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.
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.
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.
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.
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.