Android 5.0 is old news. Lollipop, as the latest update to Google’s mobile OS is called, has been available since the Nexus 6 arrived in early November. That’s about five months now, which is more or less an eternity in the mobile tech world. It’s been thoroughly reviewed, torn down, critiqued, and even fine-tuned with version 5.1 coming out more than a month ago. It’s a fresh makeover for a highly capable OS.
And yet, a not insignificant amount of Android users haven’t been able to use it. Yes, the only f-word in Android circles is fragmentation, and the period after a major update releases always indicates that it’s alive and well. Google has taken strides to lessen the blow of its phones updating on a staggeringly asymmetrical schedule, but the blessing and curse of Android is that it covers a wide (ahem) nexus of devices from a variety of manufacturers on multiple carriers. There can be various reasons why a particular phone is slow to progress, but any OS that has its code in so many places in so many different forms is almost inherently going to run into this problem. It’s one of the main reasons why millions of people are peacefully enjoying their up-to-date iPhones right now.
Some Android manufacturers are faster than others, however, and that’s what we’re looking at today. Now that Lollipop has been available for some time, we’ve pored over dozens of reports, tweets, blog posts, and update pages to figure out how long it’s taken the major Android OEMs to get Lollipop onto their devices. We’ve examined how each carrier has affected the release for a given device, and looked at how clearly certain parties have conveyed their update plans to public. Delays are easier to accept when you know the other end is trying, after all.
A Few Things to Know
Before we start, a couple of caveats. First, we’re calculating the wait for each update from the first week of November, when the Nexus 6 started shipping, to the first day we could find an official acknowledgment that Lollipop had arrived on a device. As anyone who’s owned an Android phone can tell you, an announcement doesn’t mean the update will arrive that day, but it’s the simplest way to quantify all of this while still being reasonably accurate.
Second, we’re primarily focusing on last year’s flagships. This is for a few reasons: One, new phones like the Galaxy S6 and G Flex 2 come with Lollipop out of the box. Two, trying to juggle data for every single phone these companies launched in the last couple of years isn’t feasible. And three, these are ostensibly the phones these OEMs care about the most; if they aren’t getting Lollipop in a timely manner, you can generally expect the more affordable devices underneath them to have even slower update tracks—if they have one at all.
Now, you don’t need Lollipop to enjoy your smartphone. It’s magic in your hands regardless, and Lollipop has its share of things worth fixing. But it’s nice to have new things, yeah? It can be annoying to know that something new and better is out there, waiting to liven up your increasingly familiar device, but that you won’t have it because some companies either don’t care enough or can’t sort out their own issues. So let’s take a look at who has and hasn’t done well to relieve you of such delays.
Google: It’s Google
This should come as no surprise, but the quickest and most reliable company when it comes to Android updates is still the one that actually makes the updates. As noted above, Google’s latest Nexus device came with Lollipop by default, but its two predecessors weren’t far behind. The Nexus 5’s rollout began around November 12, right around the day many Nexus 6s found their way into consumers’ hands for the first time.
The Nexus 4’s update came a little bit later, which is understandable given the extra work needed to ensure Lollipop would play nice with the older hardware, but even then it was only by a few more days. A factory image showed up around November 14, with an over-the-air update coming soon after that.
The lesson here is one we’ve known for a while: If you want new Android fast, buy from the people who release Android in the first place. Google’s take on the OS isn’t a “take” at all—it’s the default, and as such it touts minimal update delays as the major selling point for the Nexus line. It’s the cleanest, fastest, and best looking Android there is, and the wait times here were either minimal or non-existent. We’re not counting the Google Play Editions of various flagships, but those have generally followed the same idea.
Motorola: The Model to Follow
There was only one OEM that actually competed with Google on update speed, and fittingly it was the company that was once owned by Google itself. Motorola started rolling Lollipop out to its latest phones as if they were Nexus devices, with the update first arriving on the unlocked, first-party versions of the second-gen Moto X and Moto G around November 12. That’s superb, and as we’ll continue to see, the general rule is that unlocked devices update before their carrier equivalents—sometimes significantly so.
As far as carrier support goes, the Verizon version of the Moto X was also updated quickly, with rollout beginning on November 24. The only other major carrier to outright sell the flagship is AT&T, but its model wasn’t updated until the tail end of February. Although it isn’t quite a national competitor, US Cellular sells the phone as well, and it got its update about a week before that. T-Mobile users, meanwhile, can use the unlocked (and updated) version mentioned above. Sprint doesn’t support the device whatsoever.
The current Moto G isn’t sold directly from the major carriers, but that unlocked version updated quickly on T-Mobile and AT&T.
The one other flagship-level phone to monitor is the Verizon-exclusive Droid Turbo, which is still stuck on KitKat. It’s the only significant blemish on Motorola’s record here, but we’re inclined to think Verizon hasn’t helped matters, since a Motorola engineer said in a since-deleted Google+ post that the device was skipping to Android 5.1 in order to better support Verizon’s high-definition VoLTE calling. It’s been a few weeks since then, however, so exactly when that update will come is still unknown.
Regardless, Motorola has been the fastest of the major Android manufacturers to update, and it’s really not that close. Coming under Lenovo’s wing hasn’t changed much. We’ve extolled the virtues of the company’s don’t-mess-with-a-good-thing approach to Android many times before, and one of the big reasons for that is because it presents the company with very few obstacles for adjusting to a new release. Beyond that, Motorola’s been relatively clear about its updates’ ETAs, providing steady blog posts, social media alerts, and a helpful (albeit dated in some spots) upgrade tracker page for the especially anxious.
HTC: Commendable Honesty, Okay Updating
The pace slows down from here on out. HTC has built something of a tradition for that same kind of transparency over the past couple of years—for software upgrades, at least—and it continued that trend in the wake of Lollipop’s launch, with its own tracking page and regular Twitter updates.
This year, however, its promises ended up making it look a tad silly. Back around the time when Lollipop was first announced, the Korean firm publicly set a 90-day deadline to get its highest-profile device up to speed. It then proceeded to miss its own date for a few carrier models of its last two flagships, the One (M8) and One (M7).
Embarrassing, sure, but part of the delay can likely be attributed to the carriers themselves. The company was at least able to hit its goal with its own unlocked version of the One (M8), which was updated in early-to-mid-January. That’s not bad at all considering that HTC employs a fairly involved skin in Sense UI.
Regardless of why it was the case, the carrier versions of the One (M8) were a different story. T-Mobile and Sprint’s versions were upgraded at nearly the same time, with the former starting its roll out on February 10, and the latter on February 12. Verizon was next, but took nearly another month before beginning its upgrade in the first week of March. AT&T then took another month on top of that, getting Lollipop on its model just last week, around April 7. A wait pushing three months isn’t good, but tacking two more on top of that has likely tested more than a few AT&T users’ patience.
The One (M7), for what it’s worth, followed a mostly similar track. The unlocked version’s update came in the first week of February, while Sprint’s version joined in around the same time. The rest of the carrier models have been more disappointing, though: T-Mobile’s was pushed back until the first week of March, while AT&T’s started in the first week of April. Verizon has been the worst in this case, however, as its M7 is still listed as being in the certification stage, and thus is still on KitKat.
All told, HTC’s openness should be encouraged—and the way it’s thinned down both its device line and Sense UI has helped it move more nimbly in recent years—but the results have been mixed, and in some cases painful.
Samsung: Some Good, Mostly Bad
Samsung is far and away the most widely-used Android OEM, but it modifies the OS more than anyone else. It’s improved this with the Galaxy S6, but the company’s TouchWiz skin wraps its tentacles around most aspects of the OS, from included apps to the framework itself. As a result, implementing any widespread changes like the ones in Lollipop is more of an involved process than it would be elsewhere. Samsung also has the widest lineup of phones scheduled for Lollipop, which is good in some sense but again makes releasing an update of this magnitude a rather herculean task. As you might expect, all of this has made for some fairly significant wait times, which continues to be unfortunate for Android as a whole given the size of Samsung’s audience. That the company hasn’t been especially open about its upgrade plans hasn’t helped either.
The Korean giant’s been through this dance before, however, and this year it attempted to mitigate the expected annoyances by going double-time with the 5.0 update for the Galaxy S5. That phone received Lollipop as early as December in certain European countries, but Verizon (traditionally the largest purveyor of carrier red tape) was surprisingly the first to offer it here in the States. Its update arrived in the first few days of February. Sprint was once again (relatively) quick to the punch, with its version coming that same week. T-Mobile’s followed about a week and half later.
None of those are particularly fast launch times, but they’re still miles ahead of AT&T and US Cellular, who just recently flipped the switch on their S5 updates last week. A portion of that was due to the bevy of user complaints about various bugs in software—though those problems weren’t entirely specific to the S5—but even still, having people wait almost a quarter of their service contracts only furthers the notion that most carriers and OEMs are incapable of rolling this stuff out smoothly.
Just about every other major Galaxy phone from 2014 has been slow to update in the US. The Galaxy Note 4’s update, for instance, is still in the “carrier testing” phase for T-Mobile, while Verizon began its rollout at the beginning of April, and both AT&T and US Cellular started theirs just this week. Sprint was the fastest of the bunch here too, but that’s not saying much considering its update began in mid-March.
It’s the same plodding story for the handful of Galaxy S5 variants and one-offs Samsung launched last year. The Sprint-exclusive Galaxy S5 Sport only updated at the beginning of April, while AT&T’s Galaxy S5 Active and Galaxy Alpha got their upgrades earlier this week.
LG: Just Kind of There
While the G Flex 2 is an off-beat little experiment, LG’s core lineup continues to churn out a string of solid-yet-forgettable handsets (relatively speaking, at least). Last year’s G3 did almost everything well, but wasn’t particularly spectacular at anything. The company’s profile has been slowly rising as of late, but a faster update cycle could be just the thing to push Android users in LG’s direction. But alas, its update schedule has brought about the same mixed, largely slow results as most of its peers.
Again, part of that is carrier lethargy, as the company was reasonably quick to update its unlocked G3 in mid-January for some markets, and hinted towards the end of that month that it was ready to roll out the update in the US. Another part of the problem is the company’s not unsubstantial skin, which isn’t quite at TouchWiz’s level of intrusiveness but still makes over a great deal of Android. Either way, not much has been done to make LG stand out from the pack.
Neither the original G Flex nor the G2 Mini appear to even be getting Lollipop—which isn’t surprising but still disappointing—so the only major phone from last year in this case is the aforementioned G3. (For what it’s worth, 2013’s LG G2 has largely followed the same schedule.) AT&T was first here, starting its update out on February 10. Next, Sprint continued to be the most consistent of the group by launching soon after, on February 16.
Those are both reasonable enough, but then came a significant delay for both T-Mobile and Verizon—the magenta carrier’s update has only been rolling out since April 7, while Big Red’s began on April 13. There isn’t much to say here that we haven’t said already: That’s a long wait for a top-dollar purchase.
Sony: American Dreaming
Sony doesn’t sell smartphones in America. Well, it does, technically, but only a few pockets of people here actually buy them. It would seem to make little sense, considering the past few Xperia handsets have been nothing short of excellent—especially in the case of the Xperia Z3 Compact, which we still consider the only Android phone under five inches. They’ve been powerful, well-built, and equipped with the kind of standout cameras Sony’s earned a reputation for making. Yet, a dearth of marketing, combined with almost zero carrier support and—you guessed it—slow update times, have kept them from having any sort of success here in the US.
That being the case, Lollipop updates for Sony’s most recent flagships, the Xperia Z3 and aforementioned Z3 Compact, have been virtually non-existent in America. Only two of the major carriers supported the Z3 in the US: T-Mobile, who recently stopped selling the device and lists its Lollipop update as still being in “carrier development,” and Verizon, who sold an exclusive version of the device called the Xperia Z3v and hasn’t issued any statements on when (or if) it’ll be upgraded. The Z3 Compact, meanwhile, isn’t sold through any carriers.
So, at the moment you’ll have to buy an unlocked model directly from Sony in order to get the Lollipop update. Those devices only began their Android 5.0 rollouts in mid-March, first going to a handful of European nations. That’s a relatively lengthy wait given the general lightness of Sony’s Android skin. Either way, Sony tweeted a couple of weeks later saying that the updates started popping up globally. (Like HTC and Motorola, Sony has largely been open about when its moves were coming. It’s also been good at including the majority of its sizeable lineup in its Lollipop plans.)
At the moment, though, there’s been no specific word of a North American launch for either device, and we’re still hearing reports of US-based users without an update. We contacted Sony for clarification on the situation, but did not receive a response prior to publishing this article. We’ll update if we hear anything new.
OnePlus: One Phone, Two Late Updates
We’re guessing most OnePlus One owners bought the device for its combination of high-powered specs and affordability rather than its software, which uses the Android-based CyanogenMod OS instead of Android itself. Nevertheless, we’re including the value device here because it just recently received two different ways to get into Lollipop.
The traditional over-the-air update for the device comes in the form of the Lollipop-based CyanogenMod 12S, which just launched this week and is in the process of rolling out to the One today. The other option, dubbed OxygenOS, is from OnePlus itself, and became available at the beginning of April. It isn’t a typical update, though: It’s more a preview of what to expect from future OnePlus phones, and the only way to get it is by installing the ROM onto the phone manually. Once it’s on, though, it’s a light, almost Moto-like (and buggy) version of the stock OS.
Still, it’s telling that even companies as isolated from carriers as OnePlus and CyanogenMod have been taking their sweet time upgrading their slice of Google’s OS. If you haven’t noticed by now, it’s a common occurrence. Things have gotten better as the market has matured and public pressure has grown, but if Lollipop is any indication, waiting is still a natural part of the Android world.