Last week HTC published a list of phones that will receive an update to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, along with approximate launch dates and a projected completion date of late August 2012. This is not a very encouraging prospect considering Google officially introduced ICS last October. Also because Android's next major revision codenamed “Jelly Bean” will be close to release by then (slated for Q3/12).

But this is not an issue with HTC phones exclusively. In fact, Ice Cream Sandwich is more the exception rather than the rule on Android devices across the board. There’s a total of four smartphones shipping with the OS preloaded, just over a dozen with upgrades available, and more than 30 on the “coming soon” list (also: see a list of Android 4.0 ICS highlights).

Phones shipping with ICS

Your choices here are limited to the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which was released in December in partnership with Google and features an unskinned version of Android 4.0, and the HTC One lineup comprising the One S on T-Mobile, One X on AT&T, and Evo 4G LTE on Sprint. These are soon to be joined by the Samsung Galaxy S III, which is expected to launch globally soon, including all four major carriers in the US.

Phones with ICS upgrades rolling out now

These smartphones are already being upgraded to Android 4.0. If you own one of these and are still waiting for the update to come through, keep in mind that they’re being rolled out over a period of several weeks.

HTC Samsung Sony
85 Sensation 91 Galaxy S II (unlocked, Canada) 82 Xperia Ray
84 Sensation XE 79 Galaxy S II LTE (unlocked, Canada) 81 Xperia arc S
82 Sensation 4G (T-Mo, Bell, Virgin Ca.) 83 Galaxy Note (unlocked) 71 Xperia neo V
71 Vivid (AT&T) 71 Nexus S 4G (Sprint) 71 Xperia arc
82 Velocity (Australia) 84 Nexus S (unlocked) 76 Xperia neo
79 Amaze 4G (T-Mobile)
Raider 4G (Bell Canada)
Phones with ICS updates "coming soon"

Not all phone manufacturers are offering specific details as to when each of their devices are getting upgraded to Android 4.0. Motorola is only listing them by quarter, while HTC recently provided a two-month release window, and Sony is being a little more specific with the next round of updates starting this week and continuing throughout June into the third quarter. Samsung is not giving out any dates whatsoever.

Smartphone model Timeframe Device release date
Sensation XL May-June May 19, 2011
EVO 4G+ May-June June 2011
Rezound June-July November 14, 2011
EVO 3D June-July June 24, 2011
EVO Design 4G June-July October 23, 2011
Desire S June-July March 8, 2011
Incredible S June-July February 26, 2011
Rhyme June-July September 29, 2011
Thunderbolt July-August March 17, 2011
Desire HD July-August October 20, 2010
DROID Incredible 2 TBD April 28, 2011

HTC notes that due to localization, testing, and partner approvals, updates do not roll out to all devices at the same time. For devices on a wide variety of carriers and in many countries, rollouts can take up to 45 days from the initial update to reach everyone. You can manually check for updates by going to Settings>About>Software Updates if you are not prompted to update automatically.

The upgrade to Android 4.0 will include Sense 3.6, not Sense 4, since some aspects of Sense 4 require dedicated hardware, which is not available on all devices.

Smartphone model Timeframe Device release date
Droid Razr (USA, Asia Pacific, Canada, China, EMEA, Japan, Korea & LATAM) Q2 2012 November 11, 2011
Droid Razr Maxx (USA) Q2 2012 January 26, 2011
Atrix 2 (Asia-Pacific, LATAM, USA, and selected other markets) Q3 2012 October 16, 2011
Atrix 4G (USA) Q3 2012 February 22, 2011
Droid 4 (USA) Q3 2012 February 10, 2011
Droid Bionic (USA) Q3 2012 September 8, 2011
Photon 4G (USA) Q4 2012 July 31, 2011
Atrix / Atrix 4G (Asia Pacific, EMEA and LATAM) TBD --
Electrify (USA) TBD September 22, 2011
Photon 4G (Japan) TBD --

To date, the only Motorola device that has been upgraded to Android 4.0 is the WiFi-only XOOM (and only the versions in the US or Canada). The company outlined their 4-step updating process back in December and plans to start rolling out a few of those “soon”. Regarding the selection of phones that qualify for updates and the ones that don’t, Motorola has this to say: “Obviously we want the new release to improve our devices. If we determine that can’t be done—well then, we’re not able to upgrade that particular device.”

Smartphone model Timeframe Device release date
Galaxy S II (AT&T, T-Mobile) TBD April 28, 2011
Galaxy S II Skyrocket (AT&T) TBD November 6, 2011
Galaxy Note (AT&T) TBD October 28, 2011
Captivate Glide (AT&T) TBD November 21, 2011
Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch (Sprint) TBD September 16, 2011
Samsung Galaxy S Blaze 4G (T-Mobile) TBD March 21, 2012

Samsung has been at the forefront of the move from 2.3 to 4.0, rolling Ice Cream Sandwich out to a number of unlocked devices, including the hugely popular Galaxy S II. Unfortunately, updates to branded devices tend to get held up in carrier-specific testing so a lot of users with subsidized phones are still waiting their turn. Making matters worst neither Samsung nor carriers are sharing a timeframe for the update.

Smartphone model Timeframe Device release date
Xperia mini Week of May 28 August 2011
Xperia mini pro Week of May 28 August 9, 2011
Xperia pro Week of May 28 October 18, 2011
Xperia active Week of May 28 October 1, 2011
Sony Ericsson Live Week of May 28 Q4 2011
Xperia S End of June March 1, 2012
Xperia P End of June Unreleased
Xperia U Q3 2012 May 7, 2012
Xperia sola TBD May 7, 2012
Xperia ion TBD March 1, 2012

Sony has been pretty forthcoming about its Ice Cream Sandwich rollout and so far they’ve mostly kept true to their planned upgrade schedule. Just recently they started rolling out updates for two of their 2011 devices and more should follow throughout the week and over the next month. Notably, the Xperia Play will be the only Xperia phone from last year’s lineup not getting the update, as Sony cited stability and consistency issues.

Sony is rolling out Android 4.0.4 to its devices while remaining on kernel 2.6.32 — technically, ICS should feature Kernel 3.0.X+. It’s unclear if this will result in any issues or missing features. A developer for Sony Ericsson had previously said that it takes a lot of testing and validation to make a new kernel stable, so they decided to keep the tried and tested 2.6.32 kernel to release ICS as quickly as possible.

Why all the fuss about having the latest version?

If there’s one lesson to learn here is that you should buy a phone that makes you happy today, not one that promises new features with an update that may or may not appear. Granted, that’s a valid advice for any consumer electronic purchase, but Android serves as the perfect example for it.

That said, it’s not unreasonable to want your one-year-old phone to be able to get the latest software update, especially when you know it’s technically capable of running it. There are many new features to be gained in the transition from Gingerbread to Ice Cream Sandwich. Here are a few of the most noteworthy:

  • UI Improvements: Android 4.0 is based on a new look and feel, the Holo theme, which offers a more consistent experience throughout the OS and makes it easier for users to find those common buttons and actions. There’s also a new “Roboto” font that’s easier on the eye and has a more modern feel.

  • Multitasking, Widgets, and Folders: There’s a new Recent Apps button that lets users jump from one task to another, and a side-swiping gesture to get rid of apps you’re no longer using. Users can also resize widgets to their liking and drag and drop icons on top of each other to create folders.

  • Contacts and sharing: ICS ditches the old Android 2.3 contact list for one that shows richer profile information, including large profile picture, phone numbers, addresses, and a button for connecting on integrated social networks. There’s also a new NFC peer-to-peer sharing feature that allows users with NFC-capable devices to share apps, contacts, music, videos by touching one phone to another.

  • Improved speed and full hardware acceleration: Tests have shown significant performance improvements in Android 4.0 when it comes to handling graphics and using the web browser.

  • Data usage manager: Android 4.0 allows users to monitor total data usage by network type and application, as well as set limits on those data-hungry apps so you don’t incur in expensive overage fees.

  • Various other new features and enhancements: You can access the camera and notifications without unlocking your device first, there’s a new face-unlock feature, Wi-Fi direct support to share files between compatible devices, improvements to the camera and video apps, and more.

Lastly, it’s also worth noting that the lack of timely updates exacerbates Android’s fragmentation problem, which makes it that much harder for developers to QA apps. If you’ve ever wondered why you run into bugs and other unexplained behaviors on Android but not on iOS, well, fragmentation probably played a part on it.