How To Choose an Android Phone and Not Get Screwed on Updates

By Ryan Whitwam

Don't get stuck on old software.

Since Google has finally announced version 2.3 of the Android OS, also known as Gingerbread, the time has come for people to start clamoring for an update. Some phones will probably be bumped up fairly quickly, while others will languish in the doldrums of Froyo, or maybe even Éclair. Samsung has been using some vague, discouraging language regarding a Galaxy S update, which is surprising. 


Do you have a right to updates?

We might prefer that manufacturers always take the time to update all their phones as far as possible. But that doesn't mean they owe you the update, but you don't owe them repeat business either. Manufacturers should be updating phones so users continue to buy from them, and speak highly of their work. It's more of a social contract than you having a right to anything. Instead, the decision to update phones are more often straight business decisions.

When updates don't flow as expected, users will inevitably start complaining. Some might decry this display of impatience, but we understand. You've got no recourse, and some handset makers are just cutting corners with the updates. It's the complaints that can at least keep these companies aware that people are watching how the navigate this new world of speedy software updates. Even though you aren't necessarily entitled to an update, it's right for a manufacturer to provide them.  

Look at the involved parties

Since Android phones come from different manufacturers, the updates come from different places. To complicate matters even further, the various carriers have a hand in the process too. First the maker of the phone has to commit to modifying the stock Android OS to work with their phone. There are drivers, UI layers, and built-in apps that must be added. Some of this is more necessary than the rest, but something always needs to be done. It can be a lot of work depending on the phone. 

Let's say that a company has decided to make an update for their phone, after it's done, it still isn't really done. The carrier that sells that phone to consumers will have to validate the update to make sure it isn't going to brick thousands of phones, or damage the network. These are both headaches that the carrier would have to deal with, not so much the manufacturer. In both of these phases of getting you update, the companies involved seem to matter a great deal. We’ve noticed some trends you might find useful. 

Some international units got 2.1 updates in November, but US X10 phones are still waiting. Let's remember this is only Android 2.1 here, not 2.2 Froyo. 2.1 was released nearly a year ago, and it's just now hitting Sony Ericsson 's high-end phones? 

Surprisingly, Samsung is also making us a little concerned with their update cycle. The Galaxy S phones started dropping over the summer, and most are still on Android 2.1. Only the international version got its update. US users are still waiting for Froyo goodness. Especially when they are the hardware partner on the Nexus S with Android 2.3. It's a little embarrassing that their other phones are two versions behind. If you buy a Samsung phone that isn't the Nexus S, buy it because you love the handset the way it is.  

Evo 4G just one month after it launched. Motorola released the Moto Droid 2 with Froyo in late summer, and updated the Droid X immediately thereafter. All quick updates in our book. But even these manufacturers with fairly good records have some upset customers waiting on updates. Some Motorola Milestone users are upset about the update lag the have had to put up with. Fact of the matter is, updates also depend on what specific phone you get. 

As for the carriers, we've found both T-Mobile and Sprint to be very fast at certifying updates (in the case of Sprint, see the Evo update). Verizon and AT&T are a little slower on the uptake, but they still get the job done. Verizon in particular is famous for rejecting both phones and software packages if they find bugs. So maybe the final package will be better, but you will have to wait a few extra weeks. 

The phone matters too

over 3 months for the bump up to 2.1. Motorola's next blockbuster phone, the Droid X, got a speedy update from 2.1 to 2.2, and it's running a skin that would have to be modified. So if you buy right away, you might be taking a risk that the phone is a flop, and the manufacturer will resist spending resources on an update.  

The "wait and see" approach mentioned above is just fine, but don't wait too long. If you pick up a phone that's been out for more than 6-8 months, it might be about to hit 'end of life' with the carrier. If no one new is buying it, manufacturers are more apt to stop developing for it. This is not only because they don't need to convince new customers to buy it, but because the hardware might be getting out of date. If it takes too much work for them to make an update work on a slower phone, they won't do it. It's more advantageous to move on to the new model. It's this situation that could keep the original Droid from getting Android 2.3. 

Finally, it might be a good idea to spend a little more on that shiny new phone. Sure, buying the $99 mid-range phone might save you a few bucks up front, but you had to sign a two year contract to get that price. A less expensive phone probably isn't going to see the same level of support from carriers of manufacturers. These are commodity phones, and it's the flagship handsets they care about. For example, the Motorola Cliq and Backflip just recently got 2.1 updates from 1.5. Only ten months late there. The more expensive phones will hurt your wallet at first, but if you care about updates, the value of the handset will be much higher. 

It's a bit of a jungle out there when it comes to Android updates. You can never be quite sure how things will pan out for you and your phone. You may not have a right to a Gingerbread update, even if you buy a Froyo phone. But we definitely think you should get one. Manufacturers that aren't updating properly are often doing so out of self-interest. You can lessen the impact of this mess by going with handset makers and carriers that are faster with updates. Though, we would emphasize the manufacturer over the carrier here.  

Image credit: erictric, HTC, Motorola, Sony Ericsson