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 digital camera, the iPhone 3GS takes two big steps up from both the iPhone 3G and original iPhone, which were almost exactly the same for photographic purposes. The still camera, previously a fixed-focus nearly 2-Megapixel unit with no zoom, has been upgraded to a 3-Megapixel unit that still lacks zoom, but now has both autofocus and a touch-based manual focus mode. It takes more detailed and potentially interesting photos than before, but still does not rival inexpensive dedicated still cameras. Additionally, Apple now includes a video camera capable of creating 640x480 movies through the same lens as the still camera, similarly without zoom, and enables users to trim their video clips from within the iPhone 3GS.
Relying upon an iPhone as a full-time digital camera is a bad idea. In fact, having taken literally thousands of pictures with our iPhones over the past two years, relying upon either the iPhone or the nearly identical iPhone 3G as even a part-time digital camera has turned out to be a pretty bad idea, too. The fixed-focus lens produces decent images outdoors when you’re not too close or too far away from whatever you’re shooting, but the number of back-focused images—ones where the backdrop is fine but the subject is not—and blurry, grimy-looking shots we’ve taken far outnumbers the masterpieces. Back in 2007, the iPhone’s camera seemed pretty good by phone standards, but between its lack of flash, zoom, autofocus, and other factors, it hasn’t aged well.
The iPhone 3GS delivers the first real upgrade to the iPhone’s camera in two years, and in some ways, it’s a big step up. There are a million more pixels per still image—3.15 Megapixels (2048x1536) versus 1.92 Megapixels (1600x1200)—and the result is generally smoother, more detailed images. Though its color balance is generally extremely similar to the prior iPhones’, it produces punchier reds and yellows, and generally has less of a tendency to create images that look washed out or sunbleached. Superior white balance and contrast generally make for pictures with blacker blacks rather than grays, and stronger tones. A new focus system enables you to take macro images—close ups are recommended from 10cm or more away, but work from 5 or 6cm distances—and also makes the camera concentrate on objects that are nearby rather than ones that are in the background. Low-light performance is still a challenge, but somewhat better than before. (See full-resolution comparison images from the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 3G in our Flickr gallery here.)
This isn’t to say that the iPhone 3GS will always take better still pictures than the iPhone or iPhone 3G, but in our experience, a vaguely capable photographer will get markedly better overall results from the 3GS. A new tap-to-focus system places a focusing square on the screen when you’re shooting, letting you choose which element of a scene the camera should focus and meter from, increasing an attentive photographer’s chances of getting a good shot. (Compare full-resolution photos from the iPhone 3GS with those from a three-year-old Canon PowerShot SD700IS camera, here.
While we found that this system can sometimes hunt around too much, and doesn’t always get the best possible shot, it’s better than not having any automatic focusing capabilities, and enhances the 3GS’s depth of field. Macro photography and high-contrast black and white images look a thousand times better, as detail is concerned, with the iPhone 3GS than with either prior iPhone. We would never give up our real cameras for the 3GS—zoom, flash, low-light performance, and other options make them indispensible—but it has taken a few big steps beyond its predecessors.
One of those steps is in adding video recording capabilities. Make no mistake: the iPhone 3GS is not a Flip UltraHD, recording high-definition 720p videos and playing them back on high-definition televisions; rather, the iPhone 3GS creates movies in the same resolution as it can play them back: 640x480. Interestingly, it can shoot videos in portrait or landscape mode, actually displaying them in either direction on a computer screen, though for practical and other reasons it’s not capable of rotating that direction once recording has been started in a specific orientation. (See sample videos recorded with the iPhone 3GS in our YouTube gallery here.)
These videos aren’t exactly theatrical quality. They’re recorded by default in H.264 format with monaural audio and variable frame rates, such that sample clips we created varied from 15 to 21 frames per second, depending on the amount of motion the camera is seeing; a one-minute clip consumed 26-27 Megabytes in our tests. Once again, there’s no zoom capability—digital or otherwise—but the iPhone 3GS attempts to maximize the color and focus even as you and your subjects change positions.
Videos are grainy, not as smooth in motion as they could be, and not great with macro subjects, but they’re decent. As with many such low-grade videos, they look better on an iPhone screen than on your computer. (See full-resolution comparison videos from the iPhone 3GS, Flip UltraHD, and a Canon PowerShot SD700IS camera in our Vimeo gallery here.)
Apple enhances the video recording feature in two ways. First, you can trim your videos instantly after recording them by dragging start and end points through a miniature on-screen timeline. We found this trimming interface to be brilliantly simple in concept, but for whatever reason, we sometimes had problems getting the tiny trimming bars to activate, and a few times couldn’t get them to appear when we selected a video. Most of the time, however, they worked. Second, you can share your videos by sending them directly through the iPhone 3GS to e-mail recipients, YouTube, or MobileMe—MMS mailing will also be available in the near future for U.S. customers, at least for very short clips, and is already available outside the U.S. The iPhone 3GS includes fast MPEG-4 and H.264 encoding capabilities for both recording videos, and then shrinking them for sharing.
In the event that your video is too long to send over your connection, the iPhone 3GS will show you how much of the video you can send by auto-imposing a movable trimming bar on your timeline. Additionally, the iPhone 3GS automatically compresses its native H.264 videos to reduce their file size, dropping 640x480 files down to 480x320 H.264 videos for e-mailing, or 176x144 MPEG-4 for MMS transmission, thereby transforming a 13MB file into a 4MB one (e-mail) or a 1MB one (MMS). Oddly, QuickTime claimed that the frame rate of the e-mailed file was higher—closer to 30fps—than the full-sized one (15fps), with the MMS clip having a 10fps rate and a lower (8kHz) audio sampling rate. It’s unclear at this point whether the iPhone 3GS has a funky way of storing its videos and exporting them for various purposes, but it’s clear that resolutions, frame rates, and other factors will vary based on the way videos are transmitted.
Note that the iPhone 3GS’s video recording is limited more by battery life than by storage capacity. Recording a 30-minute video ate 20% of a fully-recharged iPhone 3GS battery, which is to say that you can expect around 2.5 hours of pure video recording time from the device. Trimming and sending videos requires additional time and power; the iPhone said to expect a 26-minute upload time when sending a maximum size video clip (15 minutes, 480x320 H.264, 84MB) to MobileMe over Wi-Fi, and actually took that long for the transfer. YouTube uploads are capped at 10 minutes and 1 second in length, and a 10-minute test file took 7 minutes to upload from start to finish, with additional processing time on YouTube’s end. YouTube videos wind up as 480x360 or 270x360 depending on orientation, with major artificating from compression. On a positive note, video uploads proceed in the background as you’re using other iPhone 3GS features, even including additional recording.
Overall, the iPhone 3GS offers a markedly improved photography experience over the iPhone and iPhone 3G, creating better still pictures and now videos, as well. That having been said, its overall performance in both regards is not enough to recommend it to serious or even semi-serious photographers as anything other than an instantly Internet-ready backup for a real camera; unfortunately, the lack of better Internet-ready real cameras may well wind up winning the iPhone 3GS more screen time than its limited lens and sensor combination would otherwise deserve.