Ben Bajarin: Forget YoY, Apple’s iPhones are on a four-year cycle

“Those customers upgrading every 3-4 years, which is the norm, would see between 80-91% performance increases during their refresh cycles.”

From “iPhone 13 and Apple Silicon” mailed Thursday to Think.Tank ($) subscribers.

apple bajarin four year cycleWhile it isn’t always obvious, Apple’s integrated product design approach of hardware, software, and silicon has led to many of the advances in camera, battery life, AI, video capture performance, and even ProMotion on iPhone 13 Pro. Apple has a luxury other silicon companies don’t. They custom-tune their architecture and silicon design specifically for iPhone and the feature they want iPhone to have. This allows them to spend their transistor budget on features instead of just pure performance. (emphasis his)

While thinking about your phone’s performance, speed, etc., it is relevant people often get caught up in year-over-year performance since that is the way most in the silicon industry have been trained to think. As I mentioned, this is a relevant benchmark for a variety of reasons, but from the perspective of a normal consumer, looking at their experience upgrading every 3-4 years is a much more relevant analysis.

While I will admit there is a small percentage of Apple customers who upgrade every year and a percentage more who upgrade every two years because they are on upgrade plans, the vast majority of consumers upgrade every 3-4 years. I thought it would be interesting to look at some basic iPhone benchmarks through the years and look at how much performance improvement happens every four years.

Going back to iPhone 5s, Apple has averaged 133% performance increases every four years. Most interesting, for this iPhone 13 cycle, are those Apple customers coming from an iPhone X or Xs are going to see a 91% performance increase. Our continued research in the smartphone category consistently reveals that most customers upgrade when they feel their current device is old and slow. Those customers upgrading every 3-4 years, which is the norm, would see between 80-91% performance increases during their refresh cycles.

My take: If Bajarin is right, any iPhone supercycle we might see in 2021-2022 will be driven not by a burning desire for 5G, but by those sluggish phones from 2017-2018.

18 Comments

  1. Robert Paul Leitao said:
    This dovetails quite nicely with what Dan Ives has been saying for quite a while. Looking at it another way (I think Darren from Apple 3.0 put it succinctly during the last Zoom event), we are in a perpetual upgrade cycle. While we can all argue how big an “upgrade” the iPhone 13 series handsets are versus last model year’s handsets, no one can argue the upgrades over a 3-year and 4-year period aren’t conspicuous, significant and substantial. With iPhone prices remaining pretty much stable, the value proposition for consumers upgrading from legacy handsets is huge. Now consider the benefit to consumers migrating to the iPhone from the green bubble universe of phones. The difference (and distance) in performance can be measured in light years.

    4
    September 24, 2021
  2. David Emery said:
    In some respects, this is Moore’s Law applied to phones, coupled with the notion that we really don’t need all the computational power the year a device is released. Very few users care about benchmark scores, they care whether the apps and features they use respond fast enough. Now there’s a ratchet effect of speed, a new device may, for example, launch an app a lot faster than its predecessor, and your expectations ratchet up to the new level of performance.

    One thing that people without experience with Apple products, particularly laptops and iPads, don’t realize is just how durable they are. I’m typing this on a ’15 MB Pro running Big Sur that’s plenty fast enough for what I do with it. But when I replace this (this year’s 15″/16″ M-x laptops???), I’m sure that will ratchet my expectations. I note my wife’s M-1 Mini launches a lot faster than this machine.

    6
    September 24, 2021
  3. Gregg Thurman said:
    My just acquired iPad Pro with M-1 has me drooling for an M-1 equipped iMac.

    And because of the performance of 5G over WiFi I am extremely excited by the prospect (in my dreams) of a resurrected AirPort Extreme equipped with an Apple designed 5G radio.

    This allows them to spend their transistor budget on features instead of just pure performance.

    Sound familiar?

    5
    September 24, 2021
  4. Mordechai Beizer said:
    That’s an interesting way of looking at the upgrade process and I have to agree that it makes sense to view iPhones, iPads, and even Macs that way, i.e the perceived upgrade boost is based on a comparison to something I bought years ago.

    I’m not sure it holds true for the watch. For me the watch tells time, tracks my workouts, and does a few Siri things such as “Siri, set an alarm…” A watch from several years ago performs those functions as well as the latest and greatest. What makes me decide to upgrade were specific new features such as water-proofing, EKG, fall detection, Blood O2 measurement, etc.

    1
    September 24, 2021
  5. Fred Stein said:
    Yes indeed. I’ve been saying much the same for a while, but Ben adds the solid data to back it up.

    Apple’s under the hood tech is like Tesla’s Model S 1000 HP plaid. No one can compete. The TSMC built SoC means Apple silicon advances faster and in more ways, imaging in this iteration. Plus they balance other pieces such as great sensors. And then tie it all together with software for end-consumers and developers.

    Apple assiduously built a gaming platform that now holds 35% of gaming We’ll see Apple’s imaging and AI tech build a new platform in those areas. They used the word ‘studio’ in the launch often – no accident

    3
    September 24, 2021
  6. Gregg Thurman said:
    Motorola designed and manufactured general purpose processors that required additional chips to perform specific functions.

    Intel designs and manufactures general purpose processors that require additional chips to perform specific functions.

    Processor efficiency and power consumption are both negatively impacted by the necessity to communicate with external properties.

    Apple designs proprietary processors that incorporate the functionality of otherwise separate chips. Designing for function efficiency, not processor speed, has lead to “speed” improvements through efficiencies including Shared Memory (an Apple exclusive) that enables processors and graphics chips to communicate with each other directly (no middle man conversion device). Those efficiencies led to lower power consumption and longer life between charges.

    A while back I posted an article that went into great detail about this design split created by Apple. I tried to explain it, but Bajarin has done a much better job of it than I.

    The task ahead for Microsoft (Windows, Gaming), Google (Android), Nintendo (Gaming) and Sony (Gaming) to match Apple’s processor and Operating system performance is far more than humongous, I’m not sure it can be done given Apple’s technological lead on both silicon and OS fronts.

    Given what Apple can do with its super tight integration of software and silicon, even those with differing data strings, a fully integrated radio (5G anyone?) will be much more powerful than a separate 5G chip from Qualcomm.

    5G AirPort Extreme. People will buy them faster than the carriers can flesh out their networks.

    4
    September 24, 2021
    • David Emery said:
      I’d say it differently:

      “Apple designs proprietary processors that allow it to obtain the best balance between hardware and software, between discrete and integrated components, and in particular that allows for system-wide efficiencies at lowest power consumption.”

      Apple’s big advantage is NOT its custom silicon. It’s that it can do trades between hardware and software. This is how Apple beats out the competition; it’s how Apple has overturned “The Power of Modularity.” And it’s what Intel, Motorola, Microsoft and even Google (Android) can’t do, since they have to stay “on their own side” of a rigid hardware/software dividing line.

      7
      September 24, 2021
      • Gregg Thurman said:
        Perfect. Thanks, Emery for an explanation that is clearer than my attempt (and more accurate). I’m surrounded by smart people. Love it.

        2
        September 24, 2021
    • Fred Stein said:
      Upvoted.

      More to come on this topic, mainly storage. Again, the Apple/TSMC partnership has an insurmountable advantage. First, Apple designers can cherry pick where, in the architecture to add storage. Looking further, TSMC is working on new storage technologies that may vastly reduce power consumption.

      And the duo get the best investment leverage because Apple silicon goes into so many products.

      2
      September 24, 2021
  7. John Konopka said:
    “This allows them to spend their transistor budget on features instead of just pure performance.”

    It boggles my mind that the current iPhone SOC has something like 16B transistors. The original Mac with the Motorola 68000 chip had roughly 40,000 transistors. One iPhone contains the rough equivalent of 400,000 CPUs from the original Macintosh!

    Every place they see a bottleneck the engineers can use transistors to do something faster or in parallel (also faster).

    And because Apple has diagnostics from hundreds of millions of iPhones they know which sorts of operations are used most often and therefore deserve more transistors or sub processors to make a task faster and use less battery power. Really amazing.

    This is reminiscent of mass storage. It used to cost tens of thousands of dollars for a few megabytes. For a while I used a compression routine to fit more data on a small HD. Now we get multi-terabyte drives for $100 or so. It’s as if we were fenced in by a storage limit. We are still fenced in but the fences have been pushed back to the horizon.

    The same is happening with processors. We are still limited by the hardware, but that fence is receding to the horizon as well.

    4
    September 24, 2021
    • David Emery said:
      About 30 years ago, at one of my workgroup’s great lunch sessions, one of my friends calculated that you should never delete a file less than 10kb, because the cost of storage (in 1991) was less than the time it took you to decide to delete the file.

      I suspect if you did the same calculation today you’d come up with a 10mb file as ‘not worth deciding to delete’.

      2
      September 24, 2021
  8. Rodney Avilla said:
    After reading all these comments regarding Apple’s efficient integration of hardware to hardware and hardware to software makes me begin to think that Apple is a good long-term investment

    8
    September 24, 2021
    • David Emery said:
      I see Google’s foray into hardware, following Microsoft’s (successful) move in the same direction, as validation that Apple was on the right path all along.

      If you’re into options, there’s probably an opportunity to ‘short’ all those companies that make computers from parts (hardware and software) provided by other companies…

      1
      September 25, 2021
      • Gregg Thurman said:
        If you’re into options, there’s probably an opportunity to ‘short’ all those companies that make computers from parts (hardware and software) provided by other companies…

        Dell, Lenovo, Hewlett-Packard.

        I think it might be premature to start shorting them now. I’d wait until Mac share hits 10%. At that point Windows powered computers will start a slide into oblivion.

        3
        September 25, 2021

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