Dr. Ketan or How I Learned to Stop Waiting & Flash the ROM
The Lollipop update rollouts bombed. This shouldn’t be news to those of you who have been tracking the progress of many Android devices, but for the most part, Lollipop adoption has been a rollercoaster of broken promises and disappointment for many Android users. This is not to say that many of you didn’t get Lollipop early, however. At XDA we are typically knowledgeable with flashing custom ROMs and, in Lollipop’s case, leaked ROMs – and both of these brought 5.0 to many devices way ahead official rollouts.
I was one of the lucky ones. Shortly after Lollipop, I had both a Nexus 5 and a Note 3. The Nexus 5 also got Lollipop a little later than we had expected, but it was nevertheless one of the first ones in line. As for my Exynos Note 3 (daily driver), I knew that I wouldn’t see Lollipop anytime soon, especially since AOSP ROMs do not have a huge presence on said chipset line. I was pleasantly surprised when I read that there was an early leak of Lollipop for the Note 3 that was stable enough to be used all day, and I proceeded to flash Dr. Ketan’s ROM to stop the wait.
There were more leaks for the Note 3, and eventually it released in Russia with an official and final firmware. Other devices weren’t so lucky, however. We did a Lollipop update roundup back in early February, and back then things didn’t look that bad. Two and a half months later, the Lollipop rollout for major flagships is still not fully done, and the developments have shown that this was probably one of the most hurtful update races for Android. We’ll look at a few particular cases, but first we must ask: why does this update matter so much?
Not Just Materialism
We all wanted Lollipop because it was pretty, but the update was much bigger than that in many respects. The plethora of new APIs (over 5,000) are an integral part of the developing Android experience that we are seeing today and that we’ll see later on, and without these new options a lot of possibilities are closed off to both users and developers. This is not only limited to functionality, however, as Material Design relies on a lot of Lollipop-exclusive software bits to render its beauty. Google did manage to make many Material elements available on older versions, but a lot of menu animations and subtle shadows are completely lost on KitKat and back. The animations on Material apps are also significantly choppier on some KitKat devices, especially those with heavy OEM skins.
Most importantly, though, Lollipop is paving the way for the future of Android in design and functionality yet the terribly slow rollout further increments fragmentation. This has always been an issue in Android, particularly with OEM skins. Now, developers and users are seeing twice as many bridges between the KitKat and Lollipop for AOSP/Stock ROMs and each OEM skin. SD Times ingeniously called this a “pain the app” for developers, and published some of the reason as to why the recent fragmentation can be hurtful for software creators (I strongly suggest reading it as it also contains some neat advice and insight). And if this wasn’t enough, the early versions of Lollipop contain a lot of issues, with bugs such as the infamous memory leak which many OEMs failed to eliminate completely.
It’s been known that factory unlocked devices (or carrier-less, for that matter) are typically the ones to get the updates faster, and many enthusiasts refuse to buy devices from carriers strictly because of this issue. While it is true that carriers usually drop the ball on updates, Lollipop has had many broken promises and missed deadlines from manufacturers themselves. More importantly, a huge issue with the rollout was the absolute lack of consistency within regions, something that led to worldwide frustration as many saw that some regions got the update way ahead of time.
Take the case of Samsung, for example: they are known to have soak tests for major updates, and Poland was a privileged region that got Lollipop for the S5 as early as December. Samsung was one of the few that were implicitly bound to deliver quick Lollipop updates, and the early previews that we had suggested very early releases for the S5 and Note 4. Was this the case? No, at least not for the most part. While Poland got the S5 update really early, many regions didn’t follow until much later. And while the leaks for the Note 3 also came in december, the official rollout also didn’t follow until much later. In both cases, the deployments were extremely limited to certain regions. When it comes to Samsung, they make it even harder for themselves by having several hardware variants with substantially different software for many regions, but even then international variants with the same Snapdragon chipset saw very different update times.
The Korean Giant was never the fastest with updates, however, while Google’s (and now Lenovo’s) Motorola was. For the most part, Motorola did a good job, even bringing Lollipop to their mid-ranger Moto G before a lot of other OEMs did for their flagships… but only to India and Brazil. The localized update drama hit once again, and while XDA users were quick to flash the firmware on their Moto G’s, the rest of the world was left in angst. Their strongest (but arguably not best) flagship, the Droid Turbo, was left waiting in the blue for a long time until we finally learned that it’d skip straight to 5.1. The fact that they have so many Moto G variants (1st Gen, 2nd Gen, LTE, Forte, Ferrari, etc) also hurt the update rollout to an extent, and thus the fastest and supposedly “most committed” player had Lollipop issues.
HTC was perhaps one of the most disappointing players in the race: they had promised Lollipop for their M8 within 90 days of receiving the source code, but the promise was not met for all of their handsets, as only their developer unlocked versions had gotten the update. The M7 also didn’t see the goal, and most importantly, HTC had stated that the device would stay in an early Lollipop build and not receive 5.1 – meaning that it’ll keep many of the bugs Lollipop brought. Luckily, we recently learned that the M7 might receive 5.1 after all, but this was only due to the massive fan uproar that followed the announcement. The fact that XDA saw the first (unofficial) Sense 7 ROM from Skydragon so early is also a rather mind-boggling.
LG was reportedly on track to being one of the first players to get the update, and we had seen screenshot leaks of their Lollipop builds for the G2 really early on. As for the G3, LG was fast. Faster than Google, even. But, like with Samsung, the rollout was region-limited. While LG G3 users in Poland saw the update as early as November, other users didn’t see the candy goods until much, much later. In fact, it was not until the last week of January that LG teased about American G3 users getting Lollipop, and carrier variants saw an even longer while before they received it (some have gotten it within the past two weeks). So while they caught all sorts of headlines with their early bird release, in the end it was mostly that – a headline grabber, for the region limitations meant that users got even angrier.
Sony was perhaps one of the most quiet OEMs about Lollipop, and we really respect that they didn’t overpromise like most others did. In fact, at CES we learned that the update was coming when it was ready as they were taking their time, and the best part about Sony’s humbler approach is that we were told we’d get support for plenty of devices: the Xperia Z, Xperia ZL, Xperia ZR, Xperia Tablet Z, Xperia Z1, Xperia Z1S, Xperia Z Ultra, Xperia Z1 Compact, Xperia Z2, Xperia Z2 Tablet, Xperia Z3, Xperia Z3v, Xperia Z3 Compact, and the Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact. That’s a lot of X’s and Z’s. And just a few weeks ago they added the original Xperia Z to that list. This commitment, alongside their development of AOSP branches, make us (and Xzibit) proud.
OnePlus, too, was committed to fast Lollipop updates. In fact, that was a major selling point for many people, and also a key aspect of their “Never Settle” campaign. And like many OnePlus promises, it simply didn’t come true. Granted, a lot of these issues were caused by the Cyanogen team who at that point had developed a kind of grudge with OnePlus. That being said, OnePlus’ OxygenOS was also promised to be delivered at a certain date, and it wasn’t met. Cyanogen’s Lollipop release came the just other day, but not without missing several implied deadlines, and also not without Cyanogen CEO Kirk McMaster telling users to “calm the f**k down” regarding the wait. Yeah, hardly the most cheerful of rollouts.
Nvidia did a surprisingly fast update to their Shield Tablet, and many were in joy… but Nvidia managed to screw it up with an update that messed up the color reproduction of the display. This is not to say they were the only ones – in fact, it seems that virtually all Lollipop releases contain bugs or issues here or there (and some persist post factory resets), sometimes minor (and harmless) but sometimes major ones like those in Verizon’s infamous update pulling drama which was reissued on a few instances.
And then there’s carriers. There’s little to say about this that isn’t known or expected, except for the fact that Verizon and AT&T actually put out updates faster than T-Mobile on many instances. The carrier updates for this major Android version were not only disjointed, but full of bugs. Some of them were delayed to the point of ridicule, like the T-Mobile Note 4 lollipop. The regular Note 4 started seeing the update way after its Note 3 predecessor, which is weird in itself, but while the Note 4’s Lollipop has been rolling out on carriers and variants all over the world for months now, T-Mobile is not delivering and will not deliver for another 3 to 4 weeks.
Android Is Our Profession
So, as you can see, the Lollipop rollout wasn’t as sweet as we hoped it would be. The notes for this article had a lot more information that I wish I could fit in here, but I hope that the editing shows just how almost every player failed in some way or another, and sometimes in downright offensive ways. For an update this big, this is not good for anyone. Software development gets stalled, users can’t enjoy new features, Android gets fragmented further, and people get very angry. While I was somewhat optimistic in February, the fact that we are still seeing Lollipop update news every day for some of the biggest devices in the history of mobile tells us that something is not right. KitKat didn’t have the fastest adoption either (in fact, most updates crawled on certain handsets), but Lollipop’s update drama has gone far and above in many regards.
Now, we obviously can’t wish for perfect rollouts for every player (nor every year), but the fact that Google itself put out such an unfinished OS update in the first place is perhaps what should worry us the most. Lollipop was pretty and functional, but it brought many bugs to the table, and some like the always-discussed memory leak can put tangible (and annoying) consequences into your user experience. Many suspect that OEMs spent so much time developing fixes for these bugs, and it makes sense. Under this light, Lollipop’s rollout is a communal mistake that trickles down to every level of the update process.
With Dr. Ketan’s ROM I experienced Lollipop ahead of time, and it shows a great virtue of XDA: region-limited rollouts mean little if you know how to flash the pulled ROMs or leaks, and even if you have a different variant, you might see a port for your device. I fell in love with Lollipop and the performance bump it offered, but when I had to get a Note 4 I went with a T-Mobile variant to enjoy its feature set as well as full coverage on their network (something which international/exynos variants lack). I also believed in their track record of relatively fast updates (for a carrier). But as previously stated, Lollipop is not coming to that carrier device for a while. As much as I’d love to enjoy the features on it, the ROM for the Canadian Note 4 (same hardware) is compatible with mine and proven to be stable. So I know exactly what I’m going to do now. See you on the sweeter side…