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.
Executive Summary: As a telephone, iPhone 3GS is virtually indistinguishable from its immediate predecessor. The single most noticeable improvement is the addition of Voice Control, which enables the iPhone 3GS to be dialed without requiring the user to touch the screen. Additionally enhanced is its Bluetooth wireless range, which may help the few users who have had problems maintaining connections between monaural calling headsets and past iPhones. Sound quality for phone calls has made no discernible change, positive or negative, from the iPhone 3G, which did improve in speakerphone performance from the original iPhone.
To say that the iPhone and iPhone 3G didn’t need much help in the telephone department would be an oversimplification, but both devices included the same, excellent Apple-developed calling software that relies upon “contacts”—computer- or iPhone-generated cards with telephone, address, e-mail, and photo details for people—plus a super-simple keypad, and a special “Visual Voicemail” system to ease the calling experience. Want to call someone? Touch their contact name, select the right phone number, and their phone rings. Want to conference call with two people? Press a + button on the screen and merge the calls together. Receive a new piece of voicemail? An on-screen display will show you either who called, from which of their phones, or a telephone number with the city and state attached; then, you can play the message from its start or skip through it with a scroll bar. Collectively, these features made iPhone telephone calling better than using almost any other phone on the planet, and iPhone 3GS preserves all of them.
The prior iPhones have, however, been faulted for certain aspects of their phone performance, starting with dropped calls and related issues that are almost entirely attributable to Apple’s partner networks. Potential U.S. buyers have the option to return their handsets within 30 days without questions if they are not satisfied with the network coverage in the places where they live, work, or travel, and should take advantage of this return policy in the event that they cannot get a strong signal—3-5 bars—where they spend their time. Lower signal strength can lead to calling problems and increased battery drain.
That said, iLounge’s editors live in cities where dropped calls are virtually non-existent, and call quality is consistently very good. In our tests, iPhone 3GS appeared to exhibit identical signal strength to the iPhone 3G, and calls seemed to be no more or less flaky than before. Callers sounded the same to us, and they told us—generally—that we sounded the same to them. One caller mentioned that we appeared to be a little louder with the iPhone 3GS than with the iPhone 3G, but others heard no difference. The iPhone 3G’s loud, very good monaural speakerphone and microphone configuration are apparently unchanged in iPhone 3GS.
Bluetooth wireless performance has improved somewhat, however. Apple has replaced the prior-generation Bluetooth 2.0 chip with a new Bluetooth 2.1 chip that may enhance wireless performance and decrease power consumption with certain Bluetooth 2.1-specific accessories; we noticed small improvements in clarity when testing with Altec Lansing’s BackBeat 903 headset, for instance. But more considerable is iPhone 3GS’s wireless broadcasting power, which gains roughly 10-15 feet of additional unobstructed distance from iPhone 3G, enabling the new device to communicate more effectively with distant or obstructed speakerphones or headsets. We were pleased with the iPhone’s and iPhone 3G’s monaural Bluetooth performance before, and it’s better now.
Apple has also added Voice Control to the iPhone 3GS, giving this device an enhanced version of the voice dialing feature found in numerous cell phones over the past several years. By holding down the iPhone’s Home button or the Earphones’ central remote button for a few seconds, you bring up a blue screen that shows you two things: waveforms that let you know when the iPhone can hear your voice, and moving phrases that you can speak to command the iPhone to do things. “Call” plus a person’s or business’s name will instruct the phone to select a contact in your list, and offer you the choice of various numbers that you might have stored for them: “work,” “home,” or “mobile,” if you haven’t said one already. “Dial” plus a number will dial whatever number you say, with surprising accuracy. We were routinely impressed by Voice Control’s ability to correctly dial contacts and numbers we selected, though ambient noise can obviously interfere with its performance. (Hear an audio sample of Voice Control here.) That said, we were unimpressed by its inability to be triggered by the play/pause buttons on Bluetooth wireless devices we tested, and its unwillingness for whatever reason to speak or receive commands through such Bluetooth accessories. We take this as a sign that Apple will attempt to license Voice Control functionality through its “Works With iPhone” program rather than allowing it to be compatible with the many existing wireless accessories that could otherwise work flawlessly with it.
From our standpoint, the single biggest problem with the iPhone 3GS as a telephone is its battery life. When used on 3G networks either as a phone or data device, it achieves only a meager 5 hours of calling time on a full charge—the same as the iPhone 3G—and even less if you’re using features such as Bluetooth or GPS at the same time. In a mixed-mode test that included 40 minutes of calling time, 40 minutes of GPS mapping time, 40 minutes of photo and video snapping time, five or six uses of Voice Control, 10 minutes of Bluetooth audio streaming, less than 10 minutes of game playing, a few brief tests of other features, and then the balance on 3G and Wi-Fi Internet accessing, the iPhone 3GS’s battery lasted for 4 hours and 44 minutes of actual use, with an additional 17 hours on standby—the latter consuming only 6% of the 1220mAh battery. Phone and data 3G use put the most strain on iPhone 3GS, along with GPS use, Bluetooth streaming, and video recording. iPhone 3GS’s poor battery life thus makes it a bad choice for road warriors who have heavy calling needs.
Apple attempts to massage the poor 3G battery life by telling users that they can switch the phone into “2G” mode, which disables the phone’s ability to simultaneously send or receive cellular data while calling, blocking the receipt of e-mails and the use of many applications, but increases talk time to 12 hours. Users will have to determine for themselves whether these options are acceptable; we have found them to be at best problematic and at worst impractical, so battery pack accessories have become mandatory whenever we travel far, with car chargers and desk chargers equally mandatory the rest of the time. This reason, more than any other, would be a reason to pass on the iPhone 3GS in favor of a separate cell phone.