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Google's control of Pixel updates isn't great for everyone

Stop me if you've heard this one before: Updates straight from Google = good. Updates that go through carriers, which have to pass certain quality control and network performance tests and are therefore mired in delays and bugs = bad.

That's the story that we often tell people, directly or indirectly, and as a straight narrative it's largely true. But like any narrative in this world, there is nuance. To explain, I'll tell you a story.

Back in 2015, I bought an unlocked Galaxy S6 from eBay. It was a British model, with LTE bands that worked in Canada and software updates that came much more regularly — British carriers do a much better job at this than their North American counterparts, for some reason — than the same model in Canada. (It took Canada's largest carrier, Rogers, until just last month to update the Galaxy S6 and S6 edge to Marshmallow.) But then Rogers launched VoLTE and Wi-Fi Calling for the majority of its new flagships, and I realized that I would never benefit from those features running a British Telecom variant of the GS6.

Fast forward to earlier this year, when I bought a Galaxy S7 edge and embraced Rogers' slow update cadence, knowing full well that the end result would eventually be compatibility with those Enhanced Voice Services (EVS) like VoLTE. It took a few months, but the update came, and I now have those features.

Unless Google has your carrier's specific needs in mind, its network-specific features will likely be overlooked.

This week, I unboxed my shiny, beautiful new Pixel and slapped that same SIM card in it only to discover it wasn't compatible with VoLTE. This didn't surprise me, but it was frustrating, since Google ostensibly worked with Verizon — its only U.S. carrier partner — to sell the phone down south. It baked those EV services into the software from the beginning. But despite selling the phone at Rogers, Bell, and Telus, Google has not expanded those network-specific features outside of Verizon and T-Mobile, and, according to representatives at the carriers, has no plans to do so.

What does this mean? It means that, sure, your Pixel may be updated directly from the source, but unless Google has your carrier's specific needs in mind, its network-specific features will likely be overlooked.

I can't say with certainty that Google will never add VoLTE and Wi-Fi Calling support for carriers that aren't Verizon and T-Mo, but it does expose one fundamental flaw with these direct-to-consumer updates. Your carrier may delay the hell out of a Galaxy S7 update, but at least, when it does hit your phone, it arrives with you in mind.

Apple has figured this out: It allows providers to roll out independent "carrier settings" bundles upon the insertion of a new SIM card, or when new features are available. These are standalone pieces of software rather than the core OS itself, and therefore don't need to be included alongside new versions of iOS. Google has the capability to do this, but in the past has bifurcated the delivery of Android entirely between itself and the carriers. If Google wants to make the Pixel a true carrier success, though, it may want to set some Apple-like terms, allowing a small amount of software customization without impeding core OS updates as a whole.

I have no doubt that with enough time, and enough complaining, Google will roll out EVS to carriers outside the U.S. But in the meantime, as a Canadian, it's frustrating to use a phone — even if it's the best phone — that lacks the features I've taken for granted for so long.

Daniel Bader was a former Android Central Editor-in-Chief and Executive Editor for iMore and Windows Central. 

97 Comments
  • Nexus fanboys often forget this.. Don't lynch me guys..
  • Lol
  • We don't care about updates we don't need. We want security and the latest OS. Many don't really need volte or WiFi calling.
  • Timely updates are a big deal for me, but I wouldn't be using a Nexus device if I weren't on T-Mo. Wifi calling is a HUGE deal for me.
  • Of course. Wifi calling is a huge deal on T-Mobile. If you had any other carrier you would be using their cell network instead. /joke drums
  • Lol @ many. Please speak for yourself.
  • If either of those features were not available on t-mobile I would be in a world of hurt. Band 12 LTE reaches many places that the regular bands do not, but it's only data. So no VoLTE, no voice calling. And wifi calling any place else. I could do without wifi calling for the most part, however no VoLTE would be a deal breaker.
  • Not a problem with those with T-Mobile to begin with lol nor Verizon this go around so meh, including those on Project Fi.
  • I'm going to text Testy McTesterson
  • He's a great guy.
  • A little testy, though.
  • Please clap.
  • *clap* lol
  • Get off the internet forever, please.
  • There are two rules.
    1. Don't do business with Verizon.
    2. Don't buy a device outside the Google play store.
  • Not many options for you I guess.
  • Those who want their smartphone a complete package should know the downsides of the Google Pixel and Pixel XL too. Check out these five reasons not to buy these phones http://techpathy.com/5-reasons-not-buy-google-pixel-pixel-xl/ You should know what Google is not offering with its first made smartphones.
  • A lot of phones aren't offering what others have, thats the way it works . Who else is offering free unlimited back up storage at full resolution, 24/ 7 live on device support, an AI Assistant built in ,smart storage and the highest rated cameras?
  • The 5 reasons in that article are all subjective. I could write an article called "5 reasons why the Pixel is still a good phone for me" and list the same 5 reasons.
  • Amen and hallelujah!
  • I'm glad I'm not on Verizon anymore.
  • Verizon released a statement saying they are not doing anything to Pixel's updates. Once Google releases the OTA they will go straight to all pixel's without hindering or testing from Verizon, just like unlocked Pixels.
  • Again, different choices for different needs. If you don't need VoLTE or WiFi calling then buying unlocked is still better.
  • VoLTE is honestly usually more of a want than a need, unless your on T-mobile where you need to call and text in their Extended LTE coverage areas.
    WiFi calling however benefits almost everyone, if you haven't use a phone with it you might not know what your missing. But every carrier, even Verizon has dead spots and being able to jump on WiFi to call and text can be very handy/
  • Unless you travel a lot or work deep in a building you don't need anything extra. Most people go touched sane few places on their daily routine, if they have service in those areas, they're golden.
  • I didn't say you use it every day, most people won't use it very often, but when you go deep in a huge building like a hospital or go visit family in west bumble it comes in handy.
    I prefer to have it as an option, and don't want to miss out on that benefit just so I can have a particular phone. Coverage is the most important part of a cell phone and WiFi calling extends that no matter what carrier you are on Also their are cases were people do use it every day, My wife just got a part time job working in a mall and has no coverage in her store, no carrier has good coverage in that end of the mall actually and with Wi-Fi calling she is able to use her phone as normal it's great for her.
  • Why do you care so much about WiFi calling and volte when there is free whatsapp calls ?
  • These things are run by the network so they are usually guaranteed. Additionally, not everyone uses WhatsApp.
  • Volte calling quality of service is guaranteed by the network. Using OTT service for voice calling is at the mercy of the congestion of the data network. It works often, until it doesn't. VoLTE is something you can depend on.
  • wait... so your saying there's no WiFi calling on the pixel if I use a tmobile Sim in it? I can't wait for WiFi calling update to come like I waited with the nexus 6. I waited a long time for WiFi calling on the nexus 6. sigh. I need it daily
  • Whatsapp may be big time in other countries, but is hugely underused in the US. I dont have a single friend that uses it.
  • Yeah, I think the people who are more likely to use it are people who have contacts internationally.
  • Yep! Almost cursed my brother out when he called me via whatsapp. I'm like "dude you're in NY and we both use T-Mobile WTH".. ☺
  • Most people I know use it - I'm in the US. (North East). Not for calling obviously, but the option is there.
  • So when people call your cell phone's number it gets routed through WhatsApp automatically? I had no idea! Also, you can use WhatsApp to call people who aren't on WhatsApp, for free, using your unlimited calling minutes? Amazing!
  • No. WhatsApp to WhatsApp
  • Exactly. You expect me to call businesses, clients, coworkers, or pretty much most humans in the world by first asking them to go get their cell phones, download WhatsApp, and install it? You do understand people communicate with more than just their buddies, right? And frankly, I NEVER communicate with my buddies by phone. Ever. All text. So if I need to CALL someone, it's going to be someone who does NOT have WhatsApp.
  • This x1000. My place of employment has the worst reception indoors so my S7 WiFi calling feature has been a saving grace. Hoping everyone else has a 3rd party app to call is ridiculous.
  • Using a third party had isn't ran by the actual network carrier so there is no guarantee or support if there is a problem with that app from the carrier unless it is theirs.
  • My question is then.... What will I miss out on from Verizon if I buy my Pixel direct from Google? Whenever it gets back in stock that is.... Lol
  • Wifi calling and VoLTE. The downsides from ordering from verizon are a Locked bootloader that you cant unlock. Honestly unless you plan on installing custom ROMs to your phone, if you are a verizon customer its a better choice to go with a Verizon pixel. As ridiculous and blasphemic as that sounds I (with a vz pixel in hand) see no other downside to it.
  • As far as I'm aware you still get WiFi calling and VoLTE with the one purchased from Google.
  • Yes Verizon clarified that you would get wifi calling and volte on the Google store version
  • Where is this confirmation?
  • http://www.androidpolice.com/2016/10/12/verizon-and-google-confirm-wifi-...
  • HD is the same as Volte?
  • Yes.
  • Hope so... Just ordered it from Google. Thanks.
  • Actually no, it's not the same. HD voice can run over HSPA as well as VoLTE.
  • Nothing.
  • Only Wi-Fi calling, VoLTE you'll be able to set up w some CS help. I had difficulties w my unlocked XPE but after one call it was resolved.
    VoLTE is probably the most important feature on Verizon since it's core system doesn't allow simultaneous data while call is in progress. Also, people overlook the fact that if you are in strong LTE signal area your calls will fall back on CDMA which at the same time can be barely holding connection.
    To me it was a must , because of the poor non LTE coverage and a need to keep data running in the background
  • If you need a carrier variant to make use of those standards based features, then there's something wrong with your carrier's implementation, not the other way round. Just like how Sprint and Verizon implements whitelists on CDMA, it's not the fault of CDMA itself but their refusal to use R-UIMs.
  • I see you're stretching hard to find something to complain about...
  • Huh? I think it's a fair point to consider and think about. With other unlocked phones, these things have generally worked just fine (i.e. Nexus 5x + 6p). To hear that this is not the case anymore is a bummer.
  • How is this a complaint?
  • I didn't even consider this. Definitely something to think about.
  • Sadly not having HD voice or WiFi calling for AT&T is a deal breaker for me. I hope in the future they carry pixel devices.
  • It works with the EE Network in the UK for both VoLTE and Wifi calling. Thankfully.
  • Ah, good to know! Will update
  • Project Fi supports Wi-Fi calling but not VoLTE, not sure if the lack of VoLTE support is because of the way the service works or Google's not interested in adding better call quality to their services. For now call quality on the nexus 6p is mediocre, I'm hoping the Pixel will have some improvements but not expecting much to change.
  • Project fi can't do volte at the moment because neither sprint not us cellular have it.
    It's something they should work on. When calling on Sprint you are using a 20 year old CDMA codec. Sounds like garbage
  • What about Tmo tho? Why not support it for when you're on Tmo towers, or shoot, even prioritize those when making calls so you're not left data-less (as one is when calling on Sprint). Frankly I don't spend a lot of the time on the phone so this is all moot to me, but on occasion it does annoy me I can't look up something while making a call on Sprint.
  • For Project Fi users to take advantage of voLTE using one of their network partners (T-Mobile), T-Mobile has to certify the devices. Unfortunately, Google doesn't think it's worth the hassle getting the certification from T-Mobile. From what I understand, there are liability issues involved when calls are not routed properly using voLTE, which is why T-Mobile needs to certify the devices.
  • I never knew how useful wifi calling is. I am on att and have it on my iPhone 7+ (and 6S+ previously) AND my S7 Active. As much as I want a Pixel XL, not sure I want it without what has become a key feature to me on ATT.
  • Just so you know in your case this is AT&T's fault. I have a work account on AT&T and I swap phones regularly I've never been able to get hd voice or VoLTE to work on AT&T on any phone that doesn't have an AT&T tramp stamp. The specifically whitelist only the phones they sell to use VoLTE and WiFi calling, they could fix this by having a certification process like T-mobile has to enable VoLTE and WiFi calling after some testing but they want you to buy phones from their store so they can lock you in to a virtual contract with their phone financing. If google went through the certification process and enabled VoLTE and WiFi calling by default for T-mobile users , you know they would have done it with AT&T is AT&T allowed it.
  • They do have this process. The unlocked HTC a9 &10 supports at&t's VoLTE. No wifi calling though.
  • It's pretty amazing how flexible T-Mobile is with this sort of thing. Wifi calling, VoLTE and integrated VVM "just works" on their network (non-branded phones). No, not on 100% of every imported/non branded phone, but the vast majority of them, yep. AT&T and Verizon (and Sprint I guess?) on the other hand run a tight ship, requiring an iPhone or branded device to have access to these features. It's kind of ridiculous. I left AT&T (after like a decade) and went to T-Mo. Is it absolutely perfect? Nope. Do I really prefer how they handle things with non-branded handset features? Yep. I'll happily give my money for a company that is open like this.
  • +1 This right here! That is really one of my favorite things about them. Most of the phones I have tried this year have been unlocked and I have generally had at least one of the above three things on all of the phones I have tried.
  • Agreed, it's part of the reason I'm a happy T-mobile customer. they don't care what phone you use at all and they will let any phone manufacturer go through their certification process to work completely on their network with no compromises. It's not something the average T-mobile customer even realizes, but it's a very important distinction between them and other carriers. they are a good example to the other carrier's. I
  • wifi calling only works on nexus/pixel, apple and htc 10 i think unless you buy from t-mobile.
  • Good article and it's important to think about.
    I have to admit I have things slightly better than you as I am on T-mobile so I get Wi-Fi calling and VoLTE on my Pixel XL
    But I've passed on so many unlocked phones because they don't support VoLTE on band 12, and don't support WiFi calling.
    It's very frustrating to have to deal with losing features which keep you connected, which is the entire point of owning a cellphone in order to buy a phone that didn't come from your carrier store. No carrier has perfect coverage WiFi calling can be a great supplement to keep you connected. I hope in the future they find a way to standardize VoLTE and WiFi calling to a greater degree, to the point that you can enable it for any carrier that supports it on a phone that has the hardware support, maybe something as simple as android APN settings for VoLTE and WiFi calling.
    Or Android adopts something like IOS has when it can download carrier specific settings and optimizations automatically. It would really be a great benefit to the unlocked market.
  • Why use useless Verizon when T-Mobile and AT&T provide same service and choice of bringing whatever phone you want. Yeah there is that 1 or 2 percent who are in remote areas that may need Verizon but majority are just leaving under false impression and stuck to locked down useless carrier.
  • And to me at&t and T-Mobile are useless. Choice is a wonderful thing
  • This has nothing to do with letting the manufacturer control the UPDATES and everything to do with the manufacturer not designing it specifically for your network.
  • another thing Apple gets right I am guessing... I don't care about volte. Never needed it before. I do care about wifi calling though.
  • Apple is king (to the carriers), so generally everything should work just fine.
  • Surely this is not a big deal for a 1000$ phone, is it?
    Leave it up to Google to screw up...again.
  • Guys This might be a silly question but here goes..Im from India where V don't have carriers and stuff.. just order on Amazon,Put a sim and u r good to go. So when u buy from carriers like Verizon,At&t etc How cheap is the phone going to be compared to when u r buying it directly?
  • It depends on the phone. For what I can recall in my own experience, the difference is like at least 40 USD.
  • Uh oh. You just wrote that there may be value to buying from Verizon. People are gonna be mad at you!
  • Don't bother me none. I got T-mobile lol
  • I thought you couldn't do wifi calling with Tmobile either if they don't support the phone.
  • They actually support a good amount of phones. Check out this list: http://www.spectrumgateway.com/compatible-phones
  • Shouldn't that be Testy McTestface?
  • So an unlocked Pixel will have T-Mobile support for VoLTE and WiFi Calling in the US?
  • Isn't this just a matter of getting the Pixel qualified on each carrier? Or is VoLTE and Wifi calling done differently outside the US?
  • so, I'm gonna stick with getting updates directly from Google=good. 99℅ of all updates have everything to do with software that runs on your phone and nothing to do with the carrier. it's like saying i don't like it when Microsoft sends updates to my pc without consulting charter internet.
  • I have an international S7E bought direct from Samsungs web store and I have voLTE and WiFi calling on EE in the UK.
    I'm not sure why Google should get a free pass on that if Samsung can manage it.
  • Didn't Google attempt to address this with Carrier Configuration(https://source.android.com/devices/tech/config/carrier.html)? It seems that the carrier's aren't implement in it.
  • I am with Sprint and I have a note 3. The reason I have not upgraded my phone yet its because now I enjoy data and voice which I thought it was a given little did I know. .. Sprint costumers with newer phones cannot do voice and data simultaneously. Moral of the story when i upgrade it will have to be tmobil.
  • Does Samsung still region-lock their phones? If so, how did you get an unlocked Galaxy S6 in the U.K. and use it in North America?
  • I think this article is missing some information. As far as I know, it is - as usually - a fault of Canadian carriers. Let me explain. For some reason, Rogers (and Fido) allows only devices with IMEI from their internal database to use the VoLTE and WIFi calling features. The exception for some reason is Apple's iPhone, which works with Rogers' VoLTE and WiFi calling without a problem, even when it was bought elsewhere. I know this because I have a Galaxy S6 bought with Wind Mobile, but converted to Fido phone through CSC code change. When I briefly used the iPhone SE, I activated WiFi calling. When I then switched back to the S6, WiFi calling worked for a day - before Fido realized the IMEI was not in their database and deactivated the feature remotely. It is annoying that Android devices are treated like second citizens, but that's the way it is. And Pixel is just another Android device.
  • So I should expect project fi not to be such a train wreck on the pixel phones ;)
  • While I don't find HD calling particularly useful - especially since it requires both phones on the call to be compatible to work, and intercarrier operability is limited - I do see your point. I think it's another case of Google being too engineering-driven in some respects: they worry about everything expect the end user experience.
  • I thought I read that EVS codec is the more modern codec that permits ultra HD Voice. The Pixel has this codec. If all carriers would use this codec, since it is supposed to be a standard (several years old now), then any EVS codec phone (with the right radio bands) could use HD Voice and wifi calling. The problem is the carriers aren't universally using this codec exclusively. I think the 911 location stuff works with this codec too.
  • want your phones to be updated with the latest and greatest software for many years? get iPhones.
  • To be real the google pixel is one of the few smart phones that have all LTE bands enable out of the box.
    Most smart phone are only capable with few bands or just enough to be called LTE enabled.
    My stance on features is that google and other smartphone OEMs should force carriers into a model smiliar to Apple.
    Iphones are not programed specifically for one particular carrier. It has a standard, and if a carrier want to sell that device that must support that standard.
    That why carriers enable iphones with VoLTE and wifi calling out of the box without issues.
    One the other hand google has a VoLTE and Wifi calling standard that is only accepted by few. That why both Verizon and Tmobile service work perfectly. This article should watch how it points the blame. As the issue is not google but it is the carriers that sell the device.