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.
Though fans of Apple design may be thrilled every time the company makes a major or minor change to the body of an iPod or iPhone, accessory manufacturers and serial upgraders have a completely different reaction. Thanks to Apple’s decision to preserve the iPhone 3G’s body for the iPhone 3GS, and the lack of major electronic changes to its components, there’s good news this year: with only one rare exception—cases with magnets—virtually anything that worked with the iPhone 3G will work with the iPhone 3GS as well. Apple has actively discouraged case makers from including magnets in their iPhone 3G cases since last year, and we’ve tagged the very few cases with magnets as such in our prior reviews and First Looks, so if there’s something that thrills you visually, you can basically buy without worries. Though it must be noted that the 3GS’s plastic and chrome body continue to need protection more than did the original metal iPhone, it feels great to be able to say “shop without fear of physical incompatibility” for a change.
That having been said, the iPhone 3GS preserves certain electronic incompatibilities with past accessories that started with the iPhone 3G. FireWire chargers and speaker docks that use FireWire charging, including Apple’s discontinued iPod Hi-Fi and the original Bose SoundDock, will not recharge the iPhone 3GS’s battery. You most likely will have no idea that these chargers or speakers used FireWire until you try to connect the iPhone 3GS, at which point a message will come up on screen that charging is not supported, and the battery will stay wherever it is. Charging adapters are now available—unfortunately, for $30, from Scosche and Griffin—to fix this for many accessories. Moreover, any non-charging, non-wireless accessory that was either designed to be used solely with the iPod, or otherwise lacks one of Apple’s “Works With iPhone” authentication chips, will bring up a nag screen that informs you that the accessory was not designed to be used with the iPhone. Unless your iPhone 3GS is in EDGE calling mode, they’ll almost invariably work just fine anyway, but Apple will remind you every time you plug the iPhone in that you should really buy something new instead. Stereo voice recorders developed for the iPod are checkered in their compatibility.
The only known expansion of iPhone 3GS’s capabilities past the iPhone 3G’s is due to its inclusion of a Bluetooth 2.1 wireless chip, which works with 2.1-equipped accessories to reduce power drain and ease the pairing of devices. If you use a Bluetooth 2.1-compatible accessory, there won’t be any need to enter a pairing code to make the iPhone 3GS communicate with it—interestingly, this now appears to be true with the iPhone 3G as well as of iPhone OS 3.0—and power drain due to Bluetooth use should be lessened. Bluetooth 2.0 and earlier 1.x accessories remain compatible, as well. As with the iPhone 3G, the iPhone 3GS gains the ability to stream stereo Bluetooth audio to compatible A2DP devices, discussed in detail in this article; as noted earlier in this review, the iPhone 3GS benefits from superior broadcasting range than the iPhone 3G. We also noticed that the streaming audio didn’t hiccup when apps launched, as it did with the iPhone 3G.
On the flip side, there are several reasons that we’re a little concerned about the future of iPhone 3GS wireless and wired accessories. First, the iPhone 3GS Voice Control feature—an absolute natural for Bluetooth headsets and speakers—does not appear to be controllable by currently available wireless accessories, even though it can be triggered by holding the play/pause button on a wired remote control. Second, the track control buttons found on hundreds of Bluetooth headsets and speakers do not change tracks on the iPhone 3GS. And third, Apple has announced that it will allow iPhone applications to communicate with both wired and wireless accessories, with the implication that Apple authentication chips will be necessary to make this possible. It remains to be seen whether Apple unlocks remote and application compatibility without requiring the creation of all new accessories or the insertion of new chips into old accessories, but past history has shown that the company will require developers to buy and use the chips, and the developers will pass the costs along to consumers. We continue to hope that this won’t be the case.