By now I’m sure you have heard about this story, either in a short blurb on the news or second hand through a friend or family member. It’s true, Apple has been intentionally slowing down iPhones, ever since a software update from early 2017 and it impacts iPhone 6, iPhone 6s, iPhone SE and iPhone 7. Now that the “link-baity” garbage is out of the way do you want to know what has really been going on?
”I knew it, Apple just wants to force people to upgrade”
Conspiracy theorists all over the world rejoiced when this news finally broke. At long last Apple has finally admitted to slowing down iPhones through software just so people would be frustrated and pay to upgrade to a newer iPhone. Except, that’s not what is going on. But let’s start with how this story broke, because that is the real story here. A developer, John Poole, published a study that looked at how benchmarks (lab-based performance tests) on specific iPhone models vary depending on the version of software running on the iPhone. After further testing he was able to pinpoint the performance “slow down” to the iOS 10.2.1 update which was released in January of 2017. Finally, after enough news outlets covered this story Apple made an official statement:
"Our goal is to deliver the best experience for customers, which includes overall performance and prolonging the life of their devices. Lithium-ion batteries become less capable of supplying peak current demands when in cold conditions, have a low battery charge or as they age over time, which can result in the device unexpectedly shutting down to protect its electronic components.
"Last year we released a feature for iPhone 6, iPhone 6s and iPhone SE to smooth out the instantaneous peaks only when needed to prevent the device from unexpectedly shutting down during these conditions. We've now extended that feature to iPhone 7 with iOS 11.2, and plan to add support for other products in the future."
So What Does This Mean?
Lithium ion batteries will degrade over time. After about 500 charging cycles (about 2 years of use for the average user) an iPhone’s battery will only be able to charge to 80% of its original capacity. There are all sorts of safe-guards built into smartphones so that if they get too hot or too cold or if the battery conditions are just right the operating system takes action to proctect the hardware. If you live in a location that gets really cold or really hot you have probably encountered your iPhone literally shutting down to protect itself.
In this specific case, Apple has added a safeguard into the iPhone operating system to slow down the iPhone’s processor slightly as a way to avoid having the iPhone completely shutdown due to an aging battery and the spikes and all-around “flakiness” that comes along with it. If you have ever owned an “elderly” iPhone you know exactly what I am talking about. You are plugging along at about 20% battery and then all of the sudden your iPhone turns off and it is out of power. What Apple has done starting with iOS 10.2.1 keeps this from happening. But in order to keep this from happening Apple has to slow down the iPhone’s processor, only slightly and only for short periods of time. To the average user this “slow down” will be minimal but noticeable. It is most notable when performing a performance benchmark test where you run the processor at maximum speed for long periods of time (which is exactly how this new “feature” was discovered).
Why is Everyone So Upset?
I agree with what Apple is doing, but they really blew it when it came to messaging. Apple is notorious for being tight-lipped about everything and this issue was no exception. If Apple had just come out when they released iOS 10.2.1 and explained what they were doing and why, then all of this negative press and wailing and gnashing of teeth would not have been necessary. But they didn’t. In true Apple style they kept this information internal and it took concrete proof published by a developer to get Apple to admit what they were doing.
But that is where the negative aspects of this story end. What Apple is actually doing with the iPhone is A GOOD THING. Be honest, if you are browsing a web page and a site takes 1.25 seconds instead of 1.35 seconds to load is it the end of the world? No. If you are out with a group of friends and one of them drops to floor having a heart attack and you reach for your iPhone to call “911” and it shuts off because the battery has dipped down below 20% ? Yes, that is a big deal. So I would argue that what Apple has done is actually allowing users to keep using their old iPhones longer, which goes totally against the conspiracy theory that Apple is just doing this to sell more iPhones. If you don’t like having a slightly slower iPhone then spend the approximately $80 to get a new battery installed and get a couple more years out of your iPhone without any performance impacts.
What Apple should have done is been more open about what they were doing. Apple should also give users the option to “opt out” of this automatic processor throttling so that all the performance obsessed people out there that seem to think that intentionally slowing down the processor is the end of the world can choose to run their old lithium ion battery in their phone into the ground and live the all the consequences from doing so. As usual this entire story is just an over-reaction. Hopefully Apple will learn from this and start being just a little more open about what they are doing. In this case, what they are doing is a really good thing and they need to be taking credit for it instead of flack.
12/29/17 Update: Apple has come out and addressed concerns over their actions and lack of communication with the following message:
To address our customers’ concerns, to recognize their loyalty and to regain the trust of anyone who may have doubted Apple’s intentions, we’ve decided to take the following steps:
Apple is reducing the price of an out-of-warranty iPhone battery replacement by $50 — from $79 to $29 — for anyone with an iPhone 6 or later whose battery needs to be replaced, starting in late January and available worldwide through December 2018. Details will be provided soon on apple.com.
Early in 2018, we will issue an iOS software update with new features that give users more visibility into the health of their iPhone’s battery, so they can see for themselves if its condition is affecting performance.
Apple has also created a new page dedicated to explaining what happens to aging lithium ion batteries here.