by Jason Chen on 6/17/09
What’s the point in buying a new iPhone if it looks exactly like the old one? Because once you start using it, the speed of the iPhone 3GS will amaze you.
There’s a reason why Apple called this the iPhone 3GS for Speed and not the 3GC for “compass” or 3GV for “video recording.” Speed is the central upgrade here, and probably is the single biggest reason you would upgrade to a 3GS from a 3G. And if you’re coming in as a virgin iPhone user, there’s definitely no question: The 3GS is worth an extra $100.
That declaration may be weird to most of us since we usually look for features, and not specs, when we’re evaluating phones—and iPhone 3GS doesn’t blow us out in the feature department. Instead, it’s like getting a bigger TV or a faster car. Your old machine works just fine, but once you’ve tried the new one for a week, you’ll never want to go back, even if it costs you a little extra.
Like we said, from the outside the 3GS is exactly the same as the 3G. It’s slightly heavier and has glossy text on the back, but if Steve Jobs whipped one out in public before it was announced, you wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference.
By holding the 3GS next to the 3G, you’ll notice that the screen is slightly more reflective because of the new fingerprint resistant oleophobic coating. It even has a little bit of a rainbow effect if you reflect a monitor with it. Surprisingly, the coating actually works in preventing a good deal of fingerprints and face grease, and it allows the phone to still be smooth and usable even if there are fingerprints on the surface.
The shot above illustrates the fact. The two phones may look similar in how much finger and face grease are on the screen, but the iPhone 3GS is still usable and doesn’t have the problem of “sticking” in certain areas that are slightly greasier. It’s also easier to clean just by wiping on your shirt. The glass treatment won’t eliminate smudging from your bodily secretions altogether, but it’s a very useful improvement for something you’re touching all the time.
The 3GS display is ever-so-slightly warmer than the 3G’s, having a yellow/orangish tint when viewed side by side. If you remember, the 3G’s screen was also warmer than the 2G’s. It’s not distracting in any way, and the warm screen is slightly easier on your eyes even if the brightness is bumped up high.
The video really shows how fast the iPhone 3GS is. Safari, Email, Camera all load noticeably faster than on the iPhone 3G (both running 3.0 software). Even booting the phone takes about half the time. Apps with long load times, like Sims 3, Oregon Trail or Metal Gear Touch all show how much faster you get up and running on the new device. Seriously, everything is faster. It’s exactly the same experience as switching from a two- or three-year-old computer to something brand new. Your apps all look the same, but they load and run much more smoothly. Even if you’re doing the same things on both machines, the new machine is that much better to work on.
What does this speed increase mean for future iPhone apps and games? With the iPhone 3GS running on a 600MHz CPU with 256MB RAM (up from 400MHz and 128MB), there’s a much higher performance ceiling for apps to hit. The OpenGL ES 2.0 graphics standard that’s now supported paves the way for an impressive visual boost. Hubert (a former Nvidia developer) from Ubergizmo says it’s somewhere along the lines of going from Half Life 1 to Half Life 2, which is essentially going up a console generation. Gamers should pay attention.
Like we said before, the iPhone 3G will still run most of the games for the near future. That 40 million unit potential market of iPhone/iPod Touch devices is too big to just ignore and put out an app just for 3GS phones, so your old phone will still be able to keep up. But developers are like alcoholics. If you put more system resources in front of them, they can’t help but use all of it just because they can. Also, they drink a lot.
Apple hates to emphasize specs in products like the iPhone 3GS, but even they couldn’t resist bragging about the speed boost. That S is there for a reason.
The 3GS also has a 3-megapixel camera, adding auto focus and video recording. You even get an interface that lets you tap on a section of the screen that you want to focus on and the phone will automatically adjust the focus to that point in space.
By tapping on the screen and activating the auto-everything—not just auto focus but improved auto exposure and auto white balance—you’re gaining the ability to control more of what your shots look like. It’s most obvious in macro shots where the subject is only a few inches away (above). Those two photos were shot from the exact same distance in the exact same lighting. You can also see in the gallery below that the 3GS is slightly better in low-light conditions (something the 3G was no good at), as well as having better overall auto white balance.
I wouldn’t say it’s a mindblowing revolutionary step for the iPhone camera, but it’s definitely more than just shoving in more megapixels and leaving it at that.
The video quality, on the other hand, is pretty good for a cellphone. Apple claims up to 30 frames per second, and as this video of an HD recording of SNL shows, it comes pretty damn close. Even if it’s not quite 30FPS at all times, the video is smooth as hell. Recording still isn’t great in low light since it’s a physical limitation of cameras in general, but at least it’s fluid. The tap-to-focus (and re-expose) feature also carries over to video, which you can use to “aim” your camera at a part of the scene.
You’ll also want to use the quick trimming feature before you upload your videos directly to YouTube to cut out the excess at the front and back of your clips. The quick trim is just like trimming a clip in iMovie, with the yellow draggable borders. Apple says that the 3G doesn’t have video because the old processor isn’t capable of handling it, and after taking the 30FPS videos on the 3GS, we can believe that they didn’t want to settle for just 15FPS videos.
Data hogs will also be happy about the increased 7.2Mbps data speeds the 3GS can achieve. We used the Speedtest app in the App Store and over multiple days and multiple times (early, mid-day and late at night), clocked the 3GS at an average of 1568Kbps, whereas the 3G only measured 1165Kbps. Their uploads were relatively equal, at 226Kbps (3GS) and 209Kbps (3G), but there was a noticeable difference in latency with the 3GS pulling ahead at 174ms to the 3G’s 231ms. Although on average the 3GS scored about 50% higher than the 3G, occasionally, in individual runs, it could have ranged anywhere from twice as fast to about the same speeds.
The speed boost for downloads is interesting, seeing as AT&T hasn’t even begun to really roll out their 7.2 HSPA in very many places yet. Since we’re testing this before the actual 3GS release date, we’ll see how much loads of 3GS users will impact overall speeds, and we’ll see how fast the 3GS speeds increase once AT&T has the infrastructure to support it.
If you’re talking practical use scenarios right now, the increased network speeds and the increased processing speeds help to cut down wait times for both the email and Safari and whatever other app you use that grabs a bunch of data often. Even if you’re on Wi-Fi, the fact that there’s a faster processor on board mean that you’re going to be done faster than on the 3G.
The compass app, along with the magnetometer, is great at pointing you somewhere in the general direction of North. It also doesn’t matter which way you’re holding the phone—either parallel or perpendicular to the ground—the arrow and numbers will still more or less give you a sense of where you’re facing.
As a bonus, if you hit the “find me” button in Google Maps a second time after it’s located your GPS position, it’ll re-orient your map to reflect the way you’re facing. It would have been extremely useful when I was on foot, lost in San Francisco trying catch the last train, not knowing which way was which since the street signs are so small and the blocks are so large. If I had this, I wouldn’t have to have gone a block in the wrong direction just to figure out I should have been heading the other way.
The compass may not sound like a great feature, but apps like Layar, an augmented reality browser, are now capable of running on the 3GS with the help of the magnetometer and GPS.
Nike+ support is something that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time—so much so that I even bought an iPod Touch 2G to use it. Well, it’s here, and it works. The app is exactly like the one on the 2G Touch, and enables you all the running features you’re accustomed to using on any other Nike+ device. What’s nice about using your phone when running is that you always have your phone with you, and if you have a stereo Bluetooth headset, you’ll be able to listen to music, run and answer a call if need be.
Voice control actually works. As long as you know the right commands, like “call” for calling someone on your contact list and “dial” if you want to dial a number. The accuracy is quite high, and the app can recognize what you’re saying as long as there’s not too much background noise. It’s also fairly smart. If you say “call Mike” and you have multiple Mikes in your list, the iPhone will say the names of all your Mikes and ask you to be more specific.
The song control works, but gets confused occasionally because bands have weird names that aren’t exactly English—they just share the same letters. The iPhone kept confusing “Phoenix” with “INXS” or “DMX”, for example, but managed to actually get commands like “pause music”, “who is this song by”, “previous track” “what song is playing?”, “shuffle” and “play more like this” correct. And if you’re worried about figuring out what to say to control your phone, just activate the Voice Control function and watch the screen; eventually the command you want will come floating by in the background.
What’s also surprising about the 3GS is that you wouldn’t expect battery life to be improved, but it is. Apple’s figures that measured improvement over the 3G in every category except 3G calling were more or less what we found in our own testing, which means you should be able to last the entire day on one charge with no problems. Plus, since the phone is faster, you’ll probably spend less time looking up directions or getting to a restaurant’s web page—which also saves battery.
The iPhone 3GS is not an insignificant step forward in the iPhone family. The Nike+ support, magnetometer (compass), video recording, voice command, better camera, better battery life and faster data network are all improvements nobody would call a step backwards. But the biggest day-to-day improvement over the 3G is undoubtedly the increased processing speed, which is why Apple called this phone the 3GS (with the S standing for super fast) in order to designate that it’s basically the 3G, but better.
3G users have the unfortunate question of asking themselves whether or not they want to spend the $399/$499 to upgrade to the 3GS right now. If you’re eligible to upgrade in July, August or September, AT&T’s letting you do so at the full subsidized $199/$299 price. If not, you’ll have to wait until your 18 months are up. It’s definitely a better phone, but AT&T’s plan of making early adopters wait another six months from now until they can get the standard $199/$299 price is frustrating, since we’ll already be halfway into the iPhone 3GS lifecycle. And by then, it’ll be worth waiting until June 2010 for a true revolutionary jump in iPhone design, instead of just an evolutionary improvement on the 3G.
Our first generation iPhone review
verdict was to wait. Our iPhone 3G
review gave the go-ahead to finally mount up. The only issue with the iPhone 3GS, if you already have the 3G, is that it’s not all that different of an experience.
Like I said in the Palm Pre review, I’m a bit bored of the iPhone look and feel. If you’re looking for something new, something different and something you’re not quite familiar with, there’s the Pre or the MyTouch 3G. But as a whole, the iPhone 3GS is the best all-around smartphone available. If you’re looking for a refined, augmented version of what you already know, a phone that, not for nothing, runs all the tens of thousands of apps on the App Store, choose the iPhone 3GS.