If you’re already in love with your iPhone and you have a few hundred bucks to spend, the Apple iPhone 3GS is a no-brainer. The performance gains are huge, especially in complicated apps like games and the Web browser. The iPhone was already a leader in multimedia features and Web browsing, and the library of apps was the most diverse and impressive among all the major smartphone systems, so it’s nice that the new performance boost only made all of this good stuff even better. If you were on the fence before, though, the new features might not be enough to push you over the edge. Only a user who had been suffering with the iPhone will appreciate the video recording and voice dialing apps, as these are present on most other smartphones, and many other simpler devices. With the Apple iPhone 3GS, Apple seems to be shoring up its borders, and not branching out into new spaces. Popular business features like e-mail and productivity apps have been left behind, or left to third parties, while there seems to be no relief in sight for users who want more buttons or, gasp, an actual keyboard. Still, there’s no denying the appeal of the iPhone, and if you thought the older model was the best, with the Apple iPhone 3GS, the best just got even better. Release: June 2009. Price: $200.
Hardware design – Very Good
From the outside, the Apple iPhone 3GS looks completely unchanged from the Apple iPhone 3G. We wouldn’t want to see too much changed about the exterior design, but we still think Apple could have updated the look just a bit, if only to bring it closer to the 2nd generation iPod touch, which is a thinner and more sleek device. Basically, the phone is a simple tablet, with only a single button on its face, the home button.
That simple home button has gotten more complicated, though, as Apple enables plenty of shortcuts using various taps and presses. Hold the home button for voice dialing, or you can set the home button to jump right into the camera when you press it twice. That’s nice, but think its time for the iPhone 3GS to earn some more buttons. The phone desperately needs a camera shutter button, especially since it now uses auto focus. Also, would it kill anyone to add Send and Back keys, which would cut down on menu drilling and silly shortcuts, like the voice dialing, which could be mapped to Send, or the new shake-to-undo feature, which could be mapped to Back. Just a couple more buttons could seriously cut down on clicks and swipes, making the phone faster and more efficient to use.
Display & Interface – Very Good
The Apple iPhone OS 3.0 interface looks the same as it did 2 years ago when it was released, and it’s still an impressive interface design for touch input. Application icons are colorful and large enough for finger tapping. We’ve seen newer phones with cooler tricks and more flashy designs, especially the latest HTC TouchFLO 3D devices, and of course the Palm Pre. Still, Apple’s interface is solid. Our biggest complaint is that managing the loads of apps we’ve downloaded from the App Store over the last year is a real pain. Creating the perfect set of menu pages from the app icons is a frustrating experience, and the iPhone stupidly rearranges apps as they are added or updated. The iTunes software experience is so tight, we wish we could manage our menu pages in iTunes, instead of on the phone itself.
The iPhone’s 3.5-inch, glass display is still the most responsive in the smartphone field, but we wish Apple had upgraded the screen hardware. We’re seeing phones with bright, low-power OLED displays, reaching resolutions in excess of 640 by 480 pixels (VGA), so we’d like to see Apple catch up, especially considering the phone’s impressive video and gaming prowess. The new Apple iPhone 3GS gets a special coating on the glass that is supposed to cut down on fingerprints. In our tests, it worked, but it was only noticeable in comparison to an older iPhone. Apple also insists on keeping the proprietary dock connector. We would love to see them adopt microUSB, which would be a boon to accessory makers and consumers alike.
Calling / Talk time – Good
Though call quality has not improved since the last generation of iPhone, the entire calling experience has gotten better thanks to the addition of some key features. Calls didn’t sound bad, but the iPhone sits near the middle of the pack in terms of sound quality. We heard a general fuzziness in our calls on both ends, but it was never distracting. Reception strength on our Apple iPhone 3GS review unit seemed exactly the same as on the iPhone 3G, a full complement of bars wherever we checked, but in our experience the iPhone has always been a bit optimistic when it comes to reception. Even when we saw a full 5 bars, we still experienced the drop calls and connection problems that have become an infamous part of the iPhone story. Battery life was somewhat better on the Apple iPhone 3GS, though less in terms of talk time than other functions. We had more time for watching videos and surfing the Web over Wi-Fi, but in terms of talk time, we got the same 5+ hours of talk time as we did on the original. This is still a phone that needs to be charged during the day if you’re going to use it as extensively as we did.
The address book has been improved somewhat. We synchronized the iPhone 3GS with our Microsoft Exchange account and our MobileMe accounts, all with no trouble. The address book is even faster now on the new hardware, and very easy to search. In fact, you can search from within the contacts list itself, or from the new Spotlight search page, where contacts will pop up alongside songs, notes, e-mails and more. The iPhone 3GS also does a nice job with call logging, keeping track of recent calls on a contact’s info page so you can see when you last spoke to a friend or colleague.
For calling features, Apple has finally endowed the iPhone with voice dialing. The Apple iPhone 3GS gets a great looking voice dialing app with some clever tricks. It was about 90% accurate when we tried dialing contacts, or speaking phone numbers directly. The voice commands app can also control your music library, though it wasn’t quite as effective there. Call management on the iPhone 3GS is top notch, with easy conference calling and call controls. The speaker doesn’t seem to be improved over the older iPhone 3G, and we wish it had gotten a serious volume boost.
Messaging – Good
The Apple iPhone 3GS is a solid messaging device, but it still lags behind the competition in terms of features convenience. Setting up e-mail was a breeze, whether it was our business Exchange account or our personal Gmail account. The phone can also handle Push E-mail on Exchange, MobileMe, and Yahoo, for instant delivery. The Mail app has gotten some slight improvements so it’s a bit easier to deal with messages in bulk, but it still lags far behind a BlackBerry or Windows Mobile device, and serious e-mail users may be disappointed with the experience.
Text messaging was always a strong suit for the iPhone, and now with the Apple iPhone OS 3.0 software, multimedia messaging finally comes to the iPhone 3GS. Not our iPhone 3GS, of course, since we’re on AT&T and still waiting for the carrier to support the feature later this summer. But we’ve seen demonstrations, and we like how pictures and other multimedia content and delivered right to the threaded messaging conversation.
The Apple iPhone 3GS still lacks any built-in IM support, but there are literally dozens of options available. Intsant Messaging apps can’t run in the background on the Apple iPhone, one of the serious shortcomings of the platform, but with the iPhone OS 3.0, the iPhone 3GS supports Push notifications. So, even if the AIM client is closed, when you get a new IM, you’ll get an onscreen message and a number bubble indicating a message attached to the AIM icon.
The new iPhone OS also supports a landscape orientation for the keyboard in a wider number of apps. We didn’t realize how much we had missed the wide keyboard layout until we finally used it for messaging and note taking. Our typing speed increased geometrically with the wider layout, and the iPhone still does a fantastic job auto-correcting our numerous errors. With just a little practice, and some trust in the iPhone’s corrective ability, we found ourselves typing as quickly on the iPhone’s onscreen keyboard as we do on a hardware QWERTY.
Music – Excellent
In just about every way, the Apple iPhone 3GS a great music experience. The music player looks great and was easy to control by touch. In landscape mode, the iPhone 3GS offers the so-called Cover Flow feature that presents albums in a 3D row for you to lazily browse through with a flick of the finger. We enjoyed creating new playlists, especially Apple’s cool new Genius playlists, with little effort. We could even create Genius playlists from the voice commands app. With a song playing, hold down the home key to activate voice commands and say “Play more songs like this.” The phone will automatically create a genius playlist based on the current track. Even the music store experience has been dramatically improved. With over-the-air downloads and competitive pricing on premium quality, DRM-free music tracks, Apple is ahead of almost all competitors, though the Amazon MP3 store on the T-Mobile G1 and the Palm Pre comes very close.
The new Apple iPhone 3GS ships with an improved set of earbuds. Sound quality was about the same, not terrible for a tiny pair of free earbuds, but audiophiles will want to keep their own cans. The new earbuds use an improved remote button on the cord which now lets us control the volume, as well as skipping through tracks. The headphone remote also comes with a microphone for phone calls and it works for the voice commands app. For music storage, the iPhone 3GS is now available in 16GB or 32GB capacities. This would be quite impressive, if the Nokia N97 hadn’t trumped Apple by including 32GB plus a microSD slot that can handle another 16 gigs.
The new iPhone OS 3.0 finally brings stereo Bluetooth listening to the iPhone family, so we were able to listen to music from our Apple iPhone 3GS without wires. Unfortunately, it’s easy to see why Apple was shy about adding this tech to their phones. Even on the iPhone 3GS, we had some connectivity issues with our Bluetooth headphones, and music dropped out whenever we moved the phone around too much or buried it deep in our pockets. The feature works much better on a dedicated set of Bluetooth stereo speakers, where we usually had no such trouble.
Video – Excellent
If the music experience on the Apple iPhone 3GS is great, then the video experience is superlative. This is the only phone we’d consider using for serious movie and video watching. Thanks to the large, crisp, 3.5-inch screen, the great movie playback controls and features, like the ability to hold our place in a movie or resize with a quick tap. But it’s really the video management experience that makes the iPhone 3GS / iTunes combo so great for video. It is shocking fast and easy to get videos onto this phone with iTunes in control of the sync procedure. Now, with iPhone OS 3.0, we don’t even need iTunes, as the iPhone 3GS is capable of downloading new television shows and movies directly to the phone over a Wi-Fi connection. Then, the next time we plugged the phone into our computer, our videos synchronized and were available to watch on our laptop as well. If we had any complaints, we’d wish for a few more codecs, like better DivX support, and perhaps a volume boost so we can amplify videos with soft audio tracks. But even without these, we’d never used another phone as a serious video playback device until we used the iPhone.
Camera – Good
More than any other feature on the phone, the hobbled camera on the older iPhone models received the most complaints. With the new Apple iPhone 3GS, the device is finally capable of recording video, at VGA resolution no less at an impressive 30fps. Videos looked pretty good. Not great, as poor light management still hurt some exposures. Also, the camera focuses when you start to record a video, then keeps the same focal distance, so if you start at a macro level, you better stick with close-ups or your video will be blurry. We like the simple video editing feature on the iPhone 3GS. Basically, the phone gives you a timeline with screengrabs from the video you just recorded, and you can move the start and stop times to trim the video down to just the right moment. There are cameras and phones that can do more, but none that offer a simple editor that is so easy to use.
The camera has also seen some significant improvements. The Apple iPhone 3GS now sports a 3-megapixel shooter with auto focus, a feature we’ve been asking for. The iPhone 3GS even uses the touch focus feature we’ve been enjoying on other advanced smartphones, like the HTC Touch Diamond 2. In practice, this worked very nicely. The touchscreen adjusts not only the focus, but also automatically adjusts exposure and white balance depending on where you tap. This helped fix some photos that might have otherwise been washed out by harsh backlight. The iPhone’s camera does a nice job with most of the automated settings. We found images to be very rich and saturated in color, we imagine this is getting a boost in post-processing. Blur was still an issue, especially under low-light situations, or up close, where the phone switches to macro mode. Under the best circumstances, our iPhone 3GS review unit produced some stunning images, but in most cases, images were just average.
Still, for both the camcorder and camera features, Apple includes no settings whatsoever, and this is frustrating. We’d like more control over white balance, sensitivity and other imaging settings. We’d also like more camera features, like a panorama mode and some scene specific modes. We’d also like to see a flash, especially a nice, bright Xenon bulb, to help in dark settings. Most of all, though, we want a shutter button; a real, two-stage shutter so we can autofocus easily. Pressing the onscreen button while holding the camera steady for a macro was a feat. Trying the same for a self-portrait seemed more like plain old luck. Check out our image samples below for the best shots we took in our test period.
|Apple iPhone 3GS
|Size||4.5 by 2.4 by 0.48 inches|
|Screen||3.5 inches, 320×480 pixels, 16M colors
|OS & Platform||iOS 4|
|Voice network||GSM 850/900/1800/1900 MHz|
|Data network||850/1900/2100 MHz (AT&T, Europe)
|TTY, HAC||TTY support|
|Talk time||Measured: 6 hours ( mAh)
Claimed: 6 hours ( mAh)
|Camera||3 Megapixel(s) with autofocus
Video recorder with VGA resolution
|Web browser||Safari Mobile|
No memory slot
|DLNA / UPnP||No|
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