Finally, a no-compromises smartphone suitable for mass consumption
Once upon a time, I dismissed the iPhone as a wannabe smartphone, lacking the key features that truly warranted that label. Since I wrote that column about two years ago, Apple has gone on a feature-adding rampage—adding push email, support for Exchange servers, third-party applications, and a veritable alphabet soup of new acronyms (GPS, MMS, and 3G, for starters). Two years into the iPhone era, the device is so much more than a phone with an iPod attached— it’s an instant-on, always-connected, pocket-sized computer.
On paper, the 3GS doesn’t seem like a major upgrade from the previous-generation iPhone, especially when you consider that many of the bullet points on the 3GS’s feature list came to older iPhones in the form of the 3.0 firmware release. And at first glance, even the new 3GS-exclusive features—a faster CPU, more memory, a more capable GPU, faster network connectivity, a higher-resolution camera that can finally shoot video, voice control for key features, and a compass—seem like a mixture of unsexy, incremental, shoulda-been-there-already features, and just plain meh. Worse, some of the features require carrier support, so things like MMS messages, higher-speed HSPDA support, and tethering won’t be available in the United States until AT&T deigns to support them.
The iPhone 3GS brings a faster CPU, more memory, and faster download speeds to Apple's do-everything wonder-phone.
But when you actually sit down and use the phone, the seemingly minor hardware tweaks bring a substantial performance boost to the phone. The OS is snappier, apps load noticeably faster, and the out-of-memory crashes that plagued Safari with earlier versions of the iPhone seem to be a thing of the past. The 3GS nearly halved the load times for some particularly slow-loading apps in my side-by-side testing with the 3G version. Depending on the way you use your phone and the apps you use, you could experience a substantial performance boost. I even find myself wiping finger grease off the phone less frequently, thanks to the new fingerprint-resistant coating that Apple uses on the phone’s glass touch screen.
While many of the new software features are also available to owners of older iPhones, I’d be remiss not to mention them. On the software front, the 3GS offers all the goodness of the 3.0 software update—phone-wide search, push notifications for apps, the voice recorder app, and a bunch of other smaller improvements.
In my admittedly unscientific battery-life tests, the iPhone 3GS seemed to have a shorter run than the first iPhone in common usage, although it still outperformed the 3G. The 3GS has real battery-life problems when you run CPU-intensive apps, like the video camera or most games. In the gaming test, the 3GS battery drained faster than a 3G. I have yet to run out of juice before the end of the day, but this is definitely a phone that requires a recharge after a full day of use.
Where does that leave the iPhone 3GS? For users of the original iPhone, it’s a great upgrade. Owners of the 3G should probably wait and see what Apple has planned for next year before they make the upgrade. And even if you have a moral objection to Apple, you have to be excited that the iPhone’s success has forced formerly moribund carriers and hardware manufacturers to innovate again, which is good news for anyone with a cell phone.
Apple iPhone 3GS
Faster everything; improved camera is great; it's got a compass!
Battery life could be better; still can't change some alert tones.