What's hot: Better camera that shoots 30fps video, faster.
What's not: Less customizable than other smartphones in terms of look and feel of UI.
Editor's update, June 2010: read our review of the newest iPhone, the iPhone 4.
Reviewed June 19, 2009 by Lisa Gade, Editor
Everything that was in the old iPhone 3G is in the iPhone 3GS: accelerometer, 480 x 320 pixel capacitive touch screen, ambient light sensor, proximity sensor (turns off the display when the phone is against your face), a non-user replaceable battery (still have to send it back to Apple if you need a new battery), WiFi, Bluetooth and iTunes music and video players. Since the 3GS shares the same ports and dimensions, your iPhone 3G accessories will work: cases, chargers and more.
Video camera built-in
So what's new? The iPhone 3GS has a 3 megapixel camera with autofocus and it can (finally!) shoot video. And not little crappy MMS style video; it can shoot VGA video at 30fps. There are still no software settings or controls for the camera, just point and shoot with the added focus feature: tap the viewfinder where you want the camera to focus and then hit the virtual shutter button. Still photo quality is markedly better than the iPhone 3G's with more detail and sharpness, though colors are a little over-saturated (some folks will like this) and brightly lit outdoor shots can blow out. Want to take club photos? Sorry, there's still no flash, so darkly lit scenes look dark and noisy.
Video on the other hand is remarkably good, nearly rivaling the standard bearer Nokia N95 and the new Nokia N97. Colors are accurate, exposure is good and video is smooth with plenty of detail. Nice. And the iPhone 3GS has basic video editing features and you can upload video directly to YouTube.
S stands for speed
Honestly, the iPhone 3G didn't strike us as slow. Granted the keyboard would lag once in a while and 1,000 contacts could add a second or two to opening the contacts app, but the iPhone 3GS is noticeably faster. Faster at loading a large contacts database, faster at loading an email inbox with 100 messages, faster at loading heavy HTML web pages and much faster at loading resource intensive games. Here are the results of our speed tests:
Load New York Times homepage (desktop version of their site) over 3G HSDPA:
iPhone 3G: 28 seconds
iPhone 3GS: 15 seconds
The iPhone 3GS has a Samsung S5PC100 600MHz ARM processor (Cortex A8 platform-- cutting edge and fast) and 256 megs of RAM, while the iPhone and iPhone 3G had a 412MHz processor and 128 megs of RAM. There's also a new graphics chip in the S model-- no wonder this thing is faster. Yet battery life is supposed to be better with the faster phone-- impressive since CPU speed and battery life are usually inversely proportional. While the iPhone 3G struggled to make it through a day with heavy use, the iPhone 3GS succeeds.
There's another element to speed and that's network speed. The iPhone 3G supported HSDPA 3.6Mbps while the iPhone 3GS supports 7.2Mbps. AT&T is in the process of rolling out that faster 3G standard and it will take them about 1.5 years to complete, but we'd hope to see it rolled out in some of the larger metro areas later this year. That means even faster web page and email downloads. But in our area (Dallas), download speeds are no better than the iPhone 3G running the new 3.0 OS. That OS sped up download times considerably: DSL Reports mobile speed test reported 360k on the iPhone 3G with the 2.0 OS and 1064k on the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS running OS 3.0.
Reception and Call quality
Sorry, there are no great improvements here. The iPhone 3GS gets average reception and measures the exact same as the iPhone 3G using Apple's built-in field test that measures signal in decibels (smaller numbers are better, use the keypad to enter *3001#12345#* to get a reading on your own iPhone). Call volume and quality are the same with the exception of Bluetooth headsets: range is improved as is voice quality.
Not there quite yet
New for OS 3.0 which is pre-installed on the iPhone 3GS and is available as a free upgrade via iTunes download for the older iPhones, is MMS (picture and video messaging) and tethering (using the iPhone as a high speed wireless modem for a notebook). Unfortunately, AT&T isn't ready to support these new features out of the gate but they should be available later in 2009.
Drive safely: voice dialing
The iPhone wasn't the safest driving companion: no speed dial and no voice dialing -- oh my. New for the iPhone 3GS (and not available as part of the OS 3.0 upgrade for older iPhone models) is voice dialing. Press and hold the iPhone's center button (that's the only button on the phone other than the power button) to launch voice dialing and voice command. Yes, you can say "call Juan Doe mobile", and in fact you better say that because the iPhone won't match partial names and if you've got more than one number for a contact it will prompt you on screen as to which number to call (you must look at the screen to notice this, but you can say "home", "mobile" or "work" without touching the screen). To call folks start the command with "call". To digit dial a number, start your command with "dial". To find out what song is playing, say "what song is playing". Of course if you're going to press and hold the center button, you could just as well look at the screen and see what song is playing. But if iTunes is playing the song in the background (yes it can do that and the iPhone can indeed multitask when Apple wants it to) this feature is more useful.
The good news: it's very accurate, though some Chinese names threw it for a loop. The bad news? There's no voice dialing over Bluetooth-- doh!
Other new goodies
Also new for OS 3.0 (not just the iPhone 3GS) is Bluetooth A2DP stereo. Finally, the world's foremost music phone with all its iPod goodness, can play music through Bluetooth stereo headphones and headsets. And boy is it loud. . . and it sounds good too; better than average for a music phone. New for the iPhone 3GS is Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR with multi-point technology, which means it can pair with multiple headsets. It played well with a variety of current Bluetooth headsets and supported most call features except voice dialing.
The new OS adds (don't fall down now) copy and paste. It only took 2 years and three OS revisions to get this basic feature, but now that it's here, we must admit it's the best implementation we've ever seen on a mobile device. It's very easy to control and works like a charm. It copies more than just text too: you can highlight a section of a web page with text, graphics and hyperlinks and paste it into an email message and it's all transferred intact and pretty.
Apple has added iPhone-wide search. Swipe your application screens to the position that would be before the first screen of icons and you'll see a search screen (see below). It searches email (headers only), contacts, calendar and more.
There's a compass (magnetometer) that looks just like your Boy or Girl Scout tool of old. For hikers, map geeks and the like it's a nifty feature but the rest of the world will have to wait until applications like navigation programs put this to general purpose good use.
iPhone 3GS vs. Palm Pre
The Palm Pre is the new kid on the block and he's off to a very promising start. Running Palm's new Linux-based webOS, the Pre, like the iPhone, is very easy to use and full of eye candy. In fact, the Pre has even more special effects and animations in the OS, and while those do nothing to improve functionality, they are fun and attractive. Here are some comparison points:
- Both have capacitive multi-touch displays that are wonderfully easy to use (the Pre's is more colorful). The iPhone has a larger display and that makes a difference when viewing web pages, movies and photos.
- But that smaller screen means Pre is smaller and a little easier to fit in your pocket.
- The Pre has a hardware QWERTY keyboard. . . but it's pretty bad and isn't a real improvement over the iPhone's on-screen keyboard unless you're really allergic to touch screen typing.
- The iPhone can take advantage of the iTunes app store's obscenely large number of programs-- most of them very inexpensive or free while Palm's developer SDK won't be ready until September 2009, so we won't be seeing lots of apps for some time. Those 3rd party Pre apps will be written in HTML (the same code that's used to make web pages) and that means there's less potential for powerful applications (true .exe's in Windows-speak).
- The Pre can sync to multiple PIM data sources-- that means you can sync you calendar and contacts to more than one Exchange server, Google's calendar and more (mostly without dupes), which is a unique feature.
- The iPhone can sync directly to a desktop/notebook computer for PIM (contacts, calendar, tasks and notes) using Outlook or the Mac OS X address book and calendar. The Pre syncs only to the cloud (online services like Exchange and Google).
- Both can sync to iTunes, but if Apple makes changes to iTunes, Pre syncing could break until Palm updates their syncing software on the Pre.
- The iPhone is currently exclusive to AT&T while the Pre is exclusive to Sprint. Sprint's exclusivity will likely run to the end of 2009, while AT&T has had the iPhone exclusive for 2 years and will for at least another year. Only you can decide which carrier works best in your area and meets your budget requirements. Both charge $70 as a starting point, but at the moment, Sprint throws in unlimited text/MMS.
- The iPhone 3GS doesn't have stellar battery life, but the Pre is even worse.
- The Palm Pre multitasks while the iPhone doesn't allow 3rd party apps (generally) to run in the background. On the iPhone you can play music in the background, put a call into the background so you can take down notes or view maps in Google.
- The Pre currently does not ship with voice dialing while the iPhone 3GS has voice dialing.
To buy or not to buy?
If you own an iPhone 3G and aren't eligible for the fully subsidized upgrade prices, then the iPhone 3GS may not be worth the $400 and higher cost of entry. But if you have an iPhone 2G (the first model) run, don't walk to get this. This is a darned fast computer for your pocket that's also the easiest to use and the camera is a big step up. If you like new toys and want to upgrade your 3G there are enough excuses to do so: faster performance (especially in demanding games and big web page download times), VGA video recording with YouTube uploads, faster graphics CPU (some detailed 3D games in the future may only be compatible with the 3GS). Voice dialing is also invaluable for those who make calls on the go (stop looking at your iPhone and drive!). And HSDPA 7.2Mbps doesn't mean much today but you'll notice the improvement when it comes to your area.
16 gig: $199 with 2 year contract ($399 if you haven't reached upgrade time yet on your existing iPhone plan and $599 retail with no contract extension)
32 gig: $299 with 2 year contract ($499 if you haven't reached upgrade time yet on your existing iPhone plan and $699 retail with no contract extension)
Display:3.5" color display, 480 x 320 pixels, 163 ppi. Touch screen, gesture-aware and multi-touch aware. Your finger's flesh must contact the glass, a stylus, gloved finger or fingernail won't work.
Ion rechargeable. Battery is NOT user replaceable.
It must be sent to Apple for replacement or taken to an Apple store. Estimated battery life according to Apple: 300 to 400 full charge cycles. Claimed talk time: up to 5 hours in 3G mode, 12 hours in GSM mode. Claimed standby: up to 300 hours. Claimed Internet use time on 3G is 5 hours (9 hours on WiFi), claimed video playback is up to 10 hours and claimed music playback is 30 hours. Supports USB charging.
Performance:600MHz ARM CPU (Samsung S5PC100, Cortex A8 platform), 256 megs RAM. 16 and 32 gig capacities available. Has flash memory, not a hard disk.
x 2.4 x 0.48 inches. Weight: 4.8 ounces.
Phone:GSM quad band 850/900/1800/1900MHz world phone with EDGE for data. Triband 3G HSDPA 850/1900/2100MHz. Locked to AT&T, you can't use other carriers SIM cards with the iPhone unless someone finds a way to unlock it.
GPS:Yes, integrated GPS with a customized version of Google Maps.
Camera:3 megapixel camera with autofocus lens. Shoots photos at 1536 x 2048 resolution and video with audio at VGA 640 x 480 resolution at 30fps. Supports geotagging (GPS location is embedded in photo data).
in speaker, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
jack. Stereo earbud headset with inline mic included (frequency response 20Hz-20KHz, 32 ohms impedance). Full iPod capabilities, including video playback. Audio specs for iPhone: frequency response: 20Hz to 20,000Hz. Audio formats supported: AAC, Protected AAC, MP3, MP3 VBR, Audible (formats 1, 2, and 3), Apple Lossless, AIFF, and WAV.
Video:Plays all iTunes videos (TV shows, movies and etc.). Video formats supported: Video formats supported: H.264 video, up to 1.5 Mbps, 640 by 480 pixels, 30 frames per second, Low-Complexity version of the H.264 Baseline Profile with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4, and .mov file formats; H.264 video, up to 2.5 Mbps, 640 by 480 pixels, 30 frames per second, Baseline Profile up to Level 3.0 with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4, and .mov file formats; MPEG-4 video, up to 2.5 Mbps, 640 by 480 pixels, 30 frames per second, Simple Profile with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4, and .mov file formats.
WiFi 802.11b/g and Bluetooth 2.1 +EDR.
Software:iPhone OS 3.0 (customized version of Mac OS X operating system). Safari web browser, e-mail client (POP3, IMAP, MobileMe and Exchange), RSS reader, calendar, contacts, Google Maps, iPod music and video player, voice recorder, calculator, alarm clock, timer and more. Compatible with Mac OS X computers running 10.4.11 and later as well as Windows XP and Vista. Uses iTunes 8.2 or later to sync music, video and PIM information.
Memory Expansion Slot:None.
Connector:30 pin iPod dock connector.
In the box: iPhone, USB cable, charger, stereo headset, documentation, cleaning cloth, SIM eject tool.