After standing in line at a store for almost an hour on June 19 — the lines were shorter this year than they were for previous iPhone releases — I snagged a 32GB model of the iPhone 3GS and quickly spent a few hours checking it out.
My first impression: It’s a solid update of an already well-designed mobile device. (Nomenclature alert: Apple started referring to the new model as the iPhone 3GS earlier this week. When introduced June 8, it was called the iPhone 3G S.)
Now, after spending a few days with the iPhone 3GS, I can say that my enthusiasm for the new device has not diminished.
It’s no secret that I’m a fan of the iPhone, but that doesn’t mean I see it as a flawless product — merely the best mobile implementation of the desktop experience.
The latest iPhone hardware and the new iPhone OS 3.0 software it runs — the OS also works on earlier models — combine to offer a well-executed follow-up to the painful iPhone 3G launch of last year.
Unpacking the iPhone 3GS
The out-of-box experience is similar to last year’s iPhone 3G.
This year’s model arrives in a slightly smaller box that contains the iPhone, a set of redesigned Apple earphones with remote and mic similar to those that come with the iPod Shuffle, a tiny wall plug with a USB connector and a USB-to-iPhone cord.
There’s also a pamphlet describing some of the iPhone’s new features, a handy SIM card ejector and the usual Apple stickers and legal disclaimers. Like the iPhone 3G, this version does not come with a dock. If you want a dock, you still have to pay $29 separately.
If you were hoping for a real keyboard instead of a virtual one — some people want real keys, though I don’t — keep hoping. Physically, the iPhone 3GS is practically identical to last year’s model, with the newest model weighing 2 grams extra.
The iPhone still sports the same vibrant 480-by-320-pixel screen and uses the same buttons as before. There’s still a Home screen button below the 3.5-in. screen, a volume up/down switch and a mute switch — both on the iPhone’s left side — and the sleep/wake button at the top. If you’ve seen earlier iPhones, you know what this one looks like.
Protective cases designed for last year’s model work fine with the new one.
Older accessories also appear to work well, and Apple seems to have avoided a repeat of last year’s problems, when a rewired dock connector broke compatibility with some third-party accessories.
In fact, the iPhone OS 3.0 software finally supports stereo Bluetooth connectivity for automobiles and wireless headsets, and Apple now allows third-party developers to write software that utilizes the iPhone’s dock connector.
The only external difference in this year’s model is the “32GB” stamp on the back of my black iPhone 3GS — that’s double the storage space of my old 16GB model — and the ease with which fingerprints can be wiped off the screen.
While the iPhone 3GS is still a fingerprint magnet, those fingerprints are much more easily removed thanks to a new “oleophobic” coating.
The ‘S’ is for speed
There are more significant differences, however, mostly in terms of performance. While the old and new models are physically similar, the big change in this year’s edition involves under-the-hood upgrades to the iPhone’s internal components.
The hardware improvements are obvious as soon as you turn the phone on: the iPhone 3GS boots up in nearly half the time of the previous model.
Last year’s 16GB iPhone 3G booted to an interactive state in 54.6 seconds. The new 32GB iPhone 3GS was ready to use in just 29.2 seconds — about half the time.
Across the board, the latest iPhone showed the speed improvements promised by Apple, offering up a noticeably smoother user experience.
Menus and applications are more responsive, and the lag time while waiting for the virtual keyboard to appear is now gone. Mail, Maps and Web pages in Safari load more quickly thanks to the iPhone’s new processor, which reduces the wait times necessary to render the complex code.
There’s a reason Apple said the “S” in the new iPhone’s name stands for speed. ILounge has posted several speed comparison videos for those looking to see the difference between previous iPhone and iPod models. Those seconds may not seem like a big deal, but they add up.
If you’re looking for directions using the Maps app, for example, the improvement in performance could mean that, instead of waiting for Maps to load while you’re traveling through an intersection, you’ll know where you’re going as soon as the light turns green.
Apple has been mum about just what hardware it’s using, but a tear-down of the new phone shows that it uses an ARM Cortex A8 microprocessor running at 600 MHz. (The processor in last year’s iPhone 3G runs at 412 MHz.)
The newer model also has 256MB of RAM, twice the amount of the earlier version. These upgrades show in day-to-day use.
Hardware is only a part of the equation. Once you have the phone, you still have to set it up and get it activated so you can use it. How long that takes depends on a number of factors.
Activation is handled through iTunes, and it’s necessary before you can do anything with the phone other than make an emergency call. There were reports of activation delays over the weekend, but I had no problems activating my phone when I bought it.
By now, those problems should be about gone.
Once activated, you need to get your data onto the new phone. As a subscriber to MobileMe, Apple’s package of Web-based online data services, all I had to do was enter my MobileMe address in the Mail application.
Doing so began an instant over-the-air sync of my calendar, contacts, e-mail and bookmarks. Within a minute, the phone contained everything I needed.
For those without MobileMe, similar support can be found in iPhone OS 3.0 for Google and Exchange, allowing for wireless syncing of contacts and e-mail.
For businesses using iPhones in an Exchange environment, the most notable improvement is the iPhone’s newfound ability to enable users to create meetings with invitations on Exchange systems directly from the phone.
It’s now possible to reserve conference rooms, a feature a lot of users had wanted.
What about making phone calls? This is, after all, an iPhone, not an iPod. I found call quality to be better when using the 3G network rather than the EDGE network my first iPhone used. As a matter of fact, a friend from England noted the improved voice quality, which has much to do with the higher bandwidth offered by the 3G network.
If you’re someone who likes to gab, you’ll be happy to learn that the iPhone 3GS’s battery life is pretty good. I spent a significant amount of time on the iPhone; it wasn’t out of my hands for more than five minutes the first few days I had it.
It was in heavy use one day from 10 a.m., when I unplugged it from the wall charger, until after 8:30 p.m., when it finally needed a recharge. That’s 10.5 hours of constant use.
If that doesn’t sound impressive, consider that I sent three dozen text messages, made half a dozen phone calls, edited photos with Photogene, browsed the Internet extensively, wrote several dozen e-mails, updated software on the phone, tested the GPS and Compass features, updated my Twitter status, used the camera and video recorder, shared several videos over e-mail and played a networked game of Apple’s Texas Hold ‘Em game with friends while controlling the sound system using the Remote app and iTunesDJ.
Note: I turned off Bluetooth and the “search for Wi-Fi networks to join” feature. Those two factors will help extend battery life.
The next day, after recharging the iPhone, I was able to stretch the battery life even further. Over the course of the day, I made a half-dozen phone calls, sent a dozen text messages, took some photos and videos, surfed the Web, played several video games, used it on a mile-and-a-half jog to test out the Nike+ integration, and played some music. Fifteen hours later, the battery was still half-full.
For comparison purposes, the iPhone 3G running iPhone OS 2.0 only lasts about five hours. Software updates from Apple helped extend battery life a little, but the 3G’s fast battery drain is one reason I held onto a first-gen iPhone for so long.
More good news
Another major improvement is the new 3-megapixel camera. Picture quality is significantly better than it was with the old 2-megapixel, fixed-focus camera.
The new camera auto-corrects white-balance, and you can focus the shot simply by tapping an area of the screen. It’s a simple and intuitive way to focus — and it works.
Video recording is an even more welcome addition, and the iPhone handles the task fairly well — it works well enough that most people who use consumer-grade recording gear might opt to use the iPhone 3GS instead. But the video camera’s inability to autofocus on the fly is a drawback.
If you start off with a close-up shot of a subject, you can’t zoom back to show the entire subject without the image getting blurry; the lens will remain at the focal depth of the original shot. The end result is blurry footage until you stop recording and allow the camera to refocus. Hopefully, this is something that can be remedied in a future software update.
Also, Apple’s “trim” function for footage uses destructive editing; once you trim the video, you lose what’s been cut. Within those limitations, it is handy to be able to shoot decent-quality VGA video — 640 pixels by 480 pixels — and edit on the go. Plus, you can upload the video directly from the iPhone to YouTube and share videos through e-mail.
Other welcome additions, some of them long overdue, include the ability to sync the iPhone’s Notes app with your computer, the systemwide Cut/Copy/Paste function, and the Voice Control feature.
Each one is well integrated into user experience. You can copy text from one application and paste it into another, for instance, and Voice Control can be used to dial the phone. As with all voice-activated software, your mileage may vary, but overall I’ve found it pretty accurate.
The Maps application has been updated to take advantage of the new Compass app, but only superficially.
By tapping the Locate Me button in the lower left of the Maps app, the iPhone will lock onto your position using GPS. Tapping the button twice rotates the map to indicate which direction you’re facing; it changes in real time as your location changes.
But Street View — the portion of Maps that allows you to look around from the perspective of someone standing on the curb — lacks Compass support, which would have been a useful addition.
Superfluous? Maybe. Cool? Definitely.
As I noted in my first look at the 3GS, last year’s iPhone 3G was all about the network. This year’s model is all about updated hardware: a faster processor, more RAM, more storage space and a better camera.
All of it works together to produce a more refined iPhone that first-time buyers will love and upgraders will appreciate.
The design is classic iPhone, and the price for what you get still makes it a deal. No doubt, the OS is still a work in progress. But if you’re sold on Apple’s i-Universe (iTunes/iPod/iPhone), this latest update enhances what is already the industry-leading mobile experience.
Michael deAgonia is an award-winning writer, computer consultant and technologist who has been using Macs and working on them professionally since 1993. His tech-support background includes tenures at Computerworld, colleges and Apple, and in the biopharmaceutical and graphics industries. He has also worked as a Macintosh administrator at several companies.