Apple iPhone 3GS Review

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$199
Editor's Choice

Pros: Faster overall performance and Web surfing; Good video recording quality; Convenient digital compass; Largest, most compelling app store; Longer battery life than iPhone 3G

Cons: Some dropped calls; Can't multitask with third-party apps; No camera flash

Verdict: Blazing performance, video recording, and longer endurance make the latest iPhone the smart phone to beat.

When you place the new iPhone 3G S and the iPhone 3G side by side, they're practically identical--until you start using them. Thanks to a faster new processor and more memory, the 3G S ($199 for the 16GB version with two-year contract) runs circles around its predecessor, whether you're loading Web pages, opening apps, or playing games. The other thing you don't see at first glance is that the latest iPhone sports a sharper 3-megapixel camera on the back that records quality video (in good lighting) and a compass to help you get your bearings. The voice control functionality is inconsistent, and the iPhone 3G S can't multitask with third-party apps, but overall Apple has nearly perfected what was already a stellar smart phone.

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Design

Thanks to a new fingerprint-resistant coating for the display, the iPhone 3G S is much less susceptible to smudging. The 3.5-inch capacitive touchscreen is as brilliant and sharp as ever at 480 x 320-pixels. We noticed that the color register is a bit cooler and bluer this time around, which we prefer (many users found the iPhone 3G's screen to be too warm or yellow). When the 3G S eventually does accumulate streaks, you can wipe them away easily.

Given that Apple has seriously beefed up the hardware inside the iPhone 3G S, it's quite a feat that it has the exact measurements as the 3G. However, at 4.8 ounces, the 3G S is a tenth of an ounce heavier than the previous iteration. Nevertheless, this smart phone is easy to carry, and its hardened, glossy case (available in black or white) feels just as solid as its predecessor. All of the controls and buttons are in the same place as before, and are easy to access.

Faster Performance

The "S" in the name stands for speed, and this device delivers. A zippy new 600-MHz processor (underclocked from 833 MHz; up from 600 MHz in the iPhone 3G, underclocked to 412 MHz) and twice the RAM (256 MB vs. 128 MB) means that you're rarely left waiting for the iPhone 3G S to respond to an action.

Take the Calendar app. On the iPhone 3G S, we barely counted a second before it displayed the day's appointments; on the iPhone 3G we waited 3 seconds. When using the Spotlight Search function, the 3G S delivered results on the fly as we typed in search terms, while the 3G took a second or two to catch up to our keystrokes. And when we loaded The New York Times' app, the 3G S took 7 seconds to load and display the latest headlines, while the 3G took 10 seconds. Even the accelerometer on the 3G S works faster, switching the display's orientation a half second quicker than the 3G.

The 3G S also starts up faster than its predecessor. From a cold boot, the 3G S turned on in 19 seconds, compared with 35 seconds for the 3G. For our last test we opened and played Let's Golf, a graphics-intensive choice from Gameloft. On the 3G S, the game started loading in 4 seconds, versus 7 seconds on the 3G. But we noticed an even bigger difference when loading levels (the 3G was 5 seconds slower) and during gameplay. On the 3G, the animation of our ball in flight seemked as if it was moving in slow motion, while on the 3G S it was faster and smoother.

When you add up all of these examples you have a smart phone that's considerably quicker with a better overall user experience. And we haven't touched on Web performance yet.

Good Video Recording

Although its speed is what iPhone 3G S owners will appreciate most, the first thing you'll likely show off is the device's video recording capability. As long as we had a decent amount of ambient light, the iPhone 3G S produced VGA footage that looked crisp and fluid, both on the device itself and when played back on our desktop via QuickTime. Just keep in mind that if you start shooting in landscape or portrait mode, you'll want to stay in that mode; otherwise, your footage will change orientation during playback.

Our first clip of a toddler playing with a soccer ball on an overcast day looked almost as good as a standard-definition pocket camcorder. Colors were well saturated, and we noticed just a hint of jerkiness. We had mixed results indoors. With a combination of sufficient daylight and overhead light, our footage turned out clear and relatively smooth, but in dimmer conditions our clips exhibited a fair amount of noise.

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Sharing clips is a cinch with the iPhone 3G S, and for now you have a choice of three delivery methods: e-mail, MobileMe,and YouTube. (MMS will come later this summer.) All you need to do is open the Photos app, search for a clip, denoted by a little camcorder icon, and then click the share button. We shared a 46-second, 5MB clip, which the iPhone 3G S took 11 seconds to compress before sending via e-mail. It took about 2 minutes to send the file over Wi-Fi and 3 minutes over 3G. Despite the additional compression, our footage looked almost as clear on the other side. We wouldn't recommend uploading to YouTube, however, as the service compresses videos even further.

The iPhone 3G S also includes light editing functionality, allowing you to trim clips from the beginning or the end using the touchscreen. Unfortunately, this process is not intuitive, and once you edit footage you can't undo changes.

Improved Camera

At least on paper, the bump from 2 to 3 megapixels on the iPhone 3G S' camera makes it capable of capturing 8.5 x 11-inch-worthy pics, but, as with the camcorder function, your results will vary based on the amount of ambient light. Part of the reason that this phone delivers sharper photos than the iPhone 3G is that it has autofocus capability. You can also touch the screen to focus on a particular subject, and the camera is smart enough to activate macro mode when you get close enough.

When we took two side-by-side close-ups of a cereal box, the results from the iPhone 3G S were much more detailed. Other shots, especially those taken outdoors, looked good enough for 4 x 6-inch prints. On the other hand, the iPhone 3G S still lacks a flash, and capturing moving subjects almost always results in blurry photos. The bottom line is that the 3G S is good enough to stand in for, but not replace, a dedicated point-and-shoot.

As with the iPhone 3G, sharing photos via e-mail or uploading them to your MobileMe gallery is easy, but you'll have to wait to send picture messages to other mobile phones. As menioned earlier, AT&T promises that it will offer MMS support later this summer.

Lackluster Voice Control

Even if it worked the way it should, Voice Control on the iPhone would be somewhat underwhelming. You can use your voice only to make calls or play music, and in our tests the former worked much better than the latter. You activate Voice Control by pressing and holding the Home button, at which point you'll see the Voice Control menu appear with a bunch of terms floating by (clues as to what you can say).

For our first test we said "Call Lisa," and the iPhone 3G S told us there were multiple numbers for the entry. Then the slightly robotic female voice told us to say "Home" or "Work." After we said "Home," the call connected quickly.

Controlling music playback was an exercise in frustration. When we said "Play 311," the iPhone 3G S said "No match found." And yet when we told the phone to play Fall Out Boy, it started to play 311. When we asked the device what was playing--another option--it said "Three Hundred Eleven." Oops, our bad?

We'd like to see Apple do more with this feature. Integration with Spotlight Search, for example, would be great for finding specific e-mails or notes. Using it to find businesses via the Maps application would be another compelling use, as in "Find Starbucks near me."

Speedier Surfing

If you're not a fan of waiting for Web pages to load, you'll love the speed boost that the iPhone 3G S provides. In our tests, this handset blew away its predecessor when visiting several popular sites, downloading pages more than twice as fast. For example, the iPhone 3G S downloaded m.NYTimes.com over its 3G connection in an average of just 17 seconds, versus 40 seconds for the iPhone 3G.

Thanks to the 3.5-inch display and the top-notch Safari browser, pages continue to look desktop-like, and it's as easy as ever to zoom in on pages with a double tap or using the pinch gesture. We also appreciate that the iPhone 3G S opens new pages within the browser, as opposed to separate "cards" as the Palm Pre does.

You'll also notice a dramatic improvement when it comes to applications that tap into the Web for delivering information. The iPhone 3G S, for instance, launched the Associated Press app in just 3.2 seconds, compared with 13 seconds for the iPhone 3G. This speed delta will only increase once AT&T deploys an upgrade to its network that will enable peak download speeds of 7.2 Mbps.

Maps Made Better with Compass

It's just a subtle addition, but for business travelers and tourists it's a godsend. The Maps application on the iPhone 3G S leverages a new built-in digital compass. Just load the app, then touch the bottom left corner of the display once to find your location, and touch it a second time to engage the compass. You'll then see a little headlight-like graphic protruding from a little blue dot.

We tested this feature in New York City at the corner of 39th and Broadway, and the iPhone 3G S instantly (and correctly) identified that we were heading north on Broadway. When we turned around, the compass graphic turned with us.

The Maps app continues to be the easiest way to find local businesses. We like that it supports Google Street View (which loaded in 4 seconds) and that you can get traffic conditions or turn-by-turn directions through third-party apps. However, for true GPS navigation functionality, your best bet is a premium app such as Gokivo ($9.99 per month) or TomTom for iPhone (price TBD).

iPhone 3G S E-mail

Like its predecessor, the iPhone 3G S makes it simple to set up e-mail accounts, and its support for Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync should make this device attractive to business users who don't demand a physical keyboard. Plus, the 3G S loads new messages faster: It took less than 2 seconds to download and view a Word attachment on the iPhone 3G S and 5 seconds for the same attachment to load on the 3G. However, the iPhone 3G downloaded a 1.2MB file just as quickly as the iPhone 3G S.

The 3G S supports all of the major file attachment types, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, JPEG images, and PDF documents. If you want to edit or create Office files, you'll need a third-party app such as the $19.99 Quickoffice (which supports Word and Excel only) or the DataViz Documents to Go (supporting only Word for now), which costs $4.99 or $9.99 for the Exchange version.

Searching for e-mails on the iPhone is more intuitive than with a BlackBerry, thanks to search box right at the top of your inbox, but overall we prefer BlackBerry devices for e-mail, because they offer a superior typing experience. In addition, on the iPhone inboxes are limited to a varied maximum of messages locally (Exchange account, for example can hold up to one month's worth of mail), whereas BlackBerrys can store thousands of messages, an important distinction for those who get a hundred or more e-mails per day. And, at least for now, DataViz Documents to Go is a lot more robust for BlackBerry than it is for the iPhone, as it enables users to view, edit, and create Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files.

Messaging

This is a feature that will get better with age as AT&T rolls out MMS support. When available, this functionality will enable iPhone 3G S owners to send photos or video messages to other phones, as well as voice memos, location, and contact information. For now, though, you're limited to threaded text messaging conversations that look attractive and benefit from intelligent keyboard prediction software and a built-in dictionary.

Want to send instant messages on the go? There's an app for that; make that several. We're especially impressed with Apple's new Push Notification feature, which enables apps such as AIM to alert you when new messages arrive and give you a preview of the contents. We're assuming these types of notifications will be making their way to multiclient IM apps such as BeejiveIM and Palringo in the near future.

Spotlight Search

To get the full rundown on everything that Apple's latest software offers for both the iPhone 3G S and iPhone 3G, read our full review here, but this is a quick rundown of the highlights. As we mentioned before, Spotlight Search is especially fast on this device, and it will change the way you use the iPhone. You can find anything from calendar entries and e-mails to notes and applications with a swipe to the left and a few taps on the keyboard, and you can even prioritize which categories show up in what order in the settings menu.

Landscape Keyboard

Typing on the iPhone 3G S is hands-down the best experience on any touchscreen device. The new landscape mode slows you down a bit versus portrait mode but dramatically increases accuracy. Landscape typing will start showing up in more third-party apps as developers issue updates.

Other iPhone 3.0 Features

Speaking of apps, Apple's 50,000-plus iTunes App Store is about to get even more compelling, thanks to such new features as push notifications (which can alert you to news updates, sports scores, incoming instant messages, for example), subscription pricing (great for GPS navigation and video subscription services), and peer-to-peer communication (tailor-made for head-to-head gaming sessions).

Other highlights of the iPhone 3.0 software include stereo Bluetooth support, a built-in voice recorder, the ability to buy movies and TV shows wirelessly, and well-executed cut-and-paste functionality. You can even find your iPhone, and remotely wipe its contents if you lose it, although that requires a MobileMe subscription.

iPod

Other than the ability to shake your iPhone to shuffle songs (which works well) and to cue up artists or albums with the sound of your voice (which was hit or miss on our tests), Apple hasn't added many new features to the iPhone 3G S when it comes to its iPod functionality. The only other noteworthy addition is Nike + iPod, which when paired with a Nike+ shoe sensor lets you use the phone to track your workouts. We don't see many people strapping this relatively heavy device to their arms when running, however.

The iPhone continues to be a top-notch media player, and with up to 16GB or 32GB of storage space at your disposal, you'll have plenty of room for your favorite movies, music, and TV shows.Background music playback continues to be a highlight, as the iPhone 3G S can keep the tunes pumping while you surf the Web, check e-mail, and use third-party apps such as AIM or ESPN ScoreCenter.

If there's one area where we'd like to see some improvement, it would be the addition of video subscriptions, whether for particular TV series or for a bucket of episodes per month across multiple shows.

Call Quality and Reception

Although the iPhone 3G S is chock-full of improvements, Apple can't improve the reliability of AT&T's network. During the course of four days of testing in New York and New Jersey, we experienced three dropped calls. We also noticed that the handset, like its predecessor, would occasionally fall back to slower EDGE data in a 3G coverage area.

Overall voice quality was fair to good, with some fuzziness on the line. Other callers said they couldn't tell the difference between the iPhone 3G S and 3G in terms of clarity. When we left two voicemails on a landline, however, the iPhone 3G S message sounded less muffled than the iPhone 3G. We wish the earpiece volume was a bit louder, but donning the included earbuds helped, because it blocks some ambient noise.

Improved Battery Life

A good smart phone won't force you to find an outlet before the day is done, and in that respect the iPhone 3G S is better than its predecessor. On a full charge, starting at about 6 a.m., we used the phone moderately over the course of a workday (camera, surfing the Web, downloading e-mail attachments, playing music). Our device showed 30 percent capacity remaining by 7:30 p.m. Typically, with the iPhone 3G we have to recharge the device if we want to use it in the evening.

One small but welcome improvement is that the 3G S sports a battery meter that will tell you the exact percentage of juice remaining. The rated talk time remains 5 hours over 3G, but Apple promises longer Web surfing endurance compared with the iPhone 3G over Wi-Fi (9 hours vs 6 hours), and more video (10 hours vs 7 hours) and music playback (30 vs. 24 hours.) We'll update this review once we've conducted our own Wi-Fi Web surfing test.

Verdict

Over the past year the smart phone landscape has changed, and Apple faces a formidable new competitor in the Palm Pre, which features a striking user interface, strong data performance, and the ability to multitask (although its battery life and app catalog are lacking). Android is also gaining momentum, thanks to a welcome software update and promising new devices such as the HTC myTouch 3G on the way. And let's not forget RIM; such new smart phones as the BlackBerry Tour will continue to please business users and others who appreciate a physical keyboard, reliable push e-mail, and best-in-class battery life.

Nevertheless, the $199 iPhone 3G S is a superior smart phone because of its improved speed, video recording capability, and vast iTunes App Store. We wish this device were available through more carriers, and that you could do more with its Voice Control feature, but even with its occasional network issues, this smart phone trumps the competition.

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Author Bio
Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer, Editor-in-Chief
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptopmag.com, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
Mark Spoonauer, Editor-in-Chief on
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Laptop Mag & Tom's Hardware
Carrier AT&T
Form Factor Candy Bar
Operating System Mac OS X
Data HSDPA
CPU 600-MHz processor
Internal Memory 16GB
Memory Expansion Type N/A
Display (main) 3.5 inches (480 x 320 pixels)
Display (secondary)
GPS Yes
Bluetooth Type Bluetooth Stereo
FM Radio
Camera Resolution 3 MP
Talk / Standby Time up to 5 hours (3G)/12.5 days
Size 4.5 x 2.4 x 0.5 inches
Weight 4.8 ounces
Company Website http://wireless.att.com