The seven-year itch

Fri Nov 12, 2021

I was pretty excited when I found out my iPhone 6S would get an incredible of seven years of software support (up to at least the end of 2022). In fact, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’re probably sick of me crowing about how my 6S marches on when Android equivalents lie long dead in the grave.

Which is why I feel terrible about this.

6S, I’m ditching you.

Actually, I don’t feel that terrible. I guess I could stick it out it until the bitter end, but the truth is that the end-of-life stage is never pretty. The performance of my 6S is really choking, especially when it comes to the shutter speed on the camera. It’s a familiar sign of old age - when it takes a few seconds to snap one picture, you know the end is near.

The battery life is even worse, as to be expected on the second-thinnest iPhone ever made (the iPhone 6 is the thinnest). I’m used to plugging in my 6S every couple of hours, but that’s no way to live.

Admittedly, this drop in performance is typical of any new iOS version, which typically gets a lot better after a few iterations - iOS 15 is no exception. But man, I just can’t stomach the thought of spending a seventh year with the 6S - life’s just too short.

So, having made that decision - what’s My Next?

First off, I’m not even thinking about jumping ship to Android. I’m not only deeply entrenched in the Apple ecosystem, but am also not enthused by the latest Android flagships.

Out of all the current offerings, I think Google Pixels offer the purest Android experience. But they’re way too big and the massive “camera visor” tacked onto the back is atrocious. Google has guaranteed software support for three years, but… well, I think you know how I feel about that. Piddling.

On the other hand, I’m not excited about the latest-and-greatest iPhone 13 either. What I’ve stated previously at great length on this blog still stands - I’m not going to settle. I’m still waiting for the notchless all-screen dream iPhone. I just need to amend my stand slightly: I’m still waiting to throw all my money at a notchless all-screen dream iPhone.

You see, according to the rumours, the earliest we might be seeing that dream iPhone is in 2023. So, I don’t need a new iPhone that’s going to last me another seven years - I just need a transitionary iPhone that will last me another two or three years.

After extensive analysis of the market, I’ve calculated the average cost of an iPhone to be about $150 per year of software support. So, I set a budget of around $450 CAD to get me to three years. I won’t go into the details of how I arrived at this number, and there are many other variables to consider, but it’s a solid ballpark figure.

This budget immediately rules out buying any new iPhones in Apple’s current lineup: so, in addition to the iPhone 13 and 13 Pro being off the table, that also removes the iPhone SE, iPhone 11, and iPhone 12 from consideration.

As you can only find older iPhone models as used or refurbished, it was time to go hunting in the wild, where - if you’re not careful - you might get mugged in an alleyway on a Craigslist deal gone sour. But which model?

I looked at all my options, considered carefully, and watched an embarrassing number of YouTube videos (even the bottom-of-the-barrel ones with hardly any views). The answer I arrived at surprised even me:

The iPhone XS.

A rather underrated iPhone that debuted in 2018, I barely gave it any thought when it was originally released. I did, interestingly, express a preference for the blue or red iPhone XR. Read on to see why I’ve changed my mind since.

As an “S” year update, the XS predictably didn’t get much attention because it looked exactly like the iPhone X. But the iPhone XS checks so many boxes for me - in fact, I managed to come up with ten reasons why the iPhone XS is the perfect phone for me to buy right now:

1. It’s not too old and not too new

The iPhone XS is three years newer than my iPhone 6S and three years older than the latest iPhone 13, so it sits right in the middle of the last six-year time period.

Yes, the last three years have brought a lot of cool tech to the iPhone, including impressive new cameras with Night Mode (and an Ultra Wide lens), 5G, MagSafe, and LiDAR. Also, iPhones always improve with each generation, with faster processors, more battery life, and nicer screens that are harder to crack.

But by the same token, look what I get for three years of development: a wide-angle and telephoto lens with Portrait Mode, IP-certified water and dust resistance, wireless charging, Face ID, and a larger edge-to-edge OLED display with small bezels (including, sigh, a notch I will have to actually live with now). And when you experience it, the bonuses of a faster processor, more battery life, and nicer screen are considerable quality-of-life improvements.

2. It supports all the cool new iOS 15 features

My iPhone 6S may technically support iOS 15, but in reality it can only handle a small subset of all the cool new features.

No AI-driven features are supported, such as Spatial Audio and Portrait Mode in FaceTime, an interactive 3D globe and immersive walking directions in Maps, Live Text in photos, Visual Look Up, new animated backgrounds in Weather, on-device speech processing, and Keys in the Wallet.

The key differentiator between the 6S and XS is in the processing power set aside for machine learning - aka, the Neural Engine.

Apple’s Neural Engine debuted in the iPhone X - a dedicated section on the chip to handle only AI and machine learning tasks. With the iPhone XS, Apple doubled the neural engine cores from only two up to eight - a massive leap that allowed five trillion operations per second.

This beefed-up neural engine is the reason that every single iOS 15 feature is supported on the XS.

3. It will have three more years of support

It is almost guaranteed that the iPhone XS will be supported for three more years. Why? Because Apple has never dropped support for two iPhone generations at the same time.

So, looking at historical iOS compatibility and taking an educated guess, the most likely scenario would be that Apple drops support for the 6S in 2022, the 7 in 2023, the 8 and X in 2024, and finally the XS and XR in 2025.

What am I talking about - that’s actually four more years of support! I’ll leave a one-year buffer in there in case Apple goes for a major shake-up like dropping the 6S and 7 at the same time. But it’s also not inconceivable that Apple will give the XS even more than seven total years of support.

What about Android, you ask? Well, the Pixel 3 also came out in 2018 and it’s support just ended. But I’m just getting started.

4. It has the same amount of RAM as the iPhone 13

Despite looking just like the 6S, the iPhone 6 only had five years of support, which ended with iOS 12. One of the main reasons the 6S has outlasted the 6 is that the iPhone 6 only has 1 GB of RAM, whereas the iPhone 6S has 2 GB.

Each new iOS release requires more RAM to handle multitasking in the user interface and to keep everything running smoothly.

The “S” year improvements usually bump up the RAM, and the XS is no exception - the iPhone X has 3 GB of RAM, while the iPhone XS has 4 GB (double what the 6S has).

Interestingly, all the newer models, including the iPhone 11, 12, and 13 also have 4 GB of RAM. Only the “Pro” models have 6GB. So, if the amount of RAM correlates to ongoing solid performance and future software support, the XS is in a great position.

5. It has the first 7 nanometre (nm) chip

The number of transistors you can cram onto a chip determines how many operations per second the CPU can perform. I talked about this at length when Apple moved to the 5 nm chip with 11.8 billion transistors on the iPhone 12. Not bad considering there was only one transistor on the latest and greatest microchip in 1952.

For reference, the latest iPhone 13 also has a 5 nm chip with 15 billion transistors and can perform 15.8 trillion operations per second.

Similar to the iPhone 12, the iPhone XS also represents an inflection point in chip evolution. With the previous iPhone X being based on a 10 nm process, the XS was the first smartphone in the industry to use a 7 nm chip containing 6.9 billion transistors.

This 7 nm chip, called the A12 Bionic, is still fast (especially when compared to chips used in Android phones) and is being used in a lot of Apple devices, including ones that have just been released in 2021, such as the second-generation Apple TV 4K.

6. It’s battery is not as bad as they say

A few years ago, iPhones weren’t ever lauded for their battery life. Traditionally, Android phones (which were also far larger) handily beat the iPhone’s battery life hands down. This changed with the iPhone 11.

Where the iPhone XS only had about 30 minutes more battery life than the iPhone X, the iPhone 11 Pro boasted up to four hours more battery life than the XS. Battery life has only gotten better every year since, with the iPhone 13 Pro getting over seven hours of screen-on time.

According to most reviewers, the battery life is a weak point in the XS, especially if buying used or refurbished with low battery health (more on this later). Reviewers will also tend to recommend the XR over the XS because it has far better battery life (the XR is larger and has an LCD screen, so there are compromises - also more on this later).

But here’s the thing - do you really need seven hours screen-on time? Honestly, you have bigger problems if you’re staring at your phone for that long all day.

Personally, since wearing the Apple Watch, I’ve been conditioned to use my phone less. Also, under normal usage, the iPhone XS can get up to four hours screen-on time, which is more than enough. Not only that, but the XS supports fast charging, which recharges the battery up to 50 percent in around 30 minutes. What more do you need?

Compared to my 6S, the XS is incredible. In my usage, it goes all day without needing to be plugged in and ends the day at around 50 to 60 percent.

7. It’s the perfect size

I appreciate smaller pocket-friendly phones. When it comes down to the fundamentals of the form factor, isn’t that the very raison d’ĂȘtre of portable devices?

Steve Jobs famously thought that a 3.5-inch screen was the perfect size for a smartphone because in one-handed use your thumb could easily reach the top. He was right, it’s hard to use most smartphones today with one hand. However, the 3.5-inch screen of the iPhone 4 feels far too small compared to the “expansive” 4.7-inch screen of the iPhone 6.

It comes down to personal preference, but I especially don’t like the chunky width of the XR and iPhone 11. It not only looks bad, especially with the thicker screen bezels, but it feels subtly too wide in the hand. At least the iPhone 12 and 13 slimmed down the width somewhat while retaining the 6.1-inch screen height.

To me, the XS feels perfect in the hand and the 5.8-inch screen is a very nice upgrade to 4.7-inch 6S, which instantly feels far too cramped when I go back to it.

Take a look at this 3D-model comparison between the XS and the latest iPhone 13 Pro. The XS is the same width as the 13 - both look equally sleek (and feel nicer in the hand than the XR and 11).

The design of the XS holds up extremely well with the smaller pocketable form factor that unfortunately ended with the 11 Pro.

8. It’s the last premium iPhone

Up until 2017, Apple’s marketing team named the iPhones consistently. You had the iPhone 3, iPhone, 4, iPhone 5, iPhone 6, iPhone 7, etc. with the “S” years slotted in between. Boring, but predictable.

Then they decided to spice things up (unnecessarily, I may add). They shipped the “iPhone 8” along with the “iPhone 10” and skipped the “iPhone 9” entirely. Except they used Roman numerals, so it was the “iPhone X”, not the “iPhone 10”. Then in 2018, came the “XS” and “XR”. Nobody knew what the “R” stood for, but it was cheaper and less-premium than the XS. Then in 2019, they morphed the XR into the iPhone 11 and split off the premium iPhone into a new “Pro” line.

So you see - or maybe you don’t and I don’t blame you - somewhere in that ghastly time period where the marketing guys had free reign, they pulled a switcheroo.

It used to be that there was only one iPhone and it was the very best iPhone. Now the Pro iPhones have muddied the waters and made the regular iPhones seem inferior. But the iPhone XS was the last premium base-model “iPhone”, and it was the best iPhone, and I like that.

9. It’s better than the XR for the same price

So, continuing on from the last point, I mentioned above that when the iPhone XS and XR came out, the XR was positioned as a cheaper alternative to the base model.

But for some reason, on the second-hand market, they are now selling for roughly the same price. Perhaps it’s because the XR was a best seller and stayed in Apple’s lineup long after the XS was discontinued. Perhaps it’s because they both have the same processor, but the XR has better battery life and a bigger screen.

Whatever the reason, the choice has come down to the XR and XS - and I believe the XS is the far better iPhone. Sure, maybe the XR’s value proposition was better when it was way cheaper than the XS - but with the cost being equal, the XS wins.

I’ve already mentioned the pocketable size and smaller bezels, but the XS also gets gigabit-class LTE, better water resistance, 4 GB RAM compared to 3 GB, a 4-core GPU instead of 3-core, a premium stainless-steel chassis, and that extra telephoto lens.

Even if all those features sound expendable, there is one difference that is a deal breaker: the screen. While the LCD screen on the XR is not bad, the higher-resolution OLED screen on the XS is just stunning.

The only OLED screen I had before I got the XS was the one on my Apple Watch. Now that I’ve experienced the crispy text, rich colours, and true blacks of OLED on a phone, I can’t go back to LCD.

The screen is the phone.

It’s the one-and-only touch and visual interface. A high-quality display is the only component that directly impacts the level of joy and delight you get from using a smartphone. I get that now.

In night mode, OLED literally transforms the user experience. The pitch-black background completely subsumes the notch and bezels so that you get the illusion of an uninterrupted edge-to-edge plane of glass flowing seamlessly into the stainless-steel frame.

It is an illusion, to be sure, but it is also a tantalizing glimpse of the true full-screen smartphone that I’ve been dreaming of.

10. It’s over $1000 cheaper than it used to be

In 2018, the iPhone XS cost a staggering $1544 CAD after taxes. At the time, it was the most expensive iPhone to date and the sticker shock was no joke to consumers. Just read the comments on the pricing announcement to get an idea of the outrage.

That price is, of course, now the new normal.

I stuck with my initial budget and picked up a refurbished XS for $445 CAD, shaving off over a thousand bucks for a three-year old phone. 2018 doesn’t even feel that long ago to me. 2015 does feel like a while ago - when I paid over a thousand for my 6S.

The more you pay, the longer you are committed, and I got my money’s worth out of the 6S. A shorter commitment for far less money is a relief. If something goes horribly wrong, such as accidentally dropping the phone off a cliff, it’s not as big of a deal (but I’m not about to be flippant around cliffs either). Also, it keeps things fresh because you get to upgrade to something newer much sooner.

In fact, I’m liking the value proposition of refurbished phones so much that maybe in three years, I’ll just pay $450 for the iPhone 13 Pro instead of buying brand new.

The refurbished market can be full of landmines, though, if you don’t know where to step. Buying refurbished is like investing in the stock market. If you’re willing to accept more risk, you can get a great deal. If that’s you, then feel free to buy a phone from some random dude on Facebook Marketplace and maybe you’ll come out ahead. But you could also end up with a box filled with sand.

Okay, maybe if you’re totally gullible, you could buy a sand-filled box, but the more-likely scenario is you pay next to nothing for a well-loved phone with lots of scratches and poor battery health.

On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re completely risk averse, you could pay top dollar from a reputable company and guarantee a high-quality refurb. Buying refurbished products direct from Apple is the most expensive of course, but there are solid third-party options. One example in Canada would be Orchard. Their quality control is fantastic, but the prices - not so much.

For example, Orchard is selling a refurbished iPhone XS for around $600 - not really worth it, in my opinion, as you can get a brand new iPhone 11 straight from Apple for $679.

I took the middle road and opted to get a refurbished phone through the eBay Refurbished program. This program vets sellers and all refurbs go through a certified inspection process. But it’s the program’s one-year warranty that gives real peace of mind. This warranty beats the usual 90-day one most refurbishers provide.

To be clear - these are still used phones that the seller flips, not high-quality refurbs with a new screen and chassis like Apple Refurbished products. They are guaranteed to be fully functional, but not cosmetically perfect.

In my case, the iPhone XS I received does have a deep visible scratch in the notch area. But the scratch does not obscure any of the Face ID or camera sensors, so no big deal. I’m not going to lie - it stings a bit to look at the scratch, but the sting will fade with time. There are also some light scratches on the frame - but this is to be expected as stainless steel scratches easily. The previous owner must have used a case and screen protector, though, because the display area and glass back are flawless.

Side note: I wonder what would happen with screen protectors if Apple moved the camera under the display? Would you still need a little cut-out in the screen protector so it doesn’t interfere with the camera and muddy up the image?

I mentioned earlier that battery health is a crucial factor when buying refurbished. The eBay Refurbished program guarantees a battery health of 85 percent or more. Well, I’m happy to report that my iPhone XS arrived with a battery health of 100 percent. The seller must have replaced the battery, which is above and beyond (and more than compensates for the minor scratches). Overall, I’m very happy with the condition of the phone.

Normally, I’d immediately smother a brand new $1000+ phone in a case and screen protector, but for this phone, I’m going naked. Might as well enjoy it - less paranoia is one of the perks of buying refurbished.

I went with the silver model, which has a really nice glossy off-white back and shiny silver frame. It looks amazing and the glass and steel are really grippy. In comparison, my 6S was all kinds of slippery. I haven’t held the newer iPhone “Pro” models, but I’ve heard that the matte glass backs on those models are also slippery - hopefully they return to the glossy finish in future models.

So, this is the part at the end where He-Man comes out and delivers the moral of the story. I could tell you to hang on to your old iPhone because upgrading to a new phone every year could cost you your retirement. So don’t do that. There - a satisfying end.

But when have you held on for too long? I think I’ve made it clear that if you’re upgrading from an iPhone 6S (or 7), you’re going to have a ball with the XS.

If you really want to hang on to the 6S until its inevitable end, go for it - you’re stronger than I am. But think about your quality of life - is it worth suffering patiently for another year just to say you’ve made it? Seven years is a long time - the itch will only get worse, and you’ll desperately want to scratch it.

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