Non-Google flagship Android devices plain aren’t good enough

The Xperia Z3 from Sony hasn’t been the best Android smartphone I’ve owned. I’ve had all sorts of weird problems with it ranging from small annoyances to complete loss of mobile service. Most of my troubles seem to steam from what sony calls their “unique Xperia experience”.

I was compelled by the Z3’s 3 GB of memory as compared to every other Android phone on the market with only 2 GB. I expected to be able to use the extra gigabyte of memory to more snappily interact with multiple apps and run mobile games slightly better than on more memory-constrained phones. As it turns out, the extra gigabyte was taken up almost in its entirety by “Small Apps”, Xperia Themes, Sony services for enterprise use-cases, and other junk from Sony and their partners.

Sony’s modified version of Android came with a dozen pre-installed apps from Sony and partners of various quality. Many of which couldn’t be uninstalled and some couldn’t even be disabled. The worst of these is the “What’s New” app that serves you advertisements from the many arms of Sony Entertainment as unblockable notifications.

The app comes preinstalled as a—luckily removable—home screen widget, and the whole thing is just offensively bad ploy to get me to hand over more money to Sony. Even though I’m signed in with the same Sony Entertainment account on my Xperia Z3 as on my PlayStation 4; I’m still receiving notifications encouraging me to buy games I already own and indeed purchased directly from Sony!

Sony has also managed to break some of the basic Android apps by customizing them to the point where they no longer function. For example, stopping a countdown timer in the Alarm clock app will just stop the countdown from displaying. The countdown will often still sound an alarm when the timer interval runs out. Many of the extra Sony apps just don’t work. For example, their Backup and Restore app will just say “Couldn’t backup” every time you try to set it up.

Sony is among the best manufacturers when it comes to shipping new versions of Android to their consumers. Even while they’re among the best, they still lag six months or more behind the big Android releases. Sony makes it clear through blog posts and other community engagement that the delays are due to their desire to customize the experience for their consumers. In other words, they’re late with feature and security updates because they want to have time to put enough junk on the system first. The states of updates in the Android ecosystem, in general, has always been badly fragmented. Customers, however, shouldn’t put up with this any longer.

In response to some of these complaints from their customers, Sony recently released their Xperia Concept for Android initiative in a handful of European countries. A program “for Xperia enthusiasts” that would accept some 10 000 users and allow them to download Android 6.0 “Marshmallow” onto their Z3 or Z3 Compacts.

I usually hate software and services that are regionally limited like this, but for once I lived inside the small geographical area that was selected for the program. Clearly, this is a program that appeals to users who have installed alternative firmware on their devices, and are comfortable with installing such software and recovering their devices if anything went wrong.

However, Sony has limited their firmware experimentation program to users who have never installed any custom firmwares. Restoring Sony original software using the Sony provided tools for doing just that isn’t enough to restore the device back to factory condition. The error message “The phone contains modified software that can’t be updated” greets anyone who tries to install the new Xperia Concept.

This problem can be worked around by anyone with half an hour to spare and access to a search engine. It’s just annoying that Sony first welcomes a group of experimental phone enthusiasts only to shut the door on them over literally flipping one bit in their firmware. (A bit flipping operation that their own installer would proceed to do seconds later anyway.)

It’s worth noting that it took Sony only two weeks after the general availability of Android 6.0 in early October to ship Xperia Concept in mid-October. Xperia Concept is basically a less customized version of Android that’s much closer to the upstream version with fewer Sony specific apps, lock-ins, and arguably unwanted tweaks. I like the direction Sony seem to be going with this and I like the faster release schedule this allows them to pursue.

However, the experience of having a phone that doesn’t have the official version of Android still leaves me feeling like a second-rate Android user. Even though Sony is trying their best to improve, I just don’t have any fate in their efforts.

I’m not even saying this is a Sony problem; as all the device manufacturers struggle with the same problem and few do as well with delivering software updates as Sony does. I’m generally not in favor of putting Google in charge of anything more in my life, but until control of Android development and releases are moved out of Google’s hand and into an industry body of manufacturers we kind of just have to live with Google as the stewards of Android.

I’ll definitely never buy another Android device that hasn’t received full support and software updates directly from Google. Android is Google’s operating system, and the other device manufacturers are just not up to dancing to Google’s tune well enough to satisfy consumers.