Apple’s annual operating system updates are always a cause for geeky celebration, but some of you have less reason to be thrilled. If your beloved, older Apple devices have faded into obsolescence, this annual ritual can feel like a grim reminder that this is it for you. Catalina is the highest mountain your aged MacBook will ever climb; a trip to macOS Big Sur is beyond its reach.
So, what do you do when you’ve hit the upgrade ceiling? If your device can’t handle the latest version of iOS, macOS or watchOS, is it time to say goodbye?
But before we get to that, let’s take a quick look at all the Apple devices that will be able to upgrade to the new operating systems Apple announced at WWDC yesterday (click on the quick links to navigate through the post by OS type).
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iOS 14: Compatible iPhones
- iPhone 11
- iPhone 11 Pro
- iPhone 11 Pro Max
- iPhone XS
- iPhone XS Max
- iPhone XR
- iPhone X
- iPhone 8
- iPhone 8 Plus
- iPhone 7
- iPhone 7 Plus
- iPhone 6s
- iPhone 6s Plus
- iPhone SE (1st generation)
- iPhone SE (2nd generation)
- iPod touch (7th generation)
Look familiar? That’s everything that can run iOS 13. No changes there!
iPadOS 14: Compatible iPads
- iPad Pro 12.9-inch (4th generation)
- iPad Pro 11-inch (2nd generation)
- iPad Pro 12.9-inch (3rd generation)
- iPad Pro 11-inch (1st generation)
- iPad Pro 12.9-inch (2nd generation)
- iPad Pro 12.9-inch (1st generation)
- iPad Pro 10.5-inch
- iPad Pro 9.7-inch
- iPad (7th generation)
- iPad (6th generation)
- iPad (5th generation)
- iPad mini (5th generation)
- iPad mini 4
- iPad Air (3rd generation)
- iPad Air 2
Same deal! If your iPad can run iPadOS 13, it can run iPadOS 14.
macOS Big Sur: Compatible Macs
- MacBook (2015 and later)
- MacBook Air (2013 and later)
- MacBook Pro (Late 2013 and later)
- Mac mini (2014 and later)
- iMac (2014 and later)
- iMac Pro (2017 and later)
- Mac Pro (2013 and later)
Here’s where your upgrader’s life might hit a snag: MacOS Catalina supports MacBook Airs, iMacs, MacBook Pros and Mac Minis manufactured in 2012 and later. As you’ll note from the macOS Big Sur comparability list above, some of those computers won’t be able to make the leap to the new OS. Specifically, you’ll be stuck on macOS Catalina if you have a mid-2012 MacBook Air (but you’re in luck with a mid-2013 edition), a late-2012 or late-2013 iMac, a mid-2012 or late-2012/early-2013 MacBook Pro or a late-2012 Mac Mini.
watchOS 7: Compatible Apple Watches
- Apple Watch Series 3
- Apple Watch Series 4
- Apple Watch Series 5
Sorry, Apple Watch Series 1 and 2—no watchOS 7 for you.
tvOS 14: Compatible Apple TVs
- Apple TV fourth generation
- Apple TV fifth generation
If it can run tvOS 13, it can run tvOS 14.
My device can’t upgrade to a new OS. What should I do?
Generally speaking, I wouldn’t worry about it just yet. Most people won’t even be able to play with all the new OS updates until this fall. By then, Apple will have plenty of new products to announce—assuming COVID-19 hasn’t pushed back its traditional product debut timelines too far.
You can expect to see a 5G-compatible iPhone 12 make its debut in a few months, plus whatever lower-tier iPhone variants Apple undoubtedly has in store. There should also be a new Apple Watch (we’ve seen a new one every September since the second generation rolled out) and the debut of Macs that use Apple’s own ARM-based chips rather than Intel’s CPUs. And that’s just the near sure things; who knows whether Apple is planning to push more AirPods (unlikely), a new Pencil (who knows) or a new iPad (we’re probably due for an 8th-generation model, and we’re most definitely going to get an upgrade to the iPad Air and/or iPad Mini, but probably not a new iPad Pro just yet).
Of course, this presumes that you’re thinking about upgrading. Honestly, if your iPhone is too old to upgrade to iOS 14 (and iOS 13, too), maybe it’s time. You don’t have to go top-dollar; an iPhone SE is a perfectly respectable iPhone that has plenty of power to handle OS upgrades for the next few years at least. That means you’ll also benefit from newer features, potential performance improvements and all the latest security updates. Even if you don’t care that much about widgets, having a secure, protected smartphone is important.
The same is true for your Mac, but I’ll caveat my advice by saying if your laptop or desktop can do everything you need it to do—which might just be simple web browsing and email, not running Final Cut Pro—why upgrade? You’ll be spending extra money on a souped-up system that will be overkill for your needs.
I wouldn’t chase macOS Big Sur if you’re a light Mac user. But, really, I wouldn’t consider upgrading my Mac right now no matter what: Apple is on the verge of its second gigantic technological shift for Macs (the first being the move from PowerPC to Intel chips back in 2006). It’s worth waiting to see how all that ultimately plays out for performance and price, and that will probably mean waiting until the end of the year. Again, though, if your Mac is so old that it can barely run macOS Catalina, but not macOS Big Sur, you’ve kept it around for quite a long time. What’s a few more months?
As for the Apple Watch, it’s probably time to give your nearly four-year-old smartwatch a boost if it can’t upgrade to watchOS 7. (I can’t imagine what your battery life must be like right now.) I wouldn’t do any shopping just yet, because Apple is undoubtedly going to drop a new watch soon. That means you’ll be able to get something shiny and new or score a decent discount on a slightly older Apple Watch.
That said, if your first- or second-gen Apple Watch still works for everything you need it to do, I wouldn’t say the new watchOS 7 features are especially compelling. Yes, you’ll get new faces and complications, which are fun, but if you’re just using your Apple Watch to track your workouts, tell time and vibrate your wrist when you get a text, hold onto it as long as you can. Of course, if you’re a cyclist (or a dancer), you’ll probably want to bump up to an Apple Watch that can handle watchOS 7 for its enhanced fitness-tracking features.
I still can’t decide if I should buy new Apple stuff
Generally speaking, my best advice for everyone is to take a peek at what Apple announced in its updated operating systems, weigh that against how you really use your devices, and do a clear-eyed evaluation for your need to upgrade.
My gut feeling is that if your device is so old it can’t run the latest Apple OS, that’s a good sign it’s time to buy something new (and give yourself another 5+ years of performance and security updates). However, there’s no need to run out the door to buy something new if you’re only going to use it to do all the same things your device is already capable of handling.
If all you care about are the basics, a new operating system might look fun and exciting, but it won’t do much more to enhance your daily usage experience beyond what you already have—or at least, you won’t get hundreds of dollars’ worth of joy out of it. This time in the upgrade cycle provides you a good chance to critically think about your older gear, but don’t feel compelled to upgrade anything if you don’t really need to. We’re reaching a point where failing batteries—not a device’s performance—is the main reason to upgrade anything. And this is coming from a proud iPhone X owner who probably won’t get an iPhone 12 (unless the camera is blow-your-mind great); the $1,000+ I’d spend feels like a bit much just to keep using my phone to do the same things every day.