Got an early iPhone or iPad? Update now or turn it into a paperweight

If you own an Apple iPhone 5, iPhone 4s or one of the early iPads with cellular connectivity, your device is about to be turned into a vintage technology paperweight by the GPS rollover problem that we wrote about in April.

Before we explain why, we should say it is possible to avoid this fate by updating your device to iOS version 10.3.4 (iPhone 5) or version 9.3.6 (iPhone 4 and iPads).

But there’s one critical detail – you must apply this update before 12:00 a.m. UTC on 3 November.

If you don’t follow this advice, the iPhone will, according to Apple, no longer be able to…

Maintain accurate GPS location and to continue to use functions that rely on correct date and time including App Store, iCloud, email, and web browsing.

So, losing the GPS stops the time and date being set, which immediately causes internet synchronisation problems affecting services that need to connect to remote servers.

In addition to the iPhone 5 and 4s, the iPads affected are the cellular-enabled iPad mini, iPad 2, and the third-generation iPad.

You can read the iPhone 5-specific warning or the one that includes the iPhone 4s if you want to confirm the worst in more detail.

Why is this necessary?

Because of the GPS satellite system’s equivalent of the Y2K bug.

The date broadcast by GPS includes a weekly counter with 1,024 possible values. This means it can count 1,024 weeks (which takes 19.7 years) before it has to “rollover” and start the counter again from 0.

The first rollover occurred with little fanfare, in 1999, a time when GPS was far less widely used. The second rollover happened this year, when the GPS week counter reset to 0 on 7 April.

For reasons Apple hasn’t explained, older devices aren’t affected by the rollover until 3 Nov 2019.

Party like it’s 2012

Chances are there are a lot of half-forgotten iPhone 5s out there, buried at the bottom of drawers. Their batteries are shot and they might not have had all the updates they should have since they were put away, but they do, in theory, function as working museum pieces.

Wouldn’t it be nice if your old iPhone 5 continued to be able to connect to the internet? Of course it would.

But the biggest problem of all is that over-the-air updates won’t work. Neither will iCloud backups.

Not updating by 3 November creates a bind – to make the device connect you need an update, but you can’t have that because the iPhone can’t connect to the update server.

At that point, only one rescue mission is possible – restore the device from a Mac or PC – in effect getting the computer to act as an update intermediary.

That won’t seem like a huge problem for some owners, but it does depend on having that facility as well as having made a backup of any data on the device.

What to do?

To check you have received the latest update:

  • Open the Settings app.
  • Tap ‘General‘, then tap ‘About‘.
  • Look for the number next to Software Version.