Despite the usual shortcomings that come with using a smartphone, I've found that Android offers me the best overall experience for my needs. From its applications to its back-end functionality, no other mainstream mobile platform touches Android, in my opinion.
Unfortunately, running Android isn't completely problem free. In this article, we'll explore how Android fragmentation affects Android users and what can be done about it.
Random Android versions
One of the most annoying things about Android is that, even with the relatively high-end devices, you're likely looking at completely different Android versions with each device. For example, my generic-carrier-provided tablet is running Android 4.4.2, my Samsung Note 2 runs 4.4.2, while my Samsung Galaxy S5 runs 5.0. Keep in mind that all of these devices are fully updated with the latest software available.
On the surface, there isn't that big of a leap between Android 4.4.x and 5.x since all of my apps work and my mobile carrier still releases regular updates for each device. But unlike iOS users, you're left on you’re own if you choose to root the device and then update outside of your carrier's recommendation. Worse, you may be inviting unforeseen problems if you decide to update yourself before your phone is blessed by your carrier. Things are even worse for anyone with the misfortune to purchase a pre-paid phone running Android. In some cases, I've seen them "up to date" with Android 4.0.x and older.
So if you're someone who needs the latest and greatest, don't plan on getting much help from your carrier's selection of Android phones. Your best bet is to buy your own.
For anyone looking to get the latest Android experience, you're going to want to get a Nexus device from Google. This provides you with "pure Android" while also giving you the latest Android release by default. This also helps to make Android even more fragmented than it already is.
What happens is this: most people get subsidized phones from their mobile carriers. These phones come with older versions of Android. The older/cheaper the phone model (usually), the older the version of Android. So if you're not in a position to purchase a Nexus phone, you're essentially at the mercy of your mobile carrier.
This is a great situation for Nexus users, but it puts non-Nexus phone users at a disadvantage. Unless carrier specific phone users decide to flash their own Android images to their devices, they'll have to put themselves into an ongoing holding pattern...waiting for the hope of an Android update.
Do Android updates matter?
Most people outside of tech circles don't believe Android updates are all that important. In reality, they actually can be very important. The biggest concern is with Android security. If you own a phone that is locked in with a very old version of Android, you may be missing out on important security updates.
Another benefit of Android updates is bug fixes. Usually these are minor, behind the scenes fixes most people wouldn't even notice without seeing them in the release notes. In other instances, bug fixes can be significant – fixing issues with dropped wi-fi, for example. While not every update will address a series of bug fixes, sometimes updates do address these things behind the scenes.
Not all Android users get to enjoy new layouts and improved functionality – only those with the latest Android releases benefit here. One only need compare early Android builds to current ones to see how important this is. Even though phone manufacturers are notorious for adding "skins" to their Android devices, often the pure Android functionality improvements make it through the update process.
Finally, there is the matter of software compatibility and features. While it's true most apps will work on even the older releases of Android, the fact is that it may not run all that well. Apps developed to run on 5.x and 6.x may not run as well on Android 4.x. This isn't Android's fault or the fault of the app developer. The fault lays squarely with the fragmentation issue and how many different Android versions are being used today.
How to deal with fragmentation
If you're simply a typical Android enthusiast such as myself, your best bet is to make sure you're running the latest over the air updates provided by your carrier. I know, this is incredibly unhelpful...but it's the best you can do without voiding your warranty or buying a new device every year.
For those of you who simply can't deal with missing out on the latest Android user options, you'll need to seriously think about buying a phone that supports the latest Android release. Most of the time, this is going to be a pure Android device like one of the Google Nexus phones.
In reality, most people who upgrade their Android phones when it's available through their mobile carriers will get a fairly decent experience. I own Samsung devices myself and despite my gripes with bloatware by default, I've found the phones themselves are usually kept fairly up-to-date. I try to make sure my phones aren't more than two years old. This may not provide me with the very latest Android available to Nexus users, but it doesn't leave me with an antiquated Android release, either.
Maintaining a consistent Android experience
It's my opinion that unless you're running a pure Android device untouched by today's big mobile carriers, your best bet is to make due. On my S5 for example, I run Nova Launcher with a select theme installed. Since using Nova Launcher, I'm no longer bothered by new vs old layouts or other interface headaches that might change from one Android release to another.
The second app I rely on for consistency is True Phone Dialer. This app provides me with a customizable phone dialer that meets my expectations, not those of my phone's manufacturer. Thanks to its theme support and easy navigation, I maintain a clean dialer experience across both of my Android phones.
And the last piece of the puzzle is an app for keeping my SMS messages in a sane, easy to manage format. Like the aforementioned apps, Textra provides me with a customizable, theme-friendly SMS experience that doesn't care what version of Android I'm using.
What say you? Do you find Android fragmentation to be a deal breaker for you? Perhaps you've solved the issue by only using the Nexus Android phones? Hit the Comments below to share your experiences and tips. I'd especially be interested in hearing from those who rely on older Android devices and how that user experience has treated them.