Android Phones and Updates: What You Need to Know

When purchasing a smartphone, you may notice that the popular options outside of Apple's iPhone series come from various manufacturers. While these manufacturers (Samsung, LG, HTC, etc.) all have much different design philosophies and featuresets across their different devices, they all have one thing in common: they're all running a version of Android, an open-source operating system owned by Google, licensed for modifications across hundreds of manufacturers across thousands of devices.

This means that when Android is on the verge of receiving yet another major update, so, too, are your devices (at least, newer ones - more on that later). Some manufacturers release updates featuring the latest Android versions within a few weeks of the new version releasing. The best ones for this are Google themselves, with their Nexus line (co-manufactured by other partners, like Huawei and LG), though Motorola and niche device makers, like OnePlus, also have a good reputation.

Of course, this all might leave you wondering: what does this all even mean? Does it matter if I have the latest, greatest version of Android?

Yes, actually. But let's talk about it.

The Importance of Android OS Updates

android update - marshmallow

As a proud owner of a Nexus 5, I'm quite enamored with what they call "stock" Android. Stock Android is simply Android OS without any of the manufacturer-exclusive customizations (called "skins") offered by the likes of Samsung (with TouchWiz), HTC (with Sense) and so on. Skinned Android often has major design and functionality changes and typically has more experimental/bloated features, things I'm personally not a fan of in comparison to stock, so your mileage may vary.

Upgrades to the Android OS typically offer the following benefits:

  • Performance improvements. This means a faster, more responsive system.
  • Better power usage. Or, in short, longer battery life.
  • Bug fixes. No matter what software you're using, it's always going to have some bugs and glitches. Major updates tend to remove them in droves, though usually some remain or a few new ones pop up.
  • Major security fixes. As recently as this year, an exploit called StageFright was discovered, an issue originating in Android 2.2 that lived all the way up to Android 5. Updates made earlier this year fixed the problem for most devices, but if you're behind in updates, you may still be vulnerable.
  • New features. For instance, the jump across Android versions in recent years switched the OS' runtimes to something faster and more efficient on modern hardware, an ART runtime, successor to Dalvik.

The Barriers Between Android Updates and Phone Updates

android update - verizon OTA

Android OS updates benefits both the consumers and the manufacturers. Why, then, do many phones go unsupported after a few years, and why can it take so long to receive important updates?

One major bar is the carrier. If you're buying a phone with a plan from a carrier like AT&T, Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile, they're giving you a modified version of that phone, locked to run only on their network and only take updates that go through them first. Carriers have a notorious reputation for taking months, or even over a year, on major phone updates. This barrier is easily the largest and typically the most likely reason you haven't gotten an update for your new phone yet.

However, the manufacturers themselves can also be slow to the punch. While folks like Google and Motorola have a good reputation for swift updates, other companies might not.

In fact, most devices have a very short official lifespan. Most devices will have Android updates for a year, sometimes two. Particularly, lucky device owners will find that their devices are supported for up to three years. Typically, the devices with the best Android-update lifespan are the ones from Google themselves, with a guaranteed three years of support.

For instance, the Nexus 4, just released in November 2012, only just stopped receiving updates after Android 5.1.1, missing out on Marshmallow. The Nexus 4 debuted alongside Android 4.2, however, meaning it survived quite a few Android updates. While it's a shame that it won't be getting Marshmallow, the Nexus 5 (its successor) will continue to be supported for a few more major Android updates.

What to Do

android update - one plus nexus

If you want to get the latest and greatest Android updates, go with a phone from Google's Nexus line or an unlocked phone from another manufacturer, like OnePlus or Motorola. Smaller, more niche companies like OnePlus tend to cater toward developer-oriented types with their devices which is why they tend to have very swift upgrades.

Unlocked phones in general will receive updates before phones purchased from a carrier. While unlocked phones are great, they are significantly more expensive and may not work on some networks like Verizon's.

Carriers are a mixed bag when it comes to swiftness of updates. Sometimes one is ahead of all the others, sometimes they all lag badly, and sometimes they're really quick with some phones and take forever with others. An unlocked phone can prevent this, but otherwise it's a very mixed bag.

That being said, however, the best manufacturers for quick Android updates would be Google, Motorola, LG, HTC, Sony and Samsung. All of these major manufacturers are devoted to having their version of Android feature the latest and greatest, and if that's what you want, that's where you should go.

That being said, how does this effect your purchasing decisions? Do you care about this at all? Sound off below and let us know what you think!

Christopher Harper

I'm a longtime gamer, computer nerd, and general tech enthusiast.

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