Why Updating Your Smart Phone OS Is A Myth

Why Updating Your Smart Phone OS Is A Myth

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.

Picture by avlxyz

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.


  • You really haven’t a clue about Android, do you?. The G1, got 2.2 only after the N1 and before everyone else. You can state that its not for the faint hearted, but most new releases through 2.2 will fit almost any phone except samsung first generation and ATT bloated phones.

    Deal is, if you base your updates of Android on cyamogenmod, the first update may be daunting, though everyone after that is just a button click.

    Now if you wait for the manufacturer or provider to provide the update, you will probably get a. mess if you do. O2, Sprint, Verizon, Vodafone have proven this. And if you get a first generation Samsung or Garmin you wul wait forever, a these two companies are the worst.

    On the other hand, if you have an Htc our motorola, you will get your updates in a very short time.

    Now if you are foolish enough to purchase an iphone, you will get what ever Apple provides, and most of it has been junk lately, phones that don’t work like phones. iOS4 that criples your phone. And to top it all off, you will also be left behind the curve in all but the gaming department.

    Your advice is like an iphone fluff with no substance, though it may seem nice, is useless.

      • True about the insults, but there’s nothing to change. Updating an Android based phone IS straightforward. It takes around half an hour, and most of that is waiting for this task or that task to complete; not messing with things yourself. Its a largely automated and VERY well documented process.

        I have a G1 (CyanogenMod 6) and a Desire (T-Mod 1.7) on 2.2.

        OTA updates are even easier. You get your notification, say “Yes, I’ll upgrade” and watch it for about 20 minutes while it does its thing. No more interaction needed; The next time your phone boots, it’ll be a million times shinier than before.

        I have to say that I disagree with the very core of this article. 🙂

      • I’ve had 3 OTA updates for my Xperia X10 that I use on Optus after importing it from the UK nearly one month after it was first released there. Admittedly none have been the much awaited Android 1.6 -> 2.1 update, but they’ve definately addressed issues such as bluetooth connectivity, UI performance etc.

        The point is, the update schedule had nothing to do with my carrier, and everything to do with the manufacturer.

      • Ural: Actually, it is you that is clueless, especially considering that you chose to fling insults towards the author without actually knowing much more than your own phone. A Phandroid perhaps?

        The author was right on about how many Android owners either wait a long time (more than 6 months after the official release of an OS update) or they NEVER get the update. That is, short of going the Cyanogen method (which is beyond the understanding of many).

        >On the other hand, if you have an Htc our
        >motorola, you will get your updates in a very
        >short time.

        More evidence that it is you that is clueless.

        I have an HTC Magic! It was OS 1.5 until today. Now I have the official release for OS 2.1. But I will never see an official OS update past 2.1. HTC Dream owners were cut off a year ago at OS 1.5. There are more examples but I will choose only to speak of that which I have first hand experience with.

        In regards to iPhone… again, you are clueless. The iOS 4 update was a godsend for many, including those like myself who own a iPhone 3gs. It updated quickly over iTunes and without difficulty. Although I have heard of a very few issues, no one of about 25 co-workers/family had any problems with this update. BTW, the update was available for free on the day Apple announced it. Cannot say that about any Android phones I have used.

        Check your facts before hurling insults. Otherwise, it is you who looks foolish.

  • Pretty weak article, sounds like you are just pushing an agenda. I’ve upgraded my 3GS (i.e not model that was 2 years old) to IOS 4 without issue, just like I was able to upgrade my 3G through all the 3.x point releases, which brought new features and fixes.

    Try writing a balanced article for a change.

    • No agenda. The article does note that people have managed the 4.0 upgrade without issue, but it’s pretty evident that lots of people have had issues.

      • @Angus Kidman “As the market stands, the evidence is clear: the software your smart phone starts with is going to be the one it finishes with…”

        Most people get their phones on a two-year contract. Do you really think that these phones aren’t going to update by September 2012?

      • @Angus Kidman “In several cases”? Then you should use that phrase to modify the last sentence of the article, because as it stands you’re suggesting that it’s the case for everyone.

      • Angus, this was the one part of your article that I did not agree with.
        Admittedly, I do not have any actual statistics but I seriously doubt any more than a handful of the over 20 million iPhone users experienced problems. I also suspect that many of them had also jailbroken their phones.

        Who knows, there should be 100% homogeneity with iPhone line so logically, one should expect a consistent update.

        • Can’t agree David — there just seem to be too many examples of people with update problems. I’ve known plenty of people who didn’t jailbreak and still had issues. I don’t deny that it’s weird on one level — you’d think homogenous hardware would make updates easier — but on the other hand Apple is not a company that likes to admit it makes mistakes. And after all, homogenous hardware didn’t stop MobileMe being a disaster at launch.

      • As I mentioned earlier. I have no stats to back up my claim, all I know is that I only heard about these issues as a rumour. I can’t help but think that perhaps, also, the root cause was with older phones (3g or earlier?). Since google is my friend, I looked it up… here is a good example:

        Reading this made me realize an advantage iPhone users have over Android users. When you run into problems, you actually KNOW who to blame and WHO will help you.

        In stark contrast, Android users go through the blame game pain… It’s the carrier; no, it’s the hardware manufacturer; go post the problem on code.google… and see if any one cares. A tiring and vicious circle.

        >but on the other hand Apple is not a company
        >that likes to admit it makes mistakes.

        Repeat after me, nothing that Steve Jobs sells is a mistake! Yes, once you believe the mantra, you will become one with Apple! ha ha… I both love Steve Jobs (for his significant contributions to the world) and hate him (for his stubborn arrogance).

        >And after all, homogenous hardware didn’t
        >stop MobileMe being a disaster at launch.

        The only thing annoying about MobileMe is that despite having ZERO interest in installing this program, iTunes updates relentlessly keep asking! Why can’t I say GO AWAY for good?

  • I’ve sort of got to agree with the first two fellas here.
    I understand what you mean, and it’s true that Lifehacker readers are far more likely to get stuck into rooting/flashing their phones.

    However, not all updates require that… I remember before I finally decided i wanted custom roms on my N1, updating was as easy as sticking the update.zip on my SD card and applying it from the bootloader (which only took a reboot to access…)
    I guess that could sound complicated for someone who has no idea – but someone who has not idea isn’t really going to care about not having the latest and greatest.

    • I can assure that I do care about having the latest and greatest Android, but I don’t think I should have to hack my phone (and void my warranty) in order to get it.

  • While I find this article true of Android handsets, carrier approval of OS’s being the reason I avoided switching to android, I went through at least 3 major OS updates with my iPhone 3G, as well as a bunch of little ones. Even with android its not a myth at all, just a pain in the ass.

  • I managed to upgrade the OS on my Nokia E63, but not without a lot of grief. The on-line instructions were poor, and in some places just plain wrong. On the first three attempts, the phone was effectively bricked. I managed to hack a recovery with a cold re-start and a restore from my PC backup, and on the fourth attempt, I succeeded, but all custom settings were lost. I imagine the average user would have had to take the phone back to the store to un-brick it. I agree, leave the OS alone.

  • I’m with you Angus. The people making comments saying its easy to upgrade an Android phone are oblivious to the fact that they are tech savvy.

    To then also say that only tech savvy people want the latest and greatest goes against the very grain of great technologies. All great technologies have to appeal to the mass market to survive. Early adopters may do it first but the reason they put extra features in anything is because it appeals to more than just the geeks and nerds.

    I know plenty of people who think rooting is an activity you do in bed, not to a phone and wouldn’t want to do it to a phone!

    Updates need to be fast and simple for it to appeal to the mass markets. Just like Apple iOS updates it needs to be as simple as plugging in your phone and thats it. Or like Windows Update. The majority of people don’t want to/don’t know how to go to a web page, look up instructions and root their phones.

    Just look at how popular jailbreaking your iphone has become since it became as simple as going to a webpage and sliding to jailbreak…

    The only thing i’d say is that this article belongs in a mass market blog/newspage since Lifehacker is a blog for all the geeks and nerds who know how to do this stuff anyway!

    • Is that somehow Apple’s fault. Your hardware is (unfortunately) older. On my 3gs, iOS 4.0 (the latest update wasn’t necessary) runs as fast as (or faster than) iOS 3.x.

      I love the new features like folders (finally!), better camera, video, etc.

      • Apple has happily said with some prior updates “this won’t work with older models”. Having not made that statement this time with regard to 3 series models, I think that is Apple’s fault, really.

  • As an owner of 2 Android phones (one an un-rooted Magic on 1.5 and a rooted desire on 2.2) I must say I am sort of with you.

    It is true, my Magic remained on 1.5 since I purchased it from 3 last June. But to their credit, HTC released a massive update where they added Sense to the phone which really gave it a new lease on life. As time wore on, I kind of wished they had given me stock 1.6 instead of sense but at the time, sense was a massive improvement.

    Similarly my telstra desire is rooted and running Froyo, but the build I’m running is the build HTC released for unbranded desires in Europe.

    So I think your article should say your phone will only get one upgrade unless you root. There are very few devices that have received absolutely nothing.

  • Carriers, and manufacturers to a lesser extent, do have a lot to answer for. Hopefully market forces will steer them in the direction of openness so that the benefits that of rooted phone users transcend more easily to all.

    Carriers need to respect the people that have no intention of fitting into their revenue model for premium content and unnecessarily bloating/crippling good hardware.

    Manufacturers need to spend less time pfaffing around with custom skins that slow down update releases and bog down an otherwise clean OS.

    Through all the homebrew community firmware upgrades on my HTC Hero, the latest (FroydVillain, Froyo without Sense UI) was a huge step forward from what HTC could offer.

  • Really the bottom line in more ways that one is that if the hardware manufacturers make it easy and timely to upgrade your phone OS then what is the driver to go out and purchase a new phone every 2 years (or more frequently for some).

    Until someone shatters this cosy paradigm we are going to remain in the hardware upgrade cycle.

    There is no altruism in the production and sales of smartphones

  • What really gets to me about phone upgrades (and particularly Apple and iTunes) is when it wants to force the upgrade on you.

    iTunes always bugging to install the latest version of iOS. I wish you could permanently disable this ‘feature’ every time a new version comes out. Understand this Apple, I never ever want to upgrade the iOS. My phone is stable and does what I need.

    I don’t care about the ‘new’ updates. Not because of jail breaking but because Apps I rely on are not OS4 compatible (yet) and has known stability issues. An OS upgrade would render the phone useless to me, because I live and die by the app. Also, while being tech savvy I am not having an on contract phone turned into a POS because the new firmware is buggy iOS 4 – hello!

    I also hate how iTunes on some versions then blocked access to the store unless you upgraded. Argh!

    Microsoft and Apple don’t force us to upgrade our OS to a generational change every time a new version comes out. Security patches are OK, but these don’t (generally) break everything else. Phone OS updates require backing up everything (an argument for free cloud based backups from phone OS providers) and a master in theology (prayer) that it’s not going to brick your system. I have not ever, in my life, had a PC or MAC OS update brick my system.

    end rant

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