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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Though virtually none of the other integrated applications found on the device have changed from the versions currently found on the iPhone and iPhone 3G, no review of the iPhone 3GS would be complete without at least briefly mentioning its other included software. Our Instant Expert and Review pieces on iPhone OS 3.0 discuss subtle changes to these applications that we only briefly gloss over here.
Messages: This application sends text messages to other mobile phones through the currently connected cellular calling network regardless of whether you are connected to a Wi-Fi access point. These messages are delivered more or less instantaneously if the sender and recipient are on the same cellular network. As mentioned in prior sections, iPhone 3GS in some countries can also send pictures, audio, and video clips through this application; AT&T will support these features later. Users are charged by the message, or have to pay an additional fee per month for bundles of these messages. We continue to hate these surcharges and believe that a true Apple-developed instant messaging application for the iPhone is long overdue.
Calendar, Clock, and Calculator: Calendar allows you to see and edit calendar data in month, day, or list view, now with the ability to synchronize calendars from multiple sources and schedule appointments with specific participants directly from the iPhone. Clock continues to offer multiple world clocks, alarms, a stopwatch with laps, and a countdown timer with the ability to put your iPod to sleep or play a ringtone at the end of the countdown. Calculator provides portrait or landscape calculators, the latter scientific, for easy computations.
Contacts: Originally developed for the iPod touch, this subset of the Phone application enables users to see a list of contacts, organized by group, and add, edit, or delete contact information. It operates in widescreen mode, which the Phone application does not.
Photos and Camera: Photos displays both iTunes-synchronized photos from your computer and whatever pictures or videos you have created with the iPhone 3GS’s built-in Camera application, discussed earlier. Of the applications here, only Photos and Camera have changed markedly from other iPhones’ versions: the Camera Roll now divides into Photos, Videos, and All tabs when you have both types of content on the device, and lets you select multiple items at once to share, copy, or delete. Users have the ability to send photo or video content directly to e-mail or MobileMe, and video content over to YouTube, as well.
YouTube: Users can browse YouTube video content with or without logging into their YouTube accounts, gaining buttons to see their own videos and subscriptions; videos are presented in degraded quality over EDGE or 3G connections, and higher quality over Wi-Fi. There is no improvement in 3GS video quality over prior iPhone 3G quality. Note that logging into the YouTube app with your existing YouTube account credentials enables instant uploading of iPhone 3GS videos to YouTube without a further need to log in.
Stocks and Weather: Both of these applications draw simple, up to date information from Yahoo, with Weather providing current weather and a five-day forecast for your choice of multiple cities, and Stocks providing summary lists and charts for your preferred companies and industrial averages. Weather is basically unchanged from the 2007 version, but Stocks now includes links to recent news headlines for each company, additional summary information, and can now be rotated into landscape mode to show a more detailed stock pricing chart, complete with the ability to measure differences over time.
Notes: This simple notepad-style application continues to let users compose text-format messages to themselves on a mock yellow pad. The only notable addition to Notes is its ability to synchronize iPhone content with notes stored on your computer, an addition to iTunes 8.2. As with Safari, Mail, and Messages, Notes now runs in landscape or portrait orientation, with a full-width keyboard as needed.
Voice Memos: Added to the iPhone OS 3.0 and also available to iPhone and iPhone 3G users, as well as in hardware-limited form to iPod touch 2G users, this new application lets users record audio from the iPhone’s integrated monaural microphone, its Earphone-attached monaural microphone, or compatible monaural and stereo microphone accessories that are sold separately for roughly $10 and up. Recordings can be trimmed from within the iPhone and sent via e-mail, or synchronized to iTunes. Users on networks with MMS support can also send audio clips recorded here to other cell phones; Voice Memos exports in a cross-compatible format called AMR (Adaptive Multi-Rate).
Spotlight: Added to iPhone OS 3.0, this text-based search feature enables users to find applications, contacts, e-mails, calendar information, and iPod media files from a central screen merely by typing letters found in their titles, from: and to: lines, and other data fields. It’s found by swiping from the first Home screen once to the right, pulling a hidden left-side search screen into view.
From the applications standpoint, the two biggest omissions of the iPhone 3GS running iPhone OS 3.0 are the user’s inability to completely hide most of their unused Apple-developed applications without creating a dummy page elsewhere, and the Home menu’s continued reliance on page flipping rather than folders to organize applications. Despite launch day claims from an Apple representative, the iPhone 3GS appears not to be able to display more than the iPhone 3G’s 11 pages of apps (180 total, including 4 in the dock), which is fine given that the swipe gestures required to go even to page 8 are annoying, and organizing apps in any meaningful way using the iPhone jiggle and drag interface is time-consuming, particularly when new apps are added. With over 50,000 apps in the App Store and plenty of reason for users to want to download many of them, folders or some novel alternate interface are more seriously needed than additional pages for app storage.
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