Apple Cuts Battery Replacement Costs, But Won’t Stop Throttling iPhone Performance

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Apple has been taking heat for weeks about its decision to sharply throttle iPhone performance to preserve battery functionality. The problem, as we’ve documented extensively, isn’t simply that the company reduces overall iPhone performance, but the way it introduced these changes without notifying customers or giving them any control over the capability. Apple has announced some changes to its customer policies and repair options as a result of the sustained fire it’s taking, though its updated policies aren’t going to address everyone’s concerns.

In a note published on its own web page, Apple kicks off by noting that it took action to protect battery life because it finds sudden, unexpected iPhone shutdowns unacceptable. It also acknowledges that it failed to properly inform users about the changes made in iOS 10.2.1 and the introduction of this throttling.

Going forward, Apple plans to address the problem in two different ways. First, if you need a new smartphone battery, you’ll be able to buy one whether your phone is in-warranty or not, provided it’s at least an iPhone 6. Starting in late January 2018 and continuing through the end of December 2018, Apple will replace the battery of any iPhone for $29. While the company should address this problem by making the battery replacement free, we’ll acknowledge that cutting $50 off the out-of-warranty replacement fee is a step forward, at least.

Second, Apple will introduce options to show readers how much performance they’ve lost. Here’s how the company describes it:

Early in 2018, we will issue an iOS software update with new features that give users more visibility into the health of their iPhone’s battery, so they can see for themselves if its condition is affecting performance.

This is also an improvement compared to the status quo, but notifying users about missing device performance isn’t the same as giving them an option to get that performance back by disabling the limit. Apple apparently has no intention of going that far.

The company also tries to dodge responsibility for its own smartphone designs when it writes that it initially misjudged why users were claiming to see performance declines. It now attributes these issues to “continued chemical aging of the batteries in older iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s devices, many of which are still running on their original batteries.”

Apple, and Apple Alone, is Responsible for This

Apple is the only major smartphone vendor to control every aspect of its product design, both hardware and software. Google provides an analogous service for Android devices, but despite being popular among tech enthusiasts, its total share of the Android market is less than one percent.

Now, I’m not going to claim to be able to say, with absolute authority, what’s causing the iPhone’s problem, but here’s one thing we do know: The greatest single difference between the SoCs that drive the iPhone and the SoCs inside Android devices is their maximum single-threaded performance.

Apple’s single-threaded performance is second to none in the ARM world, but as we’ve discussed before, there’s a strong relationship between power consumption and architecture — one that’s actually much stronger than the relationship between intrinsic ISA and power consumption. Other factors, like screen brightness, can also play a part in total battery power consumption, but we can’t make a blanket statement about how the various iPhones compare to the screen power consumption of Android phones as a group. Single-threaded performance is the one area where Apple clearly stands alone. Its habit of relying on a dual-core high-power CPU cluster combined with a lower-power cluster of 2-4 chips is also quite different than Android phones, which often deploy eight or more cores.

IFixit iPhone

iFixit’s results show dramatic improvements of up to 60% from a battery replacement

HTC and Motorola have already stated that their devices do not perform this kind of throttling. We don’t know yet about Samsung or any other Android OEMs, but as of this writing, this is an Apple-only issue. And absent changes to Apple’s smartphone design, it means the effective cost of buying an Apple device is significantly higher than it used to be, at least for people who keep their hardware more than a year or two. If you like to use a smartphone for 3-4 years, the cost of a battery replacement ($79) or Apple Care may now be a functional requirement.

Cutting the cost of the battery replacement for a year and giving customers more information are both reasonable first steps, but they don’t solve the problem. Customers need the right to opt out of this setting and Apple needs to be more up front about which of their design decisions created the problem and how they’ll avoid it in the future. If HTC and Motorola can build phones without this issue, why can’t Cupertino?

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