Late or never Android updates remain a problem

Here’s yet another unintentional benefit of my shattering my Pixel 5a’s screen last weekend: an opportunity to reacquaint myself with how slowly many Android smartphone manufacturers still ooze out Google’s system updates.

This is not a new problem, as I can see from re-reading a piece I wrote almost 10 years ago that’s aged a little too well. I had thought that architectural changes Google made to Android starting back in 2017 would have put a dent into this problem by removing much of the recoding work from manufacturers. But dusting off the budget-priced Android phones I reviewed for CNN Underscored early this year (most of which I had not yet returned to the companies responsible, because my desk is a mess) revealed the error of that thought.

Photo shows Android phones stacked on a wooden floor, each showing their software-information screen. The Samsung Galaxy A13's screen is most visible, showing it's running Android 12 with the July 1 security patch.

After multiple cycles of checking for updates on these six phones, installing these updates, rebooting these phones, and checking for updates again until every device reported it was current, here’s where they wound up:

  • Moto G Power: Android 11, August 1 security update
  • Nokia X100: Android 11, August 1 security update
  • OnePlus Nord N200 5G: Android 12, September 5 security update
  • Samsung Galaxy A13 5G: Android 12, July 1security update
  • TCL 20 SE: Android 11, August 1 security update
  • TCL 20 Pro 5G: Android 11, April security update

The current month is October and the current Android version is 13, so the problem should be immediately obvious. And not only did none of these devices have the Android release that I installed on my beloved, now battered Pixel 5a in the middle of August, only one of these devices had Google’s latest security fixes–and only two had the Android release that Google shipped a year ago.

The good news, such as it may be, is that a low price doesn’t condem an Android phone to obsolescence. The A13 sells for $250 and the N200 $240, but both have aged better, software-wise, than the pricier Android devices in that review. You may want to consider that a factor in favor of OnePlus and Samsung if you’re shopping for a low-cost Android phone–while the lagging performance of those other vendors should rate as a serious strike against them.

Android 12 early impressions: improvement via imprecision

Two weeks after I installed Android 12 on my aging, yet well-maintaned Pixel 3a smartphone, the biggest selling point of this release is not the self-tinting interface colors that Google talked up this summer. Instead, I’m appreciating a new option to leave apps a little fuzzier about my whereabouts.

In adding the ability to deny an app access to your precise location, Android 12 returns to the earliest days of Google’s mobile operating system, when an app could ask for either “fine” or “coarse” location. But it also reflects what we’ve learned since then about how location-data brokers will embed location-tracking code in other apps, often without disclosure, and then exploit that harvested info to build vast databases.

Photo shows the Android 12 Settings app open to a page denying the Today Weather access to my precise location; in the background, the print edition of the Nov. 12, 2021 Washington Post reveals a bit of the weather forecast.

So my first move after my phone rebooted into Android 12 was to take the GPS keys away from some apps. I started with one I already paid for, Today Weather. Why bother depriving a paid-for and therefore ad-free app of my exact location? Because the forecast shouldn’t change that much between here and a mile away–but keeping my precise coordinates from a third party means they can’t get exposed if that firm suffers a data breach later on.

My second move was much less exciting, in that I swapped out some of the default screen widgets: I like scallops and I like having a large display of the time on my home screen, but I don’t like the scallop-shaped clock widget that comes standard in Android 12.

My first software-update-induced moment of confusion, meanwhile, came a day after I installed this update when I mashed down the power button to invove the Google Pay shortcut to choose a different stored credit card for a purchase–and nothing happened. That’s because Android 12 moved that from the power-button menu to the Quick Settings menu. Broken muscle memory aside, I get that relocating this setting from a non-obvious spot to a menu that people use all the time should make it more discoverable.

Finally, one Android 12 detail that’s gotten less attention than the others in press coverage just might save me from waking up with a phone at 10% of a charge: When you plug a phone into a charger, a wave of sparkles washes up the screen to confirm that current is flowing to the device. Considering my own record of inattentive device charging, that’s a feature I could have used 10 years ago.

Weekly output: Celona, streaming TV, social media moderation, Android 12, Google’s privacy pitch, Mark Vena podcast

This afternoon, I went to a baseball game for the first time since Oct. 27, 2019. I also brought a much better camera than usual, thanks to my neighbor across the street loaning me a Panasonic point-and-shoot model with a 30x zoom, and you can now see the results in the Flickr album I just posted.

5/18/2021: Celona unveils ‘edgeless enterprise’ architecture, Light Reading

My new trade-pub client asked me to write up embargoed news from this business-wireless firm, allowing me to reacquaint myself with that branch of industry jargon.

5/19/2021: Streaming Services, WWL First News with Tommy Tucker

I spent about 40 minutes talking about streaming-TV services with this New Orleans radio station. A major theme of the host’s questions: Why is all this so complicated?

5/19/2021: Social media moderation, Al Jazeera

I made a rare phone-only appearance on the Arabic-language news channel to talk about reports of social-media companies suppressing Palestinian and Arabic voices.  I emphasized, as I have before, that on one hand, content moderation gets increasingly difficult as social platforms get larger; on the other hand, Facebook has a history of waiving its own rules only for right-wing voices in the U.S.

Screen grab of the article as seen in an Android phone's Chrome browser5/20/2021: Here’s what’s new in Android 12, from big changes to subtle tweaks, Fast Company

Google’s I/O developer conference returned in an online-only form after last year’s pandemic-forced cancellation, and in this post I covered the key features in the next version of its Android mobile operating system. The screen grab you see here was taken in a loaner Pixel 4 XL phone on which I’d installed the beta release of Android 12; if you have any questions about how this release works, please ask and I’ll try to answer them here.

5/20/2021: Google touts ‘privacy by design’ at I/O conference, but privacy from whom?, USA Today

Two years ago, I wrote a USAT column about the somewhat nebulous privacy pitch at Google I/O 2019; this column advances that story and finds more cause for optimism in Android than in Chrome.

5/21/2021: SmartTechCheck Podcast (5-20-21), Mark Vena

This week’s edition of this podcast from my tech-analyst pal at Moor Insights & Strategy initially featured two other tech journalists, but John Quain’s Starlink satellite-Internet connection dropped out too many times, leading Vena to decide to continue the podcast with just me and my fellow tech journalist (and baseball fan) Stewart Wolpin.