The actual iPhone 13 upgrade cycle

iPhone Stack
iPhone Stack (Image credit: Rene Ritchie)

For the next few weeks, the vast, vast majority of iPhone 13 buying advice will be strangely fixated on whether or not it's a compelling upgrade from… the iPhone 12. Spoiler alert: it's not. It never is. Not year over year. Not any iPhone. No one expects it to be. Not even Apple.

Now yes, of course, there are some people who are genuinely conflicted about upgrading from last year's model to this year's. Because money is tight and FOMO… well, FOMO is so real. And these people are all are disproportionately represented in Twitter threads and YouTube comments. Because, self-selection. Most iPhone owners, though — an overwhelming majority of iPhone owners — just don't upgrade every year. They don't even think about it. Not seriously. And I'll get to why that is in a bubble-bursting minute…

Upgrade programs

Even for those of us who do upgrade every year, it's still mostly not even a real question. Mostly. First, because of annual upgrade programs from Apple or carriers, which means you just get the new iPhone whenever it's launched anyway. That's why Apple and carriers offer those programs to begin with. iPhone as a service. Why sell when you can lease? I'm seriously just waiting for it to become part of the Apple One bundle already.

Forever flex

iPhone XS

iPhone XS (Image credit: iMore)

Then there's the early, even immediate adopter part of the market. Which some think is mainly — maybe totally — the tech enthusiast market — but is really just the money is no object market. It's affluent people who automatically get the latest and greatest all the time, or people who want to be seen as affluent, you know, for the flex, or both. It's why Apple always has at least one big, visually distinct new design element, like an extra camera, or a repositioned camera, or new colors, like green one year, blue the next, so you can show… so everyone will know… you have that latest and greatest iPhone flex.

Camera trap

Then there are a few people who just legitimately want the new features. Especially camera features. Because the iPhone is the only camera with you, and you can never go back in time and take better pictures and videos of your kids or your trips or your b-roll, you always want to make sure you have the absolute best camera with. It's less an iPhone and more an iCamara, and that significantly changes the value prop. It's why Apple spends so much time and effort on improving and showing off the new camera system every year.

Sell and buy

Red iPhone unboxing

Red iPhone unboxing (Image credit: iMore)

If for some reason, you aren't on an upgrade program and don't have the extra money, it's also just so past super easy, barely an inconvenience to sell off a previous iPhone when resale prices are at their peak, and then use that money to pay down most of the cost of the new iPhone the minute it lands. That's what all the 9000IQs have been doing for years. For YEARS now. Because Apple invests so much in build quality, new materials, and even software updates, iPhones don't just last as long as possible but retain the most value possible. Whether we keep them, sell them, or hand them down.

#TechLife

Then, yes, sure, there're are us tech aficionados who fit into any of the above categories. We just have to have the new iPhone to talk about in our videos, on our blogs, or to our circle of family, friends, and colleagues… that's just who we are. The tech person. And we just gotta do us. Because Apple and the iPhone get so much attention and we want some of that attention. As much of it as we can get.

iPhone upgrade cycle

For most people, though, the preponderance of people, when they get a new iPhone, they stay on that iPhone for years. Previously it was around two years because that was the most common cell phone contract, back when cell phone contracts were still common. Now, as the market has matured, there are fewer differences between the model years, and Apple has made build quality so good, and OS support so long, its upgrade cycles are trending past three years and towards four or more. I mean, the 2015 iPhone 6s and 2016 OG iPhone SE are getting iOS 15 in 2021, which is like… 6 years of updates.

That's why, every year, most of the people upgrading to the latest iPhone aren't upgrading from the previous year's phone, but from around a 3- or 4-year-old phone. Which means, this year, most of the people upgrading won't be upgrading from an iPhone 12, but from an iPhone 8, maybe iPhone X or Xs, maybe 11.

For them — for you, maybe — it'll be the sum of all upgrades that matter. Could be that's the current design, the several years better camera, features like HDR or 5G. Whatever.

It's also why Apple makes new iPhones every year. Same as TV companies and car companies make new TVs and cars every year. Not because they expect everyone to buy the new model every year, but because they know some people will be buying any given year.

And sure, a flashy new feature or few can sometimes pull some of those upgrades forward, so some of the people still on the fence will just get up off it a little earlier than they would have otherwise. And Apple can plan out and pay down new technologies, a few at a time, to better manage costs and pricing. And for us, it means any year we do decide to upgrade to a new iPhone, it's a fresh new iPhone, not a years old iPhone, so it'll last you as long as possible, get iOS updates for a long as possible, so you can wait as long as we need to before upgrading again.

Rene Ritchie
Contributor

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

3 Comments
  • I used to be the sell and buy (and I'm one of those crazy Pro Max users, so the pricey phones), and then last year got slightly screwed by the pandemic delaying the Pro Max phone. Because it came out a month later (or whatever it was) than the other models, the value dropped another couple hundred dollars by the time I actually got the new phone and could sell the old phone (because I've never held on to one I could use a backup in case that happened). So, last year I switched over to the lease program. I'm still not sure how I feel about switching to that over the buying and selling... but we'll see. I'm also not sure how that will work this year where the Pro Max came out so much later; do I have to wait now until November before I can upgrade then? I haven't looked into what that means, but I know I will be trying to figure that out next week once the new phones are announced!
  • I think this is a very well written article. The GF is upgrading from the 6+ and it’s been a great workhorse and stayed updated. She’s upgrading to the coming 13. Interesting to note it is the 6+ saw a huge increase in iPhone sales. As an aside, I think Apple has IMHO dropped the ball on more strongly highlighting its length of updates. The competition is left in the dust on this feature. Updates are such an important part of any technology that interfaces with the internet and the bevy of apps, protocols and security concerns. The rumor mill always makes me kind of laugh. “Oh it’s only an S year”. The Changes are almost always incremental albeit some years have a bigger increment in certain areas but it’s not incredibly far apart year to year. “It’s the same form factor”. What is the obsession needing the form factor changed? Is it for change itself or to carry around the next design?
    Faster SOC benchmarks, better screen-video image, better cameras, better mic, better speakers, better biometric operations, better battery, better charging and interface hardware capability, better varying antenna capabilities. That covers almost all of hardware. But 5G when it comes to be more usable, the satellite messaging (rumor), removal of the notch are some potential selling points. But imho the selling points are in the software and in the interoperation between devices. That’s the value add buying proposition Apple needs to make even better then bring it up every iPhone release. .
  • You can always tell something is written by Rene, Rene Ritchie before you get, get to the by line. He has a very, very distinct style 😂 I'm on the SE 2021 so plan to take the plunge into my first home buttonless and notched iPhone. I hate the notch but I want more screen real-estate - whats a guy to do.