Smartphones aren’t making significant strides every single year, which has led more people to keep their phone for two, three, or four years. Can the average Android phone last that long before running into problems, though?
That’s a complex question to answer, so we need to break it down into parts. First, the physical hardware in the phone has a fixed lifetime, with different access to repairs and warranty services. There’s also the software side to consider, including operating system updates, critical security patches, and app support. Since many different companies produce Android phones, the exact answers to those questions vary a lot.
Most modern smartphones are built to handle drops, tumbles, and minor scrapes relatively well — outside of the cheapest budget devices, we’re mostly past the era of flimsy plastic and non-Gorilla Glass screens. But what about the internal hardware? Is there a Windows 11-like update on the horizon that will leave many existing Android phones stuck on an old version? Short answer: most likely not.
Android has not significantly changed its minimum requirements in many years, at least in terms of hardware. Instead, low-power devices are required to use Android Go Edition, which has a few limitations to improve performance, and uses lighter system apps. For years, devices with 1 GB RAM or less had to use Go Edition, but Go is now required for anything with 2 GB RAM (or less) and 16 GB storage (or less).
For that reason, new Android updates generally don’t make a phone or tablet slower or less usable. Some devices might feel slower over time, as you install more apps and fill up the available storage, but deleting apps you’re not using (or going all the way with a factory reset) can help. In my own experience, performing a factory reset on my Galaxy S21 after over a year of daily use made it feel a little faster.
The main problem with any aging Android smartphone, like nearly any portable electronic, is battery life. Lithium-ion batteries slowly lose capacity over time, and if you keep a phone for a year or more, you might start to notice needing a charger earlier in the day. Unfortunately, most modern smartphones don’t have easily-replaceable batteries. Stores like uBreakiFix and Best Buy offer battery replacements for some Android phones in the US, but most of those services are limited to Samsung Galaxy devices — most other Android phone manufacturers in America don’t have the relevance or infrastructure for the same level of support.
You might also notice the touch screen becoming more fingerprint-covered over time, as the factory oleophobic coating starts to wear off. A screen protector is a quick and easy fix, if you don’t mind the extra bulk — specifically, a glass protector will feel the most like a fresh phone screen. Paying a store to replace the front screen glass will also work, though that will be more expensive and time-consuming.
Android System Updates
This is where things get complicated. Google is not responsible for updating every Android device, only its own Pixel series. For other phones and tablets, it’s up to the device maker to push system updates. Take the Galaxy S22 as an example — after Google develops a new Android release, Samsung modifies it with any required changes and some extra features, then pushes it to the device. Each manufacturer has its own track record with updates, but Samsung and Google are generally the best in the industry.
Every Google Pixel phone has provided three years of major Android OS updates (e.g. Android 12, Android 13, and so on) and monthly security patches. The Pixel 6 and later have a guarantee of five years of security patches, but the same number of major OS updates. That guaranteed support period starts when the phone is released, not when you buy it.
Samsung’s flagship phones and tablets are now guaranteed to receive four years of major OS updates, starting with the Galaxy S21 series and later, Galaxy Z Fold3 and later, Galaxy Z Flip 3 and later, the Galaxy Tab S8 series and later, and “select A series devices.” The company’s other phones are generally limited to 2-3 years of support, without a specific guarantee.
Other device makers are generally worse. For example, OnePlus recently promised that “select” phones released in 2023 and beyond would get four major software upgrades and five years of security patches, but the patches are bi-monthly instead of monthly. Motorola only provides 1-2 years of updates for most of its phones, and some devices never receive a major Android update.
Do Android Updates Matter?
Most Android phones and tablets stop receiving major OS updates and security patches long before the hardware becomes unusable, especially if the battery is replaced at some point. What happens when the OS updates stop?
Most services and apps on Android devices are updated independently of the operating system, even some built-in system applications like Chrome and the Google Play Store — a stark contrast to iPhone and iPad, where new features in apps like Safari and Apple Music require a full OS upgrade. That means even when your device’s maker is done with updates, your phone or tablet should continue functioning normally for several more years.
Google maintains most of its applications and services for many years after an Android version is released. For example, Google Play Services powers many APIs and the Play Store, and it’s still fully supported on Android 4.4 — which first arrived on phones in September 2013. However, some apps and games don’t go that far back. The Facebook app requires Android 6.0 (from 2015) or higher, while Microsoft Outlook wants Android 8.0 (from 2017) or newer. Even if you’re stuck on an Android version from a few years ago, you’ll still get to use new apps and some system features.
The catch is that new security vulnerabilities are discovered constantly in Android (just like Windows, iOS, iPadOS, and other platforms), and if your device isn’t receiving operating system security patches, it will gradually become more vulnerable to malware. Google Play Protect can protect you from some malicious apps, and Google updates both Chrome and WebView (the system component that loads web pages inside most apps) for several years after an Android version is released, which protects devices from security vulnerabilities on the web. However, having an Android device with regular system security updates is still the only way to be as protected as possible.
iPhones and iPads receive system updates for much longer than the typical Android phone — the five-year-old iPhone 8 just got iOS 16 — but a few features aren’t rolled out to older models. After official iOS support ends, you don’t get any new features or updates to most of Apple’s apps, just occasional security updates. Compared to most Android devices, feature and security updates last much longer, but there’s eventually a hard cut-off instead of a gradual slope into unsupported software.