The State of Android Phones

You are a small but important subgroup of my client base.  In terms of my consulting work, I live in an iPhone world.  90% of my smartphone using clients are iPhone users.  However, I have a lot of respect for the Android platform.  Although I am an iPhone user today, my first smartphone experience was with Android device.  (It was the HTC Incredible if you are keeping score at home.)  I stay on top of the Android scene and I do keep a late model Android phone on hand for testing purposes. I will say this — there is one Android feature that is FAR (and I mean 5X better) than on iOS — voice dictation of text messages, e-mail, and searches.

2015 was a rough year for Android security.  There were some big time security vulnerabilities and a few of these took a while to get patched (fixed).  With that said, I don’t think it should discourage you from using the Android platform. Android user type one: you may be really into Google’s services.   In presenting the second type of Android user, I will use a car analogy.   I haven’t researched entry level, mid-size luxury sedans in a while but for years the Acura TL and Lexus ES were models that were essentially competing for the same customer.  The cars were priced at about $35K and including just about every option the buyer wanted.  Some years, there were no major options to choose from.  I consider those owners to be like iPhone users.   On the flip side, there are car buyers who want that hot new Camaro.  They want to trick it out every way possible.  They may even take it to a custom shop.  These are Android fanatics.    In addition
to the people who run on Google and the custom-tuned Android lovers, there is one more category of typical Android user — the ultra price conscious.  This type of smart phone buyer often lives in the developing world; they care about price before security or function. They want to buy a full price phone at $150 or less.  They too are Android shoppers.
About four years ago, the best Android phone makers made a voluntary pledge.  They committed to keeping their devices updated for 18 to 24 months, from its release date, with new versions of Android.  It was a voluntary commitment; nothing is set in stone.  By comparison, Apple generally provides OS (operating system) updates for at least three years on a new iPhone.   New, here, is defined as new to market — not new to you.   For the past couple years, both Android and iOS  have released their OS updates in the fall.   Adoption by customers usually much faster on the iPhone because there is no middle man in between the creator of the OS and the phone.   With most major Android phones, Android is “skinned” or modified by the manufacturer.  This hails back to the days when pure vanilla Android was not that good.  (At this point, pure Android is just fine.)  Back to the past for a moment.  Therefore, companies like Samsung and LG, put their own “skin” on top of the Android OS.  Whenever new versions of Android come out, the software engineers at the manufacturer have to tweak it a bit before they can release and update for their phones.  So when the next version of Android comes out later this fall, do not be surprised if it takes the companies like Samsung, etc. 4 to 6 months to push out an update for their phones.

The only pure Android phones that you can buy are the Nexus phones. Nexus is a product line marketed directly by Google.  The phones are sold by Google and also large electronics sellers. (B+H, Best Buy, etc.)  They have Android installed and no skin on top.  I am not saying that Nexus devices are necessarily better, but they should be on your shopping list.

Last year, some of the major Android device makers committed to putting out monthly or at least regular security updates.  Policies may vary by manufacturer, but I want to quote Google’s standards for the Nexus phones.  They re-affirmed their position in writing this week.  Nexus phones will receive security updates for three years from the date of release (date phone was first available to the public),and OS updates (updates to the newest version of Android) for two years.   Knowing this, and also accepting that the policies of HTC, Samsung, and LG are likely not going to be quite as generous, I want to give you some rules to live by.

If you want to buy Android phones, go with flagship phones from legitimate manufacturers.  The flagship phone means the top model or models from a particular manufacturer.   Here are the current phones (or the upcoming phones you should wait for) from what I consider to be the top tier manufacturers.

LG G5 — released Spring 2016
Samsung Galaxy S7 – released Spring 2016
Samsung Galaxy Note ___  — wait for Summer 2016 model
Google Nexus _(medium sized and large model)_____  — currently known as 5x and 6P — wait for Fall 2016 models
HTC 10 — released Spring 2016
One Plus 3 — coming Summer 2016

I have basically defined the sandbox of what you should be looking at in terms of your next Android phone.  All of these phones are available on all carriers, with the exception of the One Plus devices. One Plus is an independent company that is now in its 3rd year of selling phones directly to the American market.  Their phones only work on ATT and T-Mobile.  The One Plus 3 will sell for $400 as an unlocked, full price phone.    You may see that Motorola is missing from my list.  I used to consider them to be right at the top, however I think they have gone downhill since being taken over by Lenovo. Motorola has not committed to monthly security updates since the security scares last year.

You should also buy your Android phones close to when they hit the market.   My best advice is — within 6 months.  Think about it, if you wait much longer or even make the classic mistake of buying last year’s Android phone — you have just shaved off a lot of time from the maximum lifetime of security and operating system updates (I am not referring to individual app updates.  App updates are not relevant to this discussion.)

Use Google to do some research.   GSM Arena is a great site to learn about the specs of your phone, along with its release date.  Check the website of the manufacturer.  Learn about their commitment to security updates.  When was their last security update?  When was their last OS update?   Whether you like it or not, being an Android phone user and shopper is going to require some homework.    Feel free to ask me some of your questions.

I made a statement back in the fall of 2010.  I was discussing the emerging Android phone market with a client.  He and I were both really into Android at the time. I made a statement to him.  I said,  “Android is going to become the Windows of smartphones.”  Looking back, I continued by saying that  Windows Mobile is dead and the new Windows Phone OS is never going to catch on.  iPhones will sell well but they will always serve a niche market.  iPhones set clear rules of what you can and cannot do.  The field of play with Android is wide open, much like a Windows computer.      Nearly 6 years later, I was 100% correct.   Worldwide, Android devices make up 70% or more of the total smartphones sold.

If this is all a little too much for you to handle, you may be best served by an iPhone.   New models will be coming out in about 3 months.