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.


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

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.