Smart phones are more and more like computers every day, but the odds of successfully upgrading the operating system on your phone are a lot lower than they are on a PC. You might as well resign yourself to it now: the OS that's on your shiny new phone now is probably going to stay on there until you buy a new device.
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Back in June, the Lifehacker team put together a chart comparing how iPhone and Android devices stacked up for power users. One of the factors used to rank the rivals was "release/update consistency". Android lost out on this front, with the US writers noting "when Google pushes out a new update, there's no telling when or if it’s going to make its way to your phone".
From an Australian perspective, that's even truer than it is stateside. Our most recent Planhacker guide to Android phones on sale in Australia tells the tale: we're a market still awash with comparatively ancient versions of Android. There's nothing running 2.2 officially on the market now that the Nexus One is no more, and precious little that even runs 2.1. Even when models have seen upgrades overseas, carriers are magnificently sloppy in making them available
On those occasions when upgrades do happen, they can take far too long. Gizmodo this week noted that there'll be a 2.2 update for the Motorola Milestone for Australian customers in the first quarter of 2011. In other words, not only did we have to wait almost a year for the phone to come out, we'll have to wait another six months or so to get it upgraded. It's hard to argue that Android is a platform which is easy to update if this is the pace of change.
Lifehacker readers are arguably more willing than most to root their smart phones and install a custom version of Android, and if you're prepared to go that route with Android, you might end up with a device running a newer version. But that's not a scenario the typical buyer wants to go through. Google loves rolling out updates for all its online apps, and most people breeze through those. Its phone approach leaves a lot to be desired by comparison.
Android phone updates might be in thrall to the whims of different manufacturers, but going with a single provider doesn't make life any easier. It turns out that giving Apple credit for ensuring all phone owners get the same OS experience (as that original Lifehacker comparison did) might have been the biggest overstatement since the notion that the last election was going to be a "quickie" affair.
It's become overwhelmingly obvious that while iOS 4 might be a great choice on an iPhone 4, attempting to install it on a third-generation iPhone is more than likely a recipe for heartache. Sure, not every single person who has tried updating their device has encountered glacial performance, but it's certainly a much more common issue than (say) death-grip reception problems with the iPhone 4.
Our guide to downgrading from iOS 4 when it goes wrong has remained one of our most popular articles ever since it went up, and strategies for trying to fix iOS 4.0 if you do stick with it remain very much hit-and-miss. iOS 4.1 is due shortly, but initial testing suggests it won't do much for that issue on older models either. In other words: if your iDevice isn't fourth-generation, skip the fourth-generation OS.
Is it the end of the world if you can't upgrade your smart phone? Of course not. If it's still doing the main tasks you need, then the lack of some shiny new option is annoying, but not earth-shattering.
However, let's not kid ourselves that the phones we have are some kind of blank slate which can be endlessly upgraded as software boffins come up with new goodies. As the market stands, the evidence is clear: the software your smart phone starts with is going to be the one it finishes with, unless you want to put a massive amount of potentially wasted effort into trying to fix it.