Receiving an update for your Android phone is better than it’s ever been in the past, and it’s still not great. The process is obscure, confusing and often disappointing. You might find yourself stuck with a phone that won’t receive another version for quite a few months after Google releases it to the public.
The problem with Android updates is they have to navigate the knotted mess of Google, manufacturers, carriers and testing before they can be deployed to the public. There are just too many cooks involved with the process to make it fast.
When will my Android phone get an update?
The update will come to your phone when it passes a lot (and I mean a lot) of requirements. Until then, you’re stuck.
To find out the progress of an update, Google your device name, update and carrier.
For example, I might search “2013 Moto X Lollipop Sprint” to find out when Android 5.0 comes to my Moto X.
Android OEMs have gotten better at communicating with the public about the state of OEMs. If it’s a phone released in the past two years and sold relatively well, there’s probably an announcement of an update.
The short answer of when you’ll get an update is, it depends.
What affects the speed of my update?
Well. There’s a lot going on here, so hold on.
The most important factor in the speed of your phone’s update is its status. If it’s the latest and greatest flagship, the manufacturer will update it first. That’s why the 2014 Moto X has Lollipop and the 2013 doesn’t.
It also depends on the OEM. Google’s first-party Nexus phones are usually the first to get Android updates. Google uses Nexus devices to build new versions of Android and guarantees 18 months of almost instant updates.
Within the process of building a new version of Android, Google sends its source code to chipset makers like Qualcomm or Texas Instruments. The chip manufacturer needs to provide low-level drivers so the new version of Android can access the power of the Snapdragon or OMAP chip inside. Without those drivers, the phone is dead.
We saw what happens when a chipset manufacturer doesn’t play ball with the Galaxy Nexus. TI quit the chip manufacturing business before KitKat’s release, and the Galaxy Nexus never received an official update past Jelly Bean.
Then you have the OEMs. Update speed varies greatly depending on how much the manufacturer has skinned a phone’s version of Android. Motorola, which ships near-stock Android, delivers fast updates. Samsung, which is almost unrecognizable as Android, does not.
Last, the carriers get their hands on the software. Android phones ship with different amounts of bloatware and pre-installed apps. Carriers make sure the new version doesn’t mess up their apps, as well as making sure it works with their network.
Carriers deliver updates at different speeds. Unlocked phones get them first, then GSM models (AT&T, T-Mobile) and then CDMA (Sprint, Verizon).
Then the testing process begins. OEMs test updates internally, then slowly on the general public. New versions of Android usually go to a small group of people. If they don’t report any major bugs, the update goes to a larger group and the process repeats. Eventually the update is certified safe and released to the public.
As you can see, there are a lot of steps and people involved in pushing out firmware updates. It’s not an easy or fast process.
How can I get my update faster?
Some manufacturers offer beta programs, where you can participate in testing new versions of Android. They may be buggier, but you’ll have the new software first.
You could always root and install a custom ROM. While more complicated and often buggier, ROM developers support old devices far longer than OEMs. My Nook HD+, a tablet that was wholeheartedly abandoned by Barnes & Noble, runs KitKat because of CyanogenMod.
Google has also done a lot to solve this issue in the past few years by moving updates into Google Play Services. New features like Google Play Games and Hangouts arrive instantly on every Android phone, no certification process needed.
That way, even if your phone won’t get an update for months, you won’t have to wait for some of the new features.
The best way to stay current, though, is to buy a Nexus phone or your favorite from the latest crop of flagships. Those are the only safe bets in tech… at least for 18 months.
Also, don’t be afraid to push manufacturers to update faster. HTC was one of the worst offenders in 2011-2012, throwing out more phones than it could possibly update. Now, it’s rolling out Lollipop to unlocked models of the M8. Not a bad turnaround. Hopefully other manufacturers will follow suit and plan a steady upgrade programs for all their devices.