Skip to main content

Higher phone prices should mean better Android updates for longer, but they don't

Galaxy S20, S20+ and S20 Ultra
Galaxy S20, S20+ and S20 Ultra (Image credit: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

The Samsung Galaxy S20+ (opens in new tab) has a retail price of $1,200. The Pixel 3a XL (opens in new tab) has a current retail price of just $420. The phones don't have much in common, but there is one important thing: both will receive the same number of updates before they reach support end-of-life. And one of these phones is approaching a year old.

One could argue that the Galaxy S20+ doesn't need platform updates because Samsung features are better and already in place. The person arguing that would be wrong, but on the surface, at least, this can look true. The reality is that what one person thinks doesn't make a thing true. Maybe you don't care about any new features Android 11 or Android 12 will bring, but a $1,200 price gives you the right to expect it.

Nobody should expect a phone to be updated forever. It's an idea that sounds nice, but if you've ever tried to use an old iPhone that was updated to its fourth or fifth iOS version you know it's not always a great experience. I'm not proposing that the S20+ should see a full-blown update to Android 14, but the cost implies that the phone is valuable enough that Samsung should provide the important bits beyond Android 12 and add what it can without ruining performance. Sort of like a security update or those Pixel Feature Drops we're seeing more frequently.

No surprises here: Samsung's 2020 flagships will only get major updates until Android 12

A large part of the Android update mess lies with the chip manufacturer, and that usually means Qualcomm. A new Android platform means that chip makers need to provide some new code to make things work as they should. Qualcomm is notorious for its unwillingness to do so (for free, anyway) and arrangements between device manufacturers and Qualcomm need to be struck when the phone was being designed that say how long Qualcomm will offer support.

Google can make these agreements last three years instead of two, and it loses money every time it makes a phone. Apple makes its own chips so it can update phones past the point of usefulness. Samsung has to ... wait a minute. Samsung also is a chip manufacturer and its Exynos chips aren't quite the performer that comparable Qualcomm chips are, but it could use them and provide years of updates if it wanted to do so.

Pixel 3a XL and OnePlus 7 Pro

Source: Harish Jonnalagadda / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Harish Jonnalagadda / Android Central)

Except it can't, because Qualcomm also offers the modem and complete RF solution and packages everything together in a way that makes it prohibitively expensive to use a different brand of chip in many Western countries. Samsung can't lose money on phone hardware like Google can because it's primarily a hardware manufacturer. A damn good one, at that. So, back to square one.

$1,200 buys a lot of phone hardware but not nearly as much software support.

Maybe carriers are the problem then. Samsung likes to pretend it doesn't have the leverage to get carriers to budge a little and a carrier wants you to upgrade your phone as often as possible. Carriers make money from the phone purchase and have an easy way to lock you into service when they sell you a $1,200 phone that doesn't work as well on another carrier.

I say Samsung does hold as much leverage as Google here and since we know the AT&T or Verizon Pixel 4 will get three platform updates, we can assume the S20+ should, too. Samsung is the largest phone maker in the world and makes the best phones. I don't know about you, but I'm getting tired of circular logic that keeps taking me back to one thing: Samsung could offer three (or more) version updates but for some reason it just doesn't.

So why doesn't Samsung want to offer a longer period of support that a $350 Pixel budget phone has? Money, that's why.

Two very specific things would happen if Samsung did the unthinkable and added even just one more year of support: people would buy Samsung phones less often, and the division that works at writing Samsung's version of Android would need a bigger budget to hire more people. Both cost money and a lot of it. Samsung is a for-profit company that exists only to make money like every other for-profit does. Spending more money is like a boogeyman holding a bucket filled with nightmares to companies designed to turn a profit.

That means it's really our fault. Like many, I'm looking at the Galaxy S20 line and wondering if I should buy one. I do not need a new phone, yet I'm salivating over the sexy new hardware Samsung shows us every year just like you are. I'm also determined that I will never spend $1,000 on a phone and part of the reason why is that phones have become disposable. Instead, I spent $900 (disclaimer — it was the company's money) on a Pixel 4 which is no better.

Maybe buying a Pixel "a" series is the smart, but boring choice.

I'm not sure why we all aren't buying Pixel a series phones or Nokia models that see fast updates for two years or even phones that will probably see quarterly security updates only but have the same killer hardware from companies like Redmi or Realme.

What I do know is I keep looking at that Galaxy S20 page and have to talk myself out of clicking the button, even though I know I deserve better.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

49 Comments
  • Or could it be as simple as Samsung wants to sell a phone and doesn't give a damn about the consumer after purchase?? Simple. *Motorola really fits in the mold!!!
  • For these reasons my next phone will be an iPhone. Gosh, I wish blackberry was still in the game...
  • I made a mistake abandoning my note 8 for the note 10...won't happen with the note 21....this phone will be run into the ground, updates or not...
  • *Note 30. Mark my words.
  • That's the conundrum, isn't it? Samsung sort of front-loaded a lot of the innovation in its phones. Apple was very tactful, in that it staggered this out across several years. So, every iPhone had new features that kind of mattered a lot more than the gimmicks that Samsung adds - because Apple only added these things when it made practical sense to do so.
  • Yes, props to Apple for that, aside from 3D touch. Oddly enough, what the S20 Ultra did was bring together features that other phones already had. 108mp sensor, pixel binning, periscope zoom, TOF, have all been done before, so it's not like they invented anything new. Well, they did invent a new level of sticker shock, so I stand corrected ;)
  • I wouldn't mind paying a small fee ($20-$30) to be able to upgrade an older device to a new major Android release.
  • As the article explains, the problem is Qualcomm. "Qual" is the German for agony, torment or torture and seems most appropriate. They just want to sell new SOCs every year, and an upgrade path would affect that. How many people would pay as much as $30? I suspect not nearly enough. The only organisation I can imagine doing anything about this is the EU when it gets around to it.
    It will be interesting to see what Huawei do. They now have to do everything in house, and selling long upgrades might be a good marketing point.
  • If Qualcomm lengthen the Lifecycle of the processors, that would gove.more time for the competition to develop competing products during the Lifecycle to show value (Intel vs AMD). By always producing something new in such a short cycle and the marketing is driven to keep you focused on new, I limit the focus on competition. Intel didnt master that technique but Qualcomm has. As you can see you do not see and adss about to 7c and 8c used in PCs. Qualcomm makes them for Microsoft and leave the marketing up to them to drive........ genius, this is business folks. They made a mistake with Apple in licensing tech so Apple could develop their own chips completely independent of Qualcomm give or take a few licenses. Since that debacle, in my opinion it been limited with any other makers.
  • Well Samsung and other manufacturers probably aren't going to change their ways. The general public isn't exactly clamoring for this. Most people don't even know or care which Android version is on their phone.
  • As long as the phone still functions then technologically challenged people don't care.
  • Pretty much spot on. I myself don't care overly much, either; I'll be using the phone 2-3 years, and either "retire" it or pass it on to one of the kids. So, I'll be buying a new phone by the time Android 13 hits the street.
    I agree with Jerry that we SHOULD expect more, but in practice I don't think it matters much...
  • In the UK today the BBC has a news story that more than a billion Android phones worldwide are at serious risk of being hacked especially if running Android 6 or earlier. I'm writing this on a Note 4 on Android 6, Security patch August 2017. I do have another (Samsung) Android running Android 9 with the January 2020 security patch installed and the promise of Android 10 arriving next month. It's still a nice, usable phone but maybe it's time to get rid of the Note.
  • Or maybe it's time you bought an iPhone and say what you want about Apple but at least you get the longest support more than any Android phone and if anything goes wrong with your iPhone at least you can take it to an Apple store unlike on Android.
  • If someone wants a iPhone that's ok you pay a premium and get great support but their IOS updates later on don't upgrade much they aren't like a big Android numbered updates. Me personally I buy Samsung phones use them then sell them after a year and add a couple of hundred pounds and get the newest device. Sold my Note 9 for £550 and bought a Note 10 plus for £750 via eBay and I do it every year, means this issue isn't a problem for me.
  • iOS updates are as big or bigger than Android updates, these days. Apple just doesn't care to load their phone up with Gimmicks that most people won't use after a week of novelty use. I did move from the Note9 to the iPhone 11 Pro. I am happy, and the fact that Apple has such great support for their devices does make you feel... very comfortable... paying the price for the device. Samsung had good upgrade offers coming from my Note, but even that was hard to justify due to how the support structure works with Android, the fact that they only get 2 major Android updates (1 if I went to the Note 10+), and the fact that the updates take forever to hit the phone. Also, I like how straightforwards AppleCare+ is, esp. given the fact that there is an Apple Store like 15 minutes away. You'd be lucky to sell a Note9 for $300 around here. The people buying second hand are the people most educated about Android's lack in this area.
  • This is why I'm using an iPhone 11 Pro Max. It'll get regular updates and I can go to an Apple Store if anything happens to it and I can walk right out with a new one. If I busted an Android phone, I'd be on my own and without a phone for several days waiting for an insurance replacement.
  • There's a two week wait on replacement iPhones right now due to problems getting them shipped from China. But, it's still better than most Android support scenarios. However, using an old iPhone is no fun. You can only push so many updates before you exceed the hardware, and it becomes a sluggish experience even if the old battery can hold a charge. It should be noted that iPhone batteries degrade in as little as 9 months. Out of the nearly dozen iPhones we have laying around, anything older than the 7 is suffering.
  • Apple's SoCs are like 2 years ahead of Qualcomm's. An iPhone 6s is basically like running an Galaxy S7. This is why Apple was able to bring them back to almost release-level performance with an iOS update. Once your battery is below 80% capacity, take it to Apple and get it replaced on the cheap. That's not a big deal. In any case, the iPhone 6S is from 2015, so it feeling slower than a phone released in 2018/19 is... very normal, Lol.
  • No, an iPhone 6S is far better than a Galaxy S7. My S7 Edge was laggy on day one, and I noticed it before I left the AT&T store! It's still in my drawer, busted, and I never bothered getting it fixed. My 6S Plus broke and I got it fixed, and will be getting a new battery for it in a couple weeks because it's still a viable backup phone. New battery costs about $40 US where I live, installed. However, the claim that Apple SoC's are 2 years ahead is a bit of a myth. It's totally believable if you only compare them to results from Samsung, as Samsung performance is never optimal. But if you do real world performance testing with devices from other companies who actually care about optimization, then the difference between Apple's SoC's and Qualcomm's fades away. I've got the HTC M8 and the iPhone 6S Plus on my desk in front of me right now, and the M8 is quicker. Another case in point is the HTC U12 Plus which was released within 6 months of the iPhone X with the A11 Bionic. According to benchmarks, the X should have been far ahead of the U12 Plus. What happened in real world performance tests? See for yourself:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S61LLhsnr_c
  • I'm with you on this. Apple is years ahead. Always has and always will. Certain peeps keep bringing up this dead company called HTC and claim their phones had everything before anyone, but looking at their company value, they are a bust...
    If they were so good, why are they gasping for revenue with entry level junk?
  • I have got an iPhone, a 6s that works perfectly and is on the latest version of iOS and may even get iOS 14 so I don't need to buy a new one. I mentioned the Note 4 because, while it's seriously outdated but not obsolete, it's a typical example of the phones I see people using every day which I, and most people on AC would know to be so old that they have to be stuck on Android 5,6,7 or 8. The owners of these phones don't know about this and don't care about it.
    I also know some iPhone users who have no idea what iOS version is running on their phones or how easy it would be for them to update. As others have said, most people couldn't care less.
  • Problem with Apple is once the phone gets too old, developers stop support for their apps. I have older Google products that I can still run older versions of the app on and still download the older version. iOS, you cannot, unless it is loaded on another older iOS device. I couldn't even get Apple's own website to load on an older iPad, since it only had 9.x iOS and not 10.x.
  • I thought 'treble' was supposed to solve the chipset driver problem. What happened to that?
  • Well people keep buying low storage phones
  • I thought the same as well, outside of manufactures not wanting to support it for economic reasons maybe long term agreements between the manufacturer and Qualcomm need to be renegotiated. Theres always a price involved.
  • OnePlus is the only Android OEM that's comparable to Google in software updates but they still pale in comparison to Apple and that's one of the reasons why I'm going back to iPhone plus along with the fact that as limited as iOS is, apps just work better and as far as I'm concerned Apple justifies it's high prices for it's iPhones just for the long term support alone.
  • Are you the same Beno that used to say Google was the best and kept going on about the Pixel phones?
  • That was the OLD Beno. The new Beno ain't got time for that.. I do miss the flame wars from the old Beno though..
  • I'm over the Pixel phones, especially after seeing the the Pixel 4 XL.
  • Yeah, I saw one in person today and I hate the BIG forehead it has. The chin was just right, but the forehead, my God it's huge!!
  • It's getting to the same point as laptops. The improvements in hardware are iterative, excepting 5g at the moment. An older phone will last far longer than the service will support it. I'm still using a OP 5T and it still does everything I need it to fluidly without issues. It's time the longevity of the service caught up with the extended life of the hardware. It's highly wasteful otherwise. I really hate that connected devices can be rendered obsolete at the whim of it's creator.
  • One of the reasons my only phone's moving forward are Apple and Google (maybe android one devices from Nokia).I want a device that gives me the choice to choose when I change and not being forced because I know I won't getting any new OS updates. Currently have an iPhone 8 plus main phone with Pixel2XL and Mate 10 as backup's
  • You don't want to an Android One phone, especially with Nokia, they always have issues and they're customer service is terrible, I have a Nokia 8.1 which suddenly stopped getting updates after December until I reset the phone. My 8.1 is the first and last Android One and Nokia phone I'll buy, I'm sticking to iPhone and maybe OnePlus (for the Android side)
  • Loving my Nokia 7.1. Just received the February security update but being a month behind for updates on a device with a not so great camera, but checks of the other boxes makes me happy.
  • It's too bad the author didn't address the security updates to give a more thorough perspective. For example, the OG Pixel and the Galaxy S7 were both released in 2016. The Pixel has reached its end of life and is no longer receiving support, while the S7 is still on Samsung's list to receive quarterly updates. I also believe a majority of users are skeptical about updates for fear that they will either slow their phone down, or break what isn't broken.
  • Android phones should have four years of os and security updates. So the S20 should get Android 11, 12 and 13.
  • The S20 is a lot of things, but the term "sexy" never entered my mind, lol. The funny thing is that the S20 Ultra seems to be future proofed; a phone that you hold onto. Yet they draw the line at two years, and don't even bother making the performance outstanding. I mean, the S20 is fast, but just about every other phone that comes out with the same SOC WILL be faster.
  • Galaxy Upcycling had great potential but we havent seen anything new on it in 2 years
  • I think that it is irresponsible for manufactures who make tech gear to not provide updates for products such as smartphones for the life of the hardware -I'm not saying updates for 10 years, but I think 3-4 years is more than reasonable.
    I also don't think giving 3 or 4 years of OS updates would hurt or impact Samsung's bottom line either.
    By giving updates for longer on high-end smartphones, Samsung will raise the used market value for older phones. This making the price delta between a new phone and a 1yr or 2yr old phone smaller.
    People will not pay top dollar for smartphone that had reached EOL.
    Also, Daylight just reduced the list price of their Galaxy S10 series phones. Those phones purchased new today will only be provided with 1 OS update - that isn't right.
    Lastly, our legislation should force manufactures like Google/Alphabet Samsung, etc to support devices longer - this keeping more electronics out of the trash when they are still solid, working products.
  • $1400.00+tax (Ultra) for a Whopping 2 years of software support. Lol 😂, that's Crackhead stupid, no way in hell.
  • This is one of several reasons why I will be getting an iPhone and remaining with Apple later this year and Android will be relegated to my secondary device because let's face it Apple gets a lot right, i.e messages and video recording and gaming as well as security and privacy which Android lags behind Apple and this is something Google will never be able to truly fix although Android has gotten much better with these things, it will always be inferior to Apple in these categories and apps are still better on iOS as well, especially the social media apps. This time I'm going all in with Apple with iPad and Mac.
  • That's what I did. iPhone 11 Pro, and Note9 is now a backup. I might trade it in at Best Buy and get an Apple Watch, though. I also got an iPad Air 3 and Apple Pencil, so I don't plan on leaving this ecosystem any time soon. I kind of want the watch for fitness features, though. That, or an Apple TV 4K for AirPlay. Maybe both, Lol. Paying $1,000+ for a Samsung device is literally throwing hundreds in the bin. The devices are badly supported, and the resale value depreciates at like twice the rate of iPhones. And, yea, the apps on iOS are a completely different league compared to Android. This will make it hard to go back to Android in the future. I went from iOS to Android with the Note 9 (from iPhone 8 Plus), and app quality drop-off was VERY noticeable. I regretted it. Once I got the iPhone 11 Pro, it was a huge relief. Even some of the same apps on Android are just better on iOS.
  • Hope you've big pockets if your going all in with Apple! it's probably my only real complaint with apple stuff they make excellent hardware I think the Apple Watch is fantastic! and there's nothing close on the android side it's just really expensive and I hate that they still release 64gb base versions!
  • Beno, when you switch, can I watch you trying to take a picture of a spiderweb? I watched a professional photographer with an iPhone trying that last year, and although he never did get the shot, it was an interesting process! He wanted that photo bad, so I took it for him.
    https://photos.app.goo.gl/PHThkBSoaKEaitvy5
  • I think the issue is the compatibility of custom software and hardware. It looks like after two years Qualcomm doesn't support or manufacture a generation of chips/soc. They also stop supporting compatability after two along with security updates of there SOC for 4 years. It's not cost effective for Samsung to lookback when they are pushed to look forward, so it is a Qualcomm driven issue. Samsung is a manufacturer that depends on the availability of a SOC to make the devices we love. They have a dependency on Qualcomm and Android. Yes they makes their own chips but license the base core design from Qualcomm and depends more on Qualcomm. In the end they cant necessarily go against Qualcomm because there is a deep dependency. That's more of a big picture view.
  • They can keep the same kernel while back-porting OneUI and app updates to the phone and also offering security patches. There is literally no excuse for the current, bad, support structure. If they want us to invest more $$$ in the hardware, then they need to invest more into the software. People are growing tired of treating these OEMs like charities.
  • I don't even care about the platform updates myself. Android has been feature complete for me since 4.4. I just want the security updates, even if I have to start paying for them after a year or two. Or at least be able to get updates until the battery fails, then I'll move on to the next mobile.
  • The average consumer doesn't care or even know about new OS updates. I help a lot of friends and family with their phones both iPhone and Android and it's always the same they never update apps and a system update has been waiting in the background for months to install. I feel like the only people who care about security patches and new OS updates are the few who read these forums.