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 miniature Macintosh computer, running a stripped-down version of Mac OS X, the iPhone 3GS advances in several respects over the iPhone 3G and original iPhone, which were largely similar in third-party application-running capabilities and speeds. First, extra RAM and a faster CPU enable the new model to load and run applications of all kinds noticeably faster than both prior iPhones, and modestly faster than the second-generation iPod touch. Second, a new graphics processor promises to enable even better 3-D visual effects, though they are unlikely to appear for some time in many applications. Third, improved synchronization speeds make it much faster when transferring media and applications from an iTunes-equipped computer. Fourth, the iPhone 3GS includes new accessibility features to aid visually- and hearing-impaired users. Fifth and finally, though iPhone 3GS’s integrated GPS and mapping features are basically identical to the iPhone 3G’s, and still lack for automated turn-by-turn directions, the new model adds a compass.
Up until the mid-2008 release of iPhone OS 2.0, the iPhone was a closed device—it ran only a handful of programs developed by Apple, which were enough to make phone calls, surf the Internet, play music, and take photos, but not enough to do the dozens, hundreds, or thousands of other things that users might want to do with pocket devices. Apple gave third-party developers access to the iPhone in March, 2008, and opened the App Store in July to let those developers give away or sell programs. On that day, the iPhone transformed into a true pocket computer with “anywhere” connectivity, and the iPod touch followed suit with more limited capabilities.
The results were unquestionably spectacular: there are now 50,000 applications for the iPhone and iPod touch, and even if 90% range from worthless to trial versions of other apps, the Store would still have 5,000 legitimately worthwhile programs to expand an iPhone beyond its stock capabilities. Many of the good ones are games, but there are also simple and deep productivity tools, news readers, music creation, mixing, and discovery apps, programs to track and watch live sporting events, instant messaging, and social networking programs. We’ve reviewed lots of them, and the list continues to grow literally every day.
For now, running these programs on the iPhone 3GS is not hugely different than running them on the iPhone, the iPhone 3G, or an iPod touch. With extremely rare exceptions, the same program will run on all of these devices, and the only difference you’ll notice is in speed. The iPhone 3GS’s extra RAM and faster CPU enable it to load programs, particularly large and complex ones, faster than the iPhone 3G and iPod touch 2G, differences that are best illustrated in these videos: in one, the iPhone 3GS is compared to the iPhone 3G, and in the other, the iPhone 3GS is compared to the iPod touch 2G. Note that both prior devices have 128MB of RAM, half the iPhone 3GS’s 256MB, but their CPUs run at different speeds. The 400MHz iPhone 3G runs slower than the 533MHz iPod touch 2G, and the 600MHz iPhone 3GS; the original iPhone and iPhone 3G have the same RAM and clock speeds. Between its better RAM and CPU, the 3GS almost always opens apps and games faster than its predecessors, which means that you can in many cases start playing a game on the 3GS before it has even finished loading on the other devices. Memory-related application crashes and the need to restart an iPhone or iPhone 3G due to a “low memory condition” should decrease, as well, but Apple should never have allowed unstable apps to appear in the App Store in the first place.
Interestingly, but unfortunately not of much current interest is the fact that the iPhone 3GS also contains a new graphics chip that has the ability to produce considerably better 3-D visuals on next-generation games. Prior iPhone and iPod touch models used an assisted PowerVR MBX Lite chip that could produce polygonal graphics superior to the Nintendo DS and nearly as impressive as the Sony PlayStation Portable, with a roughly 500,000 to 1 million polygon per second peak capability. The iPhone 3GS includes a PowerVR SGX chip, which includes support for programmable shaders—technology that enables more interesting special effects, more realistic water, and more—plus polygon counts in the 3.5 million per second range. For the time being, the new graphics chip enables old 3-D games to run noticeably but not amazingly smoother without fine-tuning from developers; the rotating planets in Ngmoco’s Star Defense look good on prior iPhones, but silky smooth on the iPhone 3GS. Should developers go back and enhance their old games, or develop new ones that use the new chip’s shader capabilities, iPhone 3GS games could look dramatically better than their predecessors. But for the moment, this is purely theoretical, and the iPhone 3GS’s installed user base is small. Six months or a year may pass before major visual differences between the 3GS’s and its predecessors’ games become widespread.
One dimension of the pocket computer experience that has quantifiably improved is the process of loading the iPhone 3GS with media, apps, and other data. We ran our standard 1GB media synchronization test transfer on the iPhone 3GS right out of the box, and it took 1 minute, 40 seconds—comparable to, if a little faster than the second-generation iPod touch. On a media-free iPhone 3G, transferring the same files took 3 minutes, 38 seconds, which puts the iPhone 3GS at around 2.2x the speed of its predecessor for synchronization. Multiple synchronizations of several different iPhone 3GS units with apps, contacts, and other data confirmed our initial findings: you’ll spend much less time sitting around waiting for iPhone 3GS to sync than its predecessor.
Another improvement that’s great to see in the iPhone 3GS is “Accessibility,” a set of tools for visually- and hearing-impaired users that make this device capable of five things, each individually activated or deactivated as you prefer: VoiceOver, Zoom, White on Black, Mono Audio, and Speak Auto-text. They can be turned on in iTunes, via the iPhone 3GS Device screen, or in the iPhone 3GS’s own Settings > General > Accessibility menu, arguably a little too deeply buried for some users. VoiceOver lets the iPhone 3GS read the contents of on-screen items to you through the speaker or headphones, enabling users to point at things they want to hear read; it does a good job for a first-generation implementation of this feature, but complicates the use of the device by requiring three taps to use a button: the first one highlights the button, then a double-tap is needed to activate it.
Zoom lets the iPhone 3GS variably scale any of its screens to huge sizes—at maximum, one icon can fill the display—by using three-finger swipes; it works well and preserves the current zoom and position from screen to screen, however, because both it and VoiceOver change the iPhone 3GS’s gesturing system, they can’t be used at the same time.
White on Black inverts literally everything on the iPhone—unlock screen to Home screen to sub-menus and apps—giving most menus dark backgrounds and white text, but oddly transforming the Home screens into white pages with dark text, a change that makes them less readable while improving everything else. Mono Audio blends both audio channels into each earbud, and Speak Auto-text lets the iPhone 3GS say auto-corrections and auto-capitalizations it’s recommending as users type. All of these features will be welcome additions to the iPhone 3GS, but most will benefit from additional polish in subsequent versions of the iPhone OS; Apple should also bring at least Zoom, White on Black, and Mono Audio to earlier iPhones and iPod touches, as well.
Last but not least are iPhone 3GS enhancements related to mapping. GPS—specifically, the ability to pinpoint your current geographic location on an Internet-loaded map from Google—was a semi-noteworthy addition to the iPhone 3G, and it has been augmented in the iPhone 3GS by a similarly modest tool: a digital compass. Just as was the case last year, Apple’s addition of the compass feels almost like an afterthought—something that was convenient to toss in, but harder to actually justify with useful software. GPS gave Maps the less than wowing ability to display a blue dot that sort of tracked your location as you walked or drove; eventually, other applications could either either tag your current location on a map, or tell you what sorts of things were near you. We tested the GPS features of iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS and saw no performance differences whatsoever between the blue dots; they seemed to be equally accurate or inaccurate in tracking realtime movement on foot or in a car.
For now, the compass does two things: it runs in its own standalone application that shows you which direction you’re pointing in, complete with longitude and latitude coordinates at the bottom of the screen, plus a single setting: the ability to switch between true North and magnetic North. We tested the compass against the digital compass of a modern in-car GPS system, and found that they almost always agreed on our orientation; the iPhone 3GS’s nicely drawn compass updated more frequently than the very plain one on the GPS’s screen.
Second, the compass enables Google’s Maps to rotate dynamically to show you your current orientation relative to the geography you’re traveling through. A button on the Compass application brings you to Maps, but you’ll need to press the GPS triangulation button twice to activate the compass—not quite so intuitive. We tested the Maps and compass functionality together alongside the aforementioned in-car GPS system, finding the iPhone’s display of map graphics to be far more detailed, and smoother in rotation, though the 3GS compass occasionally spazzed out and led to inaccurate map rotations, even when it was being held steady. On several drives, we noticed that the GPS was correctly tracking our progress down straight streets, but the compass was showing us as traveling diagonally sideways relative to them, an obvious glitch. Could magnetism in a car be to blame? Notably, if you place the 3GS compass near speakers or another magnetic source, a magnetic interference warning will come up, at which point you’ll need to wave the iPhone 3GS around in the air to recalibrate the compass. This didn’t happen often in our testing, but it did happen unexpectedly in our test car when the iPhone 3GS was placed near the in-car GPS, and the 3GS compass doesn’t appear to know how to auto-correct for the magnetic fields it’s surrounded by.
Together, the GPS and compass tools do make the iPhone 3GS even more useful as a potential navigation tool than the original iPhone and both versions of the iPod touch, but there’s still a simple missing link: Apple-developed automated turn-by-turn navigation software. Over the past several years, Apple has occasionally thrown up its hands on obvious, “it’s so simple” features that would benefit users—direct-from-iPod on-TV menuing being one of the most conspicuous—for reasons that may be financial, such as hoping to sell Apple TVs, or legal, such as fear of patent lawsuits. It never explains its logic, and despite superb engineers and a multi-billion-dollar cash reserve, it rarely purchases the licenses, the software or the companies it would need to add the features. Automated turn-by-turn navigation software is one of those situations: the iPhone had turn-by-turn Maps, the iPhone 3G added GPS, and the iPhone 3GS now has a compass. The only things missing from Maps at this point are the automation, the voice prompting, and arguably, the faux 3-D presentation of streets as you’re driving. Apple has again passed the responsibility off to third-party developers, and if history is any guide, the results will be overpriced, unimpressive software and accessories that Apple’s C-teams could have assembled in a weekend. It’s high time for the company to step up and either make or buy the turn-by-turn software iPhone users have been waiting for, hopefully not in a separate “iPhone 3GPS” device.
One final, brief note on the iPhone 3GS’s performance as a miniature computer relates to its input options, namely, the manner in which you interact with apps and games. Apple included an accelerometer—an orientation sensor—in the original iPhone, and has allowed third-party developers to use it for steering wheel, shaking, and other in-game controls; it also relies almost exclusively on the multi-point touchscreen for buttons, with the exception of a dedicated ringer switch, dedicated volume controls, dedicated Sleep/Wake button, and dedicated Home button on the device’s sides, top, and face, none of which can be used by apps for other functions. While these controls work well for many applications, and are great for interaction with mostly passive playback of media, they are not proper substitutes for physical keyboards or joypad-style controllers, and should be understood as comparatively limited and limiting as input devices when trying to play games and create either text or other content on the iPhone 3GS. Time will tell whether wired or wireless accessories bridge this gap, and more importantly, whether they do so properly, without introducing incompatibilities between third-party apps and Apple’s own integrated software.