Which Android phone are you currently using

Searching for clues: Which old Android versions are currently still usable?

The time has come in a few weeks: With Android 10, Google will introduce a new generation of its operating system. This is nice for those with a sufficiently up-to-date smartphone and good support from the manufacturer. For many users, everyday Android life looks completely different: They use versions of Google's operating system that have not received any updates for a long time. A look at the official statistics outlines the scope of this phenomenon: At present, 0.3 percent of all active Android devices are still running with Android 2.3 "Gingerbread" - a software version that is almost eight years old. With Android 4.0 there are just as many. Android 4.1 to 4.3 are together at 3.2 percent. Android 4.4 then already comes to 6.9 percent.

In view of the long-term expiry of the support, the question naturally arises: How far can a smartphone with such outdated software equipment still be used? Focussed entirely on clarifying this question, the STANDARD dug up some old smartphones, set them up from scratch and dared to try it on themselves.

Android 2.3 (Release: December 2010, Hardware: Nexus S)

General: The good news first: the device starts up, and even logging into the Google account works straight away. That may not sound surprising, but it is. In an earlier attempt, the login from such an old device was rejected out of hand for security reasons. The reason that it worked this time is that a new Google account was created for the test, so some users with an existing account - and higher security settings - are likely to fail at this point. But still in the program: Immediately after starting the system, the Android Market app crashes. If you don't (anymore) know what that is: This is the predecessor to Google's Play Store, which is still preinstalled under Android 2.3. In return, however, there is a nice greeting: The "Welcome to your new Nexus S" mail is still being sent by Google.

At this point, updating the pre-installed apps and setting up your own programs would actually follow. But this desire comes to an abrupt end. The Android Market has meanwhile been completely deactivated. Instead of a selection of available apps, there is now only one stupid "server error". In previous years, the old Android Market would have automatically updated itself in the direction of the Play Store, but even that no longer works.

To get a little movement in the matter, you have to "cheat" a little bit. Thankfully, Android allows the manual installation of apps, and this of course also applies to the Play Store. But this is where the next problem arises: Current versions of the Play Store (as well as the no less important infrastructure service Play Services) require Android 4.1 as an absolute minimum. So these are no longer running here. Fortunately, old Play Store editions can still be found on sites like APKMirror, we grab one of them, and lo and behold: It doesn't just run, Google updates the Play Store immediately afterwards to the latest version compatible with Android 2.3 (6.2.02 ). The Play Services are automatically installed at the same time, these were not yet integrated with "Gingerbread" by default. Just to make it clear again: this, of course, is also in an outdated version, but at least functional.

System programs: After the Play Store has finished updating the apps, it must show what else is possible. And this reveals an unpleasant realization that we will come across more often in the further course: Just because an app is available for a certain Android version does not mean that it actually runs under it. A good part of the preinstalled apps were updated well, but even after that they still fail to work. A prime example of this is provided by Youtube, which did not work with the pre-installed version, but at least loads briefly after the update, but then cannot play any videos. Instead, the newer version has an unpleasant side effect: It eats up the device's battery in no time at all. We strongly advise against starting the YouTube app on such a device. With other updated apps, the effects aren't that bad, but they still don't work. These include, for example, Google Earth or Google's voice search.

The reason for this is easy to explain: Most app providers have cut support for Android 2.3 for a long time. In order not to completely lose the users remaining on this version, the access is not turned off completely, but simply outdated versions are provided. This may sound like a good idea at first, but the test quickly shows that it isn't. Because of course these old versions will never be tested again and rotten so slowly to themselves. In this respect, you are actually not doing the users a big favor, as they then install apps that no longer work in reality.

But there are also positive exceptions: Gmail and Google Maps still work flawlessly even under Android 2.3. Of course not in a current version, but at least the basic functionality is there. Whether the use of such an old app version (the Google Maps app in question dates from around 2014) is still really recommended from a security perspective is, of course, another question.

Play Store offer: Beyond the preinstalled apps, it looks pretty bleak: The offer in the Play Store is like a ghost town. Many of the categories are completely empty or filled with little-known apps in old versions. Searching for an up-to-date browser reveals nothing useful. Chrome and Firefox both generally do not run on Android 2.3. The best offers from this category are still a version of Dolphin from 2015 and an Opera Mini from 2016. Both are better than continuing to use the preinstalled Android browser, but generally not advisable to go online with something like this.

Facebook also provides relatively long support, although the term "support" should also be used with caution here. You can still install Facebook as well as Instagram and Whatsapp here and use them at least in part. Here, too, the question arises whether this is a sensible decision. For example, the WhatsApp version offered was from 2017. Since then, several gaps have been discovered in the app, which could also be used to spy on chats. In view of the fact that such a device with Android 2.3 offers numerous points of attack anyway, this may sound ridiculous at first. However, especially with a messenger, it is not only about your own security - but also about the private details of all other call participants. Facebook seems to be at least partially aware of this problem, and from February 2020 access from Android 2.3 devices to Whatsapp is to be completely blocked. Setting up new accounts no longer works.

Conclusion: As a smartphone operating system, Android 2.3 is now actually completely unusable. If you absolutely want to continue using such a device, it is advisable to reduce it to the few local apps such as telephony or calculators - just nothing that is connected to the Internet. In this respect, it is actually quite fitting that the Android Market is no longer running. After the manual update to the Play Store, the test device slowed down considerably - without any substantial gain in terms of app functionality. So: offline, if need be, no longer online, please.

Android 4.1 (Release: July 2012, Hardware: Galaxy Nexus)

General: We'll skip a few versions as nothing relevant has changed in terms of app compatibility compared to Android 2.3. Instead, we end up with Android 4.1 and thus make a big leap in questions of usability. As already mentioned, this is the oldest version that is still supported by the Play Store and Play Services, so both are available here in the latest versions. And that is essential for the app supply. What also stands out is how much better "Jelly Bean" is compared to "Gingerbread" in every way. Back then, the Google operating system made really big leaps forward. Last but not least, the "Holo" design with its dark backgrounds is striking. But the classic system navigation with the three on-screen buttons was also introduced at that time.

System programs: It's almost amusing how many apps are preinstalled on the device that Google has now discontinued. Whether Google+, Google+ Messenger (yes, there was one too) or "News and Weather" - they are all history and of course no longer usable. The magazine app "Currents" illustrates this phenomenon particularly well. This still doesn't work after an update via the Play Store, but instead refers to at least another Google alternative: Play Kiosk. The problem with this is that this has also been discontinued and replaced by Google News, which - surprisingly - is not compatible with Android 4.1.

Otherwise, the app support is making significant progress, but it is still a long way from being "good". Youtube is running after an update - but only in a version from July 2018. This picture is repeated in many Google apps: They are also available for Android 4.1, but only in a more or less outdated version. With Google Maps in particular, this does not do the user a particularly good service: The app available for Android 4.1 from 2017 can hardly be used on the Galaxy Nexus, it acts so slowly. Ironically, the older version of the app still ran flawlessly on the Nexus S.

This also clearly shows the downside of long-term app support for old devices: If you don't test them continuously on such hardware, you will sooner or later make your apps unusable yourself. The possibility remains to offer narrow-gauge versions for old hardware, which of course means additional maintenance costs. Manufacturers who do not want to do this to themselves should honestly turn off the support completely in such cases. Another example of this is Google Earth: There is even still a current version of this for Android 4.1, but it simply no longer runs correctly. The user interface can still be seen, but the content has disappeared. On the other hand, the Messenger Hangouts should be mentioned positively, which is not only available in a current version, but also still runs flawlessly on such an old device.

Play Store offer: A look at the Play Store shows a similar picture: the range has grown significantly compared to Android 2.3, but remains manageable. Chrome does exist, but in an age-old version (42) from 2014. The fact that the browser then advises an update to a newer version every time it is started - which is not even available for Android 4.1 - fits in well with it so far Image obtained: Obviously nobody has tried all of this on Google for a long time. Mozilla's Firefox, on the other hand, is available in a current version, but the joy about it is quickly slowed: The app is practically unusable on the Galaxy Nexus.

Otherwise, some popular apps have been added to the Play Store: the range now ranges from TikTok to Pinterest to Amazon Prime Video and Spotify. You usually don't get the latest versions here, but at least. Once again, Facebook is a welcome exception: a current version of this is already available for Android 4.1 and Whatsapp. On Instagram, on the other hand, you have to be satisfied with an edition from 2018. And Netflix even offers an app version from 2016 - an inadvisable option. At this point, at the latest, displeasure arises that users do not know anything about all of this: They believe that they are up to date. Nowhere in the Play Store is it made clear that the app provider simply no longer offers updates for their Android version.

Conclusion: We are slowly approaching a usable smartphone - but only slowly. The range of apps is significantly larger compared to Android 2.3, but it's still not really great. This is particularly evident in games where there are hardly any current titles available. Also interesting: The following update to Android 4.2 and 4.3 changes practically nothing in the described situation. A few Google apps are then available in somewhat newer versions, but all other manufacturers seem to have jumped directly from Android 4.1 to 4.4 in terms of the minimum requirements for their apps. But there is at least one good news: the performance on the test device improved noticeably after the update to Android 4.3.

Android 4.4 (Release: October 2013, Hardware: Nexus 4)

General: With the code name "KitKat", Android 4.4 is the first of the versions mentioned, which is still widely used by STANDARD readers: 1.77 percent of all hits on derStandard.at are currently from a device with the five and a half year old version of Google's operating system.

System programs: The image of defective Google programs is repeated again - only with new players. This time, for example, Quickoffice or Google+ Photos (no, that is NOT Google Photos) are new to the list of now orphaned programs. But things get particularly absurd with Google+: Once started, the app sends a notification to an important update. It seems that at some point a decision was made on this note for security reasons - so far, so sensible. The problem with this: Google+ has now been discontinued, so there is no longer any update that can be installed. This means that users are confronted with a recurring notification that they can never resolve. With such absurdities, Google delivers at least one thing: an excellent argument against pre-installing apps that are not absolutely necessary.

But to put that into perspective: Google updates many other preinstalled apps quite well. Whether Google Calendar, Maps, Drive or Keep and Gmail: They are all included here in relatively modern versions. "Relative" is the decisive term here, however. Because now almost all Google apps require Android 5.0 as a minimum. What you get under "KitKat" are mostly app versions from 2018 that will no longer receive any updates. There is apparently no uniform line in Google apps in this regard, but the trend is unmistakable.

Play Store offer: It is slowly becoming apparent what the Play Store has to offer. For example, Snapchat, Slack and Outlook are also available, and the secure Messenger Signal is finally available under Android 4.4. Pinterest is available in the current version, the same is true for Instagram. And even the Netflix app is no longer as outdated as it was under Android 4.1. The first halfway up-to-date games also appear in the list. And last but not least, the latest version of Chrome is available here.

And yet the leap is not quite as big as one might expect given the still relatively significant spread. It turns out that not only Google has raised the minimum for current versions of its own apps to Android 5, many third-party manufacturers have also followed this example. Anyone who wants the latest version of Twitter or the official Reddit app is already here. In addition, there are many apps that no longer exist for "KitKat". In total, around two thirds of all apps that can be found on current smartphones are already listed in the top lists under Android 4.4 in the Play Store, but many of them are outdated.

Conclusion: The progress made in contrast to the older Android versions tested cannot be overlooked, but you can no longer get a current Android app supply under "KitKat". The use is characterized by apps, which all seem quite modern, but in reality no longer receive any updates. At least there are already up-to-date browsers, and the various apps from the Facebook world also run without any problems. If you don't have too high demands on your smartphone activities, you can still make ends meet with Android 4.4 at the moment. But everyone else will not be happy with "KitKat".

Android 5.0 (Release: November 2014, Hardware: Nexus 5)

General: Under the name "Material Design", Google has made a fundamental overhaul of the visual appearance of its operating system for Android 5.0 "Lollipop". And one that has not only led to a standardization of basic user interface concepts for apps and the Android variants from other manufacturers, but which also largely determines the look of Android to this day. In addition, the two Lollipop versions (Android 5.0 and 5.1) are still quite widespread, and together they are used globally by around every seventh Android user.

System programs: At the risk of trampling on the Google+ grave, it still has to be mentioned: because it delivers new stories here too.Under Android 5, something happens to the app that nobody expected: it can be updated again via the Play Store. However, "Google+ for Gsuite" is then installed, i.e. the remains of the social network for Google's corporate customers. And of course that doesn't work without a corresponding account. So in this case - as with all the other broken apps that were mentioned in the course of the report - it is better to simply deactivate the app completely.

Otherwise, "Lollipop" is the first version in which all the Google apps are available in the current version - or at least almost all of them. There are still a few exceptions, for example Google Play Movies already requires Android 6. But in general the software equipment is still quite modern.

Play Store offer: This impression is then repeated in the Play Store: 19 of the top 20 apps are already available under "Lollipop", and the same picture emerges for trending apps. And there are already 18 of the top 20 of the top games. Most importantly, practically all of them are actually available in current versions.

Conclusion: Android 5.0 currently represents the lower limit of what you still have almost unrestricted access to current Android apps. However, "Lollipop" users should not weigh themselves in overly security. After all, it has been around a year since Google increased the minimum requirements to Android 5 for many of its apps - which resulted in a wave of corresponding adjustments by other app manufacturers. In this respect, the next wave of modernization could soon be imminent, with which Android 6.0 "Marshmallow" should then become the lower limit for the comprehensive supply of current app updates. The motivation for this is clear: to get rid of unnecessary contaminated sites. After all, Android has made major structural improvements since then - including the dynamic authorization system that was introduced with "Marshmallow".

Postscript

In order not to create a false impression here, I would like to conclude with a comment of a general nature: In general, it is not recommended to use any of the Android versions mentioned at the moment. After all, there are no longer any security updates for the operating system on any of these devices. Google itself only supplies patches for Android 7 and newer, and the fact that manufacturers maintain their devices longer than what Google offers would be a real surprise. So if you value effective protection, you should take this into account and, if possible, switch to a newer device that also really receives regular updates. (Andreas Proschofsky, July 7, 2019)