another return to mediocrity in the next year or two, as has happened with Samsung before — but for now, hey, we’ll take it.
It’s a weird year for OnePlus in general right now, as the company works through a merger with Chinese phone brand Oppo and figures out its focus for the future. From canceled phones to ill-considered software moves (and subsequent undos), it’s been a bit of a bumpy and at times awkward transition.
Still, amidst all of that, the company actually managed to move in the right direction with its Android upgrade deliveries. Following an embarrassingly bad cycle with Android 11, OnePlus pushed its performance back in the right direction with an Android 12 rollout for its current-gen OnePlus 9 series flagship 75 days after the software’s release and for its previous-gen OnePlus 8/8T series flagship 167 days after.
To be clear, those numbers are nothing to celebrate, especially on the latter front. Taking nearly half a year to get current software to your top-of-the-line phone from one release cycle earlier — a phone lots of your top-paying customers still carry — is completely unacceptable.
But it’s at least an improvement from last year, even if it isn’t quite back to where OnePlus was with its upgrade deliveries the year before that.
And it’s certainly a better story than the next company on our list.
NEXT PAGE: The bottom of the barrel — and some signs of hope for the future
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By JR Raphael, Contributing Editor, Computerworld |