Older Android devices might not throttle, but they still might black out

In the wake of Apple's recent revelations regarding reduced performance of iPhones with aged batteries, major Android device makers have gone on the record to make hay of Cupertino's woes. LG and Samsung both provided statements to Phone Arena confirming that they don't reduce performance to compensate for battery aging, and HTC and Motorola both told The Verge that they don't include battery age in the processor power management decisions of their devices.

Although these statements certainly sound positive and user-friendly in light of Apple's revelations—who wants their device to slow down as it ages?—they also carefully skirt the underlying issue that Apple claims it's trying to solve through the power-management behavior it's instituted on its older phones. Apple's statement yesterday specifically notes that the company implemented this change to avoid sudden shutdowns of its devices under "peak workloads," a change that's apparently related to the fact that older batteries are less capable of keeping up with rapid changes in demanded power, on top of not running as long as newer cells do.

If sudden shutdowns are related to battery chemistry, as Apple claims, one would expect that at least some older Android phones would be affected by sudden shutdowns under high transient loads, as well. Although it's hardly a statistically significant sample, a quick search on Google indeed reveals that users of older devices from HTC, Samsung, LG, and Motorola have all been so afflicted. For an example that's closer to home, our own Wayne Manion reports that his Samsung Galaxy Note 4 occasionally shuts down when he takes a picture with the flash on when it's powered by an older battery.

In most of the cases I found, users either discovered that a battery replacement restored the reliability of their devices or were strongly urged to replace their phones' batteries to fix the problem. Those community experiences suggest that at least some Android devices with older batteries are no less immune to the kinds of blackouts that led Apple to curb peak power demands to begin with.

Ultimately, these statements illuminate differing views of what constitutes an optimal user experience on smartphones. Apple clearly believes that sudden shutdowns are unacceptable for iPhone users under any circumstances, even if curbing the conditions that lead to those shutdowns means that its devices will lose some performance as the batteries inside age. Android device makers seem to believe that maintaining peak performance is a higher priority, even if stressing an aged battery leads to occasional unexplained blackouts or instability. Whether a given user will tolerate lower performance or occasional instability is a matter of personal preference, but neither case seems ideal.

I agree with Apple's approach to the user experience (and have been a staunch iPhone fan since I picked up an iPhone 5), but it remains the case that Apple didn't fully explain the performance tradeoffs it made to reduce unexpected shutdowns back when iOS 10.2.1 first rolled around, and it's paying a steep price for that lack of transparency with this controversy. Even so, I don't believe that Apple made the wrong decision when it implemented reductions in peak performance demands on older batteries—having a phone shut down at a critical moment would be far more annoying to me than slower app launches and the like (something I still can't claim to have noticed even as my iPhone 6S Plus gets up there in years). In a world where smartphones are more integrated and less user-serviceable than ever, though, the awareness that a hard-to-replace battery can have tangible impacts on the user experience beyond run times is sure to be a hard pill to swallow for iOS and Android fans alike.

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