Why We Upgraded Our Reviews Approach for Apple’s iPhone 11
While tech reviewers last week encouraged people to upgrade to Apple’s newest phones, The New York Times recommended something different: to cherish the phone you have, and upgrade if you must. Here’s why.
- Sept. 26, 2019
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Last year’s iPhones don’t feel outdated. Phone reviews do.
Allow me to explain.
In my experience writing about tech for more than a decade, I’ve watched closely as the phone industry has changed. I’ve also been listening to our readers.
Last year, when I reviewed the iPhone XR, I said it was fast and capable, and for $750, it was the iPhone best suited for most people. Some of our readers weren’t satisfied.
“My iPhone 4S still suits me just fine,” one commenter wrote. Another comment carried a similar tune in my iPhone XS review: “The phones we have are already more than adequate.”
Reviews of new devices don’t normally function as an assessment of older ones, I thought. But new devices don’t normally replace their predecessors on a steady once-a-year schedule, either. So it was fair for these readers to wonder: Were thumbs-up or thumbs-down reviews like mine just fueling a hype cycle?
As a tech reviewer, I’ve watched the smartphone market evolve. These were the most notable trends in recent years:
- Contrary to popular belief, older iPhones aren’t slowing down. They are getting faster. For the past several years, Apple’s iOS software updates have focused on speeding up iPhones old and new.
The leaps in smartphone innovation no longer feel as big as they used to. For example, when I reviewed the iPhone 4S for WIRED in 2011, I didn’t hesitate to recommend upgrading from the model that came two years before it, the iPhone 3GS, because the new features and speed improvement were huge. But this year, the iPhone 11 was not much more impressive than the iPhone X that came two years ago. This is a sign of a mature market: Smartphones are beginning to feel similar to laptops, where their gains every other year aren’t as seismic as they once were.
People are no longer financially incentivized to upgrade their phones every two years. That’s because six years ago, the phone carriers began moving away from two-year contracts. In the contract era, every two years you could pay for a device upgrade — say, $200 for an iPhone — and then over another two years you would pay off the cost of the equipment, a fee that was hidden inside your monthly bill. But if you held on to your phone for longer than two years, even after paying off the phone, your bill wouldn’t reduce, so it made sense to upgrade again.
Now the industry has moved toward device installment plans, where the cost of the phone is spread out over monthly payments that are shown in the bill, and once you pay off the phone, the bill shrinks. The pressure to upgrade is gone.
Despite all these market changes, many smartphone reviews, including mine, had not revised the formula that was born over a decade ago. As per tradition, we took a deep dive on the new phones, made comparisons to competing products and wrote about how much faster and better they were than their predecessors.
Assuming the new phones were better than old ones — and when are they not? — we reviewers encouraged people to upgrade. I wondered last week: Are we putting upgrade pressure on people when even the carriers are not?
So with all this in mind, after testing the new iPhone 11s, I talked to my editor about how things felt different, and we devised a fresh approach: a review that discusses the new features while taking into account market changes, followed by recommendations for those who truly need to upgrade, those who can maybe upgrade and those who don’t need the upgrade.
Need is a squishy word. Anyone can come up with a reason that they “need” a new gizmo. But the most objective advice we could come up with for people who are thinking about upgrading from an old iPhone is that they need a new device if their current one is at least five years old. That’s because Apple’s new operating system, iOS 13, which arrived last week, stopped supporting iPhones that were released before 2015. That means the iPhone 6 and its predecessors can’t get system updates, and some of their apps may stop working properly.
Who can upgrade if they feel like it? I wrote that for owners of the iPhone 6S (from 2015) and iPhone 7 (2016), the new iPhone 11s were a nice (but not a must-have) upgrade for their bigger screens and increased speeds, among other perks. But this time we included this context: Those older iPhones are still fast and their cameras are still great, and owners of those devices can replace their batteries for cheap to extend their lives.
Based on our data, the iPhone 11 review was the most well-read iPhone review we have ever published, with hundreds of comments — some snarky but many of them grateful for the approach. We will continue tinkering with our formula on how we review smartphones, but in the meantime, we welcome feedback.
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