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Why Your Android Phone Isn’t Getting Operating System Updates and What You Can Do About It

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Several times a year, Google releases a new version of Android with new features and performance improvements. Unfortunately, most Android devices in the wild will never get the update.

New Android users are often disappointed to discover that their shiny new smartphone won’t get any updates – or worse, that it was running old software from the moment they bought it.

Image Credit: Johan Larsson on Flickr

The Android Ecosystem

Unlike Apple’s ecosystem, where Apple releases a single iPhone each generation, Android is a much more open (and messy) environment. Any manufacturer can make a smartphone or tablet, throw Android on it, and release it. While there have been six iPhones released since 2007, over 800 different models of Android phones have been released in the same period of time.

Android phones use a wide variety of different hardware. Some phones are made to be super-cheap, available free on contract or for inexpensive purchase by people in developing countries. Some are “flagship” phones with more advanced hardware than the iPhone.

Android even powers other types of devices – everything from refrigerators and televisions to video screens embedded in print magazines.

android-phone-sizes

Image Credit: Mike Babcock on Flickr

Why You Probably Can’t Update Your Phone

To make Android work on their hardware, device manufacturers must write Android device drives for their hardware. These are often closed-source, so device manufacturers have to update them on their own. Google can’t just release a new version of Android that works on all devices – manufacturers have to update the drivers to work with newer versions of Android.

Android smartphone manufacturers are also beholden to cell phone carriers, who can delay updates by months on their networks. While Apple has the muscle to overrule carriers and roll out new versions of their operating system, Android phone manufacturers do not.

Some new versions of Android come with increased hardware requirements. This prevents them from working on holder devices – the same is true in the iPhone and Windows Phone worlds, where new operating systems occasionally drop support for older devices.

More controversially, Android OEMs also add their own tweaks and skins on top of the Android operating system. These include Samsung’s TouchWiz, HTC’s Sense, Motorola’s Motoblur, and others. In addition to adding custom launchers, OEMs tweak included apps to add and remove features. They’re convinced that this helps differentiate their products in the market, although diehard stock Android enthusiasts disagree.

When a new version of Android is released, OEMS have to port their custom software and tweaks to the latest version. In some cases, the custom software is incompatible. For example, Samsung never updated the original Galaxy S to Android 4.0 – Samsung said that the phone did not have enough RAM to run TouchWiz and Android 4.0 at the same time. While many cried out for Samsung to drop TouchWiz on the Galaxy S, Samsung refused – Galaxy S owners are either using Android 2.3 or a community-developed ROM like CyanogenMod.

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Image Credit: Vernon Chan on Flickr

Android OEMs and carriers often aren’t very interested in updating devices after they’re released. With the large amount of models being released, there’s no incentive to put a lot of work into updating an older model that’s been replaced by a newer one. OEMs and carriers also want to encourage you to buy newer devices, anyway.

iPhone & Windows Phone Updates

While we bemoan the Android update situation, it’s only appropriate to take a look at how Apple and Microsoft are doing with updates.

Apple fans generally point out that Apple updates older iPhones with the latest version of iOS. This is true, but the situation isn’t as rosy as it seems. While new versions of iOS come to older iPhones and iPads, many features are omitted. The iPhone 3GS runs iOS 6, the latest version of iOS, but it lacks turn-by-turn navigation, Siri, location-based reminders, FaceTime, AirPlay mirroring, Wi-Fi personal hotspot, and other important features. iPhone owners have also complained that new versions of iOS are heavier and can slow down an older iPhone. Apple eventually drops support for older iPhone models, too.

While Apple’s definitely doing a better job of updating iPhones, older iPhones aren’t running the latest-and-greatest software, either – just like older Android phones.

The Windows Phone situation has been even worse. With the jump from Windows Mobile 6 to Windows Phone 7, no devices were upgraded. While Microsoft initially made waves with a “Where’s My Phone Update?” site that allowed users to track when the latest version of Windows Phone would be available for their device and see which carriers were delaying the roll-out, this site has since been shut down. With the update from Windows Phone 7 to Windows Phone 8, no Windows Phone 7 phones were updated to Windows Phone 8, either. With each generation, users had to buy a new phone to get the latest and greatest software. While Microsoft promises a minimum of 18 months of updates for Windows Phone 8 devices, that’s little comfort to people stuck with fairly new Windows Phone 7 phones that will never be updated to Windows Phone 8.

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Community-Developed Android Updates

Android is open-source, so it’s possible for Android users to take its source code and roll their own operating systems – known as a custom ROM – for their smartphones. If you have a reasonably popular device, there are likely other Android users out there developing and tweaking custom ROMs for it. Custom ROMs aren’t officially supported and require more tweaking to install than the average Android user would want to do, but many Android geeks use and love custom ROMs.

Custom ROMs allow Android geeks to buy hardware they like – such as the Galaxy S3 or HTC One X – and install a more stock Android operating system on it, removing the manufacturer’s software customizations and updating the operating system to the latest version. Popular Android phones are more likely to be supported.

CyanogenMod is the most popular community-developed ROM for Android. You can find more information about custom ROMS for your Android device by looking at the XDA Developers forum and checking the subforum for your specific device. If your manufacturer won’t update your device, you may find that the Android community has already updated it.

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Image Credit: Claudia Rahanmetan on Flickr

Devices That Receive Official Updates

If you don’t want to do any tweaking and wish your smartphone would receive automatic updates, it’s important to buy the right phone.

  • Google’s Nexus smartphones (and tablets) are the platform Google uses to provide a “pure Android” experience. When you buy a Nexus phone, you’re generally assured that it will receive updates straight from Google without any carrier or manufacturer-created delays. When Google rolled out Android 4.2 recently, Galaxy Nexus owners received an update notification on their device almost immediately.

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Image Credit: Martin Shroder on Flickr

  • “Flagship,” high-end phones will also generally receive updates, although they’ll be more delayed. If you purchased an HTC One X or Samsung Galaxy S3, you can be assured that it will probably receive a few updates – although they’ll likely be available months after they’re released for Nexus devices and perhaps even after the Android community has released a community-developed ROM for your device.
  • Low-end Android smartphones – the kind you get for $0 without a contract – will likely never receive updates. The hardware on these low-end devices is already dated, and manufacturers won’t continue to support these.

Google, in their latest attempt to speed up Android updates, is giving select Android device manufacturers access to newer versions of Android before they’re released to the public. Android OEMs will have the opportunity to start working on udpates ahead of time. Whether this will help remains to be seen.


If your phone is running an old version of Android, there are some things you can do to make an old Android feel like new.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 11/20/12

Comments (28)

  1. NSDCars5

    I seriously hope HTC gets 4.2 to the One V, or I’ll have to find a way to “HTC-Sense”ify the 4.2 custom ROM I’ll get, or Mum will be suspicious (her phone anyway).

  2. nightshrill

    Or if you’re stuck with a locked boot loader like the droid RAZR in Verizon you’re kind if screwed even on custom ROMs because you cannot flash a new kernel updating hardware. Meanwhile support from both Verizon and Motorola is nonexistent so its suffer another year or pay $500+ for a new phone.

  3. Rajat Patel

    Great article!! Gives a clear idea to people who are willing to buy a new smartphone. In my opinion, I would surely recommend people to buy a Nexus series device if they are willing to buy an Android. First, they are cheaper than Apple’s iPhones and gets updated regularly and instantly. So even if don’t know geeky stuff of installing a Custom ROM you’re fine, coz you’re gonna get the OTA update as soon as it is released by Google. And I think Android is now enough matured to get chosen over iOS. It’ll overtake iOS in a near future if it keep growing like this.

    And if you’re a geek, then i would advice that “Buy any Android that has a good developer community.” Because, due to sound developments carried out by enthusiastic developer community, you’ll able to upgrade your Android version even if your manufacturer don’t supply them. Moreover, you can get rid of bloatwares and customize the Android experience as per your taste.

  4. TheFu

    If you use Flash, you might not want an update.
    Not all things “new” mean “better.”

  5. Yu

    Windows Phone 7: Supposedly the 7.8 update brings many of the features, Windows Phone 8 brings, including easy-enough back-porting of apps to make it worthwhile for developers. Still quite a disappointment though. Also I’m not sure how much different this is from the mutilated iOS-upgrades for old iPhones, except for marketing (though I have no insight in the differences regarding app-compatibility). Again though, Apple has an advantage by not having to cater to the needs of hardware partners who need the official distinction for selling new devices.

    As for custom roms, and thus the prior requirement of rooting: Trying to do so by a guide for my specific software version (“V20Q” / Android 2.3.4) I only ended up bricking my device and had to do a factory reset (LG Optimus Black aka P970). Even the simpler rooting procedure for the stock firmware didn’t work though. According to some comments, it might have worked by trying a few different Windows-devices, but seriously, I’ll rather just stay with Gingerbread (2.3.x).

    The only (but significant) problem with Android is, that in the android ecosystem there is no differentiation between security updates (require fast distribution and for a rather long time after device release) and totally new versions (nice to have, but not essential). As mobile computing keeps rising in importance, I guess that Android will eventually be forced into a centralized update model (or into making that security update / OS upgrade distinction).

  6. Lee

    Very nice and informative article. It really seemed completely unbiased and very factual.

  7. xana452

    I just hope the LG Lucid will get Jelly Bean at some point. I really hate the interface from LG already, but I have a work-around for it.

  8. EKMA

    @ Yu, you obviously didn’t brick your device…otherwise you wouldn’t have been able to factory reset it. Just thought I’d point that out so it doesn’t confuse others. I was a little disappointed in the Windows Phone 7 as well…the Lumia looks and feels awesome. I’m due for an upgrade and am trying to decide what phone to go with and almost went with the WP7…After doing some research, I realized that any WP7 was pretty much dead in the water concerning apps. Now that the WP8’s have come out, the Lumia 820 is looking pretty sweet……now just have to make a decision…WP8 or Android ICS………any suggestions?

  9. richard keane

    How right TheFu is! As a new smartphone user I got on with a Huawei Ascend G300. I was told that I could update the firmware to Ice Cream Sandwich. Since when I have been looking for a way to revert to Gingerbread. Basically ICS has turned my phone against me. Does anyone know how to unscramble the firmware?

  10. Aaron Toponce

    I don’t get the argument on why they _should_ receive those updates. Most cellular vendors are good at shipping OTA security updates, and stability improvements. But what is so important about the latest version? Most Android users I’ve talked with don’t care, and many iOS users I’ve talked with haven’t updated their iPhone or iPad.

    Other than UI changes, what does Ice Cream Sandwich or Jelly Bean offer me that Gingerbread does not? NFC, which most phones, including iPhone 5, still do not support, Google Chrome and Google Calendar (if the existing plethora of calendar and browser apps aren’t good enough for you). The Google Play store is still plentiful for Gingerbread users. They can still send SMS, MMS, make calls, access Facebook and play Angry Birds. So, what’s so important about these new fandangled updates?

    In my experience, people have already made up their mind on getting either Apple or Android. They usually don’t care what version of operating system is installed, and they’re even less concerned about getting updates, unless some fanboy makes a stink about it. Even then, they don’t understand the ‘why’, just that they ‘should’. This argument that Apple wins, because they push updates, is full of holes, IMO.

  11. T$

    @TheFu – There are apks floating around so you can get flash on ICS.

    @richard keane – if you google your device name along with root, you’ll find guides for rooting your phone. Next, just find the stock GB rom, and flash it to get back. Alternatively, you could search for the issues you are having with ICS, and there may be bug fixes available.

    @Aaron Toponce – ICS & especially jelly bean add some pretty quality updates. Project Butter and google now probably being the most significant. I am willing to root and flash CM or other ROM to get the latest features, but I shouldn’t have to. Especially since I was promised an update for my phone last month. OEMs & should provide updates because it’s the right thing to do. If you go out your way to buy a new phone so you can have the latest and greatest, it sucks when its out of date the next day.

  12. Vivian

    Good lord, do you people actually talk in groups about your stupid phones like you’re doing on here?

    Jelly bean, ice cream sandwhich and on and on and on. You can’t be adults surely? Perhaps 4?

  13. 4G Reaper

    @TheFu, you can actually sideload flash and use a browser such as Dolphin HD with jellybean. Just because it’s not supported in Chrome doesn’t mean there’s not a workaround.

  14. 4G Reaper

    @Vivian

    I fail to see any logic in your comment.

    #don’tfeedthetroll

  15. Gavin

    I have a Samsung galaxy s. Running tsunami X.

    Stable jelly bean rom for a phone that doesn’t “support” it. I can run touchwiz fine using 4.1.2

    Samsung are talking rubbish.

    I’ve been flashing my phone for the past 3 years. Not had a Samsung rom on it for ages.

  16. Aaron Toponce

    @T$- What features in “the latest and greatest” are you looking for that are must-haves?

  17. T$

    @Aaron Toponce – Gmail pinch to zoom! It’s finally here! Google now looks pretty good. I really want photo sphere as well. But I will admit, “Must-have” is a strong term.

  18. Aaron Toponce

    So, UI mostly. Most people don’t care much about UI enhancements. They’re more concerned with functionality.

  19. T$

    @Aaron Toponce – Did you read what I wrote? Google now and photo sphere are functional enhancements.

  20. Citrus Rain

    I have HTC Thunderbolt with a custom rom of ICS with Google Now.

    Thinking about reverting to a custom rom of GB (or maybe dropping Google Now) because it tends to lag. (and the radios worked better on GB)

  21. Citrus Rain

    ……On second thought… I think it slowed down when I installed a gameloft game. Maybe that’s the problem.

  22. Ricky

    @Aaron. Software updates do matter, right now I have a year old iPhone 4S with iOS 6.0.1 and apart from the bigger screen on the iPhone 5, my 4S has pretty much every new software feature such as the improved mailbox, or the panorama mode for the camera, even little things like the really useful do not disturb option make an old phone so much better. There’s really no compelling reason for me to upgrade this time. And I have Maps… lol, it’s actually not that bad from my experience

    It’s the same with Android, I really think the Galaxy Nexus from last year was a great little phone, I managed to pick one up very cheap for my daughter and honestly it feels smoother and better than Samsungs Galaxy S3 which has that really messy Touchwiz interface, I’m sure there’ll be differences when she sticks a graphically intensive game on, but in terms of the fluidity of the UI and basic tasks, it’s just as good as any of these far more expensive Android phones

  23. Phil

    To sum up the article –

    If you want a smartphone which will provide regular updates to your device, but will eventually stop updating when the manufacturer considers it to be “obsolete” – get an iPhone and live with Apple’s proprietary code.

    If you want a smartphone where each time there’s a significant upgrade to the operating system and know that you will NOT get an update, even if it’s promised, then get a Windows phone.

    If you want a smartphone where you may or may not get updates depending on your phone manufacturer or carrier’s whim then get a typical Android.

    If you want a smartphone where you will get regular updates to the operating system then get a Nexus.

    If you want a smartphone where you can control whether or not you get upgrades to the operating system, when you want to do an upgrade, remove bloatware, add features back in which your carrier decided to suppress then get an Android which is well supported by the developer community and learn how to root it.

    No solution is ideal for everybody – certainly I am not going to recommend rooting to anybody, unless they already know about rooting and the tradeoffs. Some would prefer certain brand phones or to avoid certain brands. Many have had bad experiences with carriers in the past and have no interest in going back to those carriers again.

    Myself, I’m happy that my low end “obsolete” (read – 3 year old) phone still serves me well and runs almost every app which I could want. It cost me only $40 (used on eBay) without any contract and I only pay $37.10 a month to my carrier. I think that’s a pretty good deal, your mileage WILL vary.

  24. Aaron Toponce

    Other than UI changes, a hardware feature few phones have, and a couple apps in the Play store, no one yet has mentioned “why” I should upgrade my operating system. “But, it’s pretty! You can pinch and zoom email! It’s has pretty animations!”

    If the “why” was turn-by-turn directions, or cloud storage, or 4G, or NFC, or double the battery life (you see what I’m doing here?), then there would be great arguments for upgrading your operating system. But when all you get is a few measely apps that most aren’t going to care about, and some pretty animations, the reasons fall apart.

    Gingerbread works fine for me on my 2.5 year old Evo 4G, and other than hardware improvements (which has nothing to do with the operating system), I have yet to find a solid, legitimate reason why I should upgrade my OS to a newer release.

  25. Marish

    I have Samsung Galaxy s GT-9003i still it running on 2.3 am not getting Updates pleas let me Know

    Thanks
    Marish N
    9994612271

  26. Steven J

    @Aaron:
    Note that this is a YMMV – but Android system updates can actually make your phone run significantly faster & more efficiently – again, YMMV, but that’s what happened to me. The point is slightly moot when you’re updating and keeping the manufacturer bloat, but going from 2.3 Motoblur to 4.1 AOSP is really nice.
    Also, new versions of Android support many newer features than older ones – low level stuff like system APIs get updated, making a number of apps developed for newer phones simply not usable on older OSes. Either devs have to split the app (make a 2.3- version and a 4.0+ version), make the app compatible with old android versions, throwing out the benefits of newer versions (hardware acceleration is a good example), or throw out a sizeable percentage of possible users who can’t/won’t upgrade.) Also, security fixes are applied – With the switch from 2.3 to 4.0 the linux kernel (really low level) got updated. A lot of security holes at the kernel level (the kind of stuff used to make root exploits) got fixed – hence why the common way to root 2.3- is via a root exploit (usually at kernel level) and 4.0+ is by literally flashing Superuser to /system

    TL;DR: There’s more to android system upgrades than just UI changes and new apps.

  27. droidTURK182

    @ Aaron Toponce – When a person like your self starts talk about getting a new phone and your attitude about fire ware updates, I don’t recommend Android at all, instead I push them to the iPhone were someone else dictates what you should do. I pray that Android loses it “must have phone status” and just let the tech geeks use and take care of Android from now on. The whole Android ecosystem will be better off. My 2 cents…

  28. XYZ ABC

    Can we upgrade our mobiles RAM from 500mb to 1 GB like our PC????

    If yes then how to?

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