24Dec 2017

If Tesla Motors reduced the power of their flagship Tesla electric vehicles after, say, 50,000 miles of driving, the world would be up in arms. If General Motors throttled the Corvette engine to 4 cylinders after some number of miles, the government would probably be investigating. So why is it that when Apple throttles back the processors on their iPhones, we scratch our heads and don’t take Apple to task?

Apple is throttling the processors to preserve battery life. That is a fact admitted by Apple itself. Consumers have complained about premature shutdowns in older iPhones with aged batteries. Understanding the reasons behind such behavior is the topic of this last post of 2017.

I start by explaining a fundamental property of a battery: its voltage curve. The voltage curve is the relationship between the voltage of the battery and the amount  or rather percentage of electrical charge stored within the battery (naturally, 100% means full and zero means empty). You, as a user, get to see the gauge reading of the remaining charge in your battery, but not the voltage. We care about both values (charge and voltage) because either one of them can cause your smartphone to shut down.

So let’s dig a little deeper in the first figure below and understand how charge and voltage are related. It is the voltage curve for a fresh (unused) battery with nothing connected to its terminals. This curve is what engineers call the open-circuit voltage, i.e., no electrical current is flowing. One will notice that as the battery goes from full (far left) to empty (far right), the voltage gradually drops until it reaches a “cliff.” This behavior is characteristic of lithium-ion batteries. You will notice that the voltage is very low when the battery is empty.

 

 

Now let’s examine what happens to this curve when the smartphone electronics are connected to the battery. Engineers call this situation “under load” because the battery is now powering the electronics inside your mobile device, and electrical current flows through the battery. The next figure below shows that, in this scenario, the voltage curve actually shifts down. You will still notice that, however, the general shape of the voltage does not change much. The only change is that the voltage is now a little lower. The larger the current (the load), the larger the shift. A small change in voltage is ok, but as we will discover a little later, a large drop in voltage is not ok.

 

 

I will digress a little here to explain this drop in voltage. For that, we need to recall some high-school physics: Ohm’s law. When electrical current flows through the battery, the actually voltage is reduced by an amount equal to the electrical current multiplied by the battery resistance.

Two key observations to make here based on Ohm’s law:

  • A higher internal battery resistance results in a larger voltage drop;
  • A larger electrical current (to power the smartphone electronics and screen) also results in a larger voltage drop.

This may sound complicated if you don’t remember your high-school physics, but please bear with me. All you need to remember so far is that the battery has an internal resistance. A fresh battery has a small resistance. An old battery has a larger resistance. A faster processor and bigger display mean more current to power the device.

Therefore, as the battery ages, the voltage curve shifts down more and more — precisely what the figure below shows — until something really bad happens. The voltage of the battery is so low that it can no longer operate the electronics of your smartphone especially under peak conditions when the processor or the radio electronics need more power . The red curve below is for an old Apple iPhone 6 battery after 600 charge-discharge cycles. One can see it is now substantially lower than the voltage curve of a fresh battery. This now spells trouble because the low battery voltage may not adequately operate the electronics.

 

 

No we get to the crucial part: how does this relate to Apple’s throttling back their iPhones.

Most smartphone electronics, in particular the radio and wireless components, cannot operate when the voltage drops below 3.3 or 3.4 V. If the battery voltage does drop too low, the smartphone actually shuts down prematurely.

Let’s illustrate that point further in the next chart. The dashed green line is at at 3.35 V (a reasonable intermediate point between 3.3 and 3.4 V). Let’s first focus on the black curve (that of a fresh battery). You will notice that the battery voltage reaches 3.35 V right at empty. That’s good. That’s exactly what we want our smartphone to do. We want it to shut down because there is no more charge left in the battery, which corresponds to the battery gauge reading zero percent.

 

 

But in an old iPhone 6 (red curve), that’s not what happens! Instead, the battery voltage is too low to power the smartphone electronics even when there is remaining charge in the battery.  It shows that an old iPhone 6 battery reaches the low voltage point with the battery still holding about 20% of its charge. That’s not good; it means that this iPhone will actually shut down prematurely while the battery gauge reads about 20%. This is what confuses consumers.

So far, I am hoping I have not lost you in this lengthy explanation, and that you recognize how an older battery loses its voltage, which leads to an early shutdown.

This is, in particular, an acute problem for Apple because Apple rates its iPhone batteries at 500 cycles. In other words, after 500 charge-discharge cycles (or about 1 ½ years), the iPhone battery has degraded sufficiently to exhibit the low-voltage problems described above.

Fortunately, many other smartphone makers choose to use batteries and solutions that extend the cycle life of the battery to 800 or even 1,000 cycles – or at least 2 years worth or more. Sony Xperia smartphones, for example, do provide batteries with cycle life that is substantially more than 500 cycles.

So why does Apple throttle back their old iPhones? When the iPhone processor is running at full speed, it can draw a significant electrical current from the battery. Remember that Ohm’s law is the product of the resistance and the current. So by throttling back the processor, the current draw is less and hence there is less voltage drop because of Ohm’s law. The net effect is avoidance of an early shut down at the expense of user experience! What Apple should do instead is to make sure that their iPhone batteries can deliver 800 or 1,000 cycles instead of 500 cycles. By the way, you will notice that iPad batteries are rated to 1,000 cycles which is why you don’t see old iPads suffering from the iPhone shutdown problem.

If you own an old iPhone and are experiencing a slowdown, please go to the Apple store and get your old battery replaced….or get yourself a new smartphone with a better battery.

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UPDATE: On 28 December 2017, Apple published a letter to its customers offering to replace the batteries in older iPhone models that are out of warranty for $29 instead of the standard $79. Kudos to Apple for taking responsibility for this issue and standing by their customers.