Two years of software updates is no longer enough for $1000 Android phones
The iPhone X set the stage for $1,000 flagships back in 2017. Samsung's Galaxy Note 8 wasn't far behind, with the phone launching at $929. Ever since then, phone prices have been regularly trending upward, and the latest Android flagships now start off at $1,000. The regular Galaxy S20 retails for $1,000 (opens in new tab), with the Galaxy S20 Ultra starting off at $1,400. Then there's the Verizon-exclusive Motorola Edge+ which also costs $1,000 (opens in new tab), and even Xiaomi is getting in on the action with the Mi 10 Pro, which retails for €999 ($1,080) in the UK.
Sure, the corresponding hike in prices is attributed to improved hardware, with phones these days sporting much better displays with high refresh rates, larger camera modules with dedicated telephoto lenses, and 5G connectivity. The new connectivity standard alone has led to a $100 to $200 increase in prices from the previous generation.
And while Android flagships are substantially costlier now and feature much better hardware than a few years ago, one art that hasn't changed is software updates. Most brands are still only committed to offering two platform updates and security updates for three years, and that's true even for $1,000 flagships. That needs to change.
As my colleague Joe Maring pointed out, the software experience is more important than any other spec in 2020. Hardware has been commoditized for some time now, and if you want a phone with the latest specs, you don't have to spend $1,000. Regardless of how much you've paid for your phone, if the software is sub-par, you're going to have a bad experience.
In that context, software updates matter more than ever. New platform versions bring a host of new features, and while Android 10 did not introduce many visual changes over its predecessor, there were a lot of changes under the hood. But with brands only committed to two Android version updates, only phones released in the last two years will get the latest Android update — leaving tens of millions of devices out in the cold.
Android phones have fared poorly against the iPhone in this area for years, and while Google tried to change that by requiring brands to offer at least two platform updates, not all manufacturers have complied with that rule. Motorola typically commits to only one platform update, and it took endless user backlash for the brand to agree to delivering two updates to its Edge+ flagship.
Because of the egalitarian nature of Android, there's not much Google can do to enforce these rules. Google is instead leading by example by extending the software support on its Pixel phones. Google delivered the Android 10 update to the first-gen Pixel XL, making it the third platform update for the phone.
The Pixel software update page clearly mentions that the Pixel 2 series will get platform version updates until October 2020 — guaranteeing Android 11 for the devices — with the Pixel 3 and Pixel 4 series also slated to receive three platform updates.
By ensuring that Pixel flagships get three platform updates, Google is offering at least one more version update than the rest of the field. It still isn't the same as the four or five years of updates that Apple delivers to its iPhones, but it's a good starting point nonetheless. The issue here is that Pixel phones make up a tiny fraction of Android phones globally, and realistically, a brand like Samsung needs to take the onus to drive the change on Android.
Samsung is the 800-pound gorilla in the room, and if the South Korean manufacturer changes its policies around updates, other device makers will have to inevitably follow suit. Samsung does a decent job rolling out updates to its flagships, but it doesn't fare so well when it comes to its mid-range and budget Galaxy A phones, particularly in Asian markets. There have been several cases in the past where the brand delivered just a single platform update to its budget phones.
With the $399 iPhone SE (opens in new tab) changing the paradigm for value, it's high time Android manufacturers extend software support on their phones. The iPhone SE runs the latest A13 Bionic chipset, and that means it will get updates for at least four years. This gives it a distinct advantage over every other Android phone in the sub-$500 segment.
The new reality is that people are using their devices for longer than ever before. With budget and mid-range phones increasingly sporting much more robust hardware, there's no reason to upgrade your phone on a yearly basis. For instance, the Galaxy A71 is powered by the Snapdragon 730, and the hardware itself is good enough that it will easily last three or more years without any issues. But Samsung is committed to two version updates and a further year of security updates, delivered once a quarter.
To sum it up, Android device manufacturers need to start rethinking their strategy around updates not just in the flagship segment, but also in the mid-range category. The launch of the iPhone SE is a wake-up call for the industry as a whole, and it has highlighted the gulf that exists between Android and iOS updates. We'll just have to wait and see if it acts as a catalyst for Android manufacturers to raise their game.
Still going strong
The best camera at this price point
The Pixel 3a XL is still a great phone in 2020, and the fact that you can get it for under $500 makes it a fantastic deal. The hardware holds up just fine, the camera is still the one to beat in this category, and best of all, it gets regular updates.
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Harish Jonnalagadda is a Senior Editor overseeing Asia at Android Central. He leads the site's coverage of Chinese phone brands, contributing to reviews, features, and buying guides. He also writes about storage servers, audio products, and the semiconductor industry. Contact him on Twitter at @chunkynerd.
While the Moto G7 got upgraded to Android 10, it is unlikely to get Android 11 especially now that the Moto G8 has been released.
Updates is the biggest problem with Android 10.
I think the manufactures want people to buy a new phone every 1-2 years, so they abandoned the older models leaving them stuck with older versions of Android
I think the other issue here is Right To Repair. Apple touts 5 years of software updates, but a 5 year old iPhone is going to be so throttled to protect the failing Lithium-Ion battery that it may not be very functional. Apple does offer to replace your battery for a price, but the fact remains that battery technology cannot keep up. I feel that one of the more common reasons for upgrading is for better battery life.
Better software update policies and right to repair OR affordable battery replacements are the next step Android needs to take.
P.S. Non-google certified phones should never be used, so I am counting them out.
That said, providing platform updates will in turn extend the overall lifespan of a device. With so much personal and financial information stored on phones today, security updates become SO important. Google typically supports security updates for several years beyond the platform release. Potentially this could meet or exceed the 4-5 years iOS is touting and extend that end of life.
I'm not going to expect miracles. But I do expect some logic to be used. If Google is still sending out security updates for a 5 year old platform, that platform is still viable. Sure it will be lacking in the overall experience, but it is safe to use for day-to-day operations and use of NFC type payments etc. Updates to the existing platform can still be done and bring some new features that are in a newer platform, but that comes with the risk of complications and bring more headache than joy.
So it's not "just" the platform updates, but the actual life of the platform. Once Google stops providing security updates to an OS level, that is what should signify the end of life for a device. Not because the device manufacturer decided it just aged out of relevance, but because Support has ended for the platform by Google.
Or going open-source after two years so it can be updated by the general public, or handed over to a consortium like the teams on XDA?
After being with Android for 10 years, next time I am looking for a new phone Apple will e on my radar.
Either make the battery end user replaceable, or make it easy to do so with a few tools. This is why I use the OnePlus 7 Pro. I do not like the curved screen, but after watching a few videos on how easy it is to open it up and replace the battery, I was sold! Watch for yourself and see. It is one of the easiest there is....and...I could buy 2 or 3 at the price I paid compared to one S20 Ultra @ full retail.
I like Android but this is the reason I consider only two phones, Pixel or iPhone
Security updates should be for 5 years or longer.
Platform updates should be for 3 years, unless they can assure that further updates will not ruin the device.
As much applause as Apple receives for updates, I know as a long term iPhone user that by the fourth platform update, the hardware is at its limit. The fifth update is only damages the user experience most of the time. The iPhone 5c runs so poorly that anyone but a child using it as a toy would be frustrated. My 5S is just a novelty because I could not use it as a normal phone again. The iPhone 6 is sluggish and pretty much end of life. It is not a happy user experience. My old M8 only got two platform updates, but you know what? It still runs good. I keep it in my laptop bag as a backup because it's still satisfying to use.
Meanwhile, My iPhone 6S Plus has had 4 platform updates and what seems like hundreds of bugfix updates, and it's performance is hurting. I think the best of both worlds is staying on top of security updates for a long time, and balancing platform updates so they do not push beyond the hardware capabilities. Interestingly, my 4 year old HTC U11 was updated THIS morning (software build 3.37.617.2), and it actually seems faster. I could still totally rock a U11 as my daily driver. My 6S Plus is still updating and is so hot that it's uncomfortable to hold, so we'll see how that turns out.
They already take away our rights to repair, if we can keep the phone functional for 4 years, the company should support it.
I understand they can't keep everything up to date forever, but it's a expiration date no one really pays attention to and the companies definitely don't disclose!
Plus if they'd keep any of their products still running up to date, it would cut down on lots of software exploits and people getting scammed.
Anything else is just greed from Samsung.