Apple is taking heat for a discovery about old iPhones: As their batteries age, Apple’s software slows them down.
The phenomenon, discovered by Reddit members and acknowledged Wednesday by Apple, throws gasoline onto a long-standing conspiracy theory that iPhones slow to crawl as a sly way to convince us to buy new ones.
That sounds upsetting — but be mad at Apple for the right reasons. Apple is correct to make its software smart about managing old batteries, which can act unpredictably. Apple is wrong, however, not to make it easy and inexpensive to replace old batteries.
“Our goal is to deliver the best experience for customers, which includes overall performance and prolonging the life of their devices,” said an Apple spokeswoman.
Worn-out batteries are a fact of gadget life. Lithium-ion becomes less capable after hundreds of charges, which can result in phones randomly shutting down. Apple said it changed its software last year for the iPhone 6, 6s and SE to “smooth out the instantaneous peaks only when needed.”
Apple could have been a little more transparent about its practice. (Its latest major update, iOS 11.2, does the same slowdown to an iPhone 7 with a dud battery.) But the larger problem is it leaves the impression that customers should buy a new phone when all they really need is a new battery.
The iPhone doesn’t start flashing an alert you when your battery is in trouble — it just starts to curtail your phone’s processing power. There might be a warning message if you dig into the settings menu for the battery. You can test your battery health for yourself with apps such as Battery Life.
Replacing your phone’s battery might make a huge difference. Repair site iFixit, which sells replacement batteries and other parts, says it’s seen performance boosts of 100 percent in old iPhones given battery transplants.
But replacing a battery can be expensive: Apple wants $80 to do it in a store. There’s no charge if you paid upfront for AppleCare Plus coverage and have a battery Apple thinks warrants replacing.
You can buy a new iPhone 6 battery for as little as $20, if you’re willing to do surgery on your phone. (Warning: it’s not easy.) Or some mom-and-pop shops will do it for far less than Apple. Taking either approach would void Apple’s warranty.
Why not design phones in a modular way, so owners could just slide in new batteries? As recently as 2014, Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S5 phone came with an easily swappable battery. That style went out of favor as phone makers moved toward thinner, water-resistant, and more durable designs.
The battery replacement problem is an example why a growing community of gadget lovers are calling for laws to ensure consumers have a legal “right to repair” their own electronics. Laws proposed in a handful of states would help prevent tech companies from locking down devices with software and make repair manuals available to the public.
Guess who has lobbied against those laws? Tech companies, including Apple.
The Apple spokeswoman didn’t respond to questions about replacing batteries or its view on right to repair legislation.