Google's unique update process is one of the best parts of owning a Pixel

Pixel XL 11
Pixel XL 11 (Image credit: Android Central)

There is an extremely well-defined divide between phones from Google and phones from any other company when it comes to updates. While a few exceptions exist, you know that you can only expect a timely Android update if you're using a phone recently sold by Google. In short, unless your phone says Nexus or Pixel on the back of it, getting updates can be as random and unpredictable as rolling dice.

Whenever we start talking about the update situation, someone will mention that Google can do it faster because it isn't going through the carriers and the companies that make the phone hardware. There is a lot more at play here, but a look at how a Google Android update is born and delivered should make for a fun conversation!

Two misconceptions

Let's start by addressing two things most of us get wrong: 1) The number of devices sold makes a big difference. 2) Carriers and manufacturers aren't in the picture.

Building a software update for one phone is the same as building a software update for one million phones. There are differences in the deployment because more people are downloading it and more errors can happen, but changing the code and testing how everything works is completely independent of how many phones that will use it are in the wild.

Android on a Nexus 5X is the same as Android on a Nexus 6P or Pixel.

Android is not developed in a bubble and it isn't tested in one, either. A manufacturer is still involved in an update for a Pixel or Nexus phone. Someone works with the vendors that make the individual components and get everything working as expected and sort out the licensing, and then it's tested with input from a lot of other companies, like big software vendors and carriers. Verizon (for example) places a pretty high value on its network and would blacklist a particular phone quickly if it caused trouble. Google gets Verizon to have a look before that can happen even though the phone in question may not be branded specifically for Verizon.

What we really mean here is that Google is the only company writing the software for an Android update on a Nexus or Pixel phone. This isn't technically correct either, but it gets the message across. This is Android the way Google made it with no major changes.

The deployment

Google is pretty good at this internet stuff. It has built a FOTA update (Firmware Over The Air) system into Android that's simple and robust. An application in the system software pings a server, and if the response indicates that an update is available a special download manager service starts and grabs the file. The files are hosted by Google for almost every Android phone.

Your phone is assigned an update slot based on your unique device ID and a bit of random number generation. By not making the update files available to everyone at the same time, download servers aren't crushed by demand and if a critical error is uncovered the rollout can be stopped.

An update is deployed for almost every other phone this same way.

How an update is developed

This is the important part.

All updates, even Nexus or Pixel updates, have manufacturer and carrier involvement. They all get rolled out the same basic way through Google Android update servers. How the updated code is delivered by the people writing it to the people in charge of building software is where Google has a distinct advantage.

When an update is "finished" by Google it's still not finished for Samsung.

The people involved in building Android for a Nexus or Pixel phone basically use the Android code the way it is written. Building Android from the source code isn't difficult at all. A few commands given to a computer that's been properly set up to compile Android is all that's needed to build all the parts into software that can be copied to a phone. The "hard" work is done by the folks writing and changing the code itself.

Phones sold by Samsung or LG or any other company aren't using the code the way it is written. That means they can't just download the updated parts and build their software like Google can. This is especially apparent for those monthly Android security patches, which need to be adapted to work with the custom operating system companies build using Android as the base.

The way Google handles the source code and builds updated software for their own phones isn't drastically different from the way anyone else does it. Developers make changes and add features to the Android source. Google Hardware takes that code and works with the companies that make the parts inside the phones to get it running well on each model, then makes it available to the public through the beta program.

The step Google Hardware doesn't have to do — work these base layer changes into the code for a custom operating system — is what gives a Nexus or Pixel phone an edge when it comes to waiting for an update.

This is unavoidable when you have different companies building different software from the same base code. The goal is a rich ecosystem built from different companies that offer very different experiences while still being compatible with Android at the feature and app level. We wouldn't want it any other way.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

  • Jerry: excellent article, it cleared up some misconceptions/gray areas for me. However, I have two Nexus 6 phones (one Fi, one T-Mo). The T-Mo phone FINALLY got 7.0 last night. Not 7.1.1 but I'll take it. The Fi phone is still on Marshmallow, and to make matters worse, it's using the 1/1/17 security update. I understand that it takes some time to write, test, and deploy updates. But when O is about to be released, it seems unacceptable that a "Google" phone has just received last year's update (or is still waiting). I'll be getting a Pixel XL soon, hopefully it will have speedier updates.
  • I also finally just got 7.0 on my T-mobile N6 last night. Didn't think it was ever happening.
  • I bought an unlocked N6 in Sept 15, just before the 6P released, and use it on Verizon. It updated to Marshmallow early that Nov, and updated to Nougat 7.0 in late 16. That's the last system OTA update it will receive.
  • you can grab all the official OTAs here and install yourself. Looks like the N6 goes up to 7.1.1
  • My Fi Nexus 6 is still on Marshmallow too. I was annoyed about that, but my Pixel C tablet has had Nougat for months, and it has two serious problems I wouldn't want to be dealing with on my phone. One is that my favorite ebook reader (FBReader) is really flaky, and tends to blank the screen at random times. This I could live with on the phone, since I do most of my reading on the tablet, and there are workarounds. But the other one is that it crashes when the power level goes below 15%, which I can live with on a tablet, which I use mostly in my living room with a charger next to it, but wouldn't want to deal with on the phone. So I was ;thinking about upgrading by hand, but now I'm hoping they get it fixed before Fi forces it on me.
  • If you volunteered any of your phones, especially the Nexus 6, for the Beta program, it screws up OTA updates. I had to reflash my spouse's Nexus 6 to the factory image before it could receive OTA updates again.
  • This is a common theme for N6 owners. My wife got her 7.0 update in December (two months after release). She is still waiting on 7.1, but she did get a 7.0 security patch not too long ago. I really don't understand why the N6 has this problem for people. Does carrier matter? We are on an MVNO riding on the AT&T network. Are the OTA downloads served over WiFI, or are they forced over cellular data? I assumed it could pull them over WiFi when the Google servers said the update was there.
  • I agree Great Article. One tiny disadvantage is that other manufacturers are slow with updates so some Android apps are still not available to run on a Pixel. In an odd twist on words, apps by PIXELA (Canon cameras) are not available for PIXEL. The latest camcorders and cameras just released by Canon can not "talk" with a Pixel. By the way I have had my Pixel since they first went on sale and the slow development of Apps for 7 is my only negative. Phone itself has been flawless.
  • Waiting for updates would be worth it if they were timely, a Samsung Galaxy S7 in the UK with an XEU code rather than BTU is still waiting for Nougat. No major difference between the 2 versions apart from the three letter code.
  • What the article fails to mention is that 2 yrs after 1st phone of a model(like Nexus 6) is sold, OS updates are shut off. Not 2 yrs after you buy one, but 2 yrs after the phone 1st hits the market. So if you buy a phone 1 yr in, you only get 1 yr of system updates.
  • And this is how it should be. The older hardware with the newer software is going to cause you more issues. Look what happened with the iPhone 4s when it was last supported. Apple fans were quick to brag that "OMG look at Apple supporting older phones!" And the same people were complaining that the phone's performance was garbage and the battery life went down. 2 years is good enough for software support.
  • You tell him. Paying damn near $700 for a phone, who needs software support, amirite? Screw the fact that the phone could run Android O, P, Q, and most likely R. Screw the fact that pretty much every prior version of Android has been riddled with security holes that'll never be patched. Screw taking care of the customers..... YOLO! Go out and buy yet another $700 phone that'll be completely abandoned after 24 months....because that's a sane decision right there!/s
  • He also failed to mention that you will get guaranteed security updates for another year on top of that (3 years total). This is better than any other android manufacturer is offering. After that, well, your phone is 3 years old and you are probably in need of an upgrade anyway.
  • This is a great article for sure! I was one of the iPhone owners that had the experience you mention. For the past 4 years I've had my foolproof Galaxy S3 though there have been tons of issues with the Google updates. I guess it's extremely difficult to build updates that work the same across so many devices :)
  • I disagree. It should be 2 years (minimum) after end of sales (as deemed by the manufacturer when that is).
  • I agree with Gweeper64 that the update period should be tied to the *end* of its sale cycle, not the beginning. What if a hardware design does not sell well, and they drop it quickly? On the other end, what if it's a big hit, and they keep it longer than usual? When I say "end of sales cycle" I'm not including the sale of discontinued products.
  • I've been stung by this before. Those "last year's models" are cheaper, but you still run the risk of limited, if ever, updates.
  • Platform updates are shut off when there is no longer support from a hardware vendor (which usually means Qualcomm). Security updates are three years minimum, and usually longer. I'd prefer if companies stopped updating Android versions altogether and instead focused on keeping the version that shipped fully patched and up to date. Google just patched Android 4.0.4 last week. Phones that shipped with 4.0 could be updated fairly easily.
  • I think the only way that might ever change is through legislation. Some nationwide or global hacking catastrophe would have to occur that might force legislation to mandate patching devices for some period of time... kind of like car manufacturers having to provide parts for 7 years.
  • What I want to know is how does it differ so widely between a custom ROM and a manufacturer?? Many ROMs use AOSP as a base which I believe manufacturers​ do as well. They also copy a ton of features from said manufacturers and add their own features on top of that. Yet they're able to keep up with monthly updates and their own features while maintaining​ stability and working with far less resources. Granted they don't have to go through the carriers but for manufacturers, carriers should be the only hold up.
  • It doesn't differ all that much until it comes to the testing part. You test a custom rom by getting it to boot and letting people try it. Samsung doesn;t have that luxury. Also, people build custom roms because they like doing it, They'll work happier and faster that people who do it because they have to.
  • But when there is a version bump, like from marshmallow to nougat, it takes awhile to get new custom ROM builds. They have to add all their custom features back on top of the new version of aosp.
  • Jerry what about your take on Android vulnerabilities emanating from the CIA leaks?
  • A lot of hyperbole there (like everything else it seems). Ignore any vulnerability that needs someone else to touch your phone. Ignore any vulnerability that involves you turning off a security feature and installing something. Much of what's left we already knew, and you can buy newer exploits right now if you know where to look and have a lot of money to spend. Still, it's shocking to see what can be done to anything connected to the internet by people with the means to do it. THIS IS WHY I SAY WE ALL NEED TO CARE ABOUT THIS STUFF.
  • Great perspective as always
  • Jerry, good article. However there is one sentence that needs to be edited or revised, to be honest, and it should read as follows: " In short, unless your phone says BlackBerry (powered by Android), Nexus or Pixel on the back of it, getting updates can be as random and unpredictable as rolling dice." Bare in mind that BlackBerry has kept their word on working with the "most secure Android phone", and beside the Pixel, they are keeping their promise with quick patches, and being one of the first to get the monthly updates. Many people don't know this, but Android loyalists should give BlackBerry branded Android phones a try, and they will be pleasantly surprised.
  • I disagree because that sells the work BlackBerry is doing short. They have the same hurdles and development costs as every other company who isn't Google, get the updated code at the same time as every other company, but get the updates out on time every time. I agree fully with the second paragraph. BB is doing android the right way.
  • And I disagree, because even my Pixel XL doesn't say "Pixel" on the back of it...
  • I agree with your disagreement ;). BlackBerry is keeping it real, for real.
  • I use my blackberry still as a micro-mobile computer. As it connects to wifi, can read files and has micro-sd and micro-usb. It is ready to communicate with most things you plug it into. People my age like lots of plug ins, and are upset about a wireless future. Physical things just feel more powerful.
  • It's great, but every time an update comes out, Google prohibits downloading it over anything but Wi-Fi for the first three days. I can understand that for a full OS update, but these are only 60MB, so the size of a game or Chrome in Play Store. Especially in light of Wikileaks and constant hacks, I cringe at the thought visiting a place like China and not be able to update my phone. All I want is an extra "i want to download this small update over LTE NOW" button added to the screen.
  • Never had that problem, always downloaded over LTE on Verizon, maybe it's your carrier
  • Sounds like a pitch for Google $700 phones. Period. Screw that. Screw ANY purchase of a smartphone for that kind of money whether its made by Google or anyone else.
  • Damn good article, as usual, Jerry. Thank you.
  • Brilliant Article Jerry, I just wish like probably many here Google would support their phones for longer! this is definitely a issue maybe not to be expected on the cheaper Nexus range but when your forking out Apple prices for the Pixel you should expect Google to honour the same level of commitment the competition (Apple) does in supporting the phone via updates for 4/5 years. Randomly I was updating mums old iPhone 4 or 4s the other day and couldn't believe Apple have only recently stopped updating it at IOS9! why can't Google match this? 2 years and a additional year of security patches doesn't really cut it and the prices the Pixel XL is charging.
  • It's odd that a $250 chromebook will be supported for 5 years but a new Google phone $650++ will only get os support for 2?
  • Nice article. I imagine this could end up being heavily quoted. And unfortunately in some cases, mis-quoted.
  • You may have to consider, that with Lineage OS, for example, you get updates nearly as fast as stock nexus/pixel users. They have to adapt the code as well.
  • My wife has a Nexus 6. It took almost 2 months after 7.0 Nougat was released before she got the OTA, and she still has not received the 7.1 OTA. On some forums I've searched, some people still haven't gotten the 7.0 for their N6!
  • I was one of those. On Project Fi and never got upgraded past 6.1, I did get the monthly security updates and that's about it. This last weekend I finally broke down and sideloaded 7.1.1 The instructions and OTA images used to sideload can be found here: The most difficult part is finding the adb tool and figuring out how to run it. It was much more difficult than it needed to be. There appear to be other tools available that could help but I didn't trust the sources (don't ask me why, some of them were from xda-developers but I just didn't like what I was seeing.) Hope this helps.
  • Google needs to come out with a US Android One line of phones (especially since Nexus has been killed off) to compliment the Pixel. Pixel's are premium, while US Android One's would be everything lesser, and preferably sub-$300.
  • I half agree, though if other manufacturers in the low and midrange would commit to timely updates (or any updates at all), they really wouldn't be needed. The closest we come to that I think it Motorola with the G4 (and soon G5)