Back in the early days of Android, system updates were very random: they would roll out at different times, and often several times per year. Now, Google has taken a much more streamlined approach, releasing one major Android update per year and much smaller, security-focused updates once per month.
But if you’re not running a stock Android handset that is updated by Google—like a Nexus or Pixel device—who knows when, or even if your phone will ever even see any of those updates.
New Android users are often disappointed to discover that their shiny new smartphone won’t get any updates—or worse, that it’s running old software the moment they bought it.
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 14 different iPhones released since 2007, thousands of different Android phones have been released in the same period of time.
As such, 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.
All that said, there is a series of Android phones made to directly mimic (and compete with) the iPhone in terms of release cycle and product support: the Pixel line. While any manufacturer can release an Android phone customized to their liking, the Pixel is Google’s in-house brand that is designed with the purest (and cleanest) of Android experiences in mind. Updates to the Pixel lineup of phones is handled by Google, so they’re generally the first phones to receive the newest software when it’s released.
For the rest of the pack, however, it’s a very different story.
Why Your Phone Hasn’t Received That Update
To make Android work on their hardware, device manufacturers (like Samsung, HTC, or Motorola) must write Android device drivers specifically for their phones. These are often closed-source, so they can only be updated by said manufacturer. Google can’t just release a new version of Android that works on all devices—they release the new version, then manufacturers have to go in and tweak it for each of their phones.
It’s not just drivers, though, either. Most Android handset manufacturers—like Samsung and LG, for example—“skin” their phones to make them stand out in the crowd. And by that, I mean they add/remove/change the interface and apps to make it their own. But all these additions take a lot of time and energy to add. So every time there’s an Android update, the manufacturers have to take time adding all their fancy crap in. That causes a huge delay.
And, of course, some new versions of Android just come with increased hardware requirements, preventing them from working on older devices—the same is true for the iPhone (and even desktop computers).
However, since there are so many Android phones, a lot lose support much earlier. If a manufacturer comes out with six different models every year, is it worth continuing to support all of them…every single year? Android manufacturers often aren’t as interested as they should be in updating devices after they’re released (especially cheaper ones). With the large amount of models being released, there’s little incentive to put a lot of work into updating an older model that’s been replaced by a newer one, especially when they’d rather encourage you to buy the newest model anyway. This has gotten better over time as consumers have pushed for better support as flagship phones get more and more expensive, but we still have a long way to go for manufacturers like Samsung to support their hardware the same way Google does.
Lastly, 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 (mostly) do not. Again, this is getting better, but it’s still not great.
How to Get Updates Sooner
If you’re sick of not getting updates, there’s one very clear path to take: buy a Pixel. These phones are designed, sold, and maintained by Google, so they get updated when the latest versions of Android are available—on time, every time. Google also guarantees that level of support for at least two years for all major Android updates, and an unprecedented three years for monthly security updates. That’s damn good support right there. (And despite what you’ve heard, it’s not exclusive to Verizon.)
If you absolutely can’t buy the Pixel, though—say, if you’re dead set on getting the newest Samsung Galaxy—then go for it. The good news is that most of the major players, like Samsung, have gotten much better about supporting their flagship handsets, at least for a couple of years. For example, my one-and-a-half year old Galaxy S7 is running the same version of Android as the much-newer S8: they’re both running Android Nougat. But that’s also the problem: they’re both running Android Nougat.
Even though the S8 is Samsung’s current flagship, it still doesn’t have Android Oreo, which has been available for a few months now. So, while you’re still likely to see the update on a non-Pixel flagship, you’ll likely still be waiting months for that to happen. It’s all about deciding what’s important to you, honestly.
There is another, much less-recommended way of making sure your phone has the latest version of Android, as long as you’re very tech savvy: Custom ROMs.
Custom ROMs and 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—LineageOS is currently a great place to start if you’re looking to get in on some ROM action.
However, custom ROMs aren’t officially supported, and require a lot of work to install and manage (much more than the average Android user would want to do, or even have the technical know-how for), but many Android geeks use and love custom ROMs.
Custom ROMs allow Android geeks to buy hardware they like 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, though as time goes on, manufacturers are making it harder and harder for developers and ROM hackers to get the required access to build ROMs for devices.
The best thing you can do if custom ROMs are of interest to you is scour the XDA Developers forums for all the information that you can on your particular handset. Ironically, Pixel phones are also going to be some of the most ROM-friendly devices out there because Google allows the bootloader to be unlocked, removing the security that keeps the OS from being tampered with.
What to Avoid When Buying a New Phone
So, if you’re in the market for a new phone and proper updates are a concern, there are not only clear directions on what you should buy, but even clearer guidelines on what not to buy.
First and foremost: if you care about updates, don’t buy cheap phones. Remember how we said manufacturers aren’t incentivized to update cheap, less popular phones? You will almost certainly experience that firsthand if you buy something under $500. And the lower the price, the less likely that phone is to get updates.
Motorola phones might be an exception—and that in itself is a big maybe. I can’t expect Motorola to put the same level of support behind the budget-minded Moto E as they do the flagship Moto Z. It’s unfortunate, but that’s just how it is.
The more you go up in price (and popularity), the more likely a phone is to get updates. But there are no guarantees, unless you buy a Pixel straight from Google. But hey, at least Android gives you the choice.