The third time’s the charm for the new iPhone 3G S, the latest addition to Apple Inc.’s successful smartphone family that has sold more than 20 million units in less than two years.
Perhaps you were one of the many who tuned in online to Apple’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference (WWDC) to witness the unveiling of the handset (the “S” stands for speed, by the way). If so, you’re likely aware of its promising new features, which include faster performance, additional storage space, video recording functions, an improved digital camera, voice-controlled music playback options, a digital compass and more. That said, those who already own an iPhone or iPhone 3G shouldn’t feel too left out of the fun as some of the goodies built into the iPhone 3G S are now downloadable via a free software upgrade, iPhone OS 3.0 (see sidebar). AT&T, by the way, has now dropped the price of its existing 8GB iPhone 3G to $99 (with two-year term).
Sounds good, right? But reading these bulleted features on a presentation slide is one thing: Testing them out for eight straight days is another. We painstakingly put the iPhone 3G S through the wringer to see if it lives up to the hype spun by the Cupertino, Calif.-based tech powerhouse – and happily, the short answer is yes, yes and heck-freaking-yeah.
Features and Design
Available for $199 (16GB model) or $299 (32GB model) with two-year AT&T contract, the iPhone 3G S delivers a handful of improvements over its predecessors. It’s not flawless, however, but awfully close.
Before we get into what’s new though, here’s a quick primer on what hasn’t changed. As with the iPhone 3G, the new iPhone has integrated GSM/EDGE/HSPA cellular connectivity, Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth and “accelerometer” sensors that automatically rotate the view of the screen to fit the way the device is held horizontally or vertically. And, of course, you also get access to Apple’s extraordinary App Store (part of iTunes) to download more than 50,000 applications (bite-sized programs) on-demand – all of which extend the smartphone’s functionality, turning it into a day planner, running stock ticker, restaurant finder and more. The height of convenience, these apps can be easily snagged directly through the phone’s wireless connection itself or via a PC or Mac (and then synchronize with the device).
|iPhone OS 3.0 – Installation and Overview
Apple’s new (and much-hyped) operating system update is already bundled inside the iPhone 3G S, but existing iPhone owners can now download iPhone OS 3.0 right from iTunes – though be patient, as Apple’s servers are currently experiencing traffic jams.
In case you’re unfamiliar with what’s new, more than 100 features have been added to iPhone OS 3.0, most notably: The ability to copy/cut and paste text between programs (the process is quite intuitive); landscape typing in email and notes (widening the “soft” keyboard, making it easier to type on); support for MMS (to send photos and videos to other cell phones); voice memos (which you can then email or sync to a PC); search capabilities that span across the entire iPhone (slide your finger left from the main menu to access); and the option to download TV shows and movies (rent or buy) on the iPhone itself.
We also tested the “Find My iPhone” feature through Apple’s MobileMe service, which not only lets you remotely wipe clean a lost or stolen iPhone to prevent someone accessing personal information and files, but also helps you locate the iPhone using mapping software on a PC. What’s more, you can send a message that will appear on the screen (e.g. “Call 212-555-1212 if found”) or play an audible sound to help you locate one that’s gone missing in your home, even if your phone is set to silent.
To download the new iPhone OS 3.0, simply connect your iPhone to your PC or Mac, launch iTunes and click “Check for Update.”
Cosmetically, nothing has changed on the handset. (If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it right?) The iPhone 3G S looks identical to the iPhone 3G when placed side-by-side (both measuring 4.5 inches x 2.4 inches x 0.48 inches), but the new model is a tad heavier, weighing in at 135 grams. Both enjoy the same gorgeous 3.5-inch (diagonal) widescreen multi-touch display (480×320 pixel resolution), but the 3G S includes a fingerprint-resistant coating on the screen to help reduce smudging, and its potential to send germaphobes into cardiac arrest. The new iPhone 3G S is also available in both black and white.
The first thing we tested was the alleged speed improvements (Apple’s website promises “up to 2X faster” loads). We did this in three ways: By launching the same applications on both smartphones at the same time; tapping the same website from the list of bookmarks; and accessing the inbox on the same email account set up on both phones. Without question, hands-on evaluations reveal that the new iPhone 3G S is considerably faster than the iPhone 3G. Sadly, we asked Apple to tell us about the new processor or other hardware tweaks, but the manufacturer declined to comment. Still, to the layman’s eye, you’ll notice marked speed and processing improvements right out of the box.
In addition, the device’s digital camera has been upgraded from 2.0 megapixel to 3.0 megapixel – specs which still trail behind other smartphones such as the 5.0-megapixel Nokia N95 and Samsung Omnia – but Apple has now incorporated several handy features including auto-focus (or the ability to tap on the screen before taking photos to manually sharpen an area or subject), improved low-light sensitivity, and video recording (a staple feature in other phones, but previously unavailable except to those who’d “jailbroken” or hacked, their iPhone). Happily, video quality is very impressive thanks to smooth 30 frames-per-second VGA (640×480 pixels) recording capability. When you’re done with footage, you can even trim the beginning and end of a clip using your fingertip, then send it as a multimedia message (MMS) to another phone (though AT&T won’t make this latter feature available for some time yet), email it or post the short right to YouTube. The camera, however, still lacks an LED flash and digital zoom though, meaning it won’t be suitable for high-end photographic applications.
Voice-Activated Dialing and Commands
While making voice-activated calls is old news (a feature that’s now offered in the new 3G S), we were more curious about the device’s built-in options to use your voice to control music playback. Suffice it to say that the feature works – and well at that. Simply press and hold the circular home button at the bottom of the iPhone 3G S and you can say more than 25 phrases, such as “Play songs by ________,” and after the somewhat synthetic female voice repeats your command, your music will beginning booming out of the smartphone’s speaker (or earbuds). In addition, you can also ask simple questions such as “What song is this?” or say “Next track,” “Shuffle” or “Play more like this” – welcome features that make the experience more fun and personal, and offer a new way (albeit limited) to interact with favourite tunes.
Similar to Google-powered Android phones such as the T-Mobile G1, the iPhone 3G S now includes a digital compass to provide longitude and latitude and aid with navigation (the red triangle points north). Now, when you launch Google Maps (included with purchase) the screen will automatically rotate to match the direction you’re facing, a boon for those speeding to an important lunch date or meeting.
Other notable improvements include longer battery life (now up to 30 hours for music playback), Nike + iPod support (use the sensor, sold separately, to track your time, distance and calories burned) and, in the near future, laptop tethering (connect the handset to your Mac or PC via USB or Bluetooth to surf the Net when no Wi-Fi is available), or the ability to use the device as a high-speed wireless modem.
If you’ve been holding out on buying an iPhone, there’s no longer a reason to wait. What’s more, if you can afford the new 16GB or 32GB iPhone 3G S, be certain to snag it for all the additions and improvements over past models.
If cash is tight, however, pick up the 8GB iPhone 3G and be sure to download the new iPhone OS 3.0 (see sidebar), which adds a fraction of the options found in its big brother. It would be remiss, though, not to mention that the iPhone isn’t for everyone, be it someone who just wants to make phone calls or those who prefer typing on a button-based QWERTY keyboard rather than the iPhone’s “soft” (on-screen virtual) keyboard option. Make no bones about it: This is a premium, pocket-friendly multimedia device for those looking to split the difference between business and pleasure, or prefer their mobile phone loaded with bells and whistles.
Still, between fresh features such as video recording and speedier program loads; generally enhanced performance; and overall ease of use, the iPhone 3G S is now the smartphone to beat for everyday shoppers. The gauntlet has officially been thrown down. Let’s see if manufacturers such as Palm (Pre), RIM (BlackBerry Tour) and Nokia (N97) can keep up.
- Faster speeds
- Better optics
- Longer battery life
- Video recording
- Voice control
- Camera still not on par with other smartphones
- No expandable memory