Review: Apple iPhone 3GS (8GB/16GB/32GB)
Pros: Apple’s best overall iPhone yet; an iterative but legitimate upgrade to the original iPhone 3G, doubling its predecessor’s storage capacity for the same prices, while adding a much-improved still and now video-capable camera, a compass, Nike+ support, and a more powerful chipset capable of voice-controlled dialing and music playback. Faster at running apps, displaying web pages, and rendering 3-D graphics than before; makes creation and sharing of videos and photos extremely straightforward. Base 8GB model is sold in black only, while 16GB model is available in both black and white, and all versions include support for headphone cable-mounted volume controls. Screen is now smudge-resistant. Battery life for non-3G purposes has been improved somewhat. Modest audio and video output tweaks bring performance in line with second-generation iPod touch.
Cons: Battery life for 3G calling and data remains unacceptably low, requiring heavy phone or 3G data users to perform mid-day recharging; use of other new features, including video recording, drains battery at even more rapid rate. Preserves problematic plastic body design of iPhone 3G, which proved susceptible to cracking, scratching under normal usage; AppleCare policy is strongly recommended for body and battery in second year of ownership. Video uploading is slow, and downloading speed increases will be inconsistently realized by users for a variety of reasons, including widely varying 3G networks, which offer different maximum speeds in different regions, and in some places continue to suffer from capacity constraints. Users may need to take advantage of 30-day return policy if calling and data performance are unacceptable in their areas.
Viewed broadly, the iPhone 3GS is at its core the same device Apple released in 2007—the iPhone—as enhanced by the key feature of 2008’s iPhone OS 2.0 release, the App Store. This is a pocket-sized computer and mobile phone with a 480x320-resolution display that’s virtually identical to the first iPhone’s, and a multi-point touchable surface as its primary control interface. Four buttons and a switch are its only non-touchscreen external controls; virtually everything it does is handled with on-screen icons and keyboards that shift between over 30 languages with ease. Its integrated battery recharges with an included proprietary USB cable that connects to its bottom and either your computer or an included wall adapter, and its audio is performed either through one of two built-in monaural speakers or a pair of included stereo headphones. You can talk to it, and through it, using either an integrated, bottom-mounted microphone or a nearly identical one that’s built into the headphones.
Pricing and Purchasing Options
Prospective iPhone 3GS purchasers in the United States have several options. Most common is the “purchase with a new subsidized contract” option, which requires a customer to pay $199 (16GB) or $299 (32GB) up front, plus a $36 activation fee, along with an agreement to make at least $720 in additional payments for iPhone 3GS Internet access over a 24-month period, plus at least $960 in additional payments for telephone calling minutes. With taxes and fees, the minimum outlay for an iPhone 3GS is roughly $2,300 to $2,400 across the life of the contract, not including text messages, which can be purchased in bundles starting at $5 extra per month. You can cancel the contract at any time by paying a pro-rated “early termination fee,” which starts at $175 and diminishes each month you remain on the contract. Two other options—purchasing in the middle of an existing subsidized contract ($399/$499), and purchasing without a contract ($599/$699) also exist; it is less expensive to terminate a contract early than to purchase at the higher prices. Customers elsewhere in the world are subject to different, occasionally changing terms explained in links found in our Complete Guide to iPhone Service Providers.
After the disasterous launch of the iPhone 3G in 2008, which saw long lines and numerous complaints that lingered over a weekend when Apple and AT&T activation servers buckled, the two companies dramatically improved the purchasing and activation process for the iPhone 3GS’s June 19, 2009 launch. Customers can now have iPhones delivered directly to their homes by Apple or AT&T, signing contracts online prior to shipment, and performing activation from the Internet-connected PCs or Macs of their choice. They can alternately visit Apple, AT&T, Best Buy, or Wal-Mart physical stores and walk through the first-time purchasing or upgrading process with salespeople who have been trained in selling and activating the devices. iLounge’s editors went on launch day to Apple and AT&T stores, as well as purchasing phones via parcel delivery from both companies. All of the iPhone 3GS units arrived on time as promised, in perfect physical condition, with no immediately obvious screen or body defects. Apart from activation delays—brief in one case, less than an hour in another, and several hours in a third—the purchasing and signup processes were painless; setting up another new account from scratch took literally 15 minutes from start to finish. Some users experienced extended activation delays, for which Apple issued $30 iTunes credits, but problems this year appeared to be considerably diminished from 2008.
Packaging and Pack-Ins
More has changed between the cardboard box packages of the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS than between their own physical shells. The white or black iPhone 3GS box is smaller than the 3G’s, eliminates the use of foam from its top half, and yet preserves the same internal compartments: a tray for the plastic-wrapped phone, a cardboard insert to hold instructions, stickers, warnings, and a metal SIM card removal tool, and three spaces for the aforementioned headphones, USB cable, and wall power adapter.
Gone from last year’s box is the black screen cleaning cloth, and after a product recall, the 2008 wall adapter has been replaced with a version that won’t fall apart and risk electrocuting the user. This change is indicated by a green sticker on the adapter’s body.
Additionally, Apple’s prior iPhone Stereo Headset—included with the original iPhone and iPhone 3G—has been replaced in this package with the company’s newer, 2008/2009 iPod and Mac-compatible Earphones with Remote and Mic, which sound virtually identical. The iPhone 3GS’s version of these Earphones uses a new glossy plastic headphone plug casing that is thinner and harder than its rubber predecessors, but the other components are the same. Dangling from the right earbud is a glossy box with a mesh-covered microphone on one side and three buttons on the other.
Top and bottom buttons control the iPhone 3GS’s volume, and the center button acts as a play/pause button (one click during music playback), track forward button (two clicks), track reverse button (three clicks), a call start/end button (one click during an incoming call), and a trigger for the new Voice Command feature (click and hold briefly). Apple sells an upgraded version of these earphones called the In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic, which look and feel great but are sonically underwhelming.
The iPhone 3GS: Body and Key Features
That leaves the iPhone 3GS itself, which is cosmetically almost identical to the iPhone 3G. Just as with the prior model, the iPhone 3GS measures 4.5 inches by 2.4 inches by 0.48 inches, has a glossy plastic shell that wraps around its top, bottom, back, and sides, and uses a combination of metal, plastic, and glass on its front. Chrome metal is used for the front bezel, as well as for rings around the rear camera and top headphone port, side volume buttons and a ringer switch, and a top Sleep/Wake button. Metal mesh can be seen through the front and bottom speakers and bottom microphone, with plastic used for the top SIM card tray and bottom Dock Connector port. This time, you can choose black or white versions of both the lower-capacity 16GB model and the higher-capacity 32GB model; last year, only the higher-capacity model was available in white. Both versions now have chrome writing on their backs, matching the chrome Apple logo, and contrasting with the flat gray writing that appeared on the iPhone 3G.
The biggest change to the iPhone 3GS’s body is the front glass that’s used for its 3.5”, 480x320-resolution touchscreen display. Apple was originally planning to ship the first iPhone with a plastic screen cover, but changed its plans at the last moment and switched to a scratch-resistant—not scratch-proof—glass. This glass was preserved for the iPhone 3G, and now has been coated with an oleophobic coating, which is designed to make it easier for users to remove fingerprints and smudges than before; a single wipe with a plain cloth does the trick, rather than multiple wipes with a microfiber cloth. A plastic covering is still used for the device’s main Home button, which remains concave and blends in with the rest of the device’s face. One other small change, a two-gram, 0.1-ounce increase in weight for the 3GS, is imperceptible; it now weighs 4.8 ounces, the same as the original iPhone, versus 4.7 ounces for the iPhone 3G.
Given the tremendous similarities between the iPhone 3GS and its predecessor, there’s little to say about the new model save to note that—unlike Apple’s metal-clad iPods, and original iPhone—it looks and feels as if it was built to last for roughly the two-year duration of a typical cellular service contract. The substantially plastic casing of the iPhone 3G began to show scratches immediately, and developed cracks after even normal use; its chrome bezel was easily tarnished, and scratches appeared in its screen over time.
Prospective buyers should therefore be warned in advance to purchase protection of some sort—a highly-rated iPhone 3G case with film-based screen protection, or a completely film-based body alternative is advisable—and avoid dropping the 3GS or allowing it to make contact with water. Should your iPhone 3GS develop cracks or other issues under normal usage conditions, Apple will replace it, but replacements are tough to come by in the event of drops or water damage, both of which are easy for the company to detect. An AppleCare extended warranty is strongly advisable for battery and/or casing replacement during the second year of ownership.
Just like its predecessors, iPhone 3GS runs Apple’s iPhone OS 3.0 software, and has five key functions: it is a telephone, an iPod media player, a digital camera, an Internet device, and a miniature Macintosh computer with the ability to run applications made by Apple, as well as applications and games released by third-parties. iPhone 3GS does all of these things just like its predecessors, but enhances each element’s performance enough to be noticed—again, evolutionary steps, not revolutionary ones. You can click on each of those headings to skip directly to pages discussing what is the same and what has changed from each aspect of the iPhone 3G’s performance to the iPhone 3GS.