How much do Android updates matter?
March 1, 2013 5:04 AM   Subscribe

People keep emphasizing that a major advantage of Nexus mobile phones is that Google will update them to the latest version of Android. But does it really make a huge difference going from a .x to .x+1 Android release when you have so many apps that can modify every aspect of your phone, not to mention what you can do with alternative firmware like CyanogenMod?
posted by Foci for Analysis to Technology (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Android fan here, but I must say that the difference from one Android version number to the next is hopelessly inconsistent.
The changelog between "x.y"and "x.y+1" (for example 4.1 to 4.2) could actually be a lot more features than the changelog between "x.y.z" and "x+1.y.z". (for example the short-lived 3.x to 4.x) It's a mystery how the numbering system works, and which number corresponds to a new dessert rather than just a patch.
Here's the Wikipedia entry on this inconsistent mess.


Cyanogen isn't an alternative to the Android numbering system. Each version of Cyanogen is based on a certain Android codebase, and they tend to be more up-to-date than the "stock" experience.
One advantage to alternative firmwares/ROMs is that you don't have to wait for your carrier (cough, Verizon) to get off their collective asses to release the next patch for the stock OS.

Nexus phones (other than cough, Verizon) are the first to get the official updates. It's very useful for developers (including ROM developers), or people who enjoy a "stock" experience without the Samsung/HTC/Motorola skin bells and whistles and aren't comfortable with (or don't want to) installing alternative firmware.

But for personal use, you're right. If you're comfortable with rooting/ROMming, then by all means you should install a firmware that does your bidding.
posted by jozxyqk at 5:21 AM on March 1, 2013


In a word, not hugely, no. The latest version of Android is worlds better than 2.3 or even 4.0 in terms of a smoothness that approaches iOS, however. It really depends on the specific things you had in mind. Also, Cyanogen doesn't work on all devices, and is perpetually in a beta state.

The advantage with the Nexus/stock Android, to me, is more that there's none of the carrier or manufacturer-added cruft (TouchWhiz, Sense UI, etc).
posted by Burhanistan at 5:23 AM on March 1, 2013


I had a Galaxy Nexus and now have a Galaxy S3. I tried many of the interface mods and ran Cyanogenmod on the Nexus. From my experience, I just couldn't get the solid, speedy performance of stock Jellybean with the mods. Interface mods would often cause a lot of lag or eat up battery while Cyanogenmod for me had a lot of weird issues like making my GPS take forever to lock on. I'm sure that there were fixes for all these things but I don't have time to deal with it. I'm much happier with my S3 running the factory OS.
posted by mattholomew at 5:28 AM on March 1, 2013


They either matter a lot or don't.

If they do, that's a problem because they are like all software tweaks... based on fixing problems, adding features, improving security. These are all desirable. Each variant is different and maintenance responsibility is distributed and has varying degrees of quality depending on the device seller. Frankly, as jozxyqk mentions, even Verizon isn't doing it well and won't probably, since they could care less once you have an XYZ Android and a contract. Good luck banding together with a few million like-users to sue.

If you POSIT that they don't matter, it means you think that what was released when you bought is the best you can do? No need for better apps, no need for better features, no possibility of compromised security? This flies in the face of the rest of the tech industry with literally every device containing firmware these days having some update mechanism involving flash memory. That fact alone, observed in my own house with a new car radio with firmware update features, speaks against this. Obviously, so does your phone.

On this update issue, score one for Microsoft and Apple, zero for the Android-verse. It's about the single biggest issue there (other than them being profit-free products.)

I'm not sure there's an out for Android users. If an update is there, you gotta have it. It's just an implication of the choice and one that seems to come with some pain. Minor tweak/major tweak seems irrelevant.
posted by FauxScot at 6:16 AM on March 1, 2013


I would not agree that "If an update is there, you gotta have it". My attitude with most technology is that I upgrade when there's a clear benefit to me, not "because it's there". So, although Android 4.0 has been available for my phone for months, I am still using 2.3, and I'm entirely happy with it. Maybe one day I'll find a compelling reason to upgrade. Until then, I have better things to do with my time and effort. It's not broken, and I have no interest in fixing it.
posted by pont at 6:41 AM on March 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


If you're rooting and flashing new ROMs then I can't imagine paying much attention to the official Android updates unless you're developing new ROMs or something.

But as someone who hasn't rooted the updates, especially the more significant, named ones (Eclair to FroYo to Gingerbread to ICS to Jellybean) have been very significant and resulted in significant usability increases.

The major changes have been to the stock apps (including being able to disable them) and things like all the extra functionality under settings such seeing mobile data and battery usages by app (I used to see some of that with an app but it's easier now that it's stock and integrated).

My current phone (GN) is running Jellybean but I still have a Moto Droid stripped down as much as possible to play music and every time I try to do anything with it I am shocked by how clunky everything is (though of course this phone would not run Android 4.0 anyway).
posted by mountmccabe at 7:13 AM on March 1, 2013


The switch from the 2.x series to the 4.x series was quite large in terms of function and ease-of-use, in my experience. There was a nice responsiveness jump between 4.0 and 4.1. There are some gee-wiz features in 4.2, but it seems pretty incremental over the previous version to me.
posted by bonehead at 7:26 AM on March 1, 2013


I'm using a phone which, no kidding, is still on Froyo (a Samsung Transform), and it's pretty clunky. Some of that might be that the phone itself is pretty mediocre, but later OS versions generally have better responsiveness and stability.
posted by jackbishop at 7:31 AM on March 1, 2013


I think it's only with the release of 4.1 that updates won't matter as much (barring security concerns), because it's only with 4.1 that Android doesn't utterly suck as an OS (well, 4.0 was okay, but it was still lacking as far as feature parity with the rest of the smartphone world goes). On the other hand, the vast majority of apps in the Play store have yet to make use of the 4.x-native API, so in that respect updating still isn't that huge of a deal, and audio latency is still a dog so it's not like you're missing out on a music app renaissance or anything.

If I sound bitter it's because I'm frustrated with the few but major glaring stupidities that really hold Android back as an ecosystem. I'm also a little bit frustrated with how 4.2, with the exception of the new Clock app, feels like a downgrade.
posted by invitapriore at 8:54 AM on March 1, 2013


I doubt we're ever going to see as much of a sea change as there was between 2.3 and 4.0, but you never know. Regardless, going forward, I will always make sure I have a phone that can hang for at least two years of upgrades.

If you're comfortable with installing custom firmware, AND an acceptable firmware exists for your phone, then no, the official updates don't matter at all. But there's a huge caveat around what acceptable means there.

If CyanogenMod exists for your phone, then that's pretty much the end of the story, as far as I'm concerned. If it doesn't, it gets a little sticky. For instance, my Droid Charge saw a pretty big early adoption because it was the first Samsung 4G phone on Verizon. Custom roms flowed like wine. But because it was the first Verizon 4G Samsung, the RIL wasn't out there, and nobody would/could reverse engineer it. So there were custom roms, sure, but they had to stay locked to whatever version of the OS Verizon was kind enough to give us. And that, still, is Gingerbread.

So, in short:

1. If you're squeamish about custom stuff, a pure Google experience is the way to go.
2. If you're not squeamish, make sure CyanogenMod is out there, or you have very good reason to anticipate that it will be.

Ignore 1 and 2 at your own peril, and at the risk of being left with an ancient, crappy OS until you can switch phones.
posted by SpiffyRob at 9:44 AM on March 1, 2013


The one area where it is a big deal is if there are security fixes that come out. You don't want to be waiting 4 months for verizon to do radio regression testing on a zero-day security exploit.
posted by GuyZero at 10:14 AM on March 1, 2013


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