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How and When Do I Get an Android Update?

Fragmentation in the Android camp is a fact of life. There are several versions of the Android operating system (OS) that are in active deployment. There are versions of the OS, modified to differing degrees, running on a host of devices including tablets, set top boxes, PCs and, of course, smartphones.

Android is open source which means anyone can grab the code and adapt it to fit their ends. That’s a good thing for a whole host of reasons which we won’t delve into right now. It also has its downsides.

Pie chart - Goole Android use by version
SOURCE: developer.android.com

According to Google’s own data, the most popular version of its Android OS is Gingerbread, 2.3 at 62%. Froyo, Android 2.2, claims about 25% and the newest version, Ice Cream Sandwich, Android 4.0, is only really starting out at 1.6% penetration. This data was collected by Google over a 14-day period ending March 5, 2012. They simply tallied the number of devices that accessed the erstwhile Android Market (since re-badged Google Play) using these different Android versions.

Why Are There So Many Versions of Android Floating Around?

The list above is just the official versions of stock Android. There are other forks within these versions with things like HTC’s Sense skin, Motorola’s MotoBLUR and Samsung’s TouchWiz interfaces running atop Android. While these may add useful features — badge notifications on apps in Samsung’s TouchWiz for example — they also add another step between smartphones and the latest Android updates. Once Android receives an official update, it has to be tweaked and tested to run with the manufacturer’s hardware and modifications. Even devices running stock Android aren’t immune, though the update process is simpler in this case.

Once the phone manufacturer has released its modified build, it’s the carrier’s turn to begin tweaking and testing.

Stock Android supports all cellular bands. Carriers need to tweak Android to work best on their own wireless bands and to maximize battery life by cutting out unsupported bands. Often, they’ll use this opportunity to also pre-install their own apps and other tweaks as well.

This is another barrier between your phone and the latest Android update.

The update process — from initial release to a notification popping up on your phone letting you know a new update is available — can be looked at as a tree.

Android is the trunk. Different versions are forks. Manufacturers are branches. Carriers are twigs. The end result, the update that eventually comes your way via an over the air update to your phone, is an acorn. Your phone is a … squirrel or something. The latter part of this metaphor is clearly not going the way I had hoped. The larger point stands.

So… When Do I Get my Android Update?

It’s frustrating to us that we can’t offer a hard and fast answer to this completely reasonable question. Basically, updates are released when the phone manufacturer has adapted Android to run perfectly on the hardware. Then, Sprint updates its own build. After that’s all done, Sprint will later push an update out to MVNOs like Ting.

The only assurance we can make is that we won’t add another barrier between you and the latest Android updates.

When an update hits, you’ll receive a system notification. You can also check for Android system updates on your phone if you’re worried you’ve missed something.

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