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Apple’s iPhone slowdown: Your questions answered

Apple’s iPhone slowdown: Your questions answered

Apple admits it slows down older iPhones to offset battery problems. Here’s what you need to know.

Earlier this year, my mom needed a new phone. Her iPhone 6 started running slowly, and the battery drained quickly.

Instead of purchasing a new phone — she couldn’t decide which to get — she had a new battery installed to buy herself some time. I thought she was crazy to not just get a new iPhone. Turns out, she was on to something.

Apple this week admitted its iOS software slows down the performance of older iPhones. The company says iOS does this to counteract problems found in aging lithium ion-batteries. When a battery gets older, it doesn’t hold a charge as well and can unexpectedly shut down if it’s put under too much stress. Apple’s software prevents that from happening by slowing performance.

What you get is a trade-off. Your phone isn’t as snappy as it used to be, but it also doesn’t turn itself off when the battery says it’s far from drained.

Apple’s admission caused some outrage online and raised a lot of questions. People have long believed the company hinders older devices to get customers to buy new models (something Apple has denied), and many this week criticized Apple’s lack of transparency around its battery policies.

Keep reading to find out what’s going on.

Why did this news come out?

Earlier this week, Primate Labs, the company behind the Geekbench processor benchmarking software, released a report that examined a common complaint from users: iPhones seem to run more slowly when a new model hits the market.

John Poole, founder of Primate Labs, said in a blog post that processors in iPhones slow down and decrease in performance as batteries age and lose capacity. Poole explained that users expect their phones to perform the same regardless of how old the battery is, but his tests indicated that wasn’t the case.

What does Apple say about this?

Apple said in a statement:

“Our goal is to deliver the best experience for customers, which includes overall performance and prolonging the life of their devices. Lithium-ion batteries become less capable of supplying peak current demands when in cold conditions, have a low battery charge or as they age over time, which can result in the device unexpectedly shutting down to protect its electronic components.

“Last year we released a feature for iPhone 6, iPhone 6S and iPhone SE to smooth out the instantaneous peaks only when needed to prevent the device from unexpectedly shutting down during these conditions. We’ve now extended that feature to iPhone 7 with iOS 11.2, and plan to add support for other products in the future.”

Why does Apple use lithium-ion batteries?

Lithium-ion batteries are far from perfect (just look at Samsung and its Note 7 issues from 2016). They’re volatile, they deteriorate relatively quickly, and they haven’t changed that much over the years. A few years ago, an advanced battery startup in California, Envia Systems, did some research and found that it took more than a decade, from 1995 to 2007, to double the energy stored in a battery — and since then the rise in stored energy hasn’t even managed to hit 30 percent.

Still, lithium-ion batteries are better than the current tech alternatives. They weigh less, last longer and charge more efficiently than older battery types, according to Apple’s battery information guide. The lithium-ion batteries used in Apple’s devices are designed to hold at least 80 percent of their original capacity for 500 complete charge cycles.

For more about batteries, check out this article from CNET Magazine.

What happens to iPhone batteries when they get older?

As batteries age, they don’t hold their charges as well as newer batteries, and they can have worse problems when the charge is low or the temperature is cold. Your battery won’t charge above 80 percent after about 500 cycles, which means it won’t last as long each time you charge it.

If your battery is old or really cold, it could unexpectedly shut down, like what happened to the iPhone 6 and 6S last year. The processors in those devices wanted to hit faster speeds (something Apple calls “peak current demands”) but their batteries couldn’t handle the surge from the requests, prompting some phones to simply switch themselves off.

Is this the first time Apple has tweaked its software to boost battery life?

Nope. Apple has long focused on power management to make sure you get as much life as possible from your devices.

The company introduced “Low Power Mode” with 2015’s iOS 9 to make your iPhone battery last longer. When your battery level hits 20 percent and then 10 percent, you get a notification that lets you turn on Low Power Mode with a quick tap. It reduces the screen’s brightness, minimizes system animations and limits what runs in the background on the phone. When your device reaches a higher charge level, Low Power Mode automatically turns itself off.

Apple’s Low Power Mode helps conserve battery life.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple also has long included power-saving features in its Macs. For instance, Mac OS X Mavericks, released in late 2013, looked for moments when computer users had several programs open that they weren’t accessing. The Mac then strategically reduced the processing put toward running programs in the background.

For more on how to save battery life with iOS 11, check out this report.

How does Apple’s slowing feature work?

Apple’s iOS software, starting with last year’s iOS 10.2.1, incorporated better power management capabilities to deal with aging batteries, the company says. The operating system slows down your device to prevent it from shutting down, according to the company, but only in cases of cold temperature, a low battery charge or very old batteries.

To help manage power consumption, your processor won’t complete an intensive task immediately, but will instead spread the effort out over more attempts. What you experience is a phone that seems to lag a bit; apps run more slowly and the device doesn’t respond as quickly to your requests.

When does the feature start working?

The feature is used only in iPhones with aged batteries or low battery charges. It also slows down your phone in cases of cold temperatures. The iPhone operates best in ambient temperatures between 32 degrees to 92 degrees Fahrenheit.

Ian Harvey

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