After lots of hype, the new iPhone 3GS has arrived, boasting an improved camera, better battery life, and speedier performance. But is it a must-have smartphone? Maybe.
The iPhone 3GS is impressive, no doubt. It may be the best smartphone on the market today, and that's saying something given the many excellent options that smartphone shoppers have today, such as the Palm Pre, the BlackBerry Bold, and the BlackBerry Curve 8900.
If you're using a first-generation iPhone or another smartphone, the iPhone 3GS is a worthy upgrade. But if you already own an iPhone 3G, you may want to hold off upgrading just yet.
Price and Availability
The iPhone 3GS is available in two versions: 16GB and 32GB. The 16GB version costs $199, while the 32GB version costs $299. Those prices are good only for new AT&T customers or existing AT&T customers who are eligible for an upgrade; for more information on pricing, read How Much Does the iPhone 3GS Cost?.
For information on availability, read Where Can I Buy the New iPhone 3GS?
And to see how the cost of the iPhone 3GS compares to what you'll pay for the Palm Pre, read Apple iPhone 3GS vs. Palm Pre: Cost Comparison.
Design and Performance
From the outside, the iPhone 3GS looks exactly like the iPhone 3G, and that's a good thing. It's slim and sleek, measuring 4.5 inches tall, 2.4 inches wide, and .48 inches deep. The iPhone 3G S weighs 4.8 ounces. Like the iPhone 3G, the new model comes in black and white versions, and sports a 3.5-inch touch screen.
Most of the changes to the iPhone 3GS have been made on the inside. Apple says that battery life is better, and it seemed decent in my hands-on tests. 3G smartphones typically have shorter battery life than non-3G models, as the high-speed networks draw more power.
But the biggest boost is in the iPhone's speed: Apple says the iPhone 3GS runs twice as fast as the iPhone 3G, and in my tests, the iPhone 3GS was blazing fast. Everything -- from switching applications to opening attachments and sending text messages -- was done in a flash.
Apple's iPhone has been known for many things, but excellent call quality was not one of them. I've used a first-generation iPhone for the past two years, and have been told several times that it sounds like I'm talking through a paper bag. In my test calls on the iPhone 3GS, call quality seems a bit better -- to my callers at least. Most people I've talked to said I sounded louder and clearer. I did, however, notice a mild echo on my end.
While call quality hasn't drastically improved, making calls has gotten easier. New in the iPhone 3GS is a voice control feature. (You access it by pressing and holding the iPhone's home button.) This allows you to dial phone numbers and control many of the iPhone's features (including the iPod music player) by voice. In my tests, it proved very accurate. And as a nice touch, if you're not sure which command to say, you'll see some helpful suggestions floating around the screen.
The speedier performance of the iPhone 3GS extends to surfing the Web, too. The iPhone 3GS supports AT&T's upgraded HSDPA network, which can reach speeds of 7.2 megabits per second. (Note, though, that AT&T's network is still being upgraded, and the process is expected to continue for two more years, so those high speeds will not be available everywhere.)
In my tests with the iPhone 3GS in the Boston area, Web pages loaded very quickly and files transferred very fast. I also tested the phone's 3G performance in a more remote area (on Martha's Vineyard), and was similarly impressed with the speed of the network.
Like past iPhones, the 3GS also supports Wi-Fi wireless networks for fast Web access. And, also like previous iPhone models, the 3GS runs the Safari mobile browser. This provides, hands down, the best mobile browsing experience available today. You can see entire Web pages, and can zoom in and out with ease.
The iPhone 3GS comes with the most recent version of the iPhone Software -- version 3.0 -- installed. This software provides many welcome enhancements to the already-excellent iPhone software. New features include cut and paste, universal search, and a landscape keyboard that works in most applications (including e-mail). The iPhone 3.0 software is available as a free upgrade to owners of previous iPhone models -- and it's one of the key reasons why the iPhone 3GS is not a must-have upgrade if you already own an iPhone 3G. Downloading and installing the iPhone 3.0 software will give you an iPhone upgrade for free.
The iPhone doesn't come with a lot of software installed on it, but it does come with easy access to Apple's App Store. The App Store allows you to browse through thousands of applications (both free and paid), and select titles to download directly to your phone. If you're looking for software for your iPhone, you'll find it in there.
The notable new messaging feature on the iPhone 3GS is support for MMS, or multi-media messaging. This means you can send pictures and videos by SMS, rather than having to send them via e-mail. I'm sure this will be a great feature -- as soon as it's available. It won't be available until later this summer.
Other new and very-handy e-mail features include the ability to search through your e-mail messages and contacts, as well as the option to use a landscape-oriented keyboard when composing messages.
The camera has been upgraded from 2 megapixels to 3 megapxiels, and adds autofocus. But it still lacks a flash, and my test photos didn't look markedly better than shots I captured with my first-generation iPhone.
The iPhone 3GS also adds the ability to capture video clips at 30 frames per second. My clips looked a tad on the dark side, but the feature is a welcome one. The iPhone 3GS also includes on-board video-editing software, which is easy to use.
Music and More
The iPhone 3GS retains the excellent iPod features found on previous versions, but with a few upgrades. Thanks to the iPhone 3.0 software, you can rent movies and videos directly from the phone, using iTunes. In the past, you had to purchase or rent most video content on your computer, and then manually transfer it to your phone.
Additional features include a voice control interface, an included digital compass, support for Nike + technology (which allows you to sync workout data with your computer), enhanced GPS capabilities, and support for stereo Bluetooth.
If you already own an iPhone 3G, the iPhone 3GS may not be worth the additional cost, since you can get many of its cool features for free with the iPhone 3.0 software upgrade. But if you've been using an older iPhone or smartphone, or are new to the smartphone world, the iPhone 3GS will amaze you with its speed and plentiful features.