Apple intentionally slows down iPhones as they get older. I don't know how many times I heard people say this as a conspiracy theory — one that I've dismissed, chalking it up to operating system updates and more demanding apps — but it turns out, it's true.
Apple really is slowing down phones as they age with use (specifically, as their battery gets worn down), apparently as a way to mitigate issues that come with reduced battery life. Evidence was uncovered by Geekbench developer John Poole this week, and Apple admitted to it this afternoon.
There is some good reason for Apple to do this. By their nature, lithium-ion batteries degrade over time, storing less and less of a charge. This happens very quickly on a device we use 24/7. So it's not a bad idea for Apple to limit speeds on older phones, such that they don't push things too far on a depleted battery. That absolutely makes the phone more useable — it apparently helps stop random shutdowns, which are a major pain. And I would think it helps with battery life in general as well.
But it also speaks to a really enormous problem with the iPhone: this $700 to $1,000-plus product, as designed, isn't able to function near its peak after just a year of use. That should be unacceptable.
Slowing down the phone is one way to work against aging issues, but there are other, more obvious things Apple could do here. It could put larger batteries in the iPhone in the first place, so that they last longer before this kind of adjustment needs to kick in.
Or Apple could make it easier and cheaper to replace the iPhone's battery. Even just making it clear to people that replacing their battery will meaningfully improve their phone could go a long way — it turns out, replacing the battery will restore the phone’s proper performance again. Apple does offer a battery replacement service for $79, but that requires either taking your phone to an Apple store or mailing it in, which will leave you without a phone for at least a few days and likely more.
Until now, it had seemed that once your phone got this way — say, a year or two after launch — the only solution was to get rid of it and buy a new one. It had seemed that, by their nature, phones just started to give out after a year or two of use and needed to be replaced. This has led to a lot of people replacing their phones every two years or so. But the reality may be, in part at least, that it's a much simpler problem: a bad battery. Something that can be swapped out for $79.
There's still a lot we don't know here. Apple indicated that it started doing this last year for the iPhone 6, 6S, and SE, and this year for the iPhone 7. It's not clear if it did this with older iPhones — if it didn't, then it means that, yes, a lot of this slowdown is natural, since iPhones had this problem well before last year. It’s also unclear just how much Apple is limiting the processor.
The Geekbench scores make it seem substantial, but Apple suggests that it only limits the processor from hitting particularly high peaks, which means this behavior may not dramatically impact day-to-day performance. It might just mean slower performance when, say, you launch a new app.
We also don't know if other companies take the same approach. It's easy to imagine that this behavior isn't limited to Apple, since all phone makers are going up against the very same processor and battery issues. By no means is Apple the only phone company with devices that see dramatically reduced performance just a year or two down the road.
But the big conspiracy has been that Apple intentionally slows down your phone every time a new one comes out, a subtle way of encouraging you to buy it. And now we know that it’s true on some level, even if you take Apple's word and see this as about preservation and not a sales tactic, since the software update that comes out alongside every phone seems to be what introduces the throttling. Here’s how Apple puts it in its statement describing what’s going on: “Our goal is to deliver the best experience for customers, which includes overall performance and prolonging the life of their devices.”
Apple’s story isn't really that much better though, because it means that Apple is knowingly designing and selling products that begin to fall apart after a year — which certainly has a way of encouraging people to buy a new one. This isn't something buyers are warned about, and they aren't presented with options to fix it. It's always just been assumed that you have to buy a new phone, which is a big expense.
This problem is, to a very real extent, unavoidable. Phone batteries will wear down and die, and Apple is doing somewhat of a right thing by trying to mitigate that so that your phone stays useable. But there are two bigger problems here: for one, Apple should be designing phones that don't degrade this rapidly; and two, it should have let owners know what was going on. There's already a low-power mode built into the iPhone — it wouldn't be farfetched to include a toggle to let more demanding iPhone owners turn off processor throttling if they don't want it. A simple popup after this feature is introduced or enabled would go a long way toward letting iPhone owners understand what’s going on, too.
Or, come on, just make a slightly thicker iPhone with a bigger battery. We’ve all been asking for it anyway.