Updating your Nexus — Everything you need to know

Nexus phones are easy to update by design — here's how to take advantage of that

More people than ever own a Nexus device. From the introduction of the Nexus One in January 2010, and through the subsequent releases to the Nexus 6 in 2014, the numbers keep growing. Plus, we've got the Nexus 7 tablets (one name, two models from 2012 and 2013) that are still popular devices, as well as the new Nexus 9. And we can never forget the Nexus 10. 

While the idea of what "Nexus" actually means seems to vary from release to release, what hasn't changed is that these remain some of the most "open" and "developer-friendly" devices available. They're great for veteran hackers who want to do some serious customizations, or for the inexperienced folks who want to get their feet wet and learn their way around Android. (Or, they can just be great phones for those who don't care to tinker.)

Nexus devices also generally are the first to receive new Android operating system updates. When a new version of Android is announced, it's safe to say it'll be available on a Nexus device first. And, traditionally, other recent Nexus devices are first in line for updates. That's changed somewhat with the introduction of "Google Play experience" devices, and Motorola's close involvement with Google, and so it's caused a bit of a firestorm. 

Regardless, Nexus devices actually offer several ways of updating to the latest operating system. They are:

This isn't a step-by-step tutorial of how to update your Nexus device. Think of it as a (relatively) basic primer for the options available. Let's discuss the differences between these options, and which is best for you.

The prerequisites

SDK manager

We're going to be talking about a few nerdy (but not overly difficult) things here, so there's some homework to be done. For everything except the traditional over-the-air update, probably going to want (need, really) to have the Android SDK installed. Right here is everything you need to know to get the Android SDK up and running.

If you installed the Android SDK some time ago, you may need to update parts of it. Launch the Android SDK Manager (look for the "Android" executable in in the Tools folder wherever you installed the SDK) and make sure the "Android SDK Tools" and "Android SDK Platform-tools" are up to date.

And for working with the factory image files, you'll need to have an unlocked bootloader on your phone or tablet. Nexus devices make unlocking (and relocking) your bootloader a trivial endeavor. But do remember that this also makes your device less secure. When you unlock the bootloader, your phone's data is automatically wiped, and you'll be starting from scratch. Data remains intact if you lock it again, but will be wiped if you choose to unlock it again down the road.

Also, yes, there are "toolkits" out there that will do a lot of this work for you. And that's fine. But we highly recommend learning these steps and why things work the way they do. It's not that difficult, and you'll be a more educated Android user for it. Doing things by hand gives you the knowledge and tools to fix things when the toolkit method goes wrong.

With that, let's look at the different options for updating your Nexus device.

1. The traditional over-the-air update

Nexus 4 update

This usually — but not always — is the slowest way of going about things. Or maybe it just feels like that. An update is announced, and you sit back and wait for it to arrive as a download on your phone, over the air. Sometimes this is immediate. Maybe you got lucky. Or maybe the update is that important, and Google is rushing it out to everyone all at once. Google's prerogative.

But most of the time we experience what's known as a staggered rollout. That is, a certain percentage of devices — usually 1 percent to start with — gets the update first. Google hangs back, checks out how things are going for a day or two, then sends out another batch. Google's Dan Morrill has said it goes in increments of 1 percent, 25 percent, 50 percent, 75 percent and finally 100 percent of users. 

And it feels like it takes forever. ...

But what if you didn't have to wait? That brings us to the first of the manual methods of updating your Nexus.

2. Get that OTA file and sideload it

ADB Sideloading

When your phone receives an over-the-air update, it downloads it from a server. And with Nexus phones, you can see where it's downloading from. The link is in the logcat file, and will look something like this:


If you look closely, you see the server, the device name (hammerhead is the codename for the Nexus 5), an MD5 hash, and the build version that you're updating from followed by the version you're updating to. In this particular case, that's KTU84P (the latest Android KitKat build) to LRX21O (the new Lollipop build).

That's simple enough, and it's good to be able to parse that stuff out, as to make sure you're working with the right update. (You can find the your build version in the "About" section of your settings menu. And don't worry about breaking anything — your device should balk if the build versions don't match up.)

So, you download that file. From there, you reboot into recovery, choose to sideload it over adb, and you're off to the races. 

Those are a lot of words for what's really a quick and easy process. You've used exactly the same update file that your phone would have if it downloaded the update itself. You just did the work for it, with no waiting.

Protip: You can look at the log file with the adb logcat command from your computer (example: adb logcat -v long > filename.txt) or with an app from Google Play right on your phone. CatLog (opens in new tab) is a good one to try. You'll see the download URL once your device starts downloading the OTA, and you can share it with the rest of us!

3. Updating from a factory image file


Nexus devices get what, in our opinion, every single smartphone should have access to — a "factory image" that, when applied, reverts your phone back to the state it was in when you bought it. Actually, Google does one better and provides factory images for the most recent software version, so you don't start from scratch and then have to apply every update after that.

Factory images aren't just used for wiping your phone, though — you can update from them while keeping all your data intact as well, which can come in handy if factory images are available before an over-the-air update. Flashing a factory image has a couple more moving parts, but it's really not much more complicated than sideloading an OTA update. 

Factory images contain different files — these are the "images" — that get flashed to your phone. There's the radio. And the bootloader. And then a zip file of even more images, including the boot image, cache, recovery, system and userdata. These are the basic parts that make up the software on your phone.

The factory wipe flag

The thing you need to remember when updating from a factory image and are running the included script (that's just another file that automatically flashes the images, but you're free to do them manually as well) is to remove the "-w" flag. That takes about 10 seconds in a text editor. Run the script and the bootloader (and sometimes a radio) will be flashed. Then on to the main image (and the other images included therein), and you're done.

Another option is to just do all this manually. Type in the commands to flash the bootloader and radio yourself (don't forget to reboot the bootloader after flashing it), then just do "fastboot update IMAGE.zip" yourself.

4. Starting from scratch with a factory image

This is basically everything in No. 3, only you wipe the phone in the process. (Hope you backed up your data first!)

When the phone reboots, you'll have the most recent version of your operating system, just like if you got it out of the box. Usually, it's pretty safe to update via the factory image without wiping everything (like the step above). But if you see any weirdness or wonkiness after your update, reflashing with a full wipe is usually the first step in troubleshooting.

Getting help

These instructions are (as mentioned) your primer to get you pointed in the right direction. Computer-savvy types can probably use this information and just roll, but many of us would need a little more guidance. The good news is that guidance is easy to get.

Point your browser at the Android Central Nexus device forums, where you'll find folks who live and breathe Nexus who are happy to help you along. To them, this is all old hat and they will have the answers to all of your questions, and likely have shortcuts and tips we didn't cover here. 

The next time you read headlines about a Nexus update, you'll be ready to roll up your sleeves and get things done!

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.

  • Well done, Jerry.
  • +1. This is a great service that you provide Jerry. Thank you for helping everyone out. Posted via Android Central App
  • R.I.P Nexus Posted via iPhone 30 Running iOS 33
  • Thanks for this! Posted via Android Central App
  • Can I do any of this with a chromebook? That is all I have now, a Pixel.
  • Look on xda forums for adb and fastboot with a chromebook. http://www.xda-developers.com/android/guide-to-enable-adb-and-fastboot-o... Posted via Android Central App
  • Cool post! Personally I forego the recovery image and sometimes the kernel when updating from the factory image. I'd only have to flash TWRP and Franco again after anyway! Posted via Android Central App
  • I usually just root once when I get it then re-install the stock recovery(if it was changed to root) and use the OTA survival from supersu after each update.
  • That's what I've been doing with my Nexus 5 too.
  • My LTE Nexus 7 is no longer a Nexus.
  • You can thank Verizon for that. They ruined my Galaxy Nexus & Motorola Xoom.
  • Yeah, I know, and I don't even use Verizon. Google should have never advertised it as having support for Verizon. As soon as they did, Verizon had to get their dirty hands involved. Open standards do not require carriers input. This isn't CDMA.
  • Umm.. yeah Verizon is..
    Posted via Android Central App
  • What do you mean by ruined? I have a Galaxy Nexus, how did they change it?
  • There was a Verizon specific Galaxy Nexus. That's what they ruined. Not the main unlocked GSM Galaxy Nexus.
  • Mexico just beat Croatia to advance to the Knockout stage...nothing to do with this post but I'm way too excited!!! VIVA MEXICO!! Posted via Android Central App
  • See, this is why I loathe football. It's bloody inescapable. Posted via Android Central App
  • Ask the cartels who wins.. I am sure they have the answer
    Posted via Android Central App Viva Mexico, Los muertes
  • My Nexus 7 (2013) still has not gotten the OTA update for Android 4.4.4. I had manually installed 4.4.3 after unlocking it, which of course erase my data. Luckily, my data was backed up on Google Server.
  • Nice work on this. I got the notification to update to 4.4.4 ota, after it was downloaded and installed, my Android version sill shows 4.4.3. I rebooted, cleared cache/Dalvic cache from recovery, no change. Looks like I'll have to sideload tonight from home. Nexus 5. Posted via Android Central App
  • My Nexus 7 2013 Wifi simply wouldn't allow me to update by sideloading it, it was only when I decided to unlock the bootloader that the update finally worked. Talk about a pain in the arse, lol.
  • I usually just flash a recovery and flash ROMs at will. usually CM
  • Wow, so if we don't get nexus 6, will android silver updates function same way? Posted via Android Central App
  • Sure like gpe does Posted via Android Central App
  • One thing that I'm not clear on anymore is if it's safe to flash an official image or ota zip file when you're rooted with custom recovery. I have heard so many mixed answers. Posted via Android Central App
  • Yes, it is. Flashing an OTA file won't always work, but it runs a check beforehand so all that happens if it can't install is you get a verification error and you stay on your current version. This is from first hand experience as well as knowledge from research. That said, backing up is always a good idea. Posted via Android Central App
  • Could always stay on stock recovery if you're not tinkering a lot, you get root but can still take OTAs without any worries etc.
  • This is completely off topic,but has anyone updated their N5 to 4.4.4? I noticed a bug where I exit out of an app by pressing the back button repeatedly and it causes other recent apps to open. Anyone? Posted via Android Central App
  • Or, if you have a custom recovery, just download the ota zip from the "official" url and flash it.
  • Good stuff Jerry :D  
  • I know I'm off topic. I bought a Verizon Samsung Galaxy on eBay last month. I unlock the phone to use it in my country. Now I see that the software update is ready for galaxy from Verizon. The question is : will I receive the update from Verizon or I have to do it manually? Sorry for my English. Posted via Android Central App
  • If you had a cow and a calf, on an acre and a half, fed them a bale and a half of hay every day and a half. How long would it take for a grasshopper to eat the seeds out of a cucumber? Posted via Android Central App
  • Based on the information you've provided, the answer is 14 hours and 37 minutes. Posted via Android Central App
  • I have a Nexus 4, which I love. I started having trouble with phone calls; I can hear the other person but they can't hear me, unless I am using my Bluetooth. I did a factory reset, which fixed the problem. A few weeks later I got a notice to update to 4.4.3, so I did. Now, a few weeks later, I am back to the same problem. Ideas? Posted via Android Central App