The unbearable slowness of Samsung's updates

Every year around this time, as I prepare for another onslaught of Samsung leaks, rumors, and eventual reveals and reviews, I try to take a look back at the company's update track record — and I'm always disappointed.

Just this week, Samsung announced that its extended and relatively exclusive Oreo beta is ending, which means that an update to Android 8.0 is imminent for devices like the Galaxy S8, S8+, and Note 8. Great. But I've been using Oreo since August on devices like the original Pixel, and a good chunk of the phones on my office desk, including some that shipped with the latest version, have been enjoying Oreo since well before Thanksgiving.

Year after year, the world's biggest phone manufacturer fails to deliver on its promise for timely software updates, and in doing so significantly depresses the overall tally in the process. Google can push updates to its Nexus and Pixel lineup as quickly as it wants (and it does), and companies like Sony, HTC, OnePlus and others can help make a dent, but it's not until Samsung begins its lumbering annual rollout that the tectonic shift begins anew. With Oreo still on under 1% of devices, that massive endeavor can't come quickly enough.

It's not like Samsung is new to this game. Articles like this have been proffered since at least 2012, and the company has indeed improved the quality of its software output, but the stakes are just so much higher these days. Samsung increasingly owns the Android market, and its dominance puts the Android team at Google — separate from the Pixel hardware team — in a tenuous position. As we've seen from previews of Android 8.0 Oreo on the Galaxy S8, through the beta program, this particular update isn't nearly as significant an aesthetic or feature overhaul as last year's jump to Nougat was, and yet we're coming up on a year since Samsung began rolling that out. It didn't hit carriers in the U.S. until late February.

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Earlier this month, we asked people what their biggest frustrations are with Android right now. The number one response by a wide margin? Lack of updates.

With the Galaxy S9 being announced on February 25th, and an expected release date just three weeks later, on March 16th, it's clear that Samsung is using the availability of the latest version of Android as a selling feature. Forget the Galaxy S8 for a moment — most people updating to the S9 will be coming from an S6 or S7, which, in the case of the S6 series, won't receive Oreo at all, or receive it later this year, as promised to the S7 line. A jump to Android 8.0 out of the box, with all its performance improvements and additional features, is leverage that Samsung hopes to use to sell a few more phones.

Whenever I take this indignant stance towards Samsung's languid approach to software updates, I risk not taking the other side into account: with great power comes great responsibility. Given that Samsung has the world's largest fleet of phones waiting for updates, it must ensure that the experience is largely bug-free, with UI elements and software features adapted to its numerous regional partners. I don't envy the teams in charge of such quality assurance.

No Android manufacturer is good at updates, but Samsung's prolonged cycles impact the most people at once.

At the same time, Google released the first Android O developer preview on March 21 last year. Oreo was first publicly available on August 21, and the Sony Xperia XZ1, the first phone to arrive with Oreo out of the box, came a month later.

With the Galaxy S9 series inevitably shipping with Oreo out of the box, it's possible Samsung will support Treble, a system that could potentially speed up software updates in years to come. According to Google, "Project Treble will make it easier, faster and less costly for device maker partners when these devices are updated in the future."

Not that, nor any other Google tool or incentivization, will provide solace to millions of Android users, whether they know it or not, waiting for the latest version. It's not just about new features, either: every update helps developers improve their apps, and makes it easier for IT managers to troubleshoot problems. It's a virtuous cycle that Samsung can perpetuate, but like in years past, customers continue to be placed second.

Here's what else is on my mind this week.

  • We took a few weeks off from the podcast over new years, but we've released three in the past two weeks and they're very good. The gaming-focused one, in particular, is a lot of fun if you haven't listened to it already.
  • That Samsung is focusing on camera improvements for the Galaxy S9 is understandable. What's struck me after picking up the Note 8 again in recent days is just how far it needs to come to compete with the Pixel 2 on imaging.
  • Andrew is right on the money here. Android, as occasionally frustrating as it is for new and veteran users alike, no longer needs to be rooted (it arguably never did) to save it from its poor decisions. I haven't rooted a phone in nearly five years.
  • Jerry wrote some smart things about limits on government surveillance, especially in light of the extension to Section 702 of FISA. Worth the read.
  • Three weeks ago, I wrote about smartphone addiction. Three weeks ago, I decided to make a concerted effort to use my phone less. I've deleted Twitter from my smartphones (limiting use to my laptop) which has helped, but the next step is to set timers for the amount of time I spend on the phone in general. Small but important steps to taking back control of my digital life.
  • Peace.

-Daniel

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

293 Comments
  • the real reason is they have your(and Mine) money already and are laughing all the way to the bank!
  • They don't have mine because I didn't buy a Note 8 (and previous notes) ONLY because of the update situation, I'd really like a stylus.
  • They always get your money... I don't think I own a single Samsung product, but guess who manufactured the display, RAM, flash module and gods know what else in my phone?
  • More of your money than if you bought one of their own products, in one case. From a Forbes article a few months back: "In fact, according to analyst firm Counterpoint, Apple is expected to sell 130 million iPhone X over the next two years, which would give Samsung close to $14 billion in additional revenue. For what it's worth, Samsung is only estimated to make $10 billion in profits from its own Galaxy S8 devices over that same span. This means the iPhone X is bringing Samsung more money than the company's own flagship."
  • That statement equates revenue to profits. Not the same thing at all....ridiculous journalism.
  • The fact that Samsung is such a huge and profitable company when it comes to cell phones, does not directly relate to their ability (or willingness) to update the devices they put out there. They operate in a constant conflict of interest, updating old devices results in less reasons for users to buy their new devices. While I despise Samsung's implementation of Android (Touchwiz = Burn it with Fire) at least some of the blame should be laid squarely at Google. It's now been a decade since Android came out. It runs on the linux kernel. Why didn't they abstract the graphical interface of Android separately from the rest of the OS? Google could absolutely make it so that the OS, by itself, updates it's core safely and securely. This way it would not be relying on Samsung to update the entire OS and push updates to the client. The fact the masses continue to buy these devices, year after year, is really discouraging. I do understand the appeal of the Samsung hardware. My and my wife's Galaxy Nexus phones continue to work so many years later. Good hardware, terrible software.
  • Touchwiz works great
  • LG. Lol. Pixel XL 2. But yeah they got some in parts. Can't give them money for hardware like phones or computers.
  • And this is why you root phones. This is in response to an article from a couple of days ago.
  • Root for samsung phones is a no go. Actual fuses (e fuse)on its soc would be set off pernamently disabling samsung pay, voiding warranty and other samsung services.
  • I don't feel sorry for you by being "always disappointed". I loved my Note 3. But that was my first and last Samsung phone.
  • Yep. Same boat as you. Samsung hardware is absolutely beautiful but horrible software updates has made me never get another one.
  • Yeah, they should roll them out faster and have to constantly issues updates like Google and the Pixel
  • exactly same, first and my last. I still remember getting ONE update (Android 4 to 5.0, and that's it) after 6.0 is already available. Pissed me off greatly. Not to mention all the crapware they tried to force down your throat. And the terrible skinned Android. Pixel 2 timely updates feels so welcomed and stock Android experience so darn refreshing.. there's no going back ever.
  • "after picking up the Note 8 again in recent days is just how far it needs to come to compete with the Pixel 2 on imaging" This alone tells me you know nothing of photography nor are you willing to learn. If you want to point and shoot, sure, keep using the iPixel. It's the only thing that phone is actually great at.
    But the day you want to learn how photography works or want to actually have control over what you shoot, on that day you'll realise it's the iPixel that has a LONG way to go to compete with Galaxy flagships. Or LG flagships. As for Samsung's updates: you answered your own question. They're the largest Android OEM with the largest device catalogue. To deploy updates faster they'd need a team far far bigger and more expensive to maintain.
    And when you consider NO ONE in the real world actually gives two sh*ts about updates (only we do), you'll quickly realise that Samsung is pretty happy with spending its money somewhere else ;)
  • Actually, one doesn’t need to go a long way. Sideload the Google Camera port. Cleans up output really well.
  • Not compared to the Samsung camera app. Same indoor shot with some ambient light with HDR turned on in both apps, and the Google camera app shot produces significantly more noise and some odd rainbow artifacts in the upper and lower left corners. The Samsung camera app produces a much cleaner shot with equally good detail. Not surprising, since Samsung surely tuned the noise reduction for their own sensor, and the Google camera app is probably applying some default profile.
  • The artifacts haven’t appeared on mine, but in the conditions I used it in, the Google Camera app actually produced shots I preferred over the Samsung app. Problem with the Samsung camera app is that the HDR mode often worked as a shadow-brightening mode. The shadows are brightened up nicely but the highlights either stayed the same or got blown out. The Google Camera app balanced both nicely and actually made for a nice shot. Granted, it’s not always better. Some indoor scenarios had Samsung’s app winning by a significant margin with better exposure and significantly less noise (without compromising on detail) but during my time with both, I preferred what the Google camera app produced, mostly due to the dynamic range. In fact, I actually captured one photo with it that was good enough to use as a wallpaper on my iPad.
  • If you really want to learn how photography works and want full control over your photos, get a DSLR. Most people can't be bothered to go into manual mode to futz with the settings and in this case the Pixel 2 does incredibly well. Also portrait mode is much better on the Pixel 2 (and no amount of manual controls on current Samsung phones is going to change that). Pixel phones also have great battery life and frequent updates. So yes, although YOU want manual controls for photos - which can be done with 3rd party apps for the Pixel), it doesn't mean everyone needs it. Then again I know you're just a troll who's never happy anyways (based on other comments) so I have no idea why I'm even responding.
  • I have two DSLRs and I prefer the camera of the Note 8 over the Pixels. Saying the Note 8 has a long way to go is a little ridiculous though no matter how you slice it. It shows tremendous bias, because no matter how you look at it, the Note 8 is still a good camera. Saying it has a long way to go implies that it isn't. A lot of reviews and user opinions all over the Internet say otherwise.
  • And who do you blame for Samsung having the "largest device catalogue" and the need for a big team? They control the # devices as well as the software on them, its up to them whether they have one OS version or one for each device.
  • Why do you have to blame anyone? Simply don't buy one if this is an issue. I would rather have it good than fast and broken
  • If you want to do real photography, use a real camera.
  • Not necessarily. You still need to learn the core essentials. If you don’t yet have an actual camera, you can use your phone to practice some of the basics like ISO and shutter speed along with composition. By the time you graduate to an actual camera, you’ll be able to understand how apertures work and focal-length. And perhaps by then, you’ll understand most of it that the only thing left to do is to acquaint yourself with the camera’s control scheme. The thing which annoys me is seeing people say that you need a real camera to do real photography. I viscerally disagree with that because I’m a firm believer that the equipment doesn’t make a photographer but how he/she interprets their photographic vision through the use of whatever skills they have. It’s much easier and more flexible to use an actual camera, but I always find using a phone camera an interesting challenge because the limited nature of their hardware like small sensors, fixed focal length and smaller lens sizes often mean I needed to compensate more through a longer shutter speed and more effort in Lightroom to clean up output. It may never look as nice as output from my a6000 but it’s such an interesting challenge that I sometimes like to do it.
  • It's true that there's nothing wrong with learning how to use the manual setting if you have time and especially how to compose a picture, but taking pictures with a phone is like cooking with a microwave. They're meant to be quick and dirty. You can get some decent results, but it's a bit silly to get judgemental and pretentious because your microwave has more granular controls. It's still a microwave. For what it's worth, I always use the manual controls on my microwave, never the preset programmes. The results are just that much better if you put the effort in, you know?
  • Fuzz - I prefer manual mode for my microwave as well ;)
    However, there's a lot of "real" cameras that are just not as good as what we get on some of the flagship phones anymore. I've got cameras from Olympus, Fuji, HP, and Panasonic that just look bad now in comparison. I still have my Nikon 8400 which I keep because of the special spherical lenses I have for it. This was my favorite camera which I used professionally in some situations until last year, but it physically cannot take as high a quality photos as some smartphones no matter what you do with the settings. It was also my vacation camera because it was easier to carry for hours than a full DSLR, and took better pictures than a smartphone, but those days are gone and the U11 (for example) has a full pro mode and captures better quality photos. There's a couple situations where the 8400 will be better, like spherical photos and lighting up an entire building interior with sequenced flash modes, but for everything else, it got left behind.
  • Manual controls do not make for a better picture. Unless we are talking about DSLRs. 99% of phone owners leave it set on what is out of the box, so all those manual controls are used by essentially no one. Face it, Samsung has fallen behind just a bit in the camera department, and eight years in software.
  • Exactly, I don't know why people sit in a corner crying and paralyzed because their phone doesn't have the absolute latest software. Yes, I'd rather the work being put into stable releases rather than letting the public be the beta testers. Googs is notorious for fixing A and breaking B. I can't have that with my business tool. If your camera is your best quality...yay for you, I guess, Pixelers
  • I'll never purchase another Samsung phone because of the lack of updates. It's a shame that older Samsung phones are receiving the Orio update, not the Note. The Note 8 should have shipped with Orio and I agree Samsung doesn't give a crap about updates.
  • The Note is getting Oreo though...
  • But it's not getting "Orio," whatever that is.
  • Maybe it's an off-brand
  • What the hell is "Orio"?? 😕
  • Round on both ends and ri in the middle
  • I've owned 2 Samsung phones in the past. Great hardware (except for the exploding ones), but the software is a mess. Way too much cr@pware pre-installed on the phones, both from Samsung and the carriers. And the software upgrade system is really slow and unpredictable. Now that Google is finally starting to build good quality phones, I'm probably sticking with them for the foreseeable future.
  • not buying Samsung because of slow updates is valid. Samsung software is top notch now. My Note is just as fast 5 months later as It was out of the box. it's simply fantastic. I honestly wouldn't even mind the slow Major updates as much if Samsung would update security MONTHLY. not every 60-90 days
  • Same here. I'm not that bothered about Oreo per se, but I AM bothered about security patches. Up until New Year my Note 8 was still on the August 2017 patch, i.e. 5 months out of date. But then, blow me, Samsung released the Jan 18 patch late last week. First time I've known them get a patch out in the same month as Google released it. It's very erratic and very unsatisfactory.
  • I'll echo this. I buy a phone for the software it's running now, not what it may have in the distant future. Nougat runs fine on my S8, and I'd be more upset if Samsung rushed out an Oreo update that ruined my phone. But the unpredictable security patches are annoying, and every company should be as committed as Google and Blackberry are to pushing those out. There's no good reason that I can think of for delaying them.
  • Really? Have you seen what the Samsung phones can do vs the Google phones?
  • The S8 Oreo beta has been great. Can't wait for the final build.
  • Here’s the problem I see with this article. Samsung’s update rollout has been slower than others using leaner flavors of Android, but at this point, we should probably start talking about others who are slower still about rolling out Android updates, like Huawei, of which my mom’s Honor 8 Pro has received only 3 updates throughout its 5 month life. It’s not just Samsung. There are others who are worse still when it comes to rolling out security updates and OS version upgrades. Samsung is far from my ideal choice for software update timelines but if I had to choose between them and someone like one of the 2 BBK subsidiaries, I would have to pick Sammy because while they’re slow, they do at the very least send out some patches. The BBK subsidiaries do send out patches too, just more slowly. It’s indicative of a wider problem and while Treble could resolve part of that, I think more could be done to ease the process.
  • What's wrong with 3 updates in 5 months? That doesn't seem too bad to me.
  • It was neglected entirely for 3 whole months. I also have to mention that my Note was neglected for a month. Come on you two.....
  • We're talking major OS updates here, not patches or security updates. Those are important but not really the topic of discussion here.
  • I’d wager that at this point, security updates should be scrutinized as well. Not having timely OS updates is not good, but that alongside the lack of security patches is downright embarrassing
  • Timely is relative.
  • Nothing wrong with that amount of updates at all.
  • When put like that, it doesn't seem that bad. But US model Honor 8s (not 8 Pro) have also not been great at updates for a while according to some users. Kinda feel that more manufacturers need to be held accountable, especially for inconsistent delivery of security patches.
  • Well, its better than my Lenovo tablet which has never had an update in four years! Not even one, and still running jellybean...
  • ASUS Zenfone 2 Still on Marshmallow with zero patches since late 2016... Meanwhile, my crappy backup is on January 2018 (yay) but it’s still on Marshmallow (boo)
  • I just hope in 2019 when I can upgrade my phone the Pixel will no longer be exclusive to Verizon.
  • This!
  • Why not buy it SIM free from Google?
  • Because some people use Jump programs...
  • Like complaining you can't get out of the house because you painted yourself into the corner of the living room?
  • I’m not sure he was complaining though. Only hoping the Pixel goes to more carriers.
  • or Next programs. Not to mention even if I buy It unlocked, the pixel won't support AT&T HD Voice... so until they make one that works 100% with AT&T, I won't buy anything at all from them
  • AT&T made a special allowance a few months ago only for the Pixels, it either allows them to make use of AT&T’s HD Voice or WiFi calling, or both. I can’t remember off the top of my head if it was one of the two or both, but you should ask an AT&T TECHNICAL rep, not a regular customer service rep. The article was on 9to5Google.
  • I just hope in 2019 people realize they don't have to buy from useless carriers and can buy from phones from other places (with financing if needed) and can use on any carrier.
  • While this is true, it's not always beneficial to do so. For instance, I can buy phones on contract through my employer (they pay the monthly fee), so buying a phone like the Pixel 2 XL for $399 on a 2 year contract is a lot cheaper than buying it through a 3rd party, since I am not the one paying for the monthly service fee.
  • Unless they want to use carrier features
  • I have an S8+. I couldn't care less about Oreo. My phone works fine as is, and the security updates have been rolling out monthly. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
  • I’m actually wanting Oreo more and more mostly due to support for additional BT audio codecs like LDAC.
  • Don't get me wrong, I fault no one for wanting Oreo. I will also be installing it, of course. I was just speaking for me personally. :)
  • I just want to congratulate and thank you for knowing the difference between "could" and "couldn't".
  • I'm also so proud 😭 Fuzzy, we raised him/her well
  • I agree. I will get Oreo on my note 8 but just like the last 2 OS updates I won't notice anything different.
  • What network are you on? Our security updates on my wife's S8, and my Note 8 have certainly not been monthly. They've been better than years past, but not monthly. We're still on December 2017.
  • I am on AT&T, and mine come pretty close to monthly. I haven't kept track, but it sure feels like I get one every month for my Note 8.
  • I also have an S8+ and while I'd be OK with waiting for Oreo, I'm annoyed with the pace of security updates in my region (NEE). No carrier BS here, but Samsung doesn't offer patches here all that often. We're almost in February, and I'm still on November patches. That's just BS in today's security environment.
  • This is how a successful company gets into trouble. If Samsung does not change this quickly, it's lunch will be eaten away.
  • I mean, they've been like this literally as long as they've been making Android phones. They've been the top Android manufacturer for almost a decade now so...
  • I don't think so. I think it will take a major breach that impacts millions of their customers before they change, and at least do security updates in a timely fashion. The great majority of their users don't care about the OS upgrades (heck I don't, and I'm using a Note 8, and a Pixel XL 2, the latter of which has 8.1). It's the security updates that are the biggest problem. Since people for the most part are completely unaware of those, it will take a catastrophic event to make Samsung care.
  • Honestly, security updates need more crudence. Compared to a vanilla device, a major OS upgrade on a Samsung doesn’t have as big of an impact (although still important), but security patches matter even more and there are a lot of companies which fall flat on that promise, moreso than Samsung themselves.
  • My HTC U11 had been running Oreo for 2 months and had gotten security update since. Everyone needs to stop falling for Samsung marketing and get a phone that delivers. Samsung out of the box is good then it falls apart with lag and untimely updates. Yes HTC has had some duds in the past but since the HTC 10 their phones have been awesome.
  • But at the end of the day, it's still an HTC unfortunately. If I'm going to spend $800 to get faster updates, I'll just buy a Pixel.
  • I don't want to forget about them. I love the Note 8, and loved the S8+ I had before it, much more than most of the phones out there (yes, I tried most flagships this year), and I have a Pixel XL 2. Samsung makes fantastic phones with some truly unique features that I love. The lag is not much of a problem any more, and the new Samsung UI is actually very nice. Their cameras are excellent, they provide a 3.5mm headphone jack and this year a decent DAC, Samsung Pay, which is extremely convenient, and far better than Android Pay or Apple Pay. I keep trying other phones and keep coming back to Samsung flagships. Yes, there are plenty of choices, but for me, and apparently millions of others, those are not as good overall. The big exception is the frickin' updates.
  • Well, I got a Note mostly due to the featureset. I wished Samsung was faster though
  • There's only about 5 HTC U11 devices in the wild.
  • One thing that I feel should be mentioned is how much better Samsung has been at delivering the security updates. I bought my S8+ unlocked in June, and December was the only month I didn't receive the monthly security update. I actually just got the January update today. So while they do come out closer to the end of the month, they've been coming every month but 1 for the 7 I've owned it. So yes, not having Oreo is annoying, and I wish they'd get it out sooner, but in the grand scheme of things, security updates are as important as platform updates and should not be ignored.
  • Most users really don't care, but for those that do, I will never own one, sad.