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Want to Update Your Smartphone’s Operating System, Apps? Make It Automatic

The latest software versions are important for your phone’s or tablet’s security

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If you want your smartphone at its best to fend off hackers and be as speedy as its memory and connection to the internet allow, you’ll want to make sure that you have the latest version of your phone’s operating system.

Big updates to phones’ operating systems often arrive in autumn when Android phone manufacturers and Apple developers unveil their latest models. That’s when you’ll find new, free features debuting for new smartphones that often will work on older-model phones about five years old and younger.

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But incremental updates to all of your smartphone and tablet software happen all year long. Those updates are important to install on your device to mend mistakes that developers make when they create computer code, fix flaws that attackers have found and increase the efficiency of your miniature machine.

Both your operating system and the apps you love are updated regularly. That’s why you might find that your iPhone is using iOS 15.6 instead of just 15 or that your Android smartphone is up to 12.1.0_r18 when you check on its software version.

How to install operating system updates

The easiest way to keep track of those operating system updates is to set your device to keep everything updated automatically.

spinner image iphone update screen
This iPhone has automatic updates enabled, and one will install overnight.

For an iPhone or iPad. You may have turned on automatic updates when you and the sales associate first set up your phone at the store. To check, tap Settings | scroll to General | Software Update | Automatic Updates.

Make sure the two toggle switches you see are green for “On” to download and install iOS updates. This will allow your device to update automatically overnight while it’s charging and connected to Wi-Fi.

If you see an update pending on the Software Update screen, perhaps because you hadn’t charged your phone the previous night or didn’t have it connected to Wi-Fi, you can tap Install Now to allow it to happen manually even if you’re not hooked up to Wi-Fi or power.

Be aware that updates while using cellphone service, especially if you don’t have a smartphone that runs on the 5G network, can take longer than with Wi-Fi and eat up your data allotment, worrisome if you have a plan that caps your data. Long updates also can drain your battery.

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Your phone might even balk and not complete the update. If that happens, you’ll get a notification on your locked screen, and you can try again with a Wi-Fi connection.

For Androids. Unlike Apple, which controls both the devices and the system software they use, Google makes its Android OS available to other manufacturers, and each company can customize. Your Android phone may have slightly different steps than this, but the good news is that most newer Android smartphones will update their operating systems automatically in the background.

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To check on yours, swipe down from the top edge of your screen to display the quick menu. Tap Settings, which has a gear ⚙ icon | Software update on a Samsung Galaxy phone. Other options you might find in Settings: About phone | Software update or System | System update.

You might see an update waiting to be applied, which you can opt to install immediately. Both Apple and Android generally wait until the middle of the night, when you’re less likely to be using your device and it’s charging, to push through an update.

A tip: Make sure you’re allowing your phones to back up automatically to preserve your data in case something goes wrong during an update or at any other time.

Android users have 15 gigabytes (GB) available free across Google Drive cloud service, Gmail and Google Photos. In comparison, iPhone and iPad users get 5GB of free storage on iCloud. Additional space is available via subscription. Or you can choose to back up the contents of your phone manually to a hard drive you have at home. Set a regular calendar reminder so you won’t forget.

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How to allow apps to update automatically

Your smartphone probably has close to 100 mobile applications, the pieces of software that we call apps, already loaded when you bought it plus ones you’ve added for fun and convenience. They need to be kept up to date for the same reasons as your phone’s operating system.

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For an iPhone or iPad. Check to see that you have App Updates enabled by tapping Settings | App Store and scrolling down to the Automatic Downloads section. Under that heading, you should see the toggle switch for App Updates in green. If it’s gray, tap it once to turn it on.

If you have an iPhone and an iPad or other Apple device, you may want to share the apps among all your devices. If so, you can tap to turn on the Apps switch.

For Androids. While iPhone users generally have to download their apps from the Apple App Store — it’s possible but not as easy to go elsewhere — Android smartphone users have more options, such as the Galaxy Store for Samsung device apps or the Amazon App Store for Amazon’s Android Fire tablet operating system.

Well-known app stores decrease the odds of downloading malicious software. These instructions are for the Google Play Store, where nearly 2.7 million apps were available in June.

Open your Play Store app, already installed on Android devices that support Google Play. At the top right of your screen, tap your profile icon, generally a circle, perhaps with your photo if you’ve uploaded it.

Learn more live and online

AARP’s free online classes can help you learn more about your smartphone, its capabilities and its apps.

•  Senior Planet from AARP has live courses that can help you choose and use the best phone for you.

• AARP’s Virtual Community Center has a Tech Help area with interactive events that include smartphone use.

Tap Settings | Network Preferences | Auto-update apps. You then can choose to allow updates Over any network, cellular or Wi-Fi; Over Wi-Fi only; or Don’t auto-update apps. Chances are good your default is Over Wi-Fi only, the best option if you’re paying for a limited amount of data on your phone plan. 

To check manually on apps that need updating, under that profile icon choose Manage apps & device. Apps that need updating are under Updates available. Then you can tap Update.

- Linda Dono contributed to this story

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