After it was revealed in late 2017 that Apple intentionally slows down the performance of older iPhones as their batteries deteriorate, people freaked out. There were explanations, recriminations, apologies, lawsuits, and, finally, solutions.
But in the wake of that specific controversy, a question arose: Does this happen to Android phones, too?
For the most part, the answer seems to be “no.” While the nature of an Android ecosystem — with its hundreds of manufacturers, all using different chips and software layers — makes a comprehensive investigation difficult, there’s evidence to suggest that Android vendors are not slowing down older phones because of old batteries.
For starters, several major companies, like Samsung and Motorola, declared that they simply don’t do it. But there’s a more reliable way to check, and that’s by going to the same set of data that exposed the iPhone issue: Checking the benchmark scores of older Android phones to see if there are enough of them getting results that are significantly worse than the well-documented scores of a brand-new phone.
Primate Labs, the company that created Geekbench, did exactly that.
“We focused on Samsung simply because they are the largest handset provider on Android, and we viewed this as a litmus test,” explains John Poole, founder of Primate Labs and author of the original study that provided hard evidence of the iPhone slow-down problem. “We haven’t seen any evidence of this widespread performance-limiting problem that has affected the Apple iPhones. It seems to be that this is a problem that is very unique to Apple.”
We talked to Poole in the most recent episode of Mashble’s MashTalk podcast and had an extended discussion on the iPhone slowdown problem, and about halfway through the conversation (starting at 21:13) turned to Android and why the issue doesn’t appear to exist in that ecosystem.
The first clue is the unexpected shutdowns. When Apple pushed out the updates that slowed down older iPhones, it was to mitigate serious battery problems. Many users complained that their iPhone’s battery meter would jump up and down seemingly at random, while others reported unexpected shutdowns when there was seemingly plenty of battery power left.
Those same issues — wild battery meters and out-of-nowhere shutdowns — generally haven’t been a widely reported problem with any major Android device, even ones with old batteries (holding a charge is another matter, though that’s a problem with all devices). This speaks to two factors that likely contribute to why these problems don’t exist on Android.
I like big batteries, I cannot lie
The first is simple: big batteries. When you look at the battery capacity of most high-end Android phones (those comparable to the iPhone), they typically have significantly more juice than the iPhone. For example, the Google Pixel 2 has a battery capacity of 2,700 mAh (milliamp-hours) while the iPhone 8 is just 1,821 mAh. One of the main issues for those older iPhones was, when the phone puts big current demands on the battery (say, by running a demanding app or extensive multi-tasking), the battery simply couldn’t handle it and would shut the phone down to save itself. It makes sense that a bigger battery can handle those loads better.
But battery size varies quite a lot on Android, so that can’t be the whole story. The existence of this problem likely speaks to the fundamental ways that iOS and Android are engineered. As Poole explains, Apple has been able to get impressive results from its end-to-end product strategy where it designs the iPhone’s hardware, software, CPU, and more. The iPhone scores incredibly well on Geekbench compared to its Android competition, which often boast better on-paper specs.
“Apple is the undisputed king of single-core performance. It’s astounding what they’ve been able to fit in a relatively small package. The problem is that with that great performance comes great power demands.”
The engineering factor
The precise engineering involved that accounts for this difference isn’t known outside the hallways of One Infinite Loop or Apple Park, but the upshot is certainly that Apple squeezes every last bit of performance it can get out of its chips, Put simply, Apple’s chips are incredibly efficient, though that leaves little margin for error or problems.
“What I wonder is whether Apple’s end-to-end process almost ended up as sort of an Achilles’ heel here,” Poole speculates. “Maybe they made design decisions when they were designing the 6 and the 6S — this is the process we’re going to use, and this is the size of the battery we’re going to use, and we know from our data this will be OK — and maybe they didn’t factor in the aging process as well as they could have.”
By contrast, whatever inefficiencies arise when you have a platform that needs to work consistently on a wide variety of hardware have seemingly bestowed immunity to Android as far as this issue is concerned. By their nature, Android phones have more wiggle room.
There’s one more factor at work here, and that’s myopic design with regard to product age. Now that this issue has been brought to light, it’s absolutely clear that Apple designs its chips and software to work in new iPhones, not ones that are a year old or more. You could argue it’s the same thing as planned obsolescence, but that term implies willfulness, which likely isn’t the case here.
Without knowing the manufacturing processes for Android manufacturers (which all vary to some degree), it’s difficult to say if the plan around battery degradation. But if one of the consequences of this issue is that the industry, as a whole, begins to do so, then that’s a win for consumers — especially those who would rather not upgrade their devices year after year.