If someone tells you they’re running Android, they’re not saying as much as you’d think. Unlike the major computer operating systems, Android is a broad OS that covers numerous versions and platforms.
Understanding the constellation of options can be a bit overwhelming, but that doesn’t have to be the case. If you’d like a quick-and-easy way to make sense of Android’s many builds, as well as how to update to the latest, read on.
Although Google’s mobile operating system has been successful, it has been plagued by a singular but severe problem. That’s fragmentation – the tendency of Android to fragment into numerous different versions.
This is why retailers and carriers often market devices based on the version of Android they carry. The latest build for smartphones has been out for months, but isn’t available on many phones sold in stores. Then you have tablets, which are a different situation entirely.
Let’s quickly run through the Android updates sold on the market today.
Android 1.0 was release on September 23rd, 2008 on the HTC Dream (known as the G1 in the US). It’s long gone, but there are still some devices sold that use Android 1.6. These are generally budget tablets or inexpensive smartphones like the LG GT540 Optimus. This build is significantly out of date. While it includes Androids basics, like the Marketplace and and Widgets, it lacks support for many camera features, lacks Adobe Flash or HTML5 support, and lacks support for newer versions of Bluetooth.
Avoiding Android 1.6 devices is wise. It can be tempting to save money on a smartphone or tablet by going for a product running this older version of Android, but in the long run it’s not worth the savings.
This is the latest line of updates for Android smartphones, with the newest build being Android 2.3. Most smartphones sold today run Android 2.2 or 2.3.
Although 2.0/2.1 is an improvement over the 1.x builds, you’ll definitely want to buy something with 2.2 or higher. Why? Because that’s when support for Adobe Flash was added, and it’s also when WiFi hotspot functionality was added. In addition, the latest Android Marketplace revision requires Android 2.2 or better.
Android 2.3 is the latest edition, and it includes some nifty extras like native VoIP support and a new download manager. Although not an essential feature, buying a smartphone with the latest build certainly won’t hurt.
Also widely known by the code-name Honeycomb, this version of Android is available only for tablets and will likely never be released on smartphones. If you are purchasing a tablet, this is the version of Android you want. Accept no substitutes!
The interface of Honeycomb is much different from other versions of Android, and major elements like the keyboard, notifications system and web browser have been redesigned to take advantage of the larger displays found on tablets.
Android 3.1 is the latest build, but it’s not a major update. It adds support for peripherals like external keyboards and gamepads and makes some minor changes to the UI.
Updating Your Android Device
With the information above you’ll be better equipped to buy a new Android device, but what if you already have one and want to update it to the latest version?
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as downloading a file and installing a patch. New versions of Android are distributed to smartphones on a device-by-device basis. In other words, the release of Android 2.3 is not something a user downloads directly from Google. Instead the update, if it is available for your Android, would be delivered when you run Software Update through the Settings menu.
With that said, you may be able to update to a newer version of Android without official support by rooting your phone and installing a ROM based off a newer version. The process of doing this can be laborious and is generally different for each device, so it’s wise to check out the XDA Developers forum and look for information about your device.
Personally, I think that Google should do a better job of reducing fragmentation in the future. The wide variety of Android updates running wild is out of control. At the very least, it could provide an official guide for users who need to know information about the version of Android their device is running and what that means. I’m not holding my breath – but a geek can always hope. What do you think?