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Apple deliberately slows old iPhones! A story of good reasons and dumb, dumb messaging

Every fall, right around the time that Apple pushes out a major new iOS version and ramps up marketing for the year's new iPhone, I would go through my yearly ritual: fulfilling my duty as my friends' and family's go-to tech expert by explaining that "No, Apple doesn't slow down old iPhones to get you to buy the new one."

Except that as was recently brought to light, they do.

Egg on my face, courtesy of Cupertino.

Let's talk charge cycles

Of course, it is nowhere near that simple or diabolical. Apple is indeed slowing old iPhones. To be more accurate, they're slowing iPhones with worn out batteries, and they're doing it to preserve as much battery life as possible. If the phone's processor doesn't have to work as hard, then you'll be able to squeeze more life out of the battery.

It's actually pretty simple and understandable. The problem was that it was an entirely opaque process, one that users have been complaining about, Apple was aware of, and people like me unknowingly dismissed as unoptimized software or confirmation bias.

Lithium-ion batteries like those in the iPhone degrade. Every time you charge it and discharge it some capacity is lost. As with any manufactured product, there's an expected useful life, and in batteries that's measured in "cycles" (a full 100% to 0% and back to 100%). Many of us use our phones that way — we fill it up overnight, burn through it during the day, maybe top off a bit during a drive or at work, and then burn more electrons until we go to bed and plug in again. That constant use wears away at the battery's capacity.

Every time you charge an iPhone battery, a bit of its total capacity is lost. How should a phone cope with this?

For Apple's iPhones, they expect that the capacity will be at around 80% after 500 cycles (which is roughly two years for most users). There are steps you can take to prolong the longevity of your phone (avoiding heat, not charging too much or too little, etc), but those will cut into your productivity and enjoyment, which is the whole reason you bought it in the first place. Apple knows this (so does Samsung and LG and Google everybody else that makes lithium-ion-powered gadgets) and they've designed their devices to work within these restraints as best they can.

Apple made a decision about what to do with an aging battery. Where a Samsung phone will just keep chugging along at full throttle, chewing through an ever-shrinking battery capacity, Apple made the conscious choice to slow iPhones with degraded batteries in order to prolong battery life.

It's an understandable choice, one you may have made yourself at some point. Your car's low on gas, you're on the highway, and there's a gas station ahead. If you keep plowing ahead at 70mph your fuel consumption rate will be too high and you'll run out of gas before you get there. But if you back off on the throttle, say down to 55mph, you'll make it to the gas station. Sure, it'll take you longer, but you won't be stranded on the side of the road.

That's the choice that Apple made. I understand it and I'm even nodding approvingly at it. It makes sense.

Communication is the key to a healthy and lasting relationship

Here's the problem: despite years and years of people complaining that their iPhone was frustratingly slower just two years after they'd bought it, Apple never explained what was happening. It took an in-depth technical analysis by an outside group to suss out that yes, iPhones were getting slower as they got older.

The explanation was perfectly benign. But it was thoroughly dumb that it wasn't explained up front. Of course, there are some people who wouldn't have been happy with it, but at least there wouldn't have been conspiracy theories about how Apple is building code into the latest iOS to force people to upgrade to a new iPhone.

Apple saw a problem and built code to fix it in a way that they thought would satisfy the most users (though for as sensitive as Apple is to things like frame rate, you'd think that they would have realized users would be just as sensitive to performance degradation).

Run the processor at full power and you'll run out of battery faster. That's a problem when your battery's not what it used to be.

Not disclosing this was dumb. Plain and simple, this was a dumb choice. To make it even dumber, Apple has long had the ability to let users know what's going on. They had to build the code to throttle the battery in the first place when the capacity has crossed that threshold, just as they built the code to dial back screen brightness and performance when the phone is overheating, which is accompanied by a notification the user has to dismiss if the overheating situation continues.

There's always an argument to be made about how much information needs to be exposed to the user. Some Android phone manufacturers can take this too far, and it detracts from the experience. Apple has almost always hedged on the side of "as little information as possible", and generally that's worked out just fine. Sure, the phone can be limited in what you can do compared to the potential Wild West of Android, but it's also an assurance that it generally will just work as designed and expected.

But communication is also massively important. The phone knows the battery is degrading. Heck, if your battery is in poor shape the iPhone will actually let you know... if you open Settings and then Battery.

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The right choice, the wrong words

Apple made the right decision, but only halfway. I agree that throttling back the processor to extend battery life was the right call. But they missed the next step, which is informing the user as to what is happening and what they can do to fix it with a simple notification.

An iPhone battery replacement at an Apple Store costs $79 and takes barely any time at all. You can probably find a third party that'll do it for cheaper and just as well. Putting in a new battery comes with a reset charge cycle counter and restores performance back to like-new — not to mention bringing back the battery life of a new phone as well.

This should've been so much simpler and easier. These are smart people. Why did this have to be so dumb?

Being more proactive on this front would've saved everybody a lot of grief. Users would've known what was going on and had an option to fix it for far less than the cost of a new iPhone, Apple would've been saved from embarrassing headlines like this one, and I wouldn't look like a fool.

Marketing is everything. Apple has long been a master of marketing — from 1984 to a thousand songs in your pocket to basically every iPhone commercial ever made — but their marketing prowess only shines in selling new products. To be fair, few companies are good at handling the communication of blunders or potentially controversial decisions (see Apple's dropping of the headphone jack on iPhones or Samsung's disastrous handling of the Galaxy Note 7 catching on fire), and hindsight is absolutely 20/20 on these issues.

Apple made a decision that they believed was in the best interests of their customers and kept it to themselves. Nobody likes being throttled, but we humans are far better and understanding marketing and connecting the dots we can see than understanding the technical inner workings of this magical rectangle we carry around every day.

It would've been an easy and customer-friendly fix: say what's happening, offer a battery upgrade, everybody knows what's going on. Instead those of us who should've known better are walking around with egg on our faces while trust in a company that does amazing work has been eroded because of bad communication around a smart decision. And that's just stupid.

Derek Kessler is Special Projects Manager for Mobile Nations. He's been writing about tech since 2009, has far more phones than is considered humane, still carries a torch for Palm, and got a Tesla because it was the biggest gadget he could find. You can follow him on Twitter at @derekakessler.

26 Comments
  • It's not even that they do it, it's that they do it with updates. *IF* they wanted to save battery, they'd do it outside of upgrades. Then you wouldn't have people saying "I won't upgrade because they slow the OS" and you have people using an older, less secure iOS for that reason.
  • Now, it's too late, because hte vast majority of users are using a patched iOS 10 or have upgraded to iOS 11. If Microsoft had done this on Surface Devices, Rene Ritchie would be using this as a reason to tell others why they should buy iPads and MacBooks instead. The hypocrisy when it comes to covering tech companies is insane. It's a shame that many people have no other places to get decent coverage on many things than clearly biased fan sites. We upgraded an iPhone 6 Plus precisely because the performance was so bad the it had become unusable. The person the phone belonged to swore to me that it was working fine before an update, and I told him that couldn't be the case. "Point updates do not affect performance that way." I was clearly wrong, and this person is out $800 simply for keeping his phone up to date. The phone was literally unusable. There was no way even I would have kept that device, and I still have a 2014-era HTC One M8 that I use daily. It was at least 3x as fast as that iPhone, with its SD 801 CPU. What Apple did on that iPhone 6 Plus was akin to taking someone's Kaby Lake i7 out of their computer and replacing it with a Celeron from 5 years ago. The throttling is permanent. This has nothing to do with normal CPU thermal management (when it get shot, etc.) like Rene keeps trying to lump this issue in with. The phone is basically permanently under clocked until you replace the battery (maybe? some people report this not helping) or get a new phone that isn't throttled. We opted to get a new phone, because the battery life was still pretty good on the 6 Plus therefore it didn't make sense that a bad battery would be the cause (so we never checked, nor does the software even attempt to tell you any of this when it decides to kick this on). We will get Pixels when the next XL is released.
  • MIND BLOWN! Truly!
  • The cynic in me still sees this as Apple trying to weasel themselves out of having to replace batteries for a large batch of iPhones. Looking at the past year and a half's worth of forum/support threads around the interweb, the recall they offered for the iPhone 6S only covered a very small percentage of affected devices. What's more, they seem to only have started including this downclocking "feature" in iOS (via updates) since last year for the iPhone 6S, and this year's latest iOS 11 update seems to include similar stuff for the iPhone 7, almost like they're sure it'll happen after just over a year of charge cycles. This simply tells me that Apple opted for cheapo batteries for the 6S and 7 series (and maybe even the 6 series before those, if forum/support discussions are any indicator). They never had this feature on past iOS versions running older iPhones. On past iPhones, while a new iOS version might've made an older device feel less snappy, the benchmarks over the course of two or three years - see the old Are Technica comparison by Andrew Cunningham - wouldn't change all that much. If your battery performance passed a certain point, iOS would just display a "Your battery might need to be serviced" message at the top (iirc) of the Settings > Battery section without downclocking the processor, afaik. Everyone else here on iMore will disagree, but my mind's made up. Sadly, competing mobile operating systems aren't an option for me as a primary device, so I hope this blows up bigtime in Apple's face (whether they deserve it or not) and they make improvements where needed. Have them spend some money on better battery benchtests and controllers. Still probably way cheaper than giving out that garbage U2 album to millions of users for no reason.
  • I believe that I suffered the effects of this not being implemented before IOS 10. In early 2016 (I.e. winter), my iPhone 6 (running IOS 9 ) would suddenly become unresponsive and reboot when the battery % approached 50% while I was taking photos. When I plugged the phone into a charger, it would rapidly charge and all was well. When I took the phone to the Genius Bar, they could not find any problem. I guessing that further diagnostics and the mitigation in IOS 10 resulted from situations like mine. That said, it is inexcusable that once Apple implemented the changes, it didn't let people know what was going on and point to cheaper solution of replacing the battery rather than the phone.
  • I agree wholeheartedly. A battery should certainly last two years at full speed ahead. This is what class action lawsuits are designed for. To punish companies (yes the lawyers get the most I know) for doing shady stuff like this.
    I am not giving up my iPhone, hopefully this will make them fix the problem rather than hobble our phones. It really could impact resale values.
    The best option would have been to allow a toggle for extended battery life or full performance.
  • This would never be an issue with removable batteries. But I guess that ship sailed years ago and is never coming back.
  • Because making the battery removable magically gives people the ability to figure out the root cause of their issue is their two year old battery and they should replace it? Nope.
  • Wow. This is a joke right?
    Apple did what it thought was in the best interests of its customers?
    NO. If that was the case, they would have instructed the "Geniuses" to help point this out to customers coming in complaining about slow phones.
    That is NOT what happened.
    Apple's decision to slow phones down is understandable.
    It is NOT acceptable that they led potentially millions of customers to believe they simply needed a new phone with Applecare rather than a $80 battery change.
    It's called motive.
  • iMore trying to spin stories for Apple, trying to portray them as good guys "always looking out for consumers". They wrote it in "they didn't tell us in advance, that is bad." just so that iMore can claim "hey, we are criticizing it", whereas they aren't really.
  • Much ado about nothing.
  • I am glad this article was written. I was on the side of frustrated when my 6s was having some performance issues and all I saw on this website was "it's in your head, Apple doesn't slow your phones!" and "look at all this data, it's clearly you!" Your main point I agree with - I understand the decision, but transparency and communication has to be a part of this. They should be willing to service phones WHENEVER someone wants to pay for it. If I want a replaced battery, and I'm willing to pay - do it. Don't test my phone and tell me I don't need it. An auto shop won't turn down my request for an oil change, even if they think it's too soon.
  • Apple doing this, and not telling its customers that they were doing it, is just terrible. Apple needs to quit acting like its user base are full of idiots. Anyone who pays $800+ for a device shouldn't have it gimped for the sake of "preserving the battery". I'd be ****** if it happened to me.
  • The problem with this article is that people complained for years and years but this is a change Apple made last year for a few phone models and is only now adding to additional phones. So, no, there was no egg on your face for years and years.
  • Now, calm down Derek. Such strong language will ruffle feathers at Apple Park. They'll think you are being mean and not invite you to WWDC. #sarcasm
  • I've yet to be invited. Definitely won't be now.
  • Why do you write that you look like a fool? You've been right in the past, and you still are. Apple doesn't intentionally slow down the iPhone every iOS update just to make people buy a new iPhone. Slowing down the iPhone due to a weak battery is not related to new iOS versions, and only happened recently.
  • If it walks like a duck, sounds like a duck, its a duck. I just don't see the justification of slowing a phone down to preserve the battery. Its not like they had this code in since day one. They snuck it in iOS 10. Prior iPhones didn't seem to have this issue, why did Apple suddenly think they need it?
  • Yeah, Apple lied, at least by omission. I don't know if the s/w changes came about because Apple decided to use cheap, crappy batteries, but it seems clear something changed when an iPhone 7, with barely a year of service cycles, is a candidate for throttling. If anything, the root cause of this kerfuffle is Apple's obsession with the thinnest possible profile on it's phones. The batteries should have been larger, and more robust. AND, they should have been easily replaceable by the USER, rather than kicking an extra $79 Apple's way to do something they should have been doing in the first place. This issue definitely will make me think twice about updating my phone's IOS with Apple's typical generic "improvements" description of its updates. Finally, I realize iMore is run by Apple fanbois, for Apple fanbois. It seems Tim Cook would need to be caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy (probably not that far-fetched an idea) for iMore writers to come out with a real negative story about Apple and hold them to it. For my part, I hope there are class actions early and often.
  • Theres no reason an iP7 should need a replacement after a year, that's crap. It just sounds like they cheaped out on batteries and its biting them in the ***.
  • Proof ...no one has been able to produce the actual statement. While it is complete possible and I do not dispel this issue I still think when a source or a official statement is mentioned in articles , proof of the article also should be shown. A credited source is just that.
  • Funnyunkle, (or should you be referred to as "Doubting Thomas"?) first, if you're patient enough, you'll be able to read the statement and the backstory documents from the class action discovery that is coming. Second, if you don't wish to wait that long, you should trawl through Apple's documents on the SEC's EDGAR website, as this little issue amouts to something that could have a material effect on Apple's securities, and thus must be disclosed via the SEC.
  • Totally unacceptable... not even informing their own store staff.... This is not going to end well
  • Apple did not disclose or offer any explanation of why, how and when its throttling, leading to slow user experience.
    Also it seems that Apple is throttling phones prematurely and to cover-up sub-par batteries to avoid replacing them under warranty. This needs to be investigated.
    Apple has lost trust, at least on this issue.
    When users are kept in the dark as to the reasons of why their phone has slowed, they are more likely to buy a whole replacement phone and Apple knows this fact, and, I believe, has certainly capitalised on it.
  • Lawsuit is filed http://bgr.com/2017/12/21/iphone-battery-life-class-action-lawsuit-slowe...
  • What I don't like is that this is par for the course for Apple. They make a decision that is a trade-off involving performance (as opposed to UI) and that people will NOT agree on the outcome, and then they don't say that they did it. This is something that should be a user choice, like low power mode. I may want the full performance I paid for, rather than to preserve battery. There are some very processor intensive apps and games out there, and we may not want our processors throttled down nearly to previous generation performance