Apple iPhone 3GS

The iPhone 3GS is faster and we appreciate the new features and extended battery life, but call quality and 3G reception still need improvement.


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CNET Rating
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User Rating

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CNET Editor

Joe capitalises on a life-long love of blinking lights and upbeat MIDI soundtracks covering the latest developments in smartphones and tablet computers. When not ruining his eyesight staring at small screens, Joe ruins his eyesight playing video games and watching movies. Twitter: @Joseph_Hanlon


iOS has been updated many times since this original review, adding many new features including better Exchange support, multitasking, iBooks, unified inboxes, AirPlay and AirPrint, organising apps into folders and more. We have a hands on of iOS 4.0 here.

Editor's note: this review is in two parts. One is written by the Australian CNET team, and the other is by our team in the US. We'll focus on the basic experience of the phone; what's hot and what's not in this upgrade. Continue on to the following pages for the US review with an in-depth look at each of the new features.

Design

Like King penguins, if you've seen one iPhone you've seen them all. Apple has opted to keep the outside of its smartphone identical to the iPhone 3G of last year — the same glossy, piano-black backplate and stainless steel trim around its 3.5-inch display. The 3GS still has only three buttons and two sockets around its exterior; the home key, volume adjustments and a ringer-muting switch, plus a 3.5mm headphone socket and charging port.

Keeping the phone physically the same is wise on the one hand: it's instantly recognisable as the iPhone. But it poses two problems that we can see. Firstly, looking identical to last year's robs us of the "my phone is better than your phone" finger-pointing that we love to do with a new gadget. More importantly, the iPhone design is amongst the most fragile in the smartphone market. Phones, by the very nature of their mobility, are prone to drops, dings and scratches more than most consumer electronics. The 32GB iPhone is valued at around AU$1100, which is a lot of money to blow on a single drop on a concrete surface. We had seen rumoured rubberised finishes for this phone, which would have made a lot more sense than the hard plastic shell we have right now.

Media and the web

It's called the iPhone, but using this phone makes you keenly aware that it is a media player and web browser first, phone second. It is now a year later since we first saw the integrated iPod player in the iPhone 3G, and it is still class-leading. The player organises music well, displays full-screen cover art, and when using Apple's Genius playlist algorithm, it is also great at suggesting what to listen to next.

The iPod player also benefits from the included voice recognition chip. Enter Voice Control and say "Play artist The Smashing Pumpkins" to hear songs by this band in your collection. If you use Voice Control while a song is already playing you can ask the 3GS "What song is playing?" or "Play songs similar to this".

While the Safari web browser is the same in use, one area of difference Apple proclaims is an increase in performance. We tested the browser head-to-head against an old 3G and saw the speed bump first hand. Every page we loaded completed faster on the 3GS, though the difference differed greatly. The New York Times website downloaded in 18 and 28 seconds on the 3GS and 3G, while our sister site GameSpot Australia loaded in 9 and 11 seconds, respectively.

New features

Camera — up from 2 megapixels to 3 megapixels and now including auto-focus, colour levels and white balance, the iPhone's camera specs may be better than the previous model, but they pale in comparison to the 12.1-megapixel monster Sony Ericsson has waiting for us in the upcoming Satio. Like the Satio, the iPhone 3GS features "Tap to focus", letting the user select which element of the image they want in focus by selecting it in the preview with a finger. While adjusting the focus, the camera also changes the colour levels to suit this new frame.

"Tap to focus" is a nice touch, but won't save all your photos from being a blurry mess of colours. The shutter in the camera is comparably fast for a camera phone, helping to catch impromptu moments. However, with that said, our success rate with the camera is still heavily weighed towards more unusable shots than memorable images. The lack of a camera flash also limits the use of the camera to well-lit scenes, like picnics. If you intend on using it in a dark bar remember to try and find a light source before snapping away.

Video mode — along with MMS and landscape keyboard mode, video capture was one of the major bugbears for iPhone 3G customers. Video capture is included on the iPhone 3GS, shooting videos in VGA quality at 30 frames per second. If you're not happy with the video you've shot, you can trim the start and end of the clip. Apple calls this video editing, which technically it is, but extremely limited. You can't join separate clips together, and you can't save the edited clip as a different file and keep both versions.

Once you're happy with the duration of your new video you can MMS the clip to a friend, or upload it to YouTube, if you've set up a YouTube account previously.

Digital Compass — this is one for the developers. Apple has installed a compass chip into the 3GS, but hasn't given us much of an app to use this with. The "Compass" app is cool-looking that does little more than tell you which way you're pointing. Google Maps can use the compass to show you which way you're facing on the map, but we'll really have to wait until some genius writes an interesting location-based app before we see the compass earning its keep.

Voice Control — this is probably our favourite new tool. Combining a voice-recognition chip with the application, Voice Control allows you to dial a number, call a contact or play music in the iPod simply by asking the iPhone nicely to do this. The voice chip is also used to respond, so it can read back your selection, or tell you which song ID playing without you having to open the iPod. But it goes even further than this; the iPhone has new accessibility options for people with impairments and the voice chip is on duty to read out SMS and email messages, or to read current menu listings, etc.

Performance

Adding an "S" to the end of the iPhone 3G may have given us one of the worst mobile phone names next to the LG Cookie, but there's no denying the extra speed in executing applications. Though, that's the weird part, as all of the speed seems to be in the execution; once you're in an app the old iPhone 3G works just fine. The difference in the time it takes to execute varies quite a bit. Built-in apps, like contacts and the iPod are only a few seconds faster at most, where a four- or five-second load time becomes two or three seconds. In third-party apps, especially games, this time can be more significant, a 15-second load may drop down to five or six seconds.

Apple has made quite a fuss about battery life, and though you might be able to identify a difference by using the old and new iPhones by running single-usage tests (internet only, music or video playback only), we found that we had a comparable experience to the iPhone 3G. Our regular usage include calls, messages, one push email account plus one fetch-only account, and music playback. With this sort of use the iPhone barely made it through the working day and we had to charge it every night.

As you'll read in Kent German's CNET US review, call reception and network access can be shaky, with significantly more issues than we tend to see when reviewing Nokia or Sony Ericsson handsets. During our tests we took the 3GS to several places with testing reception and it often fell short. What was surprising, however, is that the older iPhone 3G models using the same network performed far better, holding onto a few bars of 3G coverage while the 3GS reported no service.

What frustrates the issue further is that the iPhone 3GS had difficulties switching back to 2G GSM coverage when 3G struggled. We discovered that the solution to not having 3G network service was to enter the "General" settings and to manually turn "Enable 3G" to off. This forced GSM networking and found us a signal. While this process is simple, it is possibly too advanced a solution for many in our situation and should be a task the phone handles automatically.

Overall

With the implementation of the 3.0 firmware update (more on this in the US review on the following pages), Apple has putty-filled many of the leaks in its offering. While this update is available to owners of the previous model, for the 500,000 Australians who bought an iPhone 3G, the iPhone 3GS is a year late. The upgrades, while few, are significant. The camera upgrade is more than a higher pixel count, with auto focus and auto colour and white balance, the voice recognition chip is an excellent improvement and the speed bump is immediately apparent. We've had a few problems with the iPhone 3GS so far, some may say major issues including reception and battery life, but this doesn't detract us from enjoying the world of mobile computing at our fingertips.

And this is what the iPhone is now and what the competition is scrambling to become: a mobile computing platform. Apple doesn't make the best mobile phone, but the iPhone is today's best mobile computer with built-in telephony. This is due, in part, to the device itself, and in equal measure to the excellent App Store and the mind-boggling level of support it's received from developers around the world. Google's Android compares favourably to many elements of the iPhone, in particular in its performance and web activity, but without the support of developers the Android Market will continue to grow at a much slower rate to Apple's Store.

With all the hype around each iPhone release you might be lead to believe that the iPhone will change your life. One thing that's for sure is it will demand you change the way you use your phone. You'll need iTunes on your computer, you'll need to train yourself to use the on-screen keyboard and you'll need to charge the phone each night. If you're willing to make these concessions then the iPhone 3GS will definitely deliver.

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Bonita
9
Rating
 

Bonita posted a review   

The Good:Everything except....

The Bad:cant use my own mesg tones, no bluetooth!

All in all it is a pretty good phone.
Though i believe it is to b overpriced.
I bought mine on ebay secondhand because the one i got with my plan dies. also i find that the silent switch on both of the iphones ive had seem to break easily.
though i like the fact that i can use it as my ipod and phone as well.
plus i LOVE the multi tasking plus the apps. I love Angry Birds. :D

PHuZZy
2
Rating
 

PHuZZy posted a review   

The Good:pretty

The Bad:Using it

what an over Hyped bit of Kit.. yes it was the 1st on the market and has thousands of Apps.. Using it though (the Apple parts) not good.

Gumbs
5
Rating
 

Gumbs posted a review   

The Good:Ease of use, screen, apps

The Bad:Terrible reception

Most things about this phone are great...but the reception is terrible. Even in metro areas the phone drops out of 3G constantly, where my Nokia has full bars in 3G. I have returned my phone due to it being unusable due to the reception problem.

If you live next to a mobile phone tower then you wont have any problems,if you don't buy something else

 

applefanboy posted a comment   

Apple makes decision for me..I love mr.jobs!..resale value is the icing on the cake..be wise people

purplegal
8
Rating
 

purplegal posted a review   

The Good:love the look, the feel , the apps, loud volume for calls, convenience of ipod and phone in one gadget

The Bad:recharge each night, extra careful not to drop it , itunes is terrible and hates me

just upgraded from the original (USA version)2G to the 3GS...feels lovely but its very very slippery in the hand (a case is a must). I love the apps on these gadgets and love having my music and phone altogether. When taking/making a call the volume is great, at last I have no problem hearing the other person, speaker phone is also good. Takes a little while to get used to the touch keypad but once you do its easy. I have a jailbroken device and love personalising the display.

over-priced to buy it outright but I think its great fun and good value if you get it on a plan as its hardly anymore $$$ than a plan costs per month anyway.

JAmiE Lmfao
1
Rating
 

JAmiE Lmfao posted a review   

The Good:apps, screen and nothing else

The Bad:bad reception, prediction and a lot of other things

i think an iphone is a waste of money and a pain to use they do have alot of good features but also have alot of down sides to them. eg easy to crack one of my friend had one of these he went from a very cold room to a warm library and as his phone went off the screen cracked due to the vibration given off from the message tone.

i test runned an iphone and i thought they were ok but then i test runned a Samsung F480 and i thoguht they were very easy to use and the price difference was a big part in the equation for me and they may not have apps like iphone but they are a lot stronger and alot faster of the net. one other thing i look for in a phone is battery life sure an iphone can hold a lot of music but using the music make battery life last for one day then my F480 i purchased went on for 7 days of heavy use on the standard battery.

I hpoe ppl realise that iphone are more for business men and women and not average ppl that only text call and use facebook

VWgirl69
1
Rating
 

VWgirl69 posted a review   

The Good:Large Screen + Ipod

The Bad:Reception, touch screen, keyboard + predictive text... Almost everything!

Overpriced (like everything else from apple). $1000 is about $700 too much but then the clever people who do the apple marketing did well to convince so many people that apple is cool. Well done.
The internet is really slow with or without 3G.
The touch screen keyboard is infuriating and the way that the dictionary remembers words that you've spelt wrong but the predictive text doesn't kick in until you're right at the last 2 letters of a 20 letter word is ANNOYING. Try typing "congratulations". The only letter that the iphone predicts is the "s" at the end!! Such a joke.
Simple things like making calls often don't work even with a full signal!
People who call me are diverted to my voicemail even though I apparently have full coverage according to the 5 bars of signal on my screen!
Often I will receive SMS's and voicemails 2-10 hours after they were actually sent to me and vice versa with me sending SMS's to other people... For some reason they get lost for hours before being delivered but when I put my sim into my very old $99 Nokia this NEVER happens. Hmmmm.... I have on many occasions taken my phone back complaining about these problems and nobody could find anything wrong with my phone which is funny really when you think that I am almost always in an area with full network coverage!
Sometimes my touch screen loses all sensitivity and I can't get it to register that I am touching it at all. The first time this happened I had had the phone for 2 weeks. I haven't ever dropped it or spilt anything on it. I have had it for 11 months and there isn't a scratch on it. It has always been looked after but I hate it. It is currently for sale on ebay so I can buy a Blackberry 9770. I am fed up of the stupid kiddie gimmic that is apple and I wouldn't recommend it to anybody other than maybe a teenager wanting lots of games and other cute gimmics to play with.

 

Smokey Jansz posted a comment   

Hi Folks.
I just Purchased a APPLE 3 G S 32G B i Phone, and I am still waiting for the Delivery,I am not sure weather I did the Right Thing I bought it Through E: Bay Australia, and was offered a Second Chance Offer for $: 630.00 and Purchased it, I hope it Works Well.
Kind Rgds
Smokey Jansz

 

Arfur Sixpence posted a reply   

Smokey, 'Er Indoors has just acquired a 3GS (8Gb, I think) an' she loves it! And to think I tried to talk 'er into waiting for a 4! Okay, she only uses it for texting her pals and the odd call and is not interested in anything else. I'm happy as I got 'er F480 which is perfect for me. Result all round, my son!


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User Reviews / Comments  Apple iPhone 3GS

  • Bonita

    Bonita

    Rating9

    "All in all it is a pretty good phone.
    Though i believe it is to b overpriced.
    I bought mine on ebay secondhand because the one i got with my plan dies. also i find that the silent s..."

  • PHuZZy

    PHuZZy

    Rating2

    "what an over Hyped bit of Kit.. yes it was the 1st on the market and has thousands of Apps.. Using it though (the Apple parts) not good."

  • Gumbs

    Gumbs

    Rating5

    "Most things about this phone are great...but the reception is terrible. Even in metro areas the phone drops out of 3G constantly, where my Nokia has full bars in 3G. I have returned my phone due to..."

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