Enlarge /. The iPhone 6S (left) and the first generation iPhone SE (right) with iOS 14.
It's September, and you know what that means: shorter days, the first tentative chill in the night air, Halloween candy in the grocery store, and – most relevant to us – a new version of iOS.
Apple has been supporting its own phones with new software updates for years longer than any other Android phone manufacturer. However, this does not mean that using a new version of iOS on the oldest supported hardware is always pleasant. For iOS 14, that hardware is the iPhone 6S and the original 4-inch iPhone SE, just like it was for iOS 13.
Both phones were originally released in late 2015 (6S and 6S Plus) and early 2016 (SE) and come with an Apple A9 processor and 2GB of RAM. Both devices offer the bare minimums you need for augmented reality apps or accelerated hardware decoding of h.265 / HEVC video. When we switched from iOS 12 to iOS 13, we found that the phones were slowing down a bit, but were still perfectly usable. The same applies to iPadOS on older hardware, which we did not test again this time. This year we were pleasantly surprised in terms of performance, but with the second-generation iPhone SE, an upgrade is now much easier to justify than last year.
iOS 14 won't slow down your phone
For this performance test, I did a fresh install of iOS on each device, signed it into a test iCloud account, and let the phones sit for a while to complete any indexing or other behind-the-scenes tasks. I then opened each of these apps three times and averaged the results. In the past, this test has been a pretty reliable indicator of how each phone actually feels in everyday use. If opening an app and waiting for it to load feels slow on a new iOS installation, it usually means the rest of the phone (including waiting for the keyboard to open, waiting for pages to load, and others Tasks) feels slow too – especially as you download more content and connect more accounts.
(Note that the percentages here are for reference, but these times are so short that anything within 10 percent is slightly within the margin of error.)
|iPhone 6S performance|
|application||iOS 13.7||iOS 14.0 GM||Difference (%)|
|safari||0.93 seconds||0.89 seconds||-5.0%|
|camera||1.01 seconds||1.07 seconds||+ 5.6%|
|the settings||0.63 seconds||0.65 seconds||+ 4.3%|
|0.85 seconds||0.78 seconds||-7.9%|
|Messages||0.69 seconds||0.63 seconds||-8.2%|
|calendar||0.72 seconds||0.74 seconds||+ 2.8%|
|cards||1.63 seconds||1.84 seconds||+ 13.3%|
|Remarks||0.77 seconds||0.75 seconds||-2.2%|
|TV app||2.54 seconds||2.48 seconds||-2.2%|
|Cold start||12.26 seconds||12.84 seconds||+ 4.7%|
|First generation iPhone SE performance|
|application||iOS 13.7||iOS 14.0 GM||Difference (%)|
|safari||0.88 seconds||0.96 seconds||+ 8.3%|
|camera||1.04 seconds||1.08 seconds||+ 3.8%|
|the settings||0.61 seconds||0.61 seconds||-1.1%|
|0.83 seconds||0.79 seconds||-5.2%|
|Messages||0.68 seconds||0.63 seconds||-6.9%|
|calendar||0.66 seconds||0.60 seconds||-8.6%|
|cards||1.46 seconds||1.59 seconds||+ 9.2%|
|Remarks||0.75 seconds||0.78 seconds||+ 3.1%|
|TV app||2.35 seconds||2.50 seconds||+ 6.5%|
|Cold start||11.73 seconds||12.67 seconds||+ 8.0%|
It's noteworthy how consistent the performance is on these devices – those times are consistently within the margin of error, and iOS 13 and 14 on the first-generation iPhone 6S or SE feel much faster than iOS 12 on the iPhone 5S or the iPhone 6. Maps opening in iOS 14 seems a bit slower, and the startup time is consistently infinitely longer, but overall the differences are not consistently one way or the other. For reference, compare these numbers to iOS 8 on the iPhone 4S (which was significantly slower than iOS 7) or iOS 12 on the iPhone 5S (which was significantly faster than iOS 11).
This makes sense because the iPhone's hardware and software are already 12 years old. They've been in the same place as the Mac for a while – new iPhones certainly feel faster than old ones, but the old hardware is still there fast enough that you can install new software updates without your device in a useless mess to transform.
Think back to iOS 7 on iPhone 4 or iOS 8 on iPhone 4S or iPad 2. Newer iPhones were still routinely doubling the speed of their predecessors, and new software versions added tons of features and complexity as the hardware got more powerful. As a result, old devices routinely missed out on all sorts of features, and some couldn't even achieve the same graphical effects as newer phones and tablets. That is actually no longer a problem.
Aside from these illustrative but limited tests, I used an iPhone 6S with the iOS 14 GM build as the main phone for two days. This is long enough to give the phone time to restore data from iCloud and complete all of the indexing. And even when I get off the iPhone 11 that I normally use, things generally feel solid! The phone blocks some when you install apps and try to do other things at the same time. Scrolling through apps like Slack and Tweetbot occasionally works in such a way that it doesn't work on newer phones, and performance is definitely marginal with power saver enabled. But it doesn't feel bad when you can live with the other non-performance issues.
Performance is fine. Everything else is … less good.
The problems with iOS 14 running on old hardware are basically the same as last year, but let's recap.
With the iPhone 6S, the problem is battery life. Even when it was new, the iPhone 6S didn't last as long as the iPhone 6 that it replaced or the iPhone 7 that it replaced. And compared to an iPhone XR or an iPhone 11, which can easily last a full day on battery, the 6S's battery life is particularly miserable. And that with a carefully used battery that works to 100 percent of its original capacity – a year-old battery gets even worse.
The screen size of the original iPhone SE is undoubtedly still a selling point for a shrinking number of diehard. But for anyone who bought it because it was cheap, the screen feels more claustrophobic than ever when you start adding widgets to your home screen.
However, as the parent of a one-year-old, what I noticed most in everyday use was the camera. That the 6S still takes flawless pictures in good light is evidence of Apple's cell phone cameras, but you're definitely missing the extra detail, superior low-light performance, and better video stabilization you get on newer iPhones.
This is the main reason why, if I were still using the 6S or the original SE as my daily phone, I would consider looking very closely at the second generation iPhone SE. It definitely makes a lot more sense than swapping a 6S or the original SE for the iPhone 8, which you should have done around this time last year. The design of the new SE is dated – it looks exactly like a 6S from the front – but it's a new phone with a new processor and camera, and it will be receiving software updates for the next half a decade or so. If you can afford it, you will definitely notice a huge difference. This is especially useful if you are already considering a $ 49 battery change for your current phone. The new SE is also small enough (especially when compared to the iPhone 11 or almost any Android phone) that with a little time and a little willingness a user of the original SE can get used to it.
A first generation iPhone 6S or iPhone SE will still work fine with iOS 14. The performance does not match that of an iPhone 11 or an iPhone SE of the second generation, but it is quite acceptable for everyday tasks. If you have a newer phone that breaks or if you give one of these older phones to someone as a handover, rest assured that most of the apps will get the job done most of the time. It's nice that performance isn't the issue it used to be with older iPhones and iPads, but it's also difficult to ignore the camera improvements, better battery life, and other benefits that you get when you buy newer ones can hardware.