Don’t Blame Apple For Your Slow iPhone. Blame Your Apps
Written by Brian Barrett / Courtesy of Wired
Each year, fall ushers in a few certainties. Leaves change color and fall gently to the ground. Pumpkin spice flavors turn up in unlikely foodstuffs. And iPhone owners feel pretty sure that Apple has intentionally slowed down their smartphone, in a dastardly attempt to get them to upgrade to the latest model. That last one? It’s not a thing.
Hue and cry about Apple’s “planned obsolescence” has burbled up for years, at one point gracing even the pages of The New York Times Magazine. But a new look at historic iPhone performance data disproves the notion for good. Does your iPhone run a little slower than it used to, just in time for the iPhone 8? Maybe. If you’re blaming Apple, though, you’re barking up the wrong corporate monolith.
3DMarks the Spot
The data that disproves any malicious intent on Apple’s part comes from Futuremark, the company behind a popular benchmarking app called 3DMark. The app runs a series of tests that measure your phone’s performance.
“The way 3DMark is designed and created is to emulate exactly how a real game would operate,” says Futuremark commerce director Jani Joki. “The methodologies, APIs, and 3-D structures that we use are all done in a way that act like a modern-day game would end up using. It gives you a good prediction of how games would perform on a device.”
That’s important, because gaming stresses your iPhone more than pretty much any other activity. Not only that, but 3DMark actual comprises two tests, one each for your smartphone’s GPU and CPU, to test against both graphics-intensive tasks and those that require heavy-duty physics calculations and the like.
The basic argument: If Apple were purposefully debilitating an older iPhone, that would clearly show up in the 3DMark score. Reader, it didn’t.
In fact, Futuremark’s data set includes hundreds of thousands of benchmarks for seven different iPhone models and three different versions of iOS. You can see a bunch of charts here, and they all show the same thing: GPU performance holds steady on an iPhone 5S, even across three firmware updates. The CPU wavers a skosh, but not enough that you’d notice.
So, your iPhone’s GPU and CPU don’t shrink over time, and especially not at the specific time that iPhones start tumbling off the Foxconn assembly line. You can have faith in that both because of the rigorous Futuremark analysis, and because the planned obsolescence theory never made any sense in the first place.
“The longevity of Apple’s devices is a key reason why their resale value is so high, which in turn is one reason why people keep buying them and handing them down to family members or selling them on when they get new ones,” says Jan Dawson, founder of Jackdaw Research.
For more proof of Apple’s faith in its devices to keep chugging, note that it’ll sell you a brand new—or refurbished—iPhone 6S right now. If it really downshifted devices after a couple of years, why on earth would it be selling you a two-year-old device? If you sell someone a rotten banana today, they’ll shop at the next fruit stand over tomorrow. (Yes, this metaphor assumes multiple competitive fruit stands in close proximity.)
“I don’t believe for a minute that Apple deliberately slows down older phones or does anything else to prompt users to buy new ones,” says Dawson.
If this still doesn’t compute, and you’re still suspicious because you know in your heart that your iPhone works more slowly than it did when you first bought it, you’re probably correct. But why has nothing to do with Apple sabotage.
Your GPU and CPU still work as intended. The problem? You’re asking them to do more.
“When any piece of hardware comes out with a new operating system, then the new version of a popular app can make use of new functionality in a way that it runs well on a the latest device, but is slightly too heavy for the older ones,” says Joki. “You can have this perception that this used to work just fine on my old device, when in reality the app is just doing more work than it did before.”
The operating system itself contributes to that load somewhat—iOS 11 demands more from your device than iOS 9 did—but Joki pins the majority of blame on apps that creep up in size and processing hunger with each passing year. Not every app does, but if your iPhone feels in need of an upper, you’ve likely got a few installed.
Think of it like this: You own a station wagon, and each year you fill it with slightly bigger boxes. Eventually, the boxes don’t fit in your car anymore. Annoying! But it doesn’t mean that Subaru has deviously shrunk all of its 2015 Outbacks.
Surprisingly, Joki blames app bloat another common old-iPhone lament: battery life. If your device doesn’t make it as late into the night (or more likely, afternoon) as it used to a year or two ago, that’s at least in part because more processor-intensive apps increase the strain on your battery. Older than that, and you may just have to face the reality that batteries don’t last forever.
These issues aren’t unique to Apple. If you think a 2015 iPhone doesn’t work so hot today, try, say, an Xperia Z5. In fact, older Android devices suffer more from a related but slightly different problem, which is that developers rarely manage to optimize for every device type, and older smartphones often don’t get operating system updates in the first place.
So iPhones do slow down a bit over time, largely thanks to your various downloads. The natural question might be: Why doesn’t Apple do something to stop that from happening? Be grateful they don’t.
First, sorry to say, the answer is not to simply stop downloading app updates. While it’s true that your smartphone may keep pace better, you also risk usability issues, and could miss out on important security updates. Being stuck in the past worked for Encino Man, but it won’t for your iPhone 6.
More importantly, though, think of what exactly you’re asking. For Apple to keep older versions running smoothly indefinitely, it would need to put a full stop on new features. That’s simply not plausible. Just ask HP or Dell.
“As we saw in PCs, growth comes to a screeching halt if the experience doesn’t considerably improve or there are no killer features added,” says Patrick Moorhead, president of Moor Insights & Strategy.
And even beyond the business case, Apple has added some genuinely useful features over the last few years. iOS 9 made Siri actually usable, and introduced “app thinning” to save space on your device. iOS 10 overhauled iMessage, Apple Music, and more. iOS 11 brings a new App Store, and FaceID for you iPhone X diehards. That’s in addition to countless under-the-hood improvements to improve the overall experience.
It’s frustrating when an iPhone slows down, just like it is when leaves clog your gutters, or your pumpkin spice latte gets cold. And just like those other unfortunate side effects of fall, there’s no underlying conspiracy. It’s just how things work.