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.
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Executive Summary: As an Internet device, the iPhone 3GS takes two moderate steps up from the iPhone 3G, and several more from the original iPhone. Whether it is used on a 3G cellular network or a Wi-Fi network, it almost invariably loads and displays web pages faster than the iPhone 3G, sometimes twice as fast. These speed differences are more profound by reference to the original iPhone, which displayed pages at roughly half the speed of the iPhone 3G. This enhanced Internet connectivity also impacts its performance as a digital camera and as a miniature Mac, boosting the speed at which pictures can be shared over the Internet, and the speed at which it draws data from the Internet to share with applications. Users in some countries will also be able to use the iPhone 3GS as a modem for their desktop and notebook computers; in the United States, this feature is presently locked.
Apple’s intent with the original iPhone as an Internet device was half-optimistic, and half-practical: on the positive side, it gave the device the best pocket-sized web browser it could by developing a mobile version of Safari, which could display nearly complete standard web pages—minus their Adobe Flash content. It also included a fine but not fantastic e-mail program called Mail, and enabled several other apps—Maps, YouTube, Stocks, and Weather—to have as much access to the Internet as they needed to display fresh content whenever you opened them. It later leveraged this Internet connectivity for a mobile version of iTunes to download music without a computer, and then again for a mobile App Store to download new applications.
On the pragmatic side, Apple originally used the then-prevalent but slow EDGE technology for on-the-road cellular data connectivity to the Internet, and recommended that users rely on an 802.11b/g Wi-Fi chip for data when they were at home or their offices. The iPhone’s iTunes application was called the “iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store” because users initially weren’t actually allowed to download music over EDGE, and could only do so over Wi-Fi. This, and other facets of EDGE, were untenable for the long-term; users in European countries, for instance, had 3G cellphone networks that didn’t support or only modestly supported EDGE, so Apple told them to use Wi-Fi hotspots, leading to grumbling and slow sales. In order to meet international demand, Apple therefore rushed a faster 3G version of the iPhone out only a year later, appealing to tens of millions of additional customers around the world; it pushed AT&T to add more 3G support to its U.S. network, and succeeded. Thereafter, iTunes music and applications alike could be downloaded over cellular connections, subject to a 10MB file size limit.
But because 3G network support was—and is—highly variable from location to location, the iPhone 3G’s performance wasn’t always even twice as fast as its predecessor in certain cities. Apple was sued by multiple plaintiffs based on this speed discrepancy, which was quantified in our testing. In one of our suburban test cities last year, for instance, the average performance gain for web browsing on 3G over EDGE was only 26%, a very small benefit for upgraders. But on average across multiple cities, the iPhone 3G was 266% faster on the 3G network than average EDGE performance, with an amazing Canadian boost of 365%. Wi-Fi remained faster in all cases, performing 535% faster than EDGE or roughly twice as fast as 3G on average.
This year, Apple has made CPU and RAM improvements to the iPhone 3GS that should improve its speed as an Internet device no matter where it’s being used, and regardless of whether it’s on 3G or Wi-Fi. Whereas the LA Times web site took 46 seconds to load on iPhone 3G in Amherst, NY, the slowest of our test cities last year, it required only 27 seconds to load on the iPhone 3GS, a marked improvement that we’d describe as typical of our test results. By contrast, camera site Digital Photography Review took 21 seconds to load on iPhone 3G, and 19 seconds to load on iPhone 3GS, a much smaller improvement that we saw less frequently, and one site we tested loaded as quickly on the 3G as the 3GS, which was very atypical. Pulling up web-derived content, such as YouTube’s Featured list, was also faster on the iPhone 3GS; much of this appeared to be due to faster app loading times on the new device. Actually displaying videos varied from test to test: sometimes, the iPhone 3GS started playing faster, but in subsequent tests, the iPhone 3G did.
Though users should expect improved web performance on whatever 3G network they are using, and we underscore that the improvement may range from small to big, it should also be noted that 3G network variations will continue to impact speeds for the foreseeable future. Beyond the CPU and RAM changes, Apple has now increased 3G downloading speed from the maximum 3.6 Megabit per second HSDPA support in iPhone 3G up to a maximum of 7.2 Megabits per second in iPhone 36 S. However, these are theoretical maximums, and not widely supported in the United States by AT&T cell towers. Earlier this year, AT&T claimed that it would double the speeds of its existing American 3G network from 3.6Mbps to 7.2Mbps, but as of the iPhone 3GS announcement in June, 2009 had made no specific commitment to when and where the higher-speed towers would be available. Consequently, iPhone 3GS network performance will continue to be uneven from area to area throughout the world, and the range of possible speeds will vary more than before.
Since Canadian Rogers Wireless users already have access to 7.2Mbps 3G, we tested the iPhone 3G versus the iPhone 3GS in Toronto, a city with widespread 7.2Mbps deployment, using the same two test websites. Here, the LA Times web site took 35 seconds to load on iPhone 3G over the Rogers 3G network, and 18 seconds to load on iPhone 3GS, an improvement of almost 2x. Digital Photography Review took 15 seconds to load on iPhone 3G, and 9 seconds to load on iPhone 3GS, an improvement of almost 1.7x. These results were consistent with our prior year’s findings, namely that an iPhone 3G will load pages faster in Toronto than in Amherst; now, through its various chip improvements, the iPhone 3GS achieves even better load times there, too.
Because iPhone 3GS’s current performance improvements are in part a function of the improved CPU and RAM, we also found that loading web pages over Wi-Fi was decidedly faster. The full iLounge home page took 40 seconds to load in Amherst, NY on the iPhone 3G over Wi-Fi—43 for an original iPhone—and 19 seconds on the iPhone 3GS, with nearly identical numbers in Toronto over Wi-Fi. The full BBC web site took 31 seconds to load on the iPhone 3G, and 21 seconds to load on the iPhone 3GS in Amherst, both over Wi-Fi, again with similar numbers in Toronto over Wi-Fi. Notably, all of the above speeds are using the faster Safari browser found in Apple’s recently-released iPhone OS 3.0 software, and they all point to the same fact: regardless of the wireless network it’s connected to, the iPhone 3GS is faster than both prior iPhones for Internet purposes, at least by a little, and sometimes by a factor of 2 to 1.
Having said all of this, the iPhone 3GS still has some serious deficiencies as an Internet device. Its Mail application continues to force users to individually open and browse their various e-mail accounts, a continued pain for users of desktop and certain competing pocket computers. Despite the iPhone 3GS’s greater horsepower, Safari still does not support Adobe’s Flash, making portions of some web sites—and in rare cases, entire web sites—unusable by the otherwise capable browser. And due as much to the screen as concerns over battery life, data drain, and processing capabilities, the device does not support broad multitasking in the sense that users cannot load multiple web pages at once, or keep an instant messaging application open while using other programs. Additionally, despite AT&T’s claims of “unlimited” data plans for the iPhone 3GS, there are still caps—generally 10 Megabytes per download—on the size of files that can be uploaded and downloaded with the device over the cellular network, limiting users’ ability to download many apps while on the go, and preventing both TV shows and movies from being downloaded through the recently enhanced mobile version of iTunes. The device continues to omit Wi-Fi support for 802.11n networks, instead using 802.11b or 802.11g. And finally, there are issues, yet to be fully resolved, with using the iPhone 3GS on AT&T’s network as a tethered computer modem, and sending MMS messages containing pictures, audio, or video to fellow users. International users have access to both tethering and MMS.
To its credit, Apple has made some improvements to the iPhone OS 3.0 experience that partially compensate for the aforementioned issues, enabling users to easily send individual videos and multiple photos—up to five—in one e-mail message, offering a Push Notification feature to let instant messaging services update devices even when they’re not running programs such as AIM, and improving the usability of Safari, Mail, and other programs with features such as a landscape keyboard, AutoFill to remember prior information for filling out fields, and Cut, Copy, and Paste across multiple applications. All of these features are discussed in our Instant Expert: iPhone OS 3.0 article, and none fix the iPhone 3GS’s aforementioned issues, but they do make iPhone use better than it was a year or two years ago.
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