It happens every year: Apple releases new iPhones, and then hordes of people groan about their older iPhones slowing to a crawl.
Just look at the recent data. Between September and early November — when Apple made the iPhone 8available, followed by the iPhone X — Google searches for the keywords “iPhone slow” jumped about 50 percent.
The phenomenon of perceived slowdowns is so widespread that many believe tech companies intentionally cripple smartphones and computers to ensure that people buy new ones every few years. Conspiracy theorists call it planned obsolescence.
That’s a myth. While slowdowns happen, they take place for a far less nefarious reason. That reason is a software upgrade.
“There’s no incentive for operating system companies to create planned obsolescence,” said Greg Raiz, a former program manager for Microsoft who worked on Windows XP. “It’s software, and software has various degrees of production bugs and unintended things that happen.”
Here’s what happens: When tech giants like Apple, Microsoft and Google introduce new hardware, they often release upgrades for their operating systems. For example, a few days before the iPhone 8 shipped in September, Apple released iOS 11 as a free software update for iPhones, including the four-year-old iPhone 5S.
The technical process of upgrading from an old operating system to a new one — migrating your files, apps and settings along the way — is extremely complicated. So when you install a brand-new operating system on an older device, problems may occur that make everything from opening the camera to browsing the web feel sluggish.
“It’s like changing the plumbing of the house without changing anything else,” said Scott Berkun, an author and a former manager for Microsoft who oversaw engineers that worked on Windows operating systems and web browsers.
The good news is that because tech companies are not intentionally neutering your devices, there are remedies for when you think your three-year-old iPhone or your seven-year-old Windows computer has become slow or short-lived. Here’s a guide to speeding up your troubled gadgets, based on interviews with information technology professionals and operating system experts.
Tech companies make it simple to upgrade to a new operating system by pressing an “update” button, which seamlessly migrates all your apps and data over. While that’s convenient, it isn’t the best way to ensure that things will continue running smoothly.
A better practice is backing up all your data and purging everything from the device before installing the new operating system. This “clean install” works more reliably because the engineers developing operating systems were able to test this condition more easily, Mr. Raiz said.
Let’s say, for example, you have an iPhone 6 with 100 apps installed, four email accounts and 2,000 photos. It is more likely that a quality-assurance engineer tested installing a new operating system on a blank iPhone 6, rather than an iPhone 6 with the same setup as yours.
So if you want to minimize the chances of something going awry, resist the easy update path and opt for a clean install. For smartphones, I recommend backing up your data to your computer. For computers, you could back up your data to an online service or a portable drive. After the operating system installation is complete, you can then safely restore your data and apps to the device from the backup.
Remove the ‘Cruft’
Sometimes you can do some light maintenance to speed up your device. Over the long term, an operating system accumulates system files, settings, logs and other data; I.T. experts call this “cruft.” This can bog down your device.
For computers, there are some apps for cleaning up your system. Mac users can download a free app called Onyx, and Windows users can run a cleanup utility included in the system. For iPhones and Android devices, you can open the settings app and select reset settings. (Just make sure you back up first in case there are important settings you may lose.)