As we dump more and more private info on our phones, hackers are finding new ways to break in without ever learning your password. That’s why using an up-to-date secure phone is more important today than ever before. But how do you know that an Android phone is secure, and why are some phones more secure than others?
Monthly Software Updates Are the Key to Security
While a strong password and two-factor authentication should deter most hackers, some vulnerabilities exist at a software level and are far outside of your control. Hackers can use apps, files, or even text messages to exploit these vulnerabilities, gaining access to your private information or bricking your phone in the process.
That’s where Android Security Updates come in—Google releases monthly updates to patch Android software vulnerabilities and defend you from bad actors and hacking groups. These patches are essential to your device security, and missing out on an update could leave you exposed to publicly known exploits.
“Wait a minute,” you might say, “my phone doesn’t get an update every month!” While Google encourages phone manufacturers to keep up with 2 years of monthly updates, very few manufactures actually stick to a strict update schedule. Some even forgo the security updates altogether, much to the chagrin of security-minded customers.
In the end, some Android phones are more secure than others. Two phones released in the same year may follow dramatically different update schedules, even if they’re from the same manufacturer! So, what can you do to make sure that your next phone gets regular security updates? Which manufacturers should you stick with, and are there any manufacturers to avoid?
Which Android Phones Are the Most Secure?
When security is your priority, you have no choice but to stick with brands that guarantee long-term support for their phones. Google and Samsung are the best in this regard—both companies guarantee 3 years of security updates for their most popular phones, along with two major OS updates (so a phone released with Android 10 will end its life with Android 12).
All of Google’s new phones, including the high-end Pixel 5 and the affordable Pixel 4a, come with the 3-year guarantee. Samsung’s guarantee covers its flagship Galaxy S phones and premium Galaxy Note phones, although it excludes most of the cheaper A-series handsets (the $350 Galaxy A50 is a notable exception). It’s also worth mentioning that, while Google phones get security updates as they go live, Samsung tends to push its updates a day or two late.
But are you really stuck with just two brands? Yeah, kinda. Top-of-the-line devices from Sony, OnePlus, LG, and Motorola often end up with 2 years of security updates, although the updates aren’t as consistent as what you get with Google or Samsung. (OnePlus pushes security updates every other month, for example.) Cheaper devices from these brands often have a shorter support cycle or receive sporadic security updates every couple of months. Generally speaking, if you’re a security freak who wants to venture outside the realm of Google and Samsung, you’re gonna have to shell out for a high-end device like the Sony Xperia 1 II or the LG Velvet 5G.
I say “generally” because, as it turns out, some cheap devices from Motorola and Nokia actually offer better update support than their high-end counterparts. These special phones run on Google’s Android One program, receive security updates directly from Google, and are the best option for those who need a secure phone on a budget.
Android One Offers the Best Security on a Budget
Manufacturers don’t like to provide long-term consistent support for their cheap devices, which makes shopping for a secure phone in the $100 to $300 range a little difficult. You might end up with an old device that’s near the end of its support cycle, or worse, a new phone that gets only a handful of updates in its lifetime. But don’t worry, you can still get a secure phone for cheap, you just need to make sure that it’s an Android One device.
Android One began as an initiative to bring cheap-but-practical smartphones to emerging markets, but the project now extends to most regions, including the United States. Devices in the Android One program run a stock version of Android and receive 3 years of security updates (with 2 years of OS updates) directly from Google, providing customers peace of mind without decimating their wallet.
At the time of writing, the Nokia 5.3 ($200) and Moto G Pro ($260) are two of the best Android One devices for long-term use and security. Released in 2020, both phones offer Android Security Updates until 2023 and will receive OS updates up to Android 12. With their all-day battery life, Snapdragon 665 processors, high-megapixel cameras, and large HD displays (6.55-inches for the Nokia, 6.4-inches for the Motorola), these affordable Android One devices cover all the bases without breaking the bank.
The Newer, the Better … Kind of
Guaranteed support cycles offered by Google and Samsung are awesome, but you need to keep in mind that these support cycles begin on a device’s launch date, not the day that you activate your phone. A phone released in 2019 will meet the end of its 3-year guarantee (if it has one) in 2022, while a handset launched in 2021 will receive support until 2024. From a security standpoint, newer is always better.
But from a budgeting perspective, buying a day-one phone isn’t all that economical. Android devices drop in value after just a few months on the market, and year-old flagships often cost hundreds of dollars less than their mildly improved successor. If you want a high-end phone, it’s usually best to wait for its price to drop a bit, and if you’re working on a budget, an old or refurbished flagship may offer better features and photo quality than newly released devices in your price range.
While brand new phones are the best option for long-term security, it’s okay to buy a product later in its support cycle to save money or get your hands on some cool features. Just keep in mind that, if you really want to have the latest Android Security Updates, you might need to replace your phone sooner than if you bought a day-one device.
Shopping for a good, secure Android phone is harder than it looks, especially if you’re on a budget. Sticking to Google, high-end Samsung, and Android One devices is usually your best bet, although most high-end phones offer decent, albeit unpredictable support for at least 2 years.
If you’re frustrated by Android’s messy security update system, consider switching to iOS. Apple supports its iPhones for 5 years, offering regular security updates and five major OS updates, regardless of which model you buy.