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Apple faces questions from the US Senate about slowing down iPhones

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Apple is to be questioned by the US Senate over its practice of slowing down older iPhones to mitigate the effects of ageing batteries.  

The Wall Street Journal reports that the chair of the Senate commerce committee, senator John Thune, has written to Apple’s Tim Cook, asking for elucidation around the company’s handling of battery-related performance issues on iPhones.

“Apple’s proposed solutions have prompted additional criticism from some customers, particularly its decision not to provide free replacement batteries,” said Thune, as reported by the paper.

Thune has requested answers from Apple by 23 January. This questioning also comes alongside pressure from the French government’s fraud watchdog, which has opened an investigation into claims of alleged deception and planned obsolescence.    

Apple has previously confirmed it takes measures to slow down older phones when needed, but said it does this to offset the effect of deteriorating lithium-ion batteries.

This admission has already led to legal action, with a pair of Los Angeles residents filing a class-action lawsuit. That lawsuit, filed with the US District Court for the Central District of California in December, accuses Apple of purposefully slowing down older iPhone models to coincide with the release of a new device.

“Defendant breached the implied contracts it made with Plaintiffs and Class Members by purposefully slowing down older iPhone models when new models come out and by failing to properly disclose that at the time of that the parties entered into an agreement,” the accusations read.

As reported by MacRumors, LA residents Stefan Bogdanovich and Dakota Speas owned iPhone 7s as well as a number of previous models, and noticed that their “older iPhone models slows (sic) down when new models come out”. They want both California and nationwide class-action certification, which would encompass everyone in the US with an iPhone model predating the iPhone 8.

Apple acknowledged that it reduces power demand in some iPhones when necessary. The reasons, Apple claims, are less to do with forcing people to upgrade than helping the device’s battery to supply peak current demands.

“Lithium-ion batteries become less capable of supplying peak current demands when in cold conditions, have a low battery charge or as they age over time, which can result in the device unexpectedly shutting down to protect its electronic components,” Apple said in a statement.

“Last year we released a feature for iPhone 6, iPhone 6s and iPhone SE to smooth out the instantaneous peaks only when needed to prevent the device from unexpectedly shutting down during these conditions. We’ve now extended that feature to iPhone 7 with iOS 11.2, and plan to add support for other products in the future.”

When an iPhone’s processor makes a large current demand from a device with an ageing battery, this can risk damaging components. The handset would unexpectedly shut down to protect itself, which is something 2016 iPhone users may remember as a widespread problem. Last year’s update acts as a workaround by slowing down the performance of phones with older and low-charged batteries.

Slow down

The revelation about Apple’s practice came as the result of research carried out by Geekbench off the back of a Reddit thread that pointed to iPhone performance reducing as battery life dwindles. Although it’s expected that battery life tends to lessen as a device gets older, due to the increased volume of recharging cycles, associated performance shouldn’t grind to a halt.

The original Reddit threat notes the performance of an iPhone 6s. Before changing the battery, the Geekbench scores were 1,466 for single-core and 2,512 multi-core. After changing the device’s battery, however, these shot up to 2,526 and 4,456 respectively.

“From what I can tell, Apple slows down phones when their battery gets too low, so you can still have a full day’s charge,” wrote Reddit user TeckFire. “This also means your phone might be very slow for no discernible reason. Check your Geekbench scores and see what you get if your phone is still slow.”

Cue Geekbench. The organisation analysed the benchmark performance of iPhone 6 and iPhone 7 devices running on different versions of iOS to look for patterns that could indicate a deliberate throttling of performance by Apple. It discovered that the iPhone 6’s score for iOS 10.2 appears “unimodal”, with one peak around the average maximum performance score. However, when it studied the iPhone 6 running iOS 10.2.1, the analysis showed that there were several statistically significant peaks in performance. This suggests that – although the majority were still performing at maximum speed – a large number of the phones were performing at managed lower speeds. This pattern was even more pronounced when the iPhone 6 was tested on iOS 11.2.

For the iPhone 7, scores were pretty much identical across iOS 10.2, iOS 10.2.1, and iOS 11.1.2. However, when using iOS 11.2, the graph again showed several peaks.

“First, it appears the problem is widespread, and will only get worse as phones (and their batteries) continue to age,” Geekbench explained. “Second, the problem is due, in part, to a change in iOS. The difference between 10.2.0 and 10.2.1 is too abrupt to be just a function of battery condition.”

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