TL;DR: dependency conflicts: Updating one requires (by it’s requirements) to downgrade another
You are right:
conda update --all
is actually the way to go1. Conda always tries to upgrade the packages to the newest version in the series (say Python 2.x or 3.x).
But it is possible that there are dependency conflicts (which prevent a further upgrade). Conda usually warns very explicitly if they occur.
e.g. X requires Y <5.0, so Y will never be >= 5.0
That’s why you ‘cannot’ upgrade them all.
To add: maybe it could work but a newer version of X working with Y > 5.0 is not available in conda. It is possible to install with pip, since more packages are available in pip. But be aware that pip also installs packages if dependency conflicts exist and that it usually breaks your conda environment in the sense that you cannot reliably install with conda anymore. If you do that, do it as a last resort and after all packages have been installed with conda. It’s rather a hack.
A safe way you can try is to add conda-forge as a channel when upgrading (add
-c conda-forge as a flag) or any other channel you find that contains your package if you really need this new version. This way conda does also search in this places for available packages.
Considering your update: You can upgrade them each separately, but doing so will not only include an upgrade but also a downgrade of another package as well. Say, to add to the example above:
X > 2.0 requires Y < 5.0, X < 2.0 requires Y > 5.0
So upgrading Y > 5.0 implies downgrading X to < 2.0 and vice versa.
(this is a pedagogical example, of course, but it’s the same in reality, usually just with more complicated dependencies and sub-dependencies)
So you still cannot upgrade them all by doing the upgrades separately; the dependencies are just not satisfiable so earlier or later, an upgrade will downgrade an already upgraded package again. Or break the compatibility of the packages (which you usually don’t want!), which is only possible by explicitly invoking an ignore-dependencies and force-command. But that is only to hack your way around issues, definitely not the normal-user case!
1 If you actually want to update the packages of your installation, which you usually don’t. The command run in the base environment will update the packages in this, but usually you should work with virtual environments (
conda create -n myenv and then
conda activate myenv). Executing
conda update --all inside such an environment will update the packages inside this environment. However, since the base environment is also an environment, the answer applies to both cases in the same way.