Zit Seng's Blog

A Singaporean's technology and lifestyle blog

The Deal With iPhone Processors

Ever since Apple admitted they throttled the performance of older iPhones, and then explained it was for the benefit of iPhone users, it’s become a fair question to ask if the iPhones were poorly designed in the first place. Why don’t other smartphones, such as those from any major Android manufacturer, have the same issues as iPhones?

To quickly recap, Apple admits to throttling older iPhones, initially for the iPhone 6, iPhone 6s, and iPhone SE, but later also extending to the iPhone 7, under some conditions. These changes were introduced from iOS 10.2.1, and were intended to resolve a problem with unexpected shutdowns on devices with degraded batteries.

In other words, because your device batteries get degraded as a result of continued use over time, you can expect your iPhone’s performance to also deteriorate. From users’ perspective, it looks like Apple is purposely crippling older iPhones so that you would be encouraged to head out to buy the latest iPhone device.

John Poole’s blog post is very telling about the throttling behaviour.

Apple may have the best intentions to, erm, prolong the usefulness of older iPhones. But considering the manner that the feature is sneaked into iOS, and the lack of transparency prior to their admission, you can’t fault anyone for being suspicious of Apple’s intention. Besides, this throttling feature also applies to iPhone 7 from iOS 11.2.0, the most recent generation prior to the current generation devices (iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, and iPhone X). Doesn’t it look like a conspiracy to get you to upgrade your last generation device to the current generation one?

I’ll give Apple the benefit of doubt, and assume they had no such evil plan. But their need to throttle performance begs the question of whether iPhones are designed to be used for longer than 12 months.

We can appreciate that batteries degrade over time, and it is normal to see some loss of charge capacity after 12 months of continuous use. But you would reasonably expect that electronic devices should easily last for more than two years without any noticeable change in its performance.

Apple seems to think that even an iPhone from one generation ago needs throttling to work properly. If this isn’t called planned obsolescence, then at the very least, Apple simply didn’t consider real world use of their devices. The iPhones were designed to work perfectly when brand new. They don’t really care what happens after that.

If you think about it, the processor in the iPhone apparently draws more power than the battery they put in that same device can support, after the battery has been degraded from one year of use. Should they have just put a more capable battery in there? Or adjusted the processor to simply use less power?

I started to wonder if Apple’s A-series chips have, perhaps, been pushed too far. The performance of Apple’s in-house designed A-series processors are phenomenal. The latest A11 Bionic outperforms the best from Qualcomm by a huge margin. That’s very impressive considering how long Qualcomm has been in the chip making business, compared with Apple. I know Apple had a head-start with 64-bit processors, so there are good reasons for their lead. However, perhaps there are other reasons too, like they’re pushing their processors harder than others are.

John Poole’s findings, based on benchmark scores collected from Geekbench, show Apple is throttling performance down by as much as half, sometimes even more. Once your iPhone has been used enough, you basically reach a sort of steady state where the device performance is just half from day one. Now, suddenly, it doesn’t look like Snapdragons are lagging so far behind anymore.

The average Geekbench score for a Snapdragon 821 single-core benchmark is 1899. The iPhone 7 has multimodal peaks at about 1800, 2300, and 2600, apart from the near 3500 peak presumably when the device is brand new.

Is Apple pushing the A-series chip performance farther than the iPhone is designed for? Or perhaps the iPhone was designed to be replaced every generation?

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