It's Crazy That the Best Smartphone Is Stuck Running an Old Version of Android

Samsung's Galaxy Note 7 is caught up in the mess that is carrier-controled Android updates.

Aug 23 2016, 3:20pm

The Samsung Galaxy Note 7. Image: Samsung

It's here!

The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 won rave reviews when it launched just a few weeks ago, with both mainstream and enthusiast publications showering the smartphone with near-unqualified praise—something of a rarity among tech reviewers.

"The Note 7 is the best Android phone I've ever tested," said Joanna Stern at the Wall Street Journal, while Android Police's Andrew Martonik called it "the real deal." And over at Quartz, Mike Murphy said the Note 7 is "probably the best phone on the market right now," with the caveat that Apple is widely expected to introduce new iPhones in early September. Who knows how those devices may change people's calculations when considering a new phone?

There's just one problem when it comes to the Note 7, which counts among its chief features an iris scanner than can unlock the phone and the single best display ever put on a smartphone (according to the DisplayMate research firm): No one seems to be sure when it'll be upgraded to the latest version of Android.

When you unbox the Note 7 for the first time, you'll find that it's running last year's version of Android, which is known as Marshmallow. (This version is sometimes referred to by its version number, or Android 6.0.) There's nothing wrong with Marshmallow, of course; it's a perfectly capable operating system that runs Snapchat, WhatsApp, Pokémon Go and all the other apps that make life worth living.

That being said, there is something a little unseemly about a brand new device that costs nearly $1,000 not running Google's latest and greatest mobile operating system, Nougat (or Android 7.0), which was released on Monday and adds features like support for running windows side by-side (so you can more easily multitask on-the-go) and an expanded library of 1,500 different emoji. That's a lot!

Drawing on the Note 7 with the included stylus. Image: Samsung

Unlike with the iPhone, which gets software updates when Apple says it does, Android smartphones are beholden to a byzantine process whereby the wireless carriers typically have ultimate say when and where your device will receive an update. That's why Android phones can go several months without receiving a major software update, and why owners of the Note 7 will likely be waiting a while to receive some tasty Nougat.

How long are we talking? It's hard to say with any real specificity, particularly because the wireless carriers are pretty cagey when it comes to this kind of thing. Verizon Wireless, for example, told Motherboard that it didn't have any information as to when its version of the Note 7 will be upgraded to Nougat. An AT&T representative told Motherboard he was looking into the matter but did not have an answer by the time this story was published. T-Mobile and Sprint have yet to reply, but we'll update this story if and when we hear anything back from them.

Samsung, for its part, recently told the Korea Times that it expects to have Nougat ready for the international version of the Note 7 in two to three months. Close, but no cigar, unfortunately.

Is there anything that you can do in the meantime to expedite the process? Not really; the carriers have all the power here. Google's own Nexus line of smartphones (of which new ones are expected before the end of the year) do get Android software updates as soon they're available, so that's one option for people who absolutely must be on the bleeding edge of Android. And Google says LG's upcoming V20 smartphone will be the first new smartphone to ship with Nougat when it's introduced next month, but that's cold comfort for anyone specifically wanting Samsung's flagship device.

In the meantime, Note 7 owners can comfort themselves with the knowledge that their smartphone is among the very best that money can buy right now. It just so happens to be running last year's software.