Part of Android's appeal is the flexibility to upgrade the OS and get more features, but as many Android smartphone owners have discovered, there are plenty of roadblocks in the way.
2010 is turning into the year of the Android smartphone. In the last 15 months, the operating system has gone from 5% US mobile browsing share (the only reliable stats available) to 20%, with growth spurred by highly acclaimed phones like the Motorola Droid.
For owners of Android phones, the platform's rapid development has also brought fragmentation. Since its inception, Android has also seen four version upgrades and is now onto 2.2.
Stuck with old tech
But despite the recent launch of Android version 2.2 (FroYo), many users are still stuck using version 1.6 - even for new phones (see table below). Official upgrades are slower to appear than Google's base code releases, because of the need to add UI ‘skins', such as the Sense UI for HTC phones.
The official updates will only work on their designated phone. So if HTC puts out a 2.2 upgrade with Sense UI for the Desire, which it says will happen in the next few months, it will only work on the Desire.
As a result, those with other phones will still be stuck with older versions and little hope of upgrades. In some cases, phones won't ever get another official upgrade. And even if they do, unless your telco also supports the upgrade for your phone, your only option to get new versions - and new features - is to take matters into your own hands.
Getting the Google base code and installing can be done - but it's a complex task that few would want to try for themselves. Which is why sites like The Unlockr have appeared, supplying unofficial Android upgrades.
There's one simple reason to upgrade - more and better features. For example, compared to 2.1, Android version 2.2 brings:
- Speed improvements over 2.1
- Flash 10.1 support (which iPhone lacks)
- Better support for Exchange (security policies, auto-discovery, Global Address List (GAL) look-up, calendar synchronisation and remote wipe)
- USB tethering and the ability to use your phone to create a Wi-Fi hotspot (if your phone hardware supports it)
- Automatic and batch app updates
- The ability to quickly switch between multiple keyboard languages and dictionaries
- Voice dialling and contact sharing over Bluetooth
- The ability to save apps to the SD card
What's involved in DIY Android upgrades
While the temptation to give your Android phone cutting edge features is hard to resist, we've identified several reasons why it might not be a good idea.
It's far from a simple process, and not all phones have an upgrade available. To do any form of upgrade, it's vital that you follow the individual steps for your specific phone to the letter. That means not just model, but also firmware version and hardware version specifics.
We counted at least 14 steps involved, broken down into stages, below:
First, you'll need the right tools: Java Developer's Kit (JDK), 'fastboot' tools from the Android Software Developer's Kit (SDK) and the Amon-RA fastboot recovery kit to make a backup file of your Android set-up.
Then, you have to locate and download the appropriate ROM for your phone. You may need to downgrade your phone to Android 1.5, too - itself a complicated process.
Installing the ROM involves running your phone in administrator mode, preparing your phone and then installing the ROM image file via your SD card. The SD card install means wiping your existing ROM, and then flashing from SD card.
The whole process takes more than two hours, and could take much longer.
Unofficial ROMs are built from Google's official source code, but by enthusiasts. You can minimise potential problems with a ‘stable' build (an x.0, not x.1 or similar) but these are not guaranteed to be problem-free. There are multiple points where you could potentially render your phone unusable.
Right now, the unofficial Android 2.2 ROMs are plain Android only, no skins: If you don't mind losing 2.2's features, though, some skinned ROMs are available for earlier versions, such as 2.1.
Choosing your Android phone: a phone-by-phone list of OS versions
|Phone||Released||Android version||Unofficial upgrade?||Official upgrade?|
|Google Nexus One||Jun-10||2.2 (Froyo)||N/A||N/A|
|Garmin Asus A10||Jun-10||1.6 (Donut)||No|
|HTC Desire||Apr-10||2.1 (Éclair)||Yes (2.2/No Sense)||Coming Q3 (2.2)|
|HTC Hero||Sep-09||2.1 (Éclair)||Yes (2.2/No Sense)||2.1 with Sense UI|
|HTC Legend||May-10||2.1 (Éclair)||Yes (2.2/No Sense)||Coming Q3 (2.2)|
|HTC Tattoo||Nov-09||1.6 (Donut)||No|
|HTC Wildfire||Aug-10||2.1 (Éclair)||No||Coming Q3(2.2)|
|LG Optimus||Jul-10||1.6 (Donut)||No|
|LG Eve||Jul-10||1.5 (Cupcake)||No|
|Motorola Backflip||Mar-10||1.5 (Cupcake)||No||Coming Q3 (2.1)|
|Motorola DEXT||Mar-10||1.5 (Cupcake)||No||Coming Q3 (2.1)|
|Motorola Quench||May-10||1.5 (Cupcake)||No||Nothing planned|
|Motorola Milestone||Jun-10||2.0 (Éclair)||Yes (2.1/No Motoblur)|
|Samsung Galaxy S||Jul-10||2.1 (Éclair)||No||Coming Sep (to 2.2)|
|Sony Ericsson Xperia X10||May-10||1.6 (Donut)||No||Coming Q3(to 2.1)|
|Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 Mini||Jul-10||1.6 (Donut)||No|
|Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 Mini Pro||Jul-10||1.6 (Donut)||No|