Do iOS devices get slower over time? No and yes.

Software

Futuremark, in a recent post:

Last week, a story went viral that claimed Apple was intentionally slowing down older iPhones to push people to buy its latest models.

The claim was based on data which shows Google searches for “iPhone slow” spiking dramatically with the release of each new model.

And while plenty of reputable sites debunked the logic of that claim, no one looked at actual performance data to tell the true story.

Fortunately, we have plenty of real-world data we can use. Since 2016, we have collected more than a hundred thousand benchmark results for seven different iPhone models across three different versions of iOS.

These benchmark results provide a unique insight into the everyday performance of each iPhone model over time. And, as you’ll see, there are no signs of a conspiracy.

As Shawn King remarks at The Loop, This is a charge that has been leveled at Apple since they released the second iPhone.

While logic and data have demonstrated that there’s no one at Apple with a ‘remote Slow Down switch’ aimed at older iPhones and iPads, like other people I have observed two main phenomena related to performance and older iOS devices:

  1. After installing the latest iOS version on an older, yet still supported device, there is usually a perceived slowdown in the responsiveness of the interface. Certain actions and UI animations appear slower, and the device appears to be struggling more when carrying out certain tasks.
  2. Performance of older devices that aren’t getting system updates anymore appears to degrade over time anyway.

The most likely explanation for №1 is that the latest version of iOS is especially tailored to work at its best on the latest hardware, and while I’m sure there are optimisations in place to make it work just as fine on older, supported devices, the user may still notice the occasional slowdown or delay here and there during everyday use. Except for extreme cases, users simply get accustomed to the new ‘feel’ of the latest iOS on their devices, and it all becomes a non-issue over time. It happened for me in the past after installing iOS 4 on the iPhone 3G, or after installing iOS 7 on the iPhone 4, to make just a couple of the most classic examples.

№2 is worse, as I’ve observed personally. It’s worse because, over time, you notice it more, not less. Especially if you’re still using iOS devices with a 32-bit architecture (all iPads that came before the iPad Air; the first iPad Mini; all iPhones that came before the iPhone 5s; all iPod touch models that came before the 6th-generation iPod touch).

What happens, I think, is that as third-party apps get updated, they are generally optimised for the most current iOS version; new features are added to work with the latest iOS version; compatibility and bug fixes are tuned so that the app can work at its best with, say, iOS 11. But when the system requirements of that same app are, e.g., “iOS 9.0 and higher”, your devices that are still running iOS 9.3.5 or 10.3.3 get that update too, and from personal experience in most cases that updated app won’t be as optimised for older devices as it was before. Sometimes in the release notes for an app update you notice entries like Fixed crash on launch under iOS 9, or Fixed crash issues on older iOS versions, which I find somewhat telling of the optimisation process behind the scenes.

Mind you, I’m quite understanding towards developers. I can’t even begin to imagine the amount of work and debugging they have to do constantly to prevent anything from breaking on the many different iOS devices out there. Still, sometimes I wish I could revert to a previous version of an app, because it felt more stable and responsive before an update which was meant to improve things on newer iOS versions anyway.

Another factor that has impacted performance on older iOS devices more and more noticeably over time is Web advertising. Content blockers, which appeared in iOS 9 for the first time, don’t work on 32-bit iOS devices. Browsing the Web on older iPads and iPhones has progressively become a pain because the browser has to render everything and execute all ad-related scripts. I’ve had my iPad 3 since 2012: all Web-related tasks have slowed down considerably in five years. My workaround is to use Brave, the only browser with ad-blocking and script-blocking capabilities built in (i.e. they don’t depend on system content blockers, so the browser blocks ads even on 32-bit iOS devices — read this past article for more information).

The issue, however, persists with all apps with an internal Web browser using the system’s UIWebView to render Web pages. So, even if an app is still usable in iOS 9 on an older device such as my iPad 3 — like Flipboard, for example — whenever I need to access one or more Web pages from inside the app, and such Web pages are riddled with ads as it happens so often now, the app’s performance is noticeably impacted. Sometimes this even leads to freezes and hangs where the device stops responding entirely and a force-reboot is needed. In extreme cases I witnessed the device self-rebooting, even.

The most unfortunate device in this position is the iPad 2 running iOS 9.3.5, whose overall performance has taken a huge hit due to both these factors (poorly optimised apps, and Web advertising slowing down Web browsing). Every time I pick up my wife’s iPad 2, I keep thinking that Apple should have never allowed this device to be updated to iOS 9 in the first place.

To conclude: as Futuremark demonstrated through all the data they’ve gathered, no, hardware performance in and of itself doesn’t degrade over time. CPUs and GPUs still perform today as they performed when the device was new. It’s the software that, update after update, becomes more demanding and impacts performance more and more severely. Sometimes the drop is just limited to specific areas or apps. In other cases, like with the iPad 2, the snowball effect is such that the whole device becomes barely usable.

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