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.
Readers have asked us for our preliminary comments on a wide variety of different iPhone 3G S features and performance statistics. Rather than posting these comments in isolation, without explanation, we have decided to post an early draft of our comprehensive 10-page review of the device immediately. Photographs can be found here, audio here, and video here. Text will change, additional details will be added, and a rating will be determined when this review reaches final status. We hope that this is more useful than a handful of numbers would have been.
Though there are three degrees of Apple product refreshes—revolutionary, evolutionary, and trivial—the lines are blurred somewhat by a critical factor: a given user’s point of reference. Those who purchased a first-generation Mac or iPod might have found its immediate successor to be only a minor step up, but by holding off two years on an upgrade, they’d likely find at least a few tantalizing new features in a third-generation sequel. By contrast, those who started with a second- or third-generation device mightn’t feel the itch to upgrade until a fourth- or fifth-generation version came along. Apple’s first multi-function mobile phone, the iPhone, has only been around for two years, and just in time for AT&T’s two-year service contracts to expire, there’s now a third-generation version.
That’s the iPhone 3GS ($99/8GB,* $199/16GB, $299/32GB), which may well be the worst-named product in the last eight years of the company’s pocket media player initiative,** but it’s also the best iPhone the company has ever made in all ways but two: battery life and durability. This feat hasn’t been achieved through a revolutionary rethinking of its user interface, the addition of a huge new feature, or a radical price drop, any of which would have excited Apple fans and the world as a whole. Rather, the iPhone 3GS is a purely iterative device, and its name suggests precisely what the product is: last year’s iPhone 3G, with a few new tricks up its sleeve. Only the most seriously hardcore iPhone 3G owners should consider upgrading, especially in light of incentives to wait another year, but fans of the original iPhone and first-time iPhone buyers alike will find this new model to be very compelling.
As always, iLounge has assembled a comprehensive review of the iPhone 3GS, designed to help buyers of all types—iPhone novices, users, and hard-core fans alike—make a more informed decision about whether this is the right device for their needs. If you’re looking for a quick read, you’ll find photographs and executive summaries on every page, plus occasional links to audio and video samples that illustrate how the new model compares with earlier Apple products. Dig deeper and you’ll find a broad walkthrough of all of the device’s features, specifications, and performance test results, as well as our opinions on whether the iPhone 3GS is worthy of your hard-earned dollars, pounds, or yen. We have also included links to a collection of full-resolution photographs that will let you compare the iPhone 3GS’s camera to the iPhone 3G’s, which is all but indistinguishable from the original iPhone’s. There’s plenty to learn in here, and we hope you enjoy it.[*/** Editor’s Notes: On June 22, 2009, four days after the product’s launch and two weeks after its initial announcement, Apple changed the iPhone 3G S name to iPhone 3GS, reducing its awkwardness. We have updated this review to reflect the change. Additionally, on June 24, 2010, Apple released an 8GB version of the iPhone 3GS for $99, discontinuing and phasing out the prior 16GB and 32GB models in favor of the newer, same-capacity iPhone 4. The 8GB iPhone 3GS is available only in black, and is unchanged from the 2009 release save for the addition of iOS 4 software. Apart from an update to the Pros and Cons above, we have not updated the remainder of this review regarding the 8GB model.]
iPhone 3GS: The Big Picture – Purchasing, Package, Pack-Ins, and Key Features
Viewed broadly, the iPhone 3GS is at its core the same device Apple released in 2007—the iPhone—as enhanced by the key feature of 2008’s iPhone OS 2.0 release, the App Store. This is a pocket-sized computer and mobile phone with a 480×320-resolution display that’s virtually identical to the first iPhone’s, and a multi-point touchable surface as its primary control interface. Four buttons and a switch are its only non-touchscreen external controls; virtually everything it does is handled with on-screen icons and keyboards that shift between over 30 languages with ease. Its integrated battery recharges with an included proprietary USB cable that connects to its bottom and either your computer or an included wall adapter, and its audio is performed either through one of two built-in monaural speakers or a pair of included stereo headphones. You can talk to it, and through it, using either an integrated, bottom-mounted microphone or a nearly identical one that’s built into the headphones.
Pricing and Purchasing Options
Prospective iPhone 3GS purchasers in the United States have several options. Most common is the “purchase with a new subsidized contract” option, which requires a customer to pay $199 (16GB) or $299 (32GB) up front, plus a $36 activation fee, along with an agreement to make at least $720 in additional payments for iPhone 3GS Internet access over a 24-month period, plus at least $960 in additional payments for telephone calling minutes. With taxes and fees, the minimum outlay for an iPhone 3GS is roughly $2,300 to $2,400 across the life of the contract, not including text messages, which can be purchased in bundles starting at $5 extra per month. You can cancel the contract at any time by paying a pro-rated “early termination fee,” which starts at $175 and diminishes each month you remain on the contract. Two other options—purchasing in the middle of an existing subsidized contract ($399/$499), and purchasing without a contract ($599/$699) also exist; it is less expensive to terminate a contract early than to purchase at the higher prices. Customers elsewhere in the world are subject to different, occasionally changing terms explained in links found in our Complete Guide to iPhone Service Providers.
After the disasterous launch of the iPhone 3G in 2008, which saw long lines and numerous complaints that lingered over a weekend when Apple and AT&T activation servers buckled, the two companies dramatically improved the purchasing and activation process for the iPhone 3GS’s June 19, 2009 launch. Customers can now have iPhones delivered directly to their homes by Apple or AT&T, signing contracts online prior to shipment, and performing activation from the Internet-connected PCs or Macs of their choice. They can alternately visit Apple, AT&T, Best Buy, or Wal-Mart physical stores and walk through the first-time purchasing or upgrading process with salespeople who have been trained in selling and activating the devices. iLounge’s editors went on launch day to Apple and AT&T stores, as well as purchasing phones via parcel delivery from both companies. All of the iPhone 3GS units arrived on time as promised, in perfect physical condition, with no immediately obvious screen or body defects. Apart from activation delays—brief in one case, less than an hour in another, and several hours in a third—the purchasing and signup processes were painless; setting up another new account from scratch took literally 15 minutes from start to finish. Some users experienced extended activation delays, for which Apple issued $30 iTunes credits, but problems this year appeared to be considerably diminished from 2008.
Packaging and Pack-Ins
More has changed between the cardboard box packages of the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS than between their own physical shells. The white or black iPhone 3GS box is smaller than the 3G’s, eliminates the use of foam from its top half, and yet preserves the same internal compartments: a tray for the plastic-wrapped phone, a cardboard insert to hold instructions, stickers, warnings, and a metal SIM card removal tool, and three spaces for the aforementioned headphones, USB cable, and wall power adapter.
Gone from last year’s box is the black screen cleaning cloth, and after a product recall, the 2008 wall adapter has been replaced with a version that won’t fall apart and risk electrocuting the user. This change is indicated by a green sticker on the adapter’s body.
Additionally, Apple’s prior iPhone Stereo Headset—included with the original iPhone and iPhone 3G—has been replaced in this package with the company’s newer, 2008/2009 iPod and Mac-compatible Earphones with Remote and Mic, which sound virtually identical. The iPhone 3GS’s version of these Earphones uses a new glossy plastic headphone plug casing that is thinner and harder than its rubber predecessors, but the other components are the same. Dangling from the right earbud is a glossy box with a mesh-covered microphone on one side and three buttons on the other.
Top and bottom buttons control the iPhone 3GS’s volume, and the center button acts as a play/pause button (one click during music playback), track forward button (two clicks), track reverse button (three clicks), a call start/end button (one click during an incoming call), and a trigger for the new Voice Command feature (click and hold briefly). Apple sells an upgraded version of these earphones called the In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic, which look and feel great but are sonically underwhelming.
The iPhone 3GS: Body and Key Features
That leaves the iPhone 3GS itself, which is cosmetically almost identical to the iPhone 3G. Just as with the prior model, the iPhone 3GS measures 4.5 inches by 2.4 inches by 0.48 inches, has a glossy plastic shell that wraps around its top, bottom, back, and sides, and uses a combination of metal, plastic, and glass on its front. Chrome metal is used for the front bezel, as well as for rings around the rear camera and top headphone port, side volume buttons and a ringer switch, and a top Sleep/Wake button. Metal mesh can be seen through the front and bottom speakers and bottom microphone, with plastic used for the top SIM card tray and bottom Dock Connector port. This time, you can choose black or white versions of both the lower-capacity 16GB model and the higher-capacity 32GB model; last year, only the higher-capacity model was available in white. Both versions now have chrome writing on their backs, matching the chrome Apple logo, and contrasting with the flat gray writing that appeared on the iPhone 3G.
The biggest change to the iPhone 3GS’s body is the front glass that’s used for its 3.5”, 480×320-resolution touchscreen display. Apple was originally planning to ship the first iPhone with a plastic screen cover, but changed its plans at the last moment and switched to a scratch-resistant—not scratch-proof—glass. This glass was preserved for the iPhone 3G, and now has been coated with an oleophobic coating, which is designed to make it easier for users to remove fingerprints and smudges than before; a single wipe with a plain cloth does the trick, rather than multiple wipes with a microfiber cloth. A plastic covering is still used for the device’s main Home button, which remains concave and blends in with the rest of the device’s face. One other small change, a two-gram, 0.1-ounce increase in weight for the 3GS, is imperceptible; it now weighs 4.8 ounces, the same as the original iPhone, versus 4.7 ounces for the iPhone 3G.
Given the tremendous similarities between the iPhone 3GS and its predecessor, there’s little to say about the new model save to note that—unlike Apple’s metal-clad iPods, and original iPhone—it looks and feels as if it was built to last for roughly the two-year duration of a typical cellular service contract. The substantially plastic casing of the iPhone 3G began to show scratches immediately, and developed cracks after even normal use; its chrome bezel was easily tarnished, and scratches appeared in its screen over time.
Prospective buyers should therefore be warned in advance to purchase protection of some sort—a highly-rated iPhone 3G case with film-based screen protection, or a completely film-based body alternative is advisable—and avoid dropping the 3GS or allowing it to make contact with water. Should your iPhone 3GS develop cracks or other issues under normal usage conditions, Apple will replace it, but replacements are tough to come by in the event of drops or water damage, both of which are easy for the company to detect. An AppleCare extended warranty is strongly advisable for battery and/or casing replacement during the second year of ownership.
Just like its predecessors, iPhone 3GS runs Apple’s iPhone OS 3.0 software, and has five key functions: it is a telephone, an iPod media player, a digital camera, an Internet device, and a miniature Macintosh computer with the ability to run applications made by Apple, as well as applications and games released by third-parties. iPhone 3GS does all of these things just like its predecessors, but enhances each element’s performance enough to be noticed—again, evolutionary steps, not revolutionary ones. You can click on each of those headings to skip directly to pages discussing what is the same and what has changed from each aspect of the iPhone 3G’s performance to the iPhone 3GS.
iPhone 3GS: As a Telephone
Executive Summary: As a telephone, iPhone 3GS is virtually indistinguishable from its immediate predecessor. The single most noticeable improvement is the addition of Voice Control, which enables the iPhone 3GS to be dialed without requiring the user to touch the screen. Additionally enhanced is its Bluetooth wireless range, which may help the few users who have had problems maintaining connections between monaural calling headsets and past iPhones. Sound quality for phone calls has made no discernible change, positive or negative, from the iPhone 3G, which did improve in speakerphone performance from the original iPhone.
To say that the iPhone and iPhone 3G didn’t need much help in the telephone department would be an oversimplification, but both devices included the same, excellent Apple-developed calling software that relies upon “contacts”—computer- or iPhone-generated cards with telephone, address, e-mail, and photo details for people—plus a super-simple keypad, and a special “Visual Voicemail” system to ease the calling experience. Want to call someone? Touch their contact name, select the right phone number, and their phone rings. Want to conference call with two people? Press a + button on the screen and merge the calls together. Receive a new piece of voicemail? An on-screen display will show you either who called, from which of their phones, or a telephone number with the city and state attached; then, you can play the message from its start or skip through it with a scroll bar. Collectively, these features made iPhone telephone calling better than using almost any other phone on the planet, and iPhone 3GS preserves all of them.
The prior iPhones have, however, been faulted for certain aspects of their phone performance, starting with dropped calls and related issues that are almost entirely attributable to Apple’s partner networks. Potential U.S. buyers have the option to return their handsets within 30 days without questions if they are not satisfied with the network coverage in the places where they live, work, or travel, and should take advantage of this return policy in the event that they cannot get a strong signal—3-5 bars—where they spend their time. Lower signal strength can lead to calling problems and increased battery drain.
That said, iLounge’s editors live in cities where dropped calls are virtually non-existent, and call quality is consistently very good. In our tests, iPhone 3GS appeared to exhibit identical signal strength to the iPhone 3G, and calls seemed to be no more or less flaky than before. Callers sounded the same to us, and they told us—generally—that we sounded the same to them. One caller mentioned that we appeared to be a little louder with the iPhone 3GS than with the iPhone 3G, but others heard no difference. The iPhone 3G’s loud, very good monaural speakerphone and microphone configuration are apparently unchanged in iPhone 3GS.
Bluetooth wireless performance has improved somewhat, however. Apple has replaced the prior-generation Bluetooth 2.0 chip with a new Bluetooth 2.1 chip that may enhance wireless performance and decrease power consumption with certain Bluetooth 2.1-specific accessories; we noticed small improvements in clarity when testing with Altec Lansing’s BackBeat 903 headset, for instance. But more considerable is iPhone 3GS’s wireless broadcasting power, which gains roughly 10-15 feet of additional unobstructed distance from iPhone 3G, enabling the new device to communicate more effectively with distant or obstructed speakerphones or headsets. We were pleased with the iPhone’s and iPhone 3G’s monaural Bluetooth performance before, and it’s better now.
Apple has also added Voice Control to the iPhone 3GS, giving this device an enhanced version of the voice dialing feature found in numerous cell phones over the past several years. By holding down the iPhone’s Home button or the Earphones’ central remote button for a few seconds, you bring up a blue screen that shows you two things: waveforms that let you know when the iPhone can hear your voice, and moving phrases that you can speak to command the iPhone to do things. “Call” plus a person’s or business’s name will instruct the phone to select a contact in your list, and offer you the choice of various numbers that you might have stored for them: “work,” “home,” or “mobile,” if you haven’t said one already. “Dial” plus a number will dial whatever number you say, with surprising accuracy. We were routinely impressed by Voice Control’s ability to correctly dial contacts and numbers we selected, though ambient noise can obviously interfere with its performance. (Hear an audio sample of Voice Control here.) That said, we were unimpressed by its inability to be triggered by the play/pause buttons on Bluetooth wireless devices we tested, and its unwillingness for whatever reason to speak or receive commands through such Bluetooth accessories. We take this as a sign that Apple will attempt to license Voice Control functionality through its “Works With iPhone” program rather than allowing it to be compatible with the many existing wireless accessories that could otherwise work flawlessly with it.
From our standpoint, the single biggest problem with the iPhone 3GS as a telephone is its battery life. When used on 3G networks either as a phone or data device, it achieves only a meager 5 hours of calling time on a full charge—the same as the iPhone 3G—and even less if you’re using features such as Bluetooth or GPS at the same time. In a mixed-mode test that included 40 minutes of calling time, 40 minutes of GPS mapping time, 40 minutes of photo and video snapping time, five or six uses of Voice Control, 10 minutes of Bluetooth audio streaming, less than 10 minutes of game playing, a few brief tests of other features, and then the balance on 3G and Wi-Fi Internet accessing, the iPhone 3GS’s battery lasted for 4 hours and 44 minutes of actual use, with an additional 17 hours on standby—the latter consuming only 6% of the 1220mAh battery. Phone and data 3G use put the most strain on iPhone 3GS, along with GPS use, Bluetooth streaming, and video recording. iPhone 3GS’s poor battery life thus makes it a bad choice for road warriors who have heavy calling needs.
Apple attempts to massage the poor 3G battery life by telling users that they can switch the phone into “2G” mode, which disables the phone’s ability to simultaneously send or receive cellular data while calling, blocking the receipt of e-mails and the use of many applications, but increases talk time to 12 hours. Users will have to determine for themselves whether these options are acceptable; we have found them to be at best problematic and at worst impractical, so battery pack accessories have become mandatory whenever we travel far, with car chargers and desk chargers equally mandatory the rest of the time. This reason, more than any other, would be a reason to pass on the iPhone 3GS in favor of a separate cell phone.
iPhone 3GS: As an iPod Media Player, Audio + Video Quality, Nike+
Executive Summary: As an iPod media player, the iPhone 3GS is only modestly different from the iPhone 3G. Music playback can be controlled via your voice using Voice Control, and Apple now includes a new pair of earphones that can control both tracks and volume, rather than its predecessor’s track-only control button. Similarly, whereas the prior-generation model could output 480i video from its bottom Dock Connector port, the new model can output 480p video. And there are modest changes to the unit’s audio output, particularly from the Dock Connector. Finally, the iPhone 3GS adds Nike + iPod support, the first iPhone to include this runner-friendly iPod feature.
Back in 2007, Apple’s Steve Jobs proclaimed the original iPhone to be the best iPod the company had ever made: its first widescreen video player, with a simple touch interface and the ability to play the same MP3- and AAC-format music, audiobook, and podcast files that any iPod could play, plus JPEG-format photos. Two years later, the iPhone 3GS is very substantially the same: it plays all the same file formats, including MP4 and H.264-format videos, and like the iPhone and iPhone 3G as enhanced with iPhone OS 3.0, offers only modest new playback tricks, plus the ability to download music, audiobooks, and videos directly—though slowly—from the iTunes Store without using a computer. These features are discussed in greater detail in our Instant Expert: iPhone OS 3.0 article.
iPhone 3GS also outputs video to a TV with roughly the same limitations as before: you need to purchase overpriced $49 Apple video cables or their equivalents in order to make the physical connection, and then can perform up to 480p-quality video on compatible televisions. This is an increase from the iPhone and iPhone 3G’s prior 480i output maximum, bringing the iPhone 3GS in line with the 2008 second-generation iPod touch, and 2007-2008 iPod nano and classic models.
While little has changed in the aforementioned features, they’re still as good as one can get on any current-model iPod. Audio quality in the iPhone 3GS is much improved from the original iPhone, with cleaner sound from both its top and bottom ports, as well as from its integrated bottom speaker. Heard through the bottom Dock Connector, music played by the iPhone 3GS is modestly cleaner and more mid-treble-accentuated than the iPhone 3G’s audio, again bringing the iPhone 3GS in line with the 2008 second-generation iPod touch. Some users will perceive this difference as making the iPhone 3G flatter and more bassy, but it appears to be more of a boost in the 3GS than removal of bass from the 3G; we intend to update this section with additional details in the near future. Our standard music playlist test, performing a large collection of varying bitrate audio on shuffle mode at 50% volume, yielded a play time of 29 hours, 46 minutes, falling only slightly short of Apple’s promised 30 hour audio runtime for the iPhone 3GS. While the iPhone 3G was promised to run for 24 hours of audio playback, it actually ran for 28 hours and 44 minutes in our testing, which means that the iPhone 3GS offers an improvement, for sure, but not as large as Apple’s marketing of the two devices might suggest.
Screen quality is roughly identical to the original iPhone, which itself was slightly better than the iPhone 3G due to a change in displays. The first iPhone’s screen was extremely impressive in 2007, with great off-center viewing angles, strong backlighting, and neutral coloration; it put to shame the first-generation iPod touch’s screen, which looked considerably worse on slight off-kilter viewing angles. Then came the iPhone 3G, which fell a little from the original iPhone in viewing angle and color tint, and the next iPod touch, which had a slight yellow tint but was much, much better than the first touch in viewing angle. Shown to the right of the iPhone 3G below, the iPhone 3GS goes back to where it all started, which is nice by two-year-old standards, but not as impressive as the higher-resolution and/or new OLED technology screens in competing 2009 devices.
Notably, our first test of video playback on a fully charged iPhone 3GS using our standard video playlist on 50% brightness and 50% volume came in dramatically under Apple’s claimed 10 hour figure, running for a little under six hours. We are at a loss to explain this result in light of the iPhone 3G’s 7 hour, 11 minute battery life on this test last year; with a 5.5% increase in battery capacity and no improvement in processor efficiency, the number should have been around 7 hours and 33 minutes. Notably, Apple allows the iPhone 3GS for the first time to display its remaining battery capacity as a percentage, an option now found under Settings > General > Usage > Battery Percentage, a feature that’s handy for estimating remaining time, but in our testing, inaccurate for forecasting by as much as three hours even when the iPhone 3GS is seemingly doing only one thing continuously from the start to the end of its battery cycle. That said, it does provide an accurate sense of where the battery is when it’s near the end of its charge cycle, particularly from 20% to 10% to 1%.
In an effort to see why the video battery performance was so different from Apple’s claims, we consulted Apple’s testing methodology and found that its 10-hour number was based on repetition of a single movie, with Call Forwarding turned on, and Wi-Fi Ask to Join Networks turned off. Trying these settings, our video run time skyrocketed to 10 hours and 27 minutes, with the iPhone 3GS battery meter at one point implying that it would keep going for over 13 hours. While we don’t believe that Call Forwarding is a typically used feature during iPhone 3GS video playback—or anything else—this wide range of 6 to 10 hours illustrates how much of an impact the 3G mobile chip can have on battery life. A subsequent video test with the same videos, without using Call Forwarding but keeping Wi-Fi Ask to Join Networks turned off, yielded a run time of 9 hours and 12 minutes.
Three additions to the iPod functionality bolster the iPhone 3GS’s appeal. First is support for stereo Bluetooth wireless streaming using A2DP, a feature that was also added to the iPhone 3G this week with iPhone OS 3.0, but is not supported for the original iPhone. With compatible stereo Bluetooth headphones and speakers, iPhone 3GS users can send their music to stationary or portable accessories without the need for cords, enabling wire-free walking, jogging, or just sitting across the room from your speakers. Though this feature runs down the iPhone 3GS’s battery at an alarming rate, its convenience—and your ability to use your iPhone with batteries and chargers at the same time—makes it worthwhile nonetheless.
Next is Voice Control. Previously discussed in the Telephone section of this review, Voice Control is triggered by holding the Home button on the iPhone 3GS or the play/pause button on the Earphones’ remote control. For iPod purposes, Voice Control permits the following commands: “Play artist” or “Play songs by,” “Play playlist,” “Play album,” “Pause,” “Play music,” “Genius,” “Next track,” “Previous track,” “Shuffle,” and “What is this song called?” Conspicuously absent from this list is “Play song,” which Voice Control doesn’t seem to be able to handle, though for possibly good reason: when we followed the iPhone’s fairly natural syntax, our results when using the feature for the specified purposes were actually pretty good. If you simply say “Play Jay-Z,” or “Play Kenny Rogers,” you’ll find that the iPhone 3GS completely screws up, but it’s expecting to hear “artist” or “songs by” as a prefix. Include it, and it’ll generally get your picks correct the first time, assuming that there isn’t a lot of ambient noise when you’re talking to the iPhone. (Hear an audio sample of Voice Control here.)
Last but not least is Nike + iPod support, which relies upon Nike+ shoes (or a shoe-mounted pouch) and a $19 Nike Sensor to help the iPhone track your walking or running performance. Other than the fact that neither previous iPhone supported the Nike Sensor—it was added to last year’s iPod touch as a surprise—what’s most notable about this feature is that it works in conjunction with Bluetooth wireless headphones and speakers, letting you mount your iPhone on a bicep and use it to wirelessly broadcast to a listening device while receiving data from the Sensor. Both features do in fact work at the same time; it’s only a matter of time, we think, before Nike or someone else comes up with a GPS- and compass-aware extension of the Nike+ program.
Overall, the iPhone 3GS offers small improvements in its core iPod functionality, while adding ancillary features that will be of interest to certain users. In our view, there’s no way in which the new model is inferior to its predecessors, iPod-wise, but some users may prefer the sonic balance of the iPhone 3G.
iPhone 3GS: As a Digital Camera + Video Camera
Executive Summary: As a digital camera, the iPhone 3GS takes two big steps up from both the iPhone 3G and original iPhone, which were almost exactly the same for photographic purposes. The still camera, previously a fixed-focus nearly 2-Megapixel unit with no zoom, has been upgraded to a 3-Megapixel unit that still lacks zoom, but now has both autofocus and a touch-based manual focus mode. It takes more detailed and potentially interesting photos than before, but still does not rival inexpensive dedicated still cameras. Additionally, Apple now includes a video camera capable of creating 640×480 movies through the same lens as the still camera, similarly without zoom, and enables users to trim their video clips from within the iPhone 3GS.
Relying upon an iPhone as a full-time digital camera is a bad idea. In fact, having taken literally thousands of pictures with our iPhones over the past two years, relying upon either the iPhone or the nearly identical iPhone 3G as even a part-time digital camera has turned out to be a pretty bad idea, too. The fixed-focus lens produces decent images outdoors when you’re not too close or too far away from whatever you’re shooting, but the number of back-focused images—ones where the backdrop is fine but the subject is not—and blurry, grimy-looking shots we’ve taken far outnumbers the masterpieces. Back in 2007, the iPhone’s camera seemed pretty good by phone standards, but between its lack of flash, zoom, autofocus, and other factors, it hasn’t aged well.
The iPhone 3GS delivers the first real upgrade to the iPhone’s camera in two years, and in some ways, it’s a big step up. There are a million more pixels per still image—3.15 Megapixels (2048×1536) versus 1.92 Megapixels (1600×1200)—and the result is generally smoother, more detailed images. Though its color balance is generally extremely similar to the prior iPhones’, it produces punchier reds and yellows, and generally has less of a tendency to create images that look washed out or sunbleached. Superior white balance and contrast generally make for pictures with blacker blacks rather than grays, and stronger tones. A new focus system enables you to take macro images—close ups are recommended from 10cm or more away, but work from 5 or 6cm distances—and also makes the camera concentrate on objects that are nearby rather than ones that are in the background. Low-light performance is still a challenge, but somewhat better than before. (See full-resolution comparison images from the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 3G in our Flickr gallery here.)
This isn’t to say that the iPhone 3GS will always take better still pictures than the iPhone or iPhone 3G, but in our experience, a vaguely capable photographer will get markedly better overall results from the 3GS. A new tap-to-focus system places a focusing square on the screen when you’re shooting, letting you choose which element of a scene the camera should focus and meter from, increasing an attentive photographer’s chances of getting a good shot. (Compare full-resolution photos from the iPhone 3GS with those from a three-year-old Canon PowerShot SD700IS camera, here.
While we found that this system can sometimes hunt around too much, and doesn’t always get the best possible shot, it’s better than not having any automatic focusing capabilities, and enhances the 3GS’s depth of field. Macro photography and high-contrast black and white images look a thousand times better, as detail is concerned, with the iPhone 3GS than with either prior iPhone. We would never give up our real cameras for the 3GS—zoom, flash, low-light performance, and other options make them indispensible—but it has taken a few big steps beyond its predecessors.
One of those steps is in adding video recording capabilities. Make no mistake: the iPhone 3GS is not a Flip UltraHD, recording high-definition 720p videos and playing them back on high-definition televisions; rather, the iPhone 3GS creates movies in the same resolution as it can play them back: 640×480. Interestingly, it can shoot videos in portrait or landscape mode, actually displaying them in either direction on a computer screen, though for practical and other reasons it’s not capable of rotating that direction once recording has been started in a specific orientation. (See sample videos recorded with the iPhone 3GS in our YouTube gallery here.)
These videos aren’t exactly theatrical quality. They’re recorded by default in H.264 format with monaural audio and variable frame rates, such that sample clips we created varied from 15 to 21 frames per second, depending on the amount of motion the camera is seeing; a one-minute clip consumed 26-27 Megabytes in our tests. Once again, there’s no zoom capability—digital or otherwise—but the iPhone 3GS attempts to maximize the color and focus even as you and your subjects change positions.
Videos are grainy, not as smooth in motion as they could be, and not great with macro subjects, but they’re decent. As with many such low-grade videos, they look better on an iPhone screen than on your computer. (See full-resolution comparison videos from the iPhone 3GS, Flip UltraHD, and a Canon PowerShot SD700IS camera in our Vimeo gallery here.)
Apple enhances the video recording feature in two ways. First, you can trim your videos instantly after recording them by dragging start and end points through a miniature on-screen timeline. We found this trimming interface to be brilliantly simple in concept, but for whatever reason, we sometimes had problems getting the tiny trimming bars to activate, and a few times couldn’t get them to appear when we selected a video. Most of the time, however, they worked. Second, you can share your videos by sending them directly through the iPhone 3GS to e-mail recipients, YouTube, or MobileMe—MMS mailing will also be available in the near future for U.S. customers, at least for very short clips, and is already available outside the U.S. The iPhone 3GS includes fast MPEG-4 and H.264 encoding capabilities for both recording videos, and then shrinking them for sharing.
In the event that your video is too long to send over your connection, the iPhone 3GS will show you how much of the video you can send by auto-imposing a movable trimming bar on your timeline. Additionally, the iPhone 3GS automatically compresses its native H.264 videos to reduce their file size, dropping 640×480 files down to 480×320 H.264 videos for e-mailing, or 176×144 MPEG-4 for MMS transmission, thereby transforming a 13MB file into a 4MB one (e-mail) or a 1MB one (MMS). Oddly, QuickTime claimed that the frame rate of the e-mailed file was higher—closer to 30fps—than the full-sized one (15fps), with the MMS clip having a 10fps rate and a lower (8kHz) audio sampling rate. It’s unclear at this point whether the iPhone 3GS has a funky way of storing its videos and exporting them for various purposes, but it’s clear that resolutions, frame rates, and other factors will vary based on the way videos are transmitted.
Note that the iPhone 3GS’s video recording is limited more by battery life than by storage capacity. Recording a 30-minute video ate 20% of a fully-recharged iPhone 3GS battery, which is to say that you can expect around 2.5 hours of pure video recording time from the device. Trimming and sending videos requires additional time and power; the iPhone said to expect a 26-minute upload time when sending a maximum size video clip (15 minutes, 480×320 H.264, 84MB) to MobileMe over Wi-Fi, and actually took that long for the transfer. YouTube uploads are capped at 10 minutes and 1 second in length, and a 10-minute test file took 7 minutes to upload from start to finish, with additional processing time on YouTube’s end. YouTube videos wind up as 480×360 or 270×360 depending on orientation, with major artificating from compression. On a positive note, video uploads proceed in the background as you’re using other iPhone 3GS features, even including additional recording.
Overall, the iPhone 3GS offers a markedly improved photography experience over the iPhone and iPhone 3G, creating better still pictures and now videos, as well. That having been said, its overall performance in both regards is not enough to recommend it to serious or even semi-serious photographers as anything other than an instantly Internet-ready backup for a real camera; unfortunately, the lack of better Internet-ready real cameras may well wind up winning the iPhone 3GS more screen time than its limited lens and sensor combination would otherwise deserve.
iPhone 3GS: As an Internet Device, Including HSDPA 7.2Mbps Data Speed Tests
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.
iPhone 3GS: As a Miniature Macintosh Computer, Including GPS + Third-Party Apps
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.
iPhone 3GS: On Integrated Apps and iPhone OS 3.0
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.
iPhone 3GS: Notes on Cases and Accessory Compatibility
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.
Conclusions and Recommendations
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.
Company and Price
Company: Apple Inc.
Model: iPhone 3GS
Price: $199/16GB, $299/32GB with New 2-Year Contract, $599/16GB, $699/32GB without