February 22, 2013

THE GOOGLE ANDROID UPDATE CONUNDRUM


Google updates its Android mobile operating system quite regularly. Ever since the 1.0 release in September 2008, it has been updated six times till the current latest version 2.3 a.k.a Gingerbread (seven times if you count the tablet-optimized 3.0 Honeycomb version). Roughly, one can expect at least two updates to the software every year.

Quoting a report released a couple of weeks ago, 3,50,000 Android phones power up every single day. That's a whole lotta handsets running Android. But do they run the most latest release? Not by a long shot -- as of now only 0.8 percent of the total population runs 2.3 Gingerbread, followed by 57.6 percent that run the earlier Android 2.2 Froyo, and 31.4 percent running the two-generation-old Android 2.1 Eclair.

You already know some of the reasons for this delay, don't you? There's more -- you'll see that cheaper Android phones almost never run the latest version. This is because of either of these reasons; one, they have too slow a hardware that will not let users experience the benefits of the new features in that version. Secondly, it'll give manufacturers something to boast about their premium range handsets running or getting the latest update. For example: Samsung's high-end Galaxy S is almost on the verge of getting updated twice (from 2.1 to 2.3) while the low-end Galaxy 5 i5500 is still running 2.1 with no official updates to the next versions.

Some phones, despite being fully capable, just don't get updated. This might give existing owners a reason to upgrade to a newer handset running the latest version. These are the forgotten souls of the Android world -- case in point, the Sony Ericsson XPERIA X10 series which is confirmed to get no updates beyond 2.1.

Many people simply discard purchasing a good handset with no real problems, just because it isn't running the latest version of Android. They'll keep waiting as manufacturers keep releasing one model after another. But how long can one keep waiting for that perfect Android? Let's take a look at what the last two major updates brought to the table. We'll look from Android 2.1 onwards, simply because there are very few that still run the ancient 1.6, and we would simply ask you to look away from any Android phone that has anything less than Android 2.x in today's date.
Google Android



Android 2.1 was an important milestone -- it brought forth many basic and important features like multi-touch input, support for more screen resolutions, Bluetooth file transfers etc. Following are the main features that Android 2.2 added to that list, other than the welcome speed/performance optimizations:

- Wi-fi Hotspot feature
- Ability to install apps on an SD card
- Adobe Flash 10.1 support

Android 2.3 Gingerbread that released at the end of 2010 brought aboard these important changes:

- System-wide copy-paste function
- Re-designed virtual keyboard
- Improved Power Management
- Internet calling & Near-Field Communication (NFC) support

Android 3.0 Honeycomb, an update specifically targeted for Tablets has a couple of important changes under the hood (other than the obvious tablet-tailored UI) that will possibly trickle down into the next version for smartphones (codename: Icecream Sandwich):

- Support for video chat using Google Talk
- Support for multi-core processors
- Visual Multi-tasking
- Hardware-accelerated graphics

To see a comprehensive list of what has changed, click respective links forAndroid 3.0Android 2.3Android 2.2 and Android 2.1



It was funny to see handsets laden with dual-core processors unveiled at the MWC 2011, despite knowing that the Android 2.3 they're running won't fully support usage of both the CPU cores. These are some of the Easter Egg bonuses that handset makers can deliver to the user once Google delivers the necessary software in the next version of Android. To cite another example, the Samsung Galaxy S had a gyroscope motion sensor since launch, but Google started native support for its usage only in Android 2.3 -- a good two versions ahead of what the Galaxy S originally shipped with.

Or the fact that the Nexus S has a front-facing camera, and Android 2.3 Gingerbread that launched with it has support for front and back sensors, but doesn't have a single built-in application to make use of it for video-calls, either over Wi-fi or 3G. But in the future, once Google Video Chat feature from Honeycomb is thrown in, you'll have another feature to brag (other than just taking self-portraits with the front cam).

Has all this jabber about updates got you confused? Are you holding back an Android phone purchase because you are put off by the Android version number that the spec-sheet shows?

Well, we can't tell you which company will deliver updates and which ones won't -- with the exception of Google-phones like the Nexus One or Nexus S, which will be the first ones to be updated with the latest Android.

But for every other phone, you're pretty much left to the mercy of the handset maker (maybe even the mobile operator or the country you live in) for Android updates. Of the lot, we've seen HTC to be timely about updating previous generation phones. It's not just our opinion, there are some statistics that support this observation.

Our say is this -- it depends on what Android phone you're purchasing. If you're buying a low-end inexpensive Android, then expecting the latest update is pointless simply because many of the new features may be dependent on hardware that your phone will mostly not have. What's the point of asking Samsung for a Gingerbread update to the Galaxy 5 if it doesn't have an NFC chip, a gyroscope, a front-facing camera? Would Samsung bother taking pain and effort to bring Gingerbread to the said phone?

It will just be easier to live with what you get. We're not trying to say that it's the end of the road for you guys -- some of the things can be fixed with the aid of third party apps. For example, SwiftKey keyboard app will better your existing keyboard that would have been otherwise updated with Gingerbread's newly designed keyboard.

If you're spending a good sum (say, over Rs. 20,000) on an Android phone, here's a rule of the thumb -- ensure that your phone runs at least one version prior to the most recent version out of the box (in today's date, that would be Android 2.2).

Throwing updates instantaneously for handset makers isn't an easy task, as they have to take the vanilla build that Google releases for free and make it work with their UI customizations. Now imagine doing this for each phone in their portfolio -- with different phones at different price points sporting different screen sizes/resolutions, different CPU/RAM/Graphics. Yes, they brought these delays upon themselves because they want to differentiate their Android phone from others in the market. What is HTC left with to brag if they didn't embed their awesome Sense UI into their phones? Good build quality and a premium finish?

So, companies are selective in choosing which phones are worth investing their time and money updating and which ones are not. Thus, other than Google Phones like the Nexus series, I don't expect most phones to receive newer updates after the end of their shelf-life.

Lastly, there are always ways to root your Android and get the latest version running irrespective of when the manufacturer officially releases it, but at the risk of turning your phone into a paperweight. I wouldn't recommend it.

I'll leave you with this -- if you're waiting for a phone to get latest version of Android, you could very well be left waiting for an eternity (unless the name of that phone starts with 'Google Nexus'). Otherwise, jump in and reap the benefits of whatever you can get now. 

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