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 an iPod media player, the iPhone 3GS is only modestly different from the iPhone 3G. Music playback can be controlled via your voice using Voice Control, and Apple now includes a new pair of earphones that can control both tracks and volume, rather than its predecessor’s track-only control button. Similarly, whereas the prior-generation model could output 480i video from its bottom Dock Connector port, the new model can output 480p video. And there are modest changes to the unit’s audio output, particularly from the Dock Connector. Finally, the iPhone 3GS adds Nike + iPod support, the first iPhone to include this runner-friendly iPod feature.
Back in 2007, Apple’s Steve Jobs proclaimed the original iPhone to be the best iPod the company had ever made: its first widescreen video player, with a simple touch interface and the ability to play the same MP3- and AAC-format music, audiobook, and podcast files that any iPod could play, plus JPEG-format photos. Two years later, the iPhone 3GS is very substantially the same: it plays all the same file formats, including MP4 and H.264-format videos, and like the iPhone and iPhone 3G as enhanced with iPhone OS 3.0, offers only modest new playback tricks, plus the ability to download music, audiobooks, and videos directly—though slowly—from the iTunes Store without using a computer. These features are discussed in greater detail in our Instant Expert: iPhone OS 3.0 article.
iPhone 3GS also outputs video to a TV with roughly the same limitations as before: you need to purchase overpriced $49 Apple video cables or their equivalents in order to make the physical connection, and then can perform up to 480p-quality video on compatible televisions. This is an increase from the iPhone and iPhone 3G’s prior 480i output maximum, bringing the iPhone 3GS in line with the 2008 second-generation iPod touch, and 2007-2008 iPod nano and classic models.
While little has changed in the aforementioned features, they’re still as good as one can get on any current-model iPod. Audio quality in the iPhone 3GS is much improved from the original iPhone, with cleaner sound from both its top and bottom ports, as well as from its integrated bottom speaker. Heard through the bottom Dock Connector, music played by the iPhone 3GS is modestly cleaner and more mid-treble-accentuated than the iPhone 3G’s audio, again bringing the iPhone 3GS in line with the 2008 second-generation iPod touch. Some users will perceive this difference as making the iPhone 3G flatter and more bassy, but it appears to be more of a boost in the 3GS than removal of bass from the 3G; we intend to update this section with additional details in the near future. Our standard music playlist test, performing a large collection of varying bitrate audio on shuffle mode at 50% volume, yielded a play time of 29 hours, 46 minutes, falling only slightly short of Apple’s promised 30 hour audio runtime for the iPhone 3GS. While the iPhone 3G was promised to run for 24 hours of audio playback, it actually ran for 28 hours and 44 minutes in our testing, which means that the iPhone 3GS offers an improvement, for sure, but not as large as Apple’s marketing of the two devices might suggest.
Screen quality is roughly identical to the original iPhone, which itself was slightly better than the iPhone 3G due to a change in displays. The first iPhone’s screen was extremely impressive in 2007, with great off-center viewing angles, strong backlighting, and neutral coloration; it put to shame the first-generation iPod touch’s screen, which looked considerably worse on slight off-kilter viewing angles. Then came the iPhone 3G, which fell a little from the original iPhone in viewing angle and color tint, and the next iPod touch, which had a slight yellow tint but was much, much better than the first touch in viewing angle. Shown to the right of the iPhone 3G below, the iPhone 3GS goes back to where it all started, which is nice by two-year-old standards, but not as impressive as the higher-resolution and/or new OLED technology screens in competing 2009 devices.
Notably, our first test of video playback on a fully charged iPhone 3GS using our standard video playlist on 50% brightness and 50% volume came in dramatically under Apple’s claimed 10 hour figure, running for a little under six hours. We are at a loss to explain this result in light of the iPhone 3G’s 7 hour, 11 minute battery life on this test last year; with a 5.5% increase in battery capacity and no improvement in processor efficiency, the number should have been around 7 hours and 33 minutes. Notably, Apple allows the iPhone 3GS for the first time to display its remaining battery capacity as a percentage, an option now found under Settings > General > Usage > Battery Percentage, a feature that’s handy for estimating remaining time, but in our testing, inaccurate for forecasting by as much as three hours even when the iPhone 3GS is seemingly doing only one thing continuously from the start to the end of its battery cycle. That said, it does provide an accurate sense of where the battery is when it’s near the end of its charge cycle, particularly from 20% to 10% to 1%.
In an effort to see why the video battery performance was so different from Apple’s claims, we consulted Apple’s testing methodology and found that its 10-hour number was based on repetition of a single movie, with Call Forwarding turned on, and Wi-Fi Ask to Join Networks turned off. Trying these settings, our video run time skyrocketed to 10 hours and 27 minutes, with the iPhone 3GS battery meter at one point implying that it would keep going for over 13 hours. While we don’t believe that Call Forwarding is a typically used feature during iPhone 3GS video playback—or anything else—this wide range of 6 to 10 hours illustrates how much of an impact the 3G mobile chip can have on battery life. A subsequent video test with the same videos, without using Call Forwarding but keeping Wi-Fi Ask to Join Networks turned off, yielded a run time of 9 hours and 12 minutes.
Three additions to the iPod functionality bolster the iPhone 3GS’s appeal. First is support for stereo Bluetooth wireless streaming using A2DP, a feature that was also added to the iPhone 3G this week with iPhone OS 3.0, but is not supported for the original iPhone. With compatible stereo Bluetooth headphones and speakers, iPhone 3GS users can send their music to stationary or portable accessories without the need for cords, enabling wire-free walking, jogging, or just sitting across the room from your speakers. Though this feature runs down the iPhone 3GS’s battery at an alarming rate, its convenience—and your ability to use your iPhone with batteries and chargers at the same time—makes it worthwhile nonetheless.
Next is Voice Control. Previously discussed in the Telephone section of this review, Voice Control is triggered by holding the Home button on the iPhone 3GS or the play/pause button on the Earphones’ remote control. For iPod purposes, Voice Control permits the following commands: “Play artist” or “Play songs by,” “Play playlist,” “Play album,” “Pause,” “Play music,” “Genius,” “Next track,” “Previous track,” “Shuffle,” and “What is this song called?” Conspicuously absent from this list is “Play song,” which Voice Control doesn’t seem to be able to handle, though for possibly good reason: when we followed the iPhone’s fairly natural syntax, our results when using the feature for the specified purposes were actually pretty good. If you simply say “Play Jay-Z,” or “Play Kenny Rogers,” you’ll find that the iPhone 3GS completely screws up, but it’s expecting to hear “artist” or “songs by” as a prefix. Include it, and it’ll generally get your picks correct the first time, assuming that there isn’t a lot of ambient noise when you’re talking to the iPhone. (Hear an audio sample of Voice Control here.)
Last but not least is Nike + iPod support, which relies upon Nike+ shoes (or a shoe-mounted pouch) and a $19 Nike Sensor to help the iPhone track your walking or running performance. Other than the fact that neither previous iPhone supported the Nike Sensor—it was added to last year’s iPod touch as a surprise—what’s most notable about this feature is that it works in conjunction with Bluetooth wireless headphones and speakers, letting you mount your iPhone on a bicep and use it to wirelessly broadcast to a listening device while receiving data from the Sensor. Both features do in fact work at the same time; it’s only a matter of time, we think, before Nike or someone else comes up with a GPS- and compass-aware extension of the Nike+ program.
Overall, the iPhone 3GS offers small improvements in its core iPod functionality, while adding ancillary features that will be of interest to certain users. In our view, there’s no way in which the new model is inferior to its predecessors, iPod-wise, but some users may prefer the sonic balance of the iPhone 3G.