Increased storage capacity
Improved camera, with video
Neat onboard video-editing app
New features – voice memos, Voice Control
More apps support landscape mode
Some key features (MMS) are still lacking – for now
Network speed bump not yet available
Expensive upgrade for some users
Screen retains oil
No third-party headphone Voice Control support
US$199/$299 for new users, qualifying upgrades
$399/$499 for non-qualifying upgrades
There’s no arguing: the iPhone 3GS is the best iPhone ever. And it ought to be. Each successive iPhone has been better than the last.
And the iPhone 3GS is a great phone. If you’re not an iPhone user, it’s the most compelling reason yet to switch. But not all of the phone’s promise is fulfilled. That’s not entirely Apple’s fault, but that promise needs to materialize before the phone can be judged close to perfect.
The Difference is Under the Hood
At first glance, you won’t be able to easily tell the iPhone 3GS apart from the iPhone 3G. They use the same enclosure and, other than a slight weight gain for the 3GS, appear to be the same phone. But it’s not looks that count in this case. It is, as the saying goes, what’s on the inside.
The iPhone 3GS sports substantially upgraded hardware. The phone has a faster processor and more RAM to speed the launch and operation of programs. The resulting increase in speed is noticeable, as apps open quicker and there are fewer instances of waiting for things like the onscreen keyboard to load.
The 3GS also sports double the storage capacity of the 3G – 16GB and 32GB in this case – which makes the phone more valuable. I’ve held onto an 80GB iPod video for years just because my iTunes library weighs in at over 40GB and I wanted a single device that could store all that content.
Now that my phone can hold onto all the music and other content that I’m likely to listen to with any regularity, the iPod video looks less and less useful.
Also integrated into the phone is support for the Nike + iPod personal training system. Though this requires additional purchases, having onboard support is a bonus.
Lastly, the phone also adds a digital compass, which is particularly useful for driving directions that begin with “start out going northwest on ...” Now a phone will suffice where you used to need a Boy Scout.
Taken as a whole, the improvements Apple’s made to the iPhone 3GS’ hardware are a solid upgrade and make using the phone easier, faster, and more fun.
iPhone 3GS Camera, Now With Video
The iPhone 3GS also improves its built in camera. Not only does the 3GS outdo its predecessor by offering a 3-megapixel camera instead of 2 megapixels, but it can also record video at 30 frames per second.
Videos are recorded at 640 x 480 pixels and, given their source and likely intended destination (not your TV), they’re great. A thirty-second clip weighs in at about 14MB, meaning an iPhone 3GS could hold about 3 hours of video in 5GB of space.
While the resolution isn’t enough for our HD age, it’s solid for the web, so I suspect it won’t be long before we start seeing short films for the web shot from indie/DIY filmmakers on an iPhone.
The still camera also adds auto-focus with a tap on the area you want to focus on. I’d rather have gotten zoom, but auto-focus makes the camera more capable.
It would have been nicer had Apple delivered these features in the last model – many other phones and smartphones already had them – but it’s great to have now and the pictures and video taken are great.
iPhone 3GS Battery Life
Apple claims improved battery life for the 3GS. Anecdotally, this seems to be true. My iPhone 3G tended to need a recharge every day or day and a half. In about a month of use, my 3GS tends to need a recharge every two days under the same use. While that’s not a major improvement, it’s better than nothing.
As part of its message that the iPhone 3GS is the fastest iPhone yet, Apple is touting the phone’s support for a faster 3G data standard, a 7.2 Mbps connection, which is twice as fast that supported by the iPhone 3G. This claim is a bit misleading, though, as AT&T (the official iPhone carrier in the U.S.) has yet to widely deploy a network that supports this speed, so U.S. users won’t enjoy this for a while.
Otherwise, the phone feels snappy as ever whether connected to WiFi or the 3G cellular network.
AT&T’s Missing Features
AT&T not offering features is a theme with the iPhone 3GS. Though the phone supports both MMS (multimedia text messaging) – is a central part of Apple’s TV ads for the device – and tethering to use the iPhone as a laptop modem, AT&T supports neither as of this writing.
It’s expected that both services will be available (tethering with an extra fee attached) in late summer 2009, but not having them at launch is a disappointment (especially MMS, given that most phones have had that for years).
While I’ve never experienced anything other than trivial frustrations with AT&T service and quality, many users seems to be longing for another carrier – maybe Verizon – and it’s not hard to envision a switch in 2010 when AT&T’s exclusive contract expires.
Other Hardware Notes
There are two other notes of interest about the hardware on the iPhone 3GS.
The first two iPhones were famous for collecting dirt and oil from fingers and faces on their screens. To address that problem, Apple added an oleophobic coating touted as resisting fingerprints. It doesn’t seem to have fixed the problem, though. I still find oily smudges on my screen with regularity. They’re just a different shape and slightly harder to see now.
Also included with the phone is a new set of headphones, which adds a remote control unit to the previously offered mic. The remote not only allows for control of the iPod and calls, but also factors into use of Voice Control, which lets users talk to phone and iPod apps.
The downside, however, is that if you want to use third-party headphones, you’ll lose the mic, remote, and Voice Control features. Apple introduced similar headphones on the third-generation iPod Shuffle and promised an adapter for third-party products, but has yet to deliver one. This locking out of third parties is a definite knock against the 3GS.