Apple iPhone 3GS
4.0Overall Score
Price (RRP): $879

The iPhone 3GS touchscreen mobile phone has had its processor upgraded from the iPhone 3G’s 412MHz to a more powerful 600MHz chip, and doubled the RAM that the iPhone 3G had. This has given the new iPhone a truly significant performance hike across a broad range of functionality.

I am a bit of an “Apple FanBoy”, but after watching the new iPhone’s launch presentation at the Apple Developers Conference on June 8 I was sceptical about the iPhone 3GS. I made several assumptions about the phone, based mostly on it looking identical to the current model 3G model. With other manufacturers changing handset designs with each new model, there was an expectation that Apple might make some changes. But then Apple always goes its own way.

Looking past the physically similarity of the second generation 3G iPhone launched in Australia almost a year ago to the new 3GS and moving under the hood, there are some real differences to be found. With both phones loaded with a Telstra Next G SIM I ran a number of head-to-head comparisons involving web browsing, maps and apps. The speed difference is really significant. Both phones had the new 3.0 OS loaded and even though the 3G benefits from an improvement in overall speed, the 3GS was simply way faster. It also benefits from new video capabilities, still camera functionality (especially ‘tap-to-focus’) and Voice Control.

Now, after almost of week of putting the new iPhone 3GS through its paces, I’m really impressed.

The look

Apple’s rationale for sticking to the same form factor is based on indisputable logic. Apple’s Australian marketing team points out that the current iPhone and iPod Touch are the most ‘accessorised’ pieces of technology that have ever existed, and that changing the iPhone’s form factor would be completely stupid considering the huge number of companies that have built accessories or designed products that integrate the iPhone or iPod.

According to Apple, the only external change to the 3GS occurs its screen. The new iPhone has been upgraded to an ‘Oleophobic’ screen, which according to my Funk & Wagnall’s means it has “…a fear of oil”. It’s actually a special coating, according to Apple, which translates to fewer smudges, fingerprints and other grime and dust on the screen. And if they do occur, they are easier to wipe off.

The only other physical change is that the 3GS is that it’s a few grams heavier than the 3G model – not that you can tell the difference when holding both phones. Importantly, for collectors of multimedia, the new iPhone’s memory has been upgraded, with 16 or 32GB of built-in storage available in both black and white versions of the 3GS. There remains no memory card slot to expand the memory further.

Apple recently issued a free update of the iPhone OS for earlier model iPhones, with many of these new features available on the second generation iPhones (available in Australia) and the iPod Touch. Some applications, however, are designed only to work on the new 3GS with its upgraded hardware.

Speed

Ahhh! The need for speed. If you didn’t already know, the ‘S’ in 3GS stands for ‘Speed’. So, I speed tested the 3GS and the older 3GSide by side and all the ‘speed hype’ Apple has pushed becomes completely understandable.

Launching the Gadget Guy website, Facebook and other various image-rich sites with Safari on the 3GS was about x2+ faster than the 3G model. Ditto for load times for apps, programs, games, weather forecasts and maps.

The reason? Apple has upgraded the 3G’s 412MHz processor to a more powerful 600MHz chip and doubled the RAM in the new model. This has given the new iPhone a truly significant performance hike across a broad range of functionality.

The new phone also supports the faster HSPA 7.2 megabit mobile download data rate of the Australian telco networks. Remember, this is an optimal – or should I say ‘optimistically theoretical’ speed – and is actually network dependent. The point, though, is that the 3GS is at least ‘theoretically’ twice as fast as the 3G iPhone when loading a web page or accessing online data.

Camera and video

Apple has upgraded from a 2 megapixel to a 3 megapixel resolution camera in the 3GS and added a very practical ‘Tap-to-Focus’ function, similar to that found on Sony and Samsung camcorders. Simply identify the part of the scene you want in focus and tap the screen at that location and the camera not only focuses at that point but adjusts the colour, contrast, white balance and exposure for your selection on the 3GS screen.

Does Tap-to-Focus work? Like a dream! It promises to take care of setting all the picture-taking exposure parameters for your selected point on the screen, and does exactly that.

The iPhone’s camera isn’t perfect, but is certainly a big improvement on that used in the previous model’s. The 3GS still doesn’t come with a flash, though, so don’t expect brilliant results for low light photography. Overall, indoor shots with conventional lighting were of average quality, but in low-light conditions when the camera programs a slower shutter blur becomes a significant problem.

White balance (colour correction for different lighting sources) works reasonably well, but isn’t balanced for fluroescent light. This is something of an oversight on Apple’s behalf – what with incandescent lights being increasingly replaced by energy saving fluro light sources – and we can expect to see a lot of ‘greenish’ images posted on Facebook and other image sharing sites.

There’s also a new automatic macro setting. It was impossible to tell when the function was engaged, and close-up shots from the 3GS looked only marginally better than they did from the 3G.

Video recording

At last, the 3GS brings video recording – a feature common to many mobile phones for years now – to the iPhone family. The 3GS provides an easy-to-use video camera function that accesses many of the features of the still camera. It also provides a basic in-phone video-editing option, similar to that offered on Samsung and Sony Ericsson mobiles.

Controls for video work just like the still camera’s controls, and you can use the Tap-to-Focus feature when taking video too. The video camera mode operates at a resolution of 640 x 480 pixels (VGA standard) and Apple say the camera shoots at 30 frames per second.

Generally this translates to smooth footage, however, expect some jerkiness with fast moving subjects. After you’ve recorded your footage, you can send your clip in an email or upload it directly to YouTube with a single click.

The 3GS’s video-editing application is simple and intuitive to use. Load a video or tap the one you’ve just shot and it appears with a yellow-boxed frame structure above the Play window. This frame-by-frame version of the footage has drag bars at the either end. Using your finger to touch the start or end bars, you can slide the cursor to any point in the video to start playing from there, or cut the end point.

Once you’ve made your revised start and end point edits for the selected footage, just hit the ‘Trim’ control and the software cuts your video to the nominated length.

But beware when editing and trimming your clips! When a clip has been trimmed, the edited version completely replaces the original video, rather than saving it as a new file. Also, trimming footage is only performed in a linear format, so you can’t cut footage from the middle of the clip and then stitch the remaining two ends of the video together. Here’s guessing that this iMovie level of sophisticated editing becomes available as a future software update.

Compass

A unique feature found on the new iPhone is Compass. Found as an icon on the home screen, the iPhone 3GS’ digital compass option just needs to be tapped to open. The interface shows a large compass with your bearing and your latitude and longitude. Similar to an analog compass, it continues to point true or magnetic north (depending on how it has been set) as you move it.

The compass will also work with Google Maps to orientate the map in the right direction. To switch across to the maps with Compass bearings, just press the familiar bull’s-eye icon in the bottom-left corner. You’ll then see your position on the map, and if you tap the bull’s-eye again, the map will rotate to show the direction you are facing.

Unfortunately, the addition of Compass doesn’t mean you will get voiced turn-by-turn directions as you drive along, since Apple hasn’t included that in Maps. The good news is that Tom Tom has announced it will be releasing a GPS app that will offer this feature and more.

Voice control

I’ve used voice control or voice dialling features on a variety of mobile phones and it’s, frankly, become a bit of a ho-hum feature. Voice Control on the iPhone 3GS, however, offers more than I’ve experienced on any other phone.. or digital music player, for that matter.

Voice Control is simply activated by holding down the home button and when the Voice Control blue screen activates and beeps simply say… “Call Dilbert” (or anyone in your contact list). If I have listed multiple phone numbers for a contact, the iPhone will ask you if you wish to call ‘mobile’, ‘office’, ‘home’ etc. You can also use Voice Control to directly dial a number by simply saying “Dial 9300 1234”, for example.

Without even having access the 3GS’s iPod function, you can now utilise Voice Control to “Play songs by…’ then play “Next song” or “Previous song”, turn on Shuffle or play a particular playlist. When in the main screen I said “Shuffle” and the phone told me that “No music is playing, do you want to play music now?”. I said “yes” and the music started. The available commands are displayed as flying words on the 3GS’s screen when you’re in Voice Control mode.

Accessibility features

An innovation in the 3GS is a full suite of accessibility features that will prove to be hugely popular amongst those who have either visual or hearing impairments. Visually impaired users can enable the iPhone’s ‘Voice Over’ function to navigate the handset’s menus as well as have it active when typing text messages or emails. As you move your finger around the display and tap buttons, the iPhone reads a description of that button. The phone will also read the text in dialog boxes, the time of day, the status and orientation of the display (locked or unlocked, portrait or landscape), and speak out information, such as the phone’s battery level, Wi-Fi status, and even network signals.

Voice Over (VO) will also speak each character as you type a message, and it will also suggest the iPhone’s auto correction choices. VO can read text messages, emails, and even does a reasonable job at speaking the text on web pages.

Voice Over has its own unique set of gestures that need to be learnt to use it successfully. for example, you’ll have to double-tap to open an item – but the feature provides audible instruction. Enlarge a web page and you use three fingers to navigate through the text. Previously, zoom worked only in the photo gallery, email and the Safari browser. Now you can activate the enhanced zoom in the Settings menu, but you can’t use it and the Voice Over function at the same time.

You can also set the speed at which the VO function speaks and select from 21 languages. Settings also allows you to reverse the display’s contrast to white on black, with the enhanced contrast making it easier to read for those with sight problems. Menus will show white text on a black background, while the Home screen will change to a white background.

One drawback is that Voice Over won’t work with Bluetooth headsets. You can use Voice Over only hands-free in a car, for example, with the phone’s included earbuds. The controls are on the right cord, and holding down the middle button can launch Voice Control.

While we’re counting up the negatives, Voice Control also won’t launch the iPhone 3GS’s apps. There’s currently no way of organising apps into, say, folders so if you have loads of them the only way to locate and launch them is to flick through screen after screen after screen. Voice Over app launching would eliminate this.

While Bluetooth doesn’t operate with Voice Control, the addition of stereo Bluetooth now makes it possible to listen to audio on the iPhone wirelessly.

Battery life

Chat with any 3G iPhone user and the conversation inevitably comes around to battery life. It’s one of the most consistent complaints from even the most ardent iPhone devotee. Battery life does show obvious signs of improvement, as promised by Apple with the 3GS. While I can’t really verify Apple’s numbers regarding to battery performance with different functions, 3GS definitely outlasts the 3G in every operational category.

Tethering

Tethering refers to the ability to use your iPhone as a mobile modem when attached to your notebook. It can operate either through USB or wirelessly via Bluetooth. Access Tethering in Settings and the iPhone recognises immediately that it has been enabled and does almost everything else with the iPhone’s user-friendly attitude.

I tethered the iPhone with a MacBook Pro and it worked flawlessly. Speeds were reasonable and Speedtest.net provided me with the speed ratings – I was able to achieve a maximum of 3.2Mbps, with the average about 2.6Mbps.

A word of warning though: ensure that you have a phone plan that accommodates tethering and a reasonable data cap, otherwise you may find yourself with a very bad case of ‘bill shock’. Web surfing via a tethered iPhone will rapidly chew into you monthly data allowance. Optus has implemented a surcharge for tethering, so it is best to check what’s what with your selected carrier before getting too excited about using your new iPhone as a modem.

Finally, we have MMS…

Multimedia Messaging (MMS) has finally made its way to the iPhone. Available on virtually every phone with a built-in camera on the market, it was one of the biggest ommissions in the previous model. Now text messaging – SMS – and MMS have been combined. The result? You can now send photos, video or audio files and even map locations to someone’s email address or via text message directly to that person’s phone.

The process seems pretty simple, and it covers a range of Apple’s applications. For example, snap a photo and an icon appears on the captured image in the lower left corner of the Camera app. You then get the option to send the image as an MMS to anyone on your contact list via email, text or both.

Video is exactly the same. And when an MMS is received, you can save the images or video to your own photo library or forward them to others. The way it works is actually very basic, which just makes it easier to start sharing images and video. All you are really doing is attaching a multimedia file to a text or email message.

Keeping fit with the iPhone 3GS

The iPhone 3GS now includes support for the neat Nike + iPod program, which integrates your iPod/iPhone with a sensor that fits inside Nike running shoes. It works like a pedometer to measure distance travelled and the pace you achieved. When the app is engaged in the settings menu, an icon appears on the Home screen. The app keeps a record of your movement and plots this on cool graphs that visually translate the beat of your activity. It also links to a website that allows you to share exercise data with exercise buddies anywhere in the world.

 

Find My iPhone

As smartphones become more portable data storage devices the security risk they represent multiplies. The iPhone 3GS helps limit potential damage by integrating a tracking feature. With ‘Find My iPhone’ activated, iPhone owners can remotely delete all information about themselves and the data their phone contains.

The feature also allows you to trigger an alarm on the phone, even if it’s on silent mode.

This can either reveal where the phone is, in case you’ve misplaced it at home, or embarrass and perhaps expose someone who has stolen it. You need to ensure that Location Services is switched ‘On’ and – here’s the rub – be a MobileMe subscriber. Membership costs around $120 a year.

Conclusion

The iPhone 3GS isn’t perfect, but it is the best multimedia touch phone on the market. There are lots of features I would still love to see, but the 100 or so new fruit packed into the 3GS are enough to lift it high above the competition. Apple has built on the strengths of the original iPhone, making it faster, more capable, more useful, tactile and worthy of desire. The 3GS has tremendous appeal.

A note on pricing

The price accompanying this review, $879, applies to the 16GB iPhone 3GS purchased unlocked from the Apple Store. The 32GB is $1,040. Above this cost you’ll need to add the cost of the plan to run the phone on the telco of your choice. Or you could purchase the iPhone 3GS on a pre-paid or post-pay plan from a telco – prices and data allowances vary according to carrier.

At the time of writing Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, 3 Mobile and Virgin Broadband have confirmed they will carry the iPhone 3GS.

 

Apple iPhone 3GS
Price (RRP): $879
Same socket connections as iPhone 3G; 100 new features
No camera flash; No secondary camera for video calls; No voice control for 3rd party apps
Overall
Features
Value for money
Performance
Ease of Use
4.0Overall Score
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