Should you upgrade your mobile OS?

This month’s column is inspired by a tweet from PC Pro reader James Franklin, who asks: “I’m confused by the various versions of Android. I found most of the web resources confusing – can you explain the differences?”

Should you upgrade your mobile OS?

That’s a really good question, and James isn’t the first to ask it. You don’t normally get any choice over which version of Android (or indeed, other mobile OS) is installed on your phone when you buy, but during ownership of that device several updates and upgrades are likely to become available, so it’s important to understand what enhancements each of these offers, and whether that makes it worth the hassle of upgrading.

Why might you choose not to upgrade? Surely it’s always best to keep a phone up to date? First, there’s a risk – albeit slight – that the process may fail and end up “bricking” your phone. (For those unfamiliar with this term, it means trashing the ROM so the phone will never switch on again, making it useful only for propping up table legs.)

Why might you choose not to upgrade? Surely it’s always best to keep a phone up to date?

Second, in certain cases updating may wipe your phone’s memory, which would result in you having to reinstall all your apps and restore your data, music, documents and so on.

Third, depending on the OS involved and how full your phone is, you may easily spend an hour or so updating it. Fourth, there’s a risk that the update may introduce new bugs, or change how functions work in ways that annoy you.

Fifth, you may find that apps you’ve paid money for no longer run properly. And last, of course, maybe you’re happy with your phone just the way it is.

Update advantages

All that said, updating can bring advantages, too. You may find a new release adds useful features to your phone, and battery life may be significantly improved running newer code. Sometimes 3G and Wi-Fi performance will be enhanced.

You may also find you need a new OS version to run more recently developed apps, which seems to be especially true of Apple’s devices. If you stick with an older OS version you’ll find the range of apps, and even the updates available for older apps, starts to trickle away.

Updating to the latest version of a mobile OS isn’t always easy. For a start, some older phones aren’t physically capable of running the new version, since they don’t have enough RAM or other resources.

Manufacturers don’t always release updates for their older handsets, to encourage you to upgrade to a newer model. For those of you with network-locked handsets, you won’t only need its manufacturer to release new firmware, but also to wait for this to go through the network’s own testing and approval process, which may involve an additional delay of weeks or even months.

Manufacturers don’t always release updates for their older handsets, to encourage you to upgrade to a newer model

Depending on your mobile OS, you can get round some of these problems by downloading unofficial ROMs from sites such as MoDaCo, xda-developers, CrackBerry and more. Some sites even have “kitchen” facilities that enable you to “cook” your own ROM by selecting a base version of the OS and then including or excluding various features – by removing the bits you never use, you’ll end up with more free storage for apps and other files.

Apple updates

So, you have an elderly phone still running an old OS: what does each new release bring to the party? Let’s start by looking at iOS on Apple devices, which is the simplest case because the number of models available is so small.

Often a new iOS release will coincide with new Apple hardware – for example, the original iPhone was supplied with iOS 1, and 2 came along with the iPhone 3G.

The big feature that iOS 2 added was access to the App Store – so frankly, you’d have to be bonkers, or some kind of Apple fundamentalist, to be still running iOS 1 (not that they’re mutually exclusive). Many believe Apple’s App Store was the first phone app download shop, but that isn’t true, since both Windows Mobile and Symbian had app stores way before “the” App Store.

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