Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Buying a future proof Android smartphone


This is a continuation of my  previous blog post on buying a future proof smartphone. In this post, I want to address the issue of buying a future proof Android phone (quite a challenge, that!)


If you are looking for an Android phone, chances are that you would have heard of Android 4.0 (ICS), the latest and greatest version of Android. Currently, the official ICS update is available only on Samsung's Galaxy Nexus (yet to be launched in India) and the earlier Nexus S (now discontinued). Of course, several unofficial custom ICS 4.0 ROMS are already available for certain devices, but many people might not want to experiment with these, and would prefer to wait for official updates from manufacturers.


I believe that it's important for everyone buying an Android phone in 2012 to ensure that they get ICS 4.0 as their operating system. 


For one, it's a unifying update from Google - henceforth all Android tablets and top smartphones will run on one operating system, while budget phones will continue to run Gingerbread. And Google is committed to ensuring that in the future, updates are issued across devices and manufacturers within a reasonable time frame. Therefore, getting onto ICS gives you a better chance to stay updated in the future.


And secondly, ICS is a fantastic operating system, praised by those who try it as fast, fluid and feature-packed. 


To get a complete feel of ICS, I recommend reading Eldar Murtazin's exhaustive review (in two parts) on the Mobile Review website. 


So how can you purchase a future proof Android handset?


1. Buy a phone which will get upgraded to ICS


It's not enough for Google to push out a new OS, the manufacturers need to implement it on their handsets, integrating it to work with the software that they have installed (TouchWiz, Sense etc.) Do note that no manufacturer has guaranteed an ICS upgrade by a specific date. And going by past track record, the lag between Google's release and release of the OS by a manufacturer has been anything from 6 months to 1 year. Hopefully, this year it will improve!


Samsung has promised upgrades to ICS for  the Galaxy S2 (Rs.30,000), Galaxy Note (Rs.34,000) and Galaxy R (Rs.22,000) in Q1 2012. Basically, if you own any Samsung mobile  other than those listed here, you are out of luck for an ICS upgrade. The Nexus S received an ICS upgrade directly from Google, but it is discontinued.


HTC will issue ICS updates for HTC Sensation (Rs. 30,000), Sensation XE and XL (Rs. 32,000 approx.), HTC Rezound and HTC Vivid. (source : PC World ). Everything else is out in the cold.


Sony will issue updates for its Xperia Range (2011 only). As per the company blog, the the high-end Xperia arc S (Rs.28,000), the Xperia Ray (Rs. 19,000) and the Neo V (Rs.18,000) will get upgrades by Q1 2012. While earlier models like Xperia Arc, Xperia Neo, Xperia Mini/Mini Pro and Walkman Live will receive this upgrade only after April 2012 but hopefully before end of the year. In fact, Sony has a far better upgrade road map than  Samsung or HTC, which spans more devices, at different price points. Purely from this point of view, buying a Sony Android device might make sense.


If you have not considered an LG handset before,here is an incentive to do so. LG has promised ICS on the Optimus 2X (Rs.20,000), Optimus 3D (Rs.30,000) and Optimus Black (Rs.19,000), via the company's Facebook page. No timeframe though.


2. Buy a phone running ICS out of the box

This is actually the most headache free solution for an end user. Upgrading the operating system can be at best a slow and tiresome process - at worst, something can go wrong. But at least in India, we have a wait on our hands before we get a phone running ICS. The Galaxy Nexus is due end January 2012 (price not yet known, but likely to be on par with the iPhone 4S). Of course, you can buy it on ebay for Rs.40,000 :) 

Huawei has promised three phones with ICS - The Huawei Honor, Ascend P1 and P1S. The Honor is of particular interest as Huawei has claimed that it will launch in India in February with ICS on board. Huawei is an upcoming brand and is likely to price even high-end devices more competitively than HTC or Samsung.

HTC also has three phones with ICS scheduled for a Q1 2012 launch  - HTC Ville, Edge and Elite. 


(update : GSMArena just released a list of SE Android devices planned for 2012. Looks like all of them will run ICS. That's another good reason to take a look at Sony if you're buying an Android phone)

3. Load a custom ROM

ICS Custom ROMs are available already for several phones including older ones. Here is a good list which gets updated regularly : Droidangels blogspot. Developers work constantly on bug fixes and updates, so as time goes by, these ROMs will all get more stable and widely adopted. 

When I was editing this post, I realised that everything is pointing to one inevitable conclusion - you want ICS, you got to wait! Seems that things have not changed since last year, when I was giving the same advice about Android. Had this post been about Android tablets, I would have had better news. Most of the biggies - ASUS Transformer/ Prime, Motorola Xoom, Galaxy Tab - are already getting, or will be getting their ICS updates soon.