Google didn’t mention the best way to install the Android 12 Beta on Pixel phones
Last week’s release of the first Android 12 beta was met with much fanfare, but excitement quickly turned into horror for many who discovered that the beta release bricked their phone. Dealing with the occasional bug is the price of admission for running bleeding-edge software, but nobody expects an official beta release to make their phone unusable. That’s why it’s puzzling to us why Google didn’t mention the best way to install the Android 12 Beta on Pixel phones: DSU. By not pushing DSU harder, Google also missed out on an opportunity to enroll more OEM devices into the Android 12 Beta. Here’s why DSU matters and how we could’ve had a lot more devices participating in the beta.
There are a few ways to install the first Android 12 Beta release depending on the device. Some OEMs let you use their software’s built-in updater tool to sideload the update, some use standard flash tools, and some require specialized tools. Google Pixel phones have the most straightforward methods available to them to install the Android 12 Beta: You can enroll in the beta program to have the OTA pushed to your device, sideload an OTA file from recovery, or flash a factory image using fastboot (either manually or with the help of the Android Flash Tool). On devices without an official beta program (and even on devices that do have a beta program), it’s also possible to try the beta by installing a Generic System Image (GSI). A GSI can be installed through fastboot commands much like a factory image, but it can also be installed through a little-known tool called “DSU Loader” available in Android 11’s Developer Options.
Through DSU Loader, the latest GSI release for developers that’s available on this page — which as of now is the first Android 12 Beta — can be installed on Pixel phones without unlocking the bootloader and without overwriting the original system image. This is the most non-destructive way for developers to test the latest OS on their own hardware; once they’re done testing, they can simply reboot to return to the original OS with their apps and data intact.
Here’s a short video from XDA’s Rich Woods demonstrating DSU Loader on a Google Pixel 4. He started out running Android 11 but then reboots into an Android 12 Beta GSI after installing it via DSU. After a few moments, he then reboots back into the original Android 11 OS without any changes to his data.
Contrast that to the existing methods that Google advises you to follow to install the Android 12 Beta, all of which overwrite your existing installation. And if you decided to factory reset your phone while installing the Beta, you may have had a run-in with customer support thinking your phone was bricked. As XDA Recognized Developer luca020400 explained on Twitter, it seems that there’s an issue during setup with Factory Reset Protection — if you factory reset your phone before upgrading to the Beta, you won’t be able to get past the SetupWizard when it asks you to sign into your Google Account. For Pixel users who have already unlocked their bootloader or enabled the OEM unlocking option, it’s easy to restore things back to normal by flashing a factory image. For Pixel users who haven’t unlocked their bootloader, you’ll have to flash an OTA that downgrades the firmware to Android 11 — Google hasn’t published these firmware files, but a couple of Redditors have helpfully compiled them here.
Had more Pixel users installed the Android 12 Beta via DSU, we likely would’ve seen fewer complaints about bricked phones. All you’d have to do to get things back up and running is reboot since the installation is temporary.
The ASUS ROG Phone 5 running the Android 12 Beta GSI via DSU Loader.
DSU Loader isn’t only available to Pixel phones. In fact, it’s available to most devices running Android 11. In the images shown above and in the hero image, we’ve got the Android 12 Beta up and running on an ASUS ROG Phone 5 — a device which ASUS hasn’t officially made a beta release available for. Just like on the Pixel 4, the ROG Phone 5’s installation is temporary and non-destructive — a simple reboot and we’re back to Android 11 with ZenUI. However, there’s one big difference: We had to unlock the bootloader of the ROG Phone 5 to get the Android 12 Beta booting via DSU. Unlocking the bootloader wipes the phone’s data partition, which defeats the main purpose of using DSU. The only reason we had to unlock the bootloader, though, is because ASUS didn’t include the verified boot keys that would let Google-signed GSIs boot without needing to unlock the bootloader. When we first reported on DSU, we learned that Google wanted to require OEMs preload these keys, but it seems those plans fell by the wayside as we haven’t seen any device that’s capable of booting a GSI via DSU with a locked bootloader.
It’s a shame that’s the case, though, since Google created such an awesome tool and set up a way for their builds to run on most devices. OEMs don’t even have to do much to add support for their devices to boot Google’s GSIs on a locked bootloader — all they have to do is add a single line to the device.mk file when building the firmware. We don’t know what discussions led to Google dropping this as a requirement, but we presume many OEMs weren’t comfortable with what’s essentially a backdoor to running Google’s firmware, as convenient for developers as it may be.
Had things turned out differently, we could have had a lot more devices running the Android 12 Beta. We also could’ve saved some people a lot of trouble as there’s far less risk involved with installing a beta through DSU. Max Weinbach from Android Police found this out the hard way when he tried to install the beta on his OnePlus 9, resulting in him having to follow our guide on how to unbrick his phone using EDL.
I hope DSU Loader doesn’t get abandoned in the future because it’s the best way to try a new Android release if implemented correctly. That Google didn’t mention it at all is disappointing, especially since the betas are explicitly aimed at developers and not users. Sure, the device-specific betas support more Pixel features, but that doesn’t matter when it comes to testing an app against the latest OS version. Given how inconsistently GSIs work across Android devices and how seemingly no OEM supports booting them with a locked bootloader, perhaps Google didn’t want to draw attention to it since there’s no surefire way to get the Android 12 Beta booting this way. Samsung hides the option on its Galaxy phones even though the service is still accessible via its command-line interface, so they probably aren’t on board with the whole idea. Whatever the case, I think there’s a missed opportunity here — Google mandates Treble compliance and went to all the trouble to implement DSU, so why not push it harder as the preferred way to beta test new Android releases?