Long Overdue Full Review: iPhone 3GS

Posted by Minnaar Pieters 05 Sep 2009
iPhone 3GS Speed increaseVodacom launched the iPhone 3GS about a month ago on 28 July, but unfortunately stock was very limited – in fact, there is still a major shortage of the 3GS in South Africa. (you can read my about my mission to get one here, and a bit of well deserved praise for iStore here).

To the untrained eye, the iPhone 3GS looks eerily similar to its older brother – in fact its pretty undistinguishable. (Tip: only difference is the chrome lettering on the bottom half of the back). Clearly Apple is using a similar strategy it has in its computer business for years – they continually refine a form factor, with only radical changes every few years. Apple has also fortunately made the iPhone 3.0 OS updates available to the older iPhones – this review wont focus on the changes in iPhone 3.0.

The unboxing experience is also very similar to the 3G, only difference being a slightly smaller box and the lack of a polishing cloth. Not a big deal on my opinion. Still would love a dock like the first gen iPhone though. The headphones also got a slight revision – they now have volume control as well. These controls in the wire is however a bit more useful with the 3GS’s voice control, but we will get to that later.

The device still has its minimalistic design with only a few buttons – a timeless design that I reckon Apple will stick with for years to come. It still has the glossy plastic back which attracts fingerprints just like the front, but the white models tend to not attract as many fingerprints. Overall I like the form factor a lot, and it does feel very good in your hand. Even though it might feel on the large size, it clearly is a sweet spot once you start using the screen interface. It is also quite thin and sleek - especially compared to other smartphones on the market.

iPhone 3GS vs competitors
The iPhone 3GS on top of the Nokia N86 8MP, Nokia E75 and HTC G1.

So what has changed? It is all under the hood – first up, the processor is bumped from 412 to 600 MHz, with a larger cache to boot. This has a very clear improvement in the general speed of the device – applications load much quicker, some cases even double the speed. The interface reacts quicker as well – but this might have something to do with improved video chipset as well. The new chipset improves 3D games tremendously – playing a graphically rich game like Hero of Sparta or Assassins Creed shows much smoother frame rates which also add to playability of the games. Clearly Apple is making a major push into handheld gaming.

The framerate also carries over to general use on the devices – flipping pages in apps (for example clicking the “i” button in Weather) have a much smoother visual transition.
Hopefully game publishers will not focus too quickly on the new video chipset seeing as games will become very bad on older hardware, but there is of course still a much larger user base with the older hardware, so that wont happen too soon. Here is a video to show the speed increases (excuse the lack of proper focus, but you get the idea):



Memory has also been doubled to 256 MB – this leads to less page refreshes in multiple tabs in Safari, big applications never give a low memory error, and it yes, it also contributes to the speed. The 3G chipset is also now 7.2 Mbps cabable (up from 3.6) which does increase browsing and download speed. Unfortunately in South Africa this will go to waste – we have the ability on Vodacom Broadband Advanced now, but the fact that you have to pay extra irritates me.

Apple has also added a compass – which does not really sound like a big deal. And yes, in its current guise it does not add a lot to the user experience. You get a compass app, which, you guessed it, shows a compass pointing North. Google Maps also now uses the compass to show you which way you are looking at. But the real change is with apps that are coming – Yelp recently showcased its new “monocle feature” that enables you to look through the camera with restaurant reviews pointing at the restaurants you are looking out. Rumour has it that Google’s streetview will also get this soon. (You might have also heard that Google’s streetview cars are finally surveying South Africa).

The iPhone also gets Nike+ functionality like the 2nd gen iPod Touch has had. I used Nike+ on my Nano a while back, and the interface has been nicely ported to the iPhone OS. However, the lack of hard buttons to control while jogging is not great, guess you have to run with your iPhone supplied earphones to use the in cable controls.

Multimedia:iPhone 3GS camera focus

The iPhone also gains a few other enhancements – first up the camera. The sensor has been boosted from 2 to 3.2 Megapixels, but perhaps more significantly, has gained a autofocus lens. While this is old news on just about all other smartphones, Apple has made a few very useful additions to the way you use the camera. Instead of merely framing a shot and taking the picture, the iPhone allows you to select where you want to focus in the image. This works very well – in fact, I really hope to see this functionality in stand alone cameras soon. Photos do look much better than the 3G, with richer colour and and slightly better performance in low light. Could still use a flash though.

Big news however is the addition of video recording – again, a feature that just about every camera phone had for the last few years. But the iPhone’s video recording looks stunning – the framerate is decent, and the resolution is fine as well for casual use. The 3GS also enables a user to trim the video right on the device to take out unnecessary parts, and then the user can email the video or upload it directly to YouTube. Again, this is something that other phones have had for a while, but the iPhone’s implementation is just so simple, it begs to be used. (The new Facebook for iPhone app also supports video uploading, and this is something I have used a few times already).

The iPod’s functionality is pretty much unchanged, but storage has doubled. The 3GS is now available in 16 and 32 GB sizes. This is great news for people like me who still carried around their iPod classics on long trips – although it is not 120 Gig, 32 Gig is still a big jump from the previous capacity.

Other changes:

The other major change is again something other phones have had for a long time – Voice Control. But once again, the Apple implementation is worlds ahead of other manufacturers. As expected you can call people by saying: “Call John”. You can also tell the 3GS what number to call: “Dial 082 555 5555” and it will phone the number. However, for the number dialing I found it had a touch time with my South African accent (and no, I don’t speak like Wikus vd Merwe). Hopefully Apple will improve this in a software update.

But the 3GS allows you to control you iPod as well in this function, for example: “Play songs by Radiohead”, or “Play album OK Computer”. Then the creepy lady just confirms: “Playing songs by Radiohead”. This worked flawlessly with all the music I threw at it – and remember, the 3GS now supports up to 32Gig storage, which is a lot of music and movies.Here is a video (once again sorry for the lack of proper focus):



Apple also claims slightly better battery life for the iPhone 3GS – which is an outright lie. After using the device for a month, I have not found any improvements in the battery whatsoever. In fact, I will go as far as saying that the battery might be worse than the iPhone 3G, but not much. This is still the achiles heal of the iPhone, and seriously needs attention in the next revision (or even software update if its possible). Hopefully the next gen iPhone will get an OLED screen. The battery life is still better than almost all of its touch screen rivals however.

The other problem I have with the 3GS is with its Bluetooth – for some reason it does not upload names and numbers to my Supertooth handsfree kit. The previous iPhone 3G did this with no problems. While the 3GS connects, the device cannot read out names aloud anymore, merely telling the number which is just irritating. But I am confident Apple will fix this in a software update.

The screen also now has a oleophobic coating that supposedly repels oil from you fingers – I did not test this, seeing as I covered my iPhone in a Invisible Shield – which I highly recommend, if you can get it at a good price.

Conclusion

The iPhone 3GS and iPhone OS 3.0 addresses almost all the issues people have had with iPhones since day one – it finally has a decent camera, and many small additions like MMS and tethering is now available.

If there is one theme I have noticed with iPhone development is that Apple truly does not care if the iPhone does not do certain things. Instead of trying to pack every conceivable function into a device (like the Nokia N97), the iPhone only implements new features if these features can truly add to the experience of the phone. The camera, video recording and voice control all exemplifies this. This is features that are old news, but the implementation on the iPhone is just brilliant. I find myself using these features much more than on any of my other phones – why? Because its easy, and not merely a bolted on little feature – it integrates brilliantly with rest of the device.

My overall opinion of the 3GS is a mixed bag – there are real credible improvements, but I would not yet recommend it to current 3G owners. In South Africa there is currently a major price premium for the 3GS. The price in its current form is tailored for Apple fanboys (might be guilty) and gadget freaks (guilty as charged). If you already have a 3G, I would hold out for the prices to drop. But if you have upgrade coming up, go for the 3GS, it is worth the extra money.

Pros:
  • Speed. Glorious Speed.
  • Much improved camera and addition of video recording
  • Voice Control is actually useful
  • Graphically intensive apps look even better.
Cons:
  • Current cost in South Africa is way to high. Give it a month or two.
  • Battery life is NOT improved.
Rating:
9 out of 10. (Would have been 10 if the price was equivalent to 3G before 3GS launch, or the battery was better)

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I am a R&D Analyst in Stellenbosch South Africa who has a immense passion for all things tech related. I embrace technology, open source and web standards, and I participate and contribute to the social web.