More smartphones shenanigans: Ireland and the unlocked phones

In my previous rant I have noted that in Ireland it’s next to impossible to buy unlocked phones. Indeed when I went to look for a phone to travel to China at Carphone Warehouse (which at least in the UK is owned by Samsung), while they had plenty of selections for the phones, they all came with contracts.

Contracts are useful for most people, since effectively the carrier is giving you a discount on a phone so that you commit to stay their customer for a certain amount of time. When you do this, they lock you to their network, so that you can’t just switch to another carrier without either giving them their due in subscriptions or paying back the discount they gave you on the phone. In general, I see this approach as reasonable, although it has clearly created a bit of a mess to the market, particularly on the cheaper phone scale.

I have to admit that I have not paid enough attention to this in Ireland up to now simply because I have been using my company-provided phone for most of my day to day travel. Except in China, where it would not be really appropriate. So when I had to go back to Shanghai, I found myself in need of a new phone. I ended up buying one at Argos because they could source one for me by the following day, which is what I needed, and they also had last year’s Sony flagship device (Xperia X) at a decent discount, particularly when compared to the not-much-better Xperia XZ. Alternatively, Amazon would have worked, but that would have taken too long, and the price was actually lower at Argos, for this particular model.

As it is usual for most Android phones, the device started running through a number of system software updates as it was turned up. Indeed, after three cycles the device, which started off with Android 6.0, ended up on 7.0. Not only that, but by now I know that Sony appears to care about the device quite a bit. While they have not updated to 7.1, they have pushed a new system software — I noticed because my phone started downloading it while in Changi airport, in Singapore, while connected to a power pack and the Airport’s WiFi! With this update, the phone is running Android security update as of May 1st 2017.

That made me compare it with the Xperia XA, the locked phone I bought from Three, and that I now managed to unlock. The phone came “branded” by Three Ireland, which for the most part appeared to just mean it splashed their custom logo at boot. Unlocking the phone did not make it update to a newer version, or de-brand itself. But despite being the cheaper version of the X, and theoretically the same generation, it was still stuck on Android 6.0.

Indeed, before the last update, probably released at the same time as the latest Xperia X firmware, the security patch level was reported as April 1st 2016, over a year ago! Fortunately the latest update at least brings it to this year, as now the patch level is January 5th, 2017. As it turns out, even the non-branded versions of the phone is only available up to Android 6.0. At least I should say hat tip to Sony for actually caring about users, at least enough to provide these updates. My Samsung Tab A is at security level 1st June 2016, and it had no software updates in nearly as much time.

There is officially no way to de-brand a phone, but there are of course a number of options out there on how to do that otherwise, although a significant amount of them relied on CyanogenMod and nowadays they will rely on… whatever the name of the new project that forked from that is. I did manage to bring the phone to a clean slate with somewhat sketchy instructions, but as I said even the debranded version did not update to Android 7.0 and I’m not sure if now I would have to manually manage software update. But since the phone does not seem to remember that the phone ever was branded, and there is no Three logo, I guess it might be alright. And since I did not have to unlock the bootloader, I’m relatively safe that the firmware was signed by Sony to begin with.

What I found that is interesting in from using the tool to download Sony’s firmware, is that most of their phones are indeed sold in Ireland, but there is no unbranded Irish firmware. There are, though, a number of unbranded firmwares for other countries, including UK. My (unbranded, unlocked) Xperia X is indeed marked down as a UK firmware. Effectively it looks like that Ireland is once again acting like “UK lite” by not having its own devices, and instead relying on the UK versions. Because who would invest time and energy to cather to the 4.5M people market we have here? Sigh.

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