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.
As revolutionary as the original iPhone may have been, last year’s iPhone 3G was an evolutionary upgrade, and the iPhone 3GS is just another step down the prior road—arguably just more of the same. The majority of the features it adds to last year’s model are properly understood as minor, though not trivial or unwanted, and there are a few potential biggies in the bunch: all users will benefit from the additional storage capacity, photographers and amateur videographers will appreciate the improved camera, and most users will notice and possibly even care a little about the enhanced speed. Superior Safari performance in particular will make 3GS a lustworthy iPhone for even original iPhone owners, even if they have to give up their classic metallic devices in the process. And at some point later this year, applications may begin to make better use of the 3GS’s compass and new graphics processor, at which point these features may come into their own as selling points; similarly, improved 3G networks may boost 3GS web speeds further. For the time being, the latter improvements are legitimate, yet largely theoretical for U.S. customers, and some users elsewhere in the world as well.
There are, however, serious countervailing considerations that need to be kept in mind before making an iPhone 3GS purchase. First and most serious in our minds is the device’s battery drain, which is even more considerable than we’d expected going in. Rather than fixing last year’s obviously problematic 3G calling and data drain by using a dramatically bigger battery, Apple made only small tweaks, and the consequences are clear: users can still expect five hours of call time on a full charge, at best, and should expect weak running times when using the GPS and digital compass features, as well as the video camera. That said, music and Wi-Fi data run times are at least a little better than before, and the results of a non-strenuous mixed-use battery test with little calling, GPS, or video recording use showed the iPhone 3GS working without a recharge for the better part of a day. In more strenuous testing with little bits of its new features all being used, however, less than 5 hours of run time before a recharge should be expected. In other words, the iPhone 3GS will last longest when you don’t use any of its heavily marketed new capabilities—a sign that a better battery, more efficient chips, or both are seriously needed.
The second, related consideration is the explicit understanding going into the iPhone 3GS that it is a rarity: the iPod family typically sees devices replaced with substantially better models once every year or two, and this is now the third iPhone in a row that seems more or less the same. Thus, as good as this particular iPhone may be overall, its odd name, highly similar casing, and iterative improvements all suggest either that a more major upgrade is a year away, or that Apple’s running out of ways to substantially upgrade its products. We’d bet heavily on the former.
Our B+ rating and general recommendation for the iPhone 3GS recognize it as a superior performer and thus value to its predecessor in a number of categories, albeit with a few major caveats that should make any purchase a well-informed one rather than an impulse buy. If you’re an original iPhone owner looking for a major speed bump, capacity jump, better camera, superior mapping device, or more easily controlled iPhone, you’ll find all these things and many more pleasant benefits in the iPhone 3GS. iPhone 3G owners will also find each of these factors to be true, but most to diminished extents that in our view may initially appear compelling, but after a few weeks or months will have upgraders questioning the necessity and expense. First-time iPhone buyers will find the iPhone 3GS to be a great introduction to the product line, with enough features and future potential to be genuinely exciting. But thanks to both two-year service contracts and Apple’s history of iPhone updates, it’s all but certain that upgrading to next year’s model will be equally tempting and potentially expensive. If you decide to take the plunge with iPhone 3GS, go into the purchase aware that this is the best iPhone Apple has made, but understanding that more dramatic changes are surely not too far off. As U.S. users have the option to return the iPhone 3GS within 30 days of initial purchase, testing one for yourself and deciding whether to stick with it or wait would be a smart option if you’re on the fence.