Man looking excitedly at new iPhone
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Is there a right time to buy a new iPhone? Apple devices enjoy some of the longest software support of any manufacturer, but how do you balance this with speed and user experience improvements on new models? Let’s find out.

Does Your Device Still Get Updates?

Software updates are important in protecting you from vulnerabilities, like browser exploits and malware disseminated via text message. The iPhone has experienced a number of these vulnerabilities that were directly addressed via software updates for supported models.

Apple

Older models that no longer receive software support may never have issues like these addressed, and that could be bad news in the event of an attack.

Software updates aren’t just about security though. All apps require a minimum version of iOS to run, with some requiring a newer build than others. If your device isn’t compatible with iOS 14, for example, and a developer builds an app that requires this version of iOS to run, you won’t be able to use this app.

This can also have a domino effect on your other Apple products. For example, you may see incompatibilities when accessing iCloud Tabs on a Mac, or your AirPods may not switch between devices automatically, and other such issues.

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You can find out which version of iOS you are running via Settings > General > About. Your current version of iOS will be listed alongside “Software Version” as a number. You can visit apple.com/iOS to see the minisite for the latest version of iOS.

Find Out Your iOS Version in Settings > General > About

If you can’t update your device under Settings > General > Software Update to the latest version, your device is old enough that it has stopped receiving support. You may still receive some limited critical security updates, but you’ll miss out on compatibility with the latest features.

Is the Battery Still Going Strong?

You can guess at your battery’s condition based on charge times, but your device can give you a more precise reading. Head to Settings > Battery > Battery Health to see exactly how the lithium inside your iPhone is faring. We tested a four-year-old iPhone X, and it had a maximum capacity of 82%, having lost 18% of its total when new.

Waning battery capacity is frustrating, but to be expected as your device ages. You can get around it by charging more often and reducing power consumption using features like Low Power Mode. Apple has introduced a feature called Optimized Charging to help better protect batteries going forward.

iPhone Battery Capacity in iOS Settings

Peak Performance Capacity measures whether the battery inside your device can deliver the necessary power when your iPhone is under full load. If your iPhone displays a warning such as “This iPhone has experienced an unexpected shutdown because the battery was unable to deliver the necessary peak power” then it might be time to address the issue.

You can get the battery in your iPhone replaced by Apple for $69 (or $49 on older devices). If you are happy with your device outside of battery performance, this might be a better option than buying a new device. You can also get batteries replaced cheaply by third parties, though these rarely use Apple parts.

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If your device has other issues like a cracked screen or is old enough that it has stopped receiving software support; you may want to put the money toward replacing the handset instead.

Has the iPhone Sustained Any Damage?

Damage to your iPhone can prevent it from working correctly. For example, a cracked screen may make it hard to read messages and cause issues with touch input. Damage to the display assembly (essentially the front of your iPhone) may affect cameras, microphones, and speakers too. A phone that can’t make phone calls isn’t ideal.

Dents to your device’s chassis can be even more devastating. Even though your iPhone may function, damage to the battery can cause major issues including risk of fire or worse. A damaged battery may not hold much of a charge or may be incapable of sustaining the current required for the iPhone to function under load.

An iPhone broken by a swelling battery
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In a worst-case scenario, a dented iPhone could cause damage to the lithium cell inside the battery which could pose a risk to your health. A process called “outgassing” occurs when damage to a lithium battery causes a chemical reaction where the battery begins to swell.

This may take a while to appear, and often presents as a display issue due to the pressure buildup inside the chassis. When a battery begins to swell, the risk of it catching fire is already too great. Stop using any device that exhibits signs of a swelling battery and dispose of it responsibly (don’t just throw it in the trash).

RELATED: What to Do When Your Phone or Laptop Has a Swollen Battery

Are You Missing Out on Features?

If you’ve had your iPhone for a long time, you might not realize what you’re missing out on. It’s only after you use a friend’s iPhone or watch an Apple press conference that you realize that huge strides have been made in some fairly fundamental areas of iPhone design.

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Take the iPhone X we mentioned earlier from 2017. This was the first iPhone with Face ID and an OLED display. It was also the first iPhone to lose the Home button entirely. These features have since become standard, alongside the following features on the iPhone 12:

  • 5G connectivity
  • Ceramic Shield drop protection
  • 6 meters of water resistance
  • MagSafe accessories like chargers and cases
  • HDR peak brightness up to 1200 nits
  • Night Mode for better photos in the dark
  • Dolby Vision/HDR video capture
  • Cinematic video stabilization
  • Deep Fusion image processing

Some of these features make a huge difference, like 5G speed enhancements and Night Mode, while others are niche like Dolby Vision video capture.

These changes are most noticeable if you haven’t upgraded for a while. It might only take one or two of these to convince you that the expense is worth it. Upgrading every year may net you the latest features, but upgrading every few years will deliver a far more noticeable performance and feature bump.

Is the Camera Still Good Enough?

If you use your iPhone as your main camera, as many people do, there’s a fair argument to be made for upgrading each time Apple makes strides in this department.

The A13 Bionic chip introduced in 2019 alongside the iPhone 11 brought some noticeable improvement with Apple’s Deep Fusion image processing, which fuses nine photos into a single image (some of which are registered before you hit the shutter) for clearer images with less noise. The iPhone 11 also introduced Night Mode, which relies on similar principles.

iPhone Night Mode Photo Compared
Tim Brookes

If the iPhone is your primary method of recording important life events, like the birth of a child, a new pet, a once-in-a-lifetime trip, or a global pandemic (ok, maybe it’s best to forget that last one), upgrading for camera improvements could pay off in the years to come.

Is Your iPhone Slowing You Down?

A slow iPhone can be frustrating to use. As time goes on, the chip in your smartphone will begin to show its age. You might notice that some web pages stutter or crawl, searching for things with Spotlight takes a long time, or that QR codes take ages to be recognized by the camera.

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This is to be expected as your device ages. If you’ve ruled out battery issues, the culprit is likely the processor in your iPhone. You can take a look how different models stack up on Geekbench iOS Benchmarks in both single-core and multi-core tests.

Synthetic benchmark tools like Geekbench don’t always correlate perfectly with real-world tests, but this should give you an idea of the sort of performance gains you stand to see by upgrading to a newer model.

RELATED: CPU Basics: Multiple CPUs, Cores, and Hyper-Threading Explained

Can You Upgrade With Minimal Cost?

Perhaps the most compelling reason to upgrade is the prospect of getting the latest and greatest features at minimal extra cost. Since Apple gadgets tend to hold a fair bit of value, upgrading to the next iPhone and selling your old one might be the most appealing option.

Sell an iPhone on Swappa

For best results, keep your iPhone in mint condition using a case and screen protector then sell it to someone else using a service like Swappa. Maximize your return by selling it as soon as you can after receiving your new iPhone to upgrade. Do it right and you’ll only be out of pocket by a few hundred dollars.

If you want Apple to handle this for you so that you get the newest iPhone as soon as it’s released including AppleCare+ coverage, you can join the iPhone Upgrade Program from $35.33/month ($423.96/year).

Upgrade When You Need To

The obvious answer to this conundrum is to only upgrade your device when you need to. For most people, this will be when their device no longer functions as it should or has been lost entirely. Others may feel the squeeze sooner.

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If you’re thinking of getting rid of your old iPhone, you should factor the environmental impact of e-waste into your decision. If you can, get some use out your old device or pass it on to a family member or friend.

There’s no “right” answer, though it could be argued that for iPhone users there’s a “sweet spot” to get the most for your money just as there is when buying a new Mac. Apple releases its new models every year in the fall, so if you can hold off upgrading until late September or early October, you’ll get the newest model (and it’s usually the same price as last year’s model).

Tim Brookes Tim Brookes
Tim Brookes is a technology writer with more than a decade of experience. He's invested in the Apple ecosystem, with experience covering Macs, iPhones, and iPads for publications like Zapier and MakeUseOf.
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