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Expensive New Phones Aren't the Only Way to Upgrade

Apple's iOS 15 is here, Android's 12 update will be released soon, and they're both free

spinner image woman using her smartphone
Innocenti / Getty Images

Apple unveiled four new iPhone 13 models Tuesday with some prices that top $1,500.

The least expensive is an iPhone 13 Mini with a 5.4-inch display and 128 gigabytes of storage for $699. A 13 Pro Max with a 6.7-inch screen and 1 terabyte of storage — more than 1 trillion bytes — is $1,599. Several premium Android devices, including Samsung’s S21 series phones that have been in the market for months, are priced in a similar high-rent district.

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If that's too rich for your budget, even with trade-ins that can reduce the tab, or you’re going to take a pass because the phone you bought a few years ago is still functioning just fine, you nevertheless can emerge with a more capable handset. And you won’t have to spend any money.

IPhone owners can add new features to aging phones via the free iOS 15 software update that was made available Sept. 20, the latest iteration of Apple’s mobile operating system. To get it, on your iPhone, tap on Settings | General | Software Update. You should see the available update listed. Installation times can vary significantly. It took one AARP writer nearly an hour and a half to download and install iOS 15 on an iPhone 11 Pro Max; a colleague needed just 20 minutes on an iPhone 12 Pro.

Owners of Google Pixels and other select Android phones will be able to get their own fresh coat of paint in a matter of weeks through the free Android 12 software update that is in the latter stages of beta testing. Samsung even jumped the gun a bit over the summer by rolling out a public version of the Android 12 beta to some S21 owners. But the availability of the Android update will vary by device.

While installing any new software update is not quite the same thing as splurging on a shiny new device — the iPhone 13s, for example, improve the cameras and bump up other specs — several iOS 15 enhancements should appeal to older adults and make what you already have feel fresh.

Easier ways to share data

spinner image screenshot of android privacy dashboard in september twenty twenty one
The Android 12 update from Google will offer a new Privacy Dashboard and a more colorful design.
Courtesy: Google

For starters, iOS 15 makes it more simple to share some of the data collected and stored in the phone’s Health app with family and caregivers. You’ll be able to assign “Legacy Contacts” who will be issued the digital key to download the pictures and documents you store in Apple’s online iCloud repository after you pass away. And the software update has a general emphasis on helping you focus better on the tasks in front of you, or, for that matter, help you chill when you want to avoid work or other distractions.

For its part, a chief new feature coming with Android 12 is a colorful and customizable design overhaul Google refers to as Material You, the biggest such visual change in the history of Android, the company says. The idea was to come up with icon shapes and a color palette meant to be consistent across apps. Buttons and touch targets on the screen are larger. It will have floating action buttons and the option to match the colors in apps to your device wallpaper.

Android 12 also has a new privacy dashboard that lets you track and manage which apps can use your device microphone and location, for example.

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iPhone 6s and newer can benefit

Apple’s iOS 15 update can be used on devices that date to the iPhone 6s models that came out six years ago though not every new feature is compatible with a handset that — by tech standards anyway — might as well be from the Jurassic age.

A few additional caveats: While official iOS releases are generally stable, it is not uncommon for some bugs to surface in the early days of a launch. It’s why some people choose to wait for the inevitable update to the update. What’s more, while almost all the popular apps that may be on your phone should work with the new software, it’s possible some may not, at least initially.

Finally, not all of the features Apple is promising as part of iOS 15 will be included on Day One. That includes a previously announced but now delayed capability known as SharePlay, which will let people on FaceTime calls watch movies or listen to music in sync with one another during the call.

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With the new iOS 15 upgrade some users will be able to store their driver's license in their Apple Wallet.
Courtesy Apple

Here are a few of the iOS 15 features that might entice you to update.

  • Digital Legacy. What happens to your digital assets when you’re gone? With iOS 15, you can choose a “Legacy Contact” who can access your iCloud photos and documents upon your passing — but not your passwords. The designated contact must provide a death certificate to and use a digital key that can be stored with your will or estate. This is another iOS 15 feature that’s delayed, and you probably would hope to say the same about the need for its use.

  • Better focus. We rely on our phones for an awful lot: to exercise, play, work. It isn’t always easy to balance these conflicting interests. iOS 15 supplies a set of tools that aims to match your mindset at any point in the day. Depending on how you set things up in the phone’s Control Center and Settings, you can hide or surface certain apps, curtail incoming notifications, designate people or apps who can or can’t reach you except during an emergencies, and create different Home Screen layouts for work, unwinding from work, leisure time, etc. Focus settings can be shared across other Apple devices using the same Apple ID.

  • Health Sharing. Your phone counts steps, resting heart rate and other metrics, and is a repository for lab reports, mobility data and a lot more. With iOS 15, Apple has added a Health Sharing feature that can help keep loved ones and medical providers in the loop, if, say, significant changes show up in your data. For example, you and family members may receive shared alerts of irregular heart rhythm notifications.

    Apple also has added a Walking Steadiness feature to the iPhone that uses iOS 15 and sensors to determine your risk of injury from falling, based on learning your gait or the way you walk over time. Your Walking Steadiness risk is classified as “OK,” “Low” or “Very Low.” The Health app includes videos of suggested exercises that may improve your strength or balance and thus minimize the chance of a spill.
  • Live Text. Written text is all around us — in books, menus, photographs, signs and plenty of other places. Through the camera and the built-in smarts of the device, iOS 15 extracts and digitizes the text and makes it actionable, meaning you can add it to your notes, cut and paste it, look up a phone number and translate foreign words into English.

    The feature also can be used to recognize artwork, dog breeds, landmarks and nature. And yes, Live Text is roughly similar to the Google Lens image recognition and visual look up technology that has been around for several years. Live Text is one of the iOS features tied to hardware; an iPhone XS or newer is required.
  • Memories. Apple has been automatically creating themed photographic memories around birthdays, vacations or a specific date or place, by scanning the people and events in your photo and video collections and adding a soundtrack. As part of iOS 15, Apple is generating a broader set of nostalgic memory types and mixes and doing so with more of a cinematic flair.

    That may mean matching the visuals with songs popular when the images were captured or faster and more energetic cuts and transitions to fit the mood. Or the slideshow and video collections could be set to slower tunes to create a very different vibe. If you subscribe to Apple Music, tracks may come from your library. Among the memories created during the iOS 15 beta period, were ones for “pet friends,” “tasty bites” visits to restaurants and “waterfalls.”
  • Digital driver’s license. The Apple Wallet app already lets you store credit cards, debit cards, tickets, transit passes and such. (The information lives, encrypted, on Apple's servers, not in your phone's memory.) After all, Apple Wallet is a digital representation of your physical wallet. Soon you’ll be able to store your driver’s license and state IDs in the app.

    Residents of Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma and Utah will be among the first who can take advantage. You’ll be asked to scan your physical license, take a selfie, and be prompted to move your head and face as part of the verification process. According to Apple, Face ID or Touch ID also will ensure that only the person whose license is added to the phone can view or present it in the Wallet app, which the TSA will accept as proof of identify at airports.

This story, originally published Sept. 15, 2021, was updated to reflect the release of Apple's iOS 15.

Edward C. Baig is a contributing writer who covers technology and other consumer topics. He previously worked for USA Today, BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report and Fortune and is the author of Macs for Dummies and the coauthor of iPhone for Dummies and iPad for Dummies.

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