Google has now officially released its Android Flash Tool for almost every Pixel smartphone. While reports do indicate there are a few caveats, that means it's now easier than ever to get back to previous versions of the OS.
The tool, as might be expected from its branding, is a straightforward click-through way to install Android. The process is typically referred to as flashing. Essentially that wipes the smartphone in question and replaces it with a new version of the OS.
In this case, the tool has now been uploaded to Google's Pixel factory images page. And there's a tool for each version of the OS from release through Android 11 Beta 1. That means that any user on a Pixel-branded device from the Pixel 2 forward can now easily install any version of Android on the handset. Or, at least, any version of the OS that's previously been on the device.
What makes this new Android Flash Tool different and better for Pixel owners?
The Android Flash Tool in question is nothing new. It was introduced earlier this year and effectively serves as an in-browser way for users to plug in their Pixel smartphone and get updates. Those are applied as they would be out-of-the-box, rather than as standard updates. But, as might be expected, it was initially only intended to deliver the newest version of Android.
Google had left in place its long and arduous process for taking a phone from those new versions back to older ones. For clarity, the tool made it easy to update to Android 9 or 10 from an older OS version. On the other hand, going back to an older version of the OS than the currently-installed one was not simple at all. In fact, it was a process only developers would really want to attempt.
This new variant of the Android Flash Tool isn't necessarily going to make it easier for users. Especially if they don't know a lot about their phone but need to find their device or a specific version. Google has kept its codenaming conventions in place. And it still posts the firmware itself with the somewhat confusing version structuring in place instead of handy treat names. Installing any firmware using the tool will also completely erase all locally-stored data from the phone.
But it does allow users to basically plug their phone into their computer, access the tool, and click through a few easy steps to install Android versions. In fact, it's very nearly automated.
Simply updating to the latest official stable version of the OS for a given device is simple too. The Android Flash Tool contains a link titled "back to public" that recognizes and directs to the latest version for users who just want to do that.
Google can't guarantee this outside of Pixel, so it doesn't offer it outside of Pixel
The final caveat that's worth discussing is that, as noted above, this only works with Pixel 2 devices or newer. And it only works with Pixel-branded devices. So users who want to take advantage of the tool will need a Google Pixel 2, 2 XL, 3, 3 XL, 3a, 3a XL, 4, or 4 XL to get started. That comes down to the fact that Google owns both the hardware and software for those devices.
Some of the software designed for those handsets is going to be the same as third-party handsets. The underlying code should, in fact, be the same from most OEMs. But Google can't guarantee that it will work. So it's chosen to simply disallow it by default.