Technology-oriented websites tend to focus only on the latest smartphones (and that includes us), but a large number of users choose not to upgrade their devices for one reason or another. Perhaps for financial reasons, there are hundreds of thousands of users who stick to older devices. Custom ROMs such as the now-defunct CyanogenMod have kept older smartphones alive for ages, but there comes a time when even unofficial support must end—for most devices, at least. The legendary HTC HD2 was launched in 2009 with Windows Mobile 6.5 at a time when Android 2.1 Eclair was the latest Android release, but the device has received ports of every version of Android up to Android 7.0 Nougat (not to mention multiple other operating systems.) Now, it appears that the HD2’s torch will be passed on to the Samsung Galaxy S III and Samsung Galaxy Note II.
Legends Never Die: How The Samsung Galaxy S III And Galaxy Note II Live On
The Samsung Galaxy S II and Samsung Galaxy Note were the last Samsung Galaxy flagships to feature the company’s rectangular design. Starting with the Samsung Galaxy S III in mid-2012 and later the Samsung Galaxy Note II in late-2012, Samsung revamped their smartphone design language to incorporate their now-iconic curved edges. Traces of the original Samsung Galaxy S III design are present in every Samsung Galaxy S device released since 2013, and it wasn’t until the Samsung Galaxy S8 that Samsung would radically change the design language.
Both devices were launched with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, with official updates extending all the way to Android 4.4 KitKat. Thanks to CyanogenMod (and now LineageOS), the devices have an unofficial upgrade path to Android 7.1 Nougat. Compared to the ridiculous specifications of some modern Android smartphones (8GBs of RAM on the OnePlus 5T and Razer Phone versus 1/2GBs of RAM on the international Galaxy S III and Galaxy Note II respectively), it doesn’t seem like these two devices should be able to run more modern versions of Android.
And yet, they do. They are not only able to just boot Android 7.1 Nougat, but they run it so well that the international Samsung Galaxy S III is the second most popular device running LineageOS according to the ROM’s official statistics page.
While the latest iterations of Android software releases and system-on-chips have reduced the popularity of custom ROMs on flagship smartphones, these older devices (and some newer budget devices like the Xiaomi Redmi Note 4) are kept alive by custom ROMs. Barring hardware failure, many of these devices may still have years of use ahead of them because, to their owners, they still work just fine. (Having a removable battery definitely helps for longevity, too.) The one thing that might convince the tens of thousands of users to finally lay their old device to rest is if unofficial software support ends for the foreseeable future—something that is almost a guarantee to happen as device maintainers move on to greener pastures.
However, a recent development has been brought to our attention which will help pave the way for the prolonged life of these old Samsung Galaxy flagship devices. According to XDA Senior Member forkbomb444, the official LineageOS maintainer for the Samsung Galaxy S III, Google Nexus 7 (2013), and the Samsung Galaxy A7 (2017), version 4.17 of the Linux kernel will add support for the Samsung Galaxy S III and Samsung Galaxy Note II.
The Samsung Galaxy S III and Galaxy Note II: A Device Reborn
One of the biggest challenges facing developers looking to keep older devices updated is maintaining the kernel. As new Android operating system are released, developers may need to make many changes to ensure that the existing HALs work with the latest Android Framework. The problem is that, without official manufacturer support, it can be a nightmare to keep things like the radio and graphics drivers up to date. (Project Treble is supposed to help with this process by allowing for the Android Framework to be updated without requiring changes to existing HALs, but this major re-architecture only arrived with the release of Android 8.0 Oreo—5 years after the release of the Galaxy S III.)
Yet, it’s not impossible to still port the latest releases of Android if you have the know-how and are willing to invest blood, sweat, and tears into the initiative. It also helps if others kickstart the effort. In this case, Samsung’s testing of Tizen 3.0 on the Galaxy S III helped the Exynos 4 Quad become better suited by the Linux kernel. forkbomb444 states that his work on the audio and some Galaxy Note II specific hardware (the touchscreen, display, and other components) are being upstreamed to the mainline Linux kernel, which means that the two devices “will be able to boot the kernels released by Google/kernel.org with no changes, which makes it a lot easier to keep up with newer AOSP versions” according to forkbomb444. (forkbomb444 also credits Replicant with reverse-engineering the RIL, making it easier to support newer versions of the Linux kernel without employing a ton of hacks.)
All 4 Exynos variants of the Galaxy S III/Galaxy Note II (i9300, i9305, n7100, t0lte) are able to boot a single set of software with kexec. With a bit of modification, forkbomb444 states that any regular GNU/Linux distribution can be installed on the device. Now, there’s no particular benefit to being able to install a GNU/Linux distribution on your device. Yet, in the spirit of the HTC HD2, it’s not about actually running the software, it’s about proving it’s possible.
forkbomb444 says that he is still working on getting the notification LED driver submitted upstream, and that Linux kernel version 4.18 should bring support for it along with the hardware back and menu keys. He estimates that the changes he has submitted already should land in the mainline Linux kernel source tree by next week. As for getting Android Oreo running on the devices, that’s still a work in progress. Android Oreo might even run better on the devices than Android Nougat does thanks to Android Go optimizations.
In summary, official support for nearly all critical hardware components in the Linux kernel will pave the way for future versions of Android, and other Linux kernel-based operating systems, to be ported to the devices. The HTC HD2 is a legend in the community because of its immortality. Perhaps the international Samsung Galaxy S III and Samsung Galaxy Note II may join the pantheon of Android smartphone gods.
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