How to update the software on your Google Pixel phone

Pixel Update screen
Pixel Update screen (Image credit: Android Central)

One of the best parts of owning a Google Pixel like the latest Pixel 5 and affordable Pixel 4a is its regular software updates. Google releases an update every month for its Pixel phones, and supports them for at least two years with full platform updates as well, with the latest being Android 11. The updates don't happen completely automatically, though — you still need to be involved to accept the update.

How to update the software on your Pixel via OTA

  1. Open your Settings.
  2. Scroll down to the bottom to tap System.
  3. Tap Advanced.Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central

  1. Tap on System update.
  2. Tap Check for update in the bottom-right corner and wait for the check.
  3. If you're on Wi-Fi, the update will download automatically. You can pause it at any time.
  4. If you are on mobile data, you'll have to opt-in to download the update immediately.
  5. Once an update is downloaded and installed in the background, you will receive a notification to reboot your phone to install.Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central

As long as your Pixel is turned on and regularly connected to Wi-Fi, your phone will automatically download and install updates and then prompt you to reboot to apply them. But when you hear about an update and you want it quicker, these steps above will help force the update if you haven't yet been prompted to install it.

If you absolutely must have an update right now, there's also a manual update installation procedure for hardcore Pixel owners that want the updates before anyone else gets them over the air.

Sideloading a new Android build

Before we go into the steps of sideloading Android updates, it is strongly recommended that you have previous knowledge of working with the Android SDK (software development kit) and Terminal (macOS or Linux) or Command Prompt (Windows). It's possible to harm your device if something were to go wrong in the following process. Also, while there are now ways of flashing your phone wirelessly using some suites, you're better off grabbing a trusty USB-C cable and doing it plugged in.

If you need to download the Android SDK you can grab it from the Android Development website and follow their instructions on how to install it correctly. For the following process, all you will need is the ADB and Fastboot files which are located in the Platform Tools folder — you don't need the entire SDK.

Additionally, all the following commands are written as they would be in Terminal on a Linux or OS X platform. If you are following this guide and using a Windows machine, you will not need to use the "./" seen in the guide.

Enable developer settings and USB debugging

  1. Go to your Settings and scroll down to System and tap About Phone.
  2. Tap on the Build number seven times until the dialog box says "you are now a developer."
  3. Go back to the System menu and you should find a new option called Developer options.
  4. Make sure that the developer options are turned on and that USB debugging is on.
  5. While in Developer options, turn on OEM unlocking.
  6. Plug your device into your computer and click "OK" on the dialog box asking you to Allow USB debugging while connected to the computer. You can also select to always allow access to that computer.

If done correctly, this will be everything you will need to do on your phone or tablet for the moment.

Unlocking your bootloader

Pixel phones bought from Google directly have a bootloader you can unlock. If you want to manually flash software, you'll need to do this.

To do this you must first boot into your bootloader. You can either manually turn off your phone or tablet and hold down the power button and the volume down button to enter your device's Bootloader Menu or you can enter the following commands into your terminal or command prompt.

Run the following command to make sure your device is properly connected to your computer. If it returns a string of characters it means that you are all set to start updating your device.

./adb devices

Now to enter into the Bootloader menu just run the following command.

./adb reboot bootloader

At the bottom of the screen, there will be several things listed including the lock state of the device. This should say locked unless you have unlocked your bootloader in the past and never went back and locked it again.

To unlock your bootloader, which is required only when flashing a stock firmware image (not sideloading and update, which we'll get to soon), you must enter the following commands. Remember that when unlocking your Pixel's bootloader it will factory reset your device, so you will lose everything stored on it. If you haven't backed up anything important on your device yet you can hit the power button while Start is highlighted in the Bootloader menu and this will boot you back into your device like normal. Now back to unlocking your bootloader.

Now type:

./fastboot flashing unlock

A dialog will appear on the device asking if you are sure about unlocking. Again this will factory reset your device, so if you want to back out of the process you just need to select no with the power button. If you are ready to unlock your bootloader you press the volume up button and then the power button to confirm that you wish to unlock your bootloader.

./fastboot reboot-bootloader

It is recommended to reboot the bootloader just to give itself a check to make sure everything is working correctly before moving on to the next step.

Flashing the stock firmware image

Now that your bootloader is unlocked, it's time to flash the new firmware. To find the system images, head on over to the Factory Images page, find your device, and download the latest factory image available. It is easiest to then uncompress the file in the Platform Tools folder where the ADB and Fastboot files are so that you don't have to type the path to the different files when flashing the firmware. (Or if you know that you can drag a file into a terminal window to copy the path, just do that.)

To begin, make sure you are still in the bootloader menu on your device and double-check that your bootloader is in fact unlocked.

First, make sure that your computer is communicating correctly with your phone or tablet. As long as your device's serial number comes back as a connected device you are ready to begin updating your device.

./fastboot devices

Now it is time to flash the updated bootloader with the following command:

./fastboot flash bootloader [bootloader file].img

You will not see anything on the screen of your device but there should be a dialog in your terminal or command prompt. When it is done flashing the bootloader you should reboot back into the bootloader to make sure everything is still working correctly.

./fastboot reboot-bootloader

Next, you flash the updated radios. This step is only necessary if you are updating the firmware of a phone or tablet that has cellular radios built into it.

./fastboot flash radio [radio file].img
./fastboot reboot-bootloader

Finally, it's time to flash the actual system image to your phone or tablet.

Warning: The following line of code will wipe your device. If you do not want your device to be wiped, remove the "-w" from the command. The update should still take just fine, and it will not wipe your user data.

./fastboot -w update [image file].zip

When this is done, your phone will restart itself and boot up normally. As this process clears all data from your device, it will take slightly longer for your device to boot up for the first time. Once you have been greeted with the device setup walkthrough process, you know you have successfully flashed a new version of the firmware.

If you do not want to enter the commands manually there are scripts included inside the compressed folder containing the system image that will do most but not all of the heavy lifting for you. The flash-all script files will automate the flashing of the bootloader, radios (if needed), and the system image. The problem with this process is that you must first make sure that your phone is in the bootloader menu and its bootloader must be unlocked before starting the script. Of course, if these are not already done the script will fail to run and nothing will happen.

Flashing an OTA update image

If you don't want to unlock your bootloader, you can sideload an OTA update. That is, you're going to download to a computer the update file your phone normally would grab itself over the air (thus OTA), and then push it over via the command line.

It used to be that we'd have to hunt for the OTA file location when a phone would download it, and use that to pull the file from Google's servers. And we can still do that if we want ... but Google now provides OTA images for download. (You can find them here). This is a smaller file that just brings you from the previous version to the latest version — it isn't a complete operating system that could be loaded onto a phone fresh.

Just as is the case with the factory image update, put the OTA file in the Platform Tools directory to simplify the process of sending the file to your phone.

First, make sure that your computer is communicating correctly with your phone or tablet. As long as your device's serial number comes back as a connected device you are ready to begin updating your device.

./adb devices

Next, put your device into the bootloader menu by either the following command or by holding down the power button and the volume down button while it is turned off.

./adb reboot bootloader

Now use the volume down button twice until you have scrolled to Recovery mode, and press the power button to select it. It will look like your phone is restarting itself but an image of an Android with a red exclamation mark over it will appear. Next, hold down the power button and press the volume up button, and you will be in recovery mode.

Now that you are in the Android system recovery, use the volume down button to highlight apply update from ADB and press the power button to select it. The text on your Pixel's screen will now say that you can send the OTA to the device using adb.

./adb sideload [OTA file].zip

In your terminal or command prompt you will see a dialog that shows you the progress of transferring the update to your phone or tablet and once it has been completely transferred you can read what is happening with the update live on screen. Again, once the process is done your phone will restart itself and attempt to boot normally. You have successfully updated!

Andrew Martonik

Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.