Every time we talk about Android phones around here, we pay a lot of attention to which version of Android those phones run. Why are there so many variations and why does it matter to users?
Picture by ToastyKen
Since the first version of Android (1.1) appeared in February 2009, Google and its partners in the Open Handset Alliance have made continual improvements to it. Each major release generally gets a both a number and a dessert-themed name. Android 1.5 (Cupcake) was released in May 2009, followed by 1.6 (Donut) in October 2009 and 2.1 (Eclair) just a couple of months later. 2.2 (known as Froyo, short for "frozen yoghurt") made its appearance in mid-2010.
While that suggests a large number of potential phone operating systems, in practice, currently all of the Android phones on sale in Australia run either 1.6 or 2.1 (though phones running 1.5 were also still being sold by telcos in mid-2010). This is a source of frustration to users who want the latest technology, given that 2.2 has been available for some months. (2.2 will feature on Samsung's Galaxy Tab Android tablet, but that isn't yet on sale here).
Android is supposed to allow upgrades to newer versions (presuming the hardware chosen is up for it). The obvious questions this raises is: why don't phone owners simply install the newer versions themselves? In many cases, they do, and technically adept Android owners who don't mind 'rooting' their phone to allow full access can quickly shift to newer versions. However, most phone users don't want to go to that trouble, and would rather wait for an "official" version of the ROM for their particular phone to be made available for over-the-air download from their carrier. Sometimes, they will wait a very long time.
While all Android phones run the same core software, manufacturers often add their own tweaks (such as enhanced input systems) and extra facilities, and sometimes carriers do as well. Those customisations arguably make the phone more usable, but mean that it's harder to simply upgrade the underlying system software without careful testing and (often) recoding. In practice, manufacturers may not bother with testing and rolling out updates older phones that haven't been conspicuously successful; Motorola, for instance, has abandoned updates for many of the phones it has on the Australian market. The only phone which has gone on sale in Australia and offers straightforward updating is the Google-backed Nexus One, but even that only went on sale briefly via Vodafone.
Wanting the latest versions isn't just a matter of simply lusting after something shiny and new. Many of the changes that happen between Android releases occur "under the hood", improving general performance and eliminating bugs. However, there are also some major feature upgrades that have occurred with each release. 1.5 added much better support for voice recognition; 2.1 incorporated support for Microsoft Exchange. 2.2's most useful feature is the ability to install applications to storage cards rather than the phone's onboard memory, increasingly the number of active applications you can have in place. (Wikipedia's Android article has a more detailed list of changes.)
Given the relative ease with which Android can be customised, and the large number of manufacturers involved, Android is never going to be a unified marketplace in the way that a single-manufacturer product such as the iPhone is (though even that has upgrade limitations). That said, if you're buying a new phone, diving onto a 1.6 device is arguably a poor choice, especially if there's no official date for an upgrade being available.
If you're looking for an Android phone, our Planhacker guides for contract and outright buy phones could be helpful:
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