iPhone 3GS

June 20, 2009

I upgraded from an iPhone 2G to an iPhone 3GS, skipping a generation. Before discussing the iPhone itself, I'd like to say a few words about the buying experience. Apple has a reputation for superior customer service for a reason. I didn't want to take the time to drive down to a local Apple Store and wait on line to pick it up, so I ordered it from the Apple Store website. Unlike many other Internet storefronts, there aren't any unresolved question or problems when making a purchase from the Apple Store. I had a store credit in the form of a gift card that I wanted to apply to the iPhone purchase and there was no problem using the card as partial payment for the order. I didn't decide to make the purchase until the Tuesday before the product release that Friday. Apple's website said it would be delivered on Friday and it was. When the FedEx guy arrived, he told me that he was pleased to be delivering iPhones and his manager told him that there would be many more iPhones to deliver over the next several days.

The iPhone was delivered in a very small cardboard box, just large enough to hold the iPhone's box itself. While iPhones aren't exactly organically grown, it's nice to see that Apple makes a real effort not to be wasteful with its packaging. Inside the box was the iPhone, some documentation, a USB charging cable and a wall plug adapter. What the box did not include was the upright charging dock that shipped with my iPhone 2G. I believe they are available at extra cost. I don't appreciate that omission. Apple could afford to include a charging/sync cradle. The new iPhone does not fit in the 2G's charging cradle. The looks are identical to the previous 3G model and very similar to my old 2G iPhone. The back of the phone is a shiny black plastic with silver text and logo. It looks nice, but I think I would have preferred a matte black finish. The screen size has not changed, but Apple quietly added an olephobic coating to the screen. That means that the new screen tends to repel the oil in fingerprints. I have found (after a day) that it works well. The screen attracts far fewer smudges and those that do find their way there wipe off easily. I hope this coating lasts for the lifetime of the iPhone.

Activation was very straightforward and simple. iTunes restored everything that needed to be on the new iPhone, restarted the 3GS and I was ready to go. It took about 45 minutes to restore about 14 GB of music, movies and photographs. I set up sync for contacts, calendars and bookmarks via MobileMe, which works easily and well. The Find My iPhone feature of MobileMe is pretty cool. It located my iPhone on a map to within about 30 feet. You can wipe your iPhone's memory clean via MobileMe if it is lost or stolen, and then restore the settings later, when you retrieve or replace it.

It didn't take too long to run through the new features of the 3GS. The first thing i did was to try running a couple of applications and to get my email. The 3GS is significantly faster than the 2G. I didn't get any pauses or freezes like I would sometimes get when checking email on the 2G. Since the 2G and 3G ran at the same speed, anyone upgrading will see a similar increase in performance. Loading applications also seemed much snappier than on the 2G. The speed improvement was excellent. I tried the compass and it worked as expected. I tried the Maps application and it found my location immediately. Unlike the 2G, which uses cell towers and WiFi spots to find your location within a variable radius, the 3GS rapidly finds your exact location. The voice recorder works well, but I'd be interested in seeing an external microphone for recording lectures from across a room.

The camera shows a real improvement both is quality and features. It has 50% better resolution, auto and manual focusing (instead of fixed focus) and also takes macro shots. You can take decent photos with its 3 megapixel sensor. Low light performance is improved, but I wish the iPhone included some type of flash. The Camera application can take video as well as photographs. The quality of the video is very good. It's only VGA, not HD, but it's very decent for something that you can have with you all of the time. The sound quality of the video recordings are quite good, too. If I were planning to take photos (i.e., on vacation), I'd use a better camera, but for ad hoc photos and video, the iPhone does a good job. Speaking of photographs, the new 3GS has up to 32 GB of storage. I wish there were a simple way to transfer the contents of an SD flash card from a digicam to the iPhone. When I take photos, I would like to back them up, just in case something happens to the camera or the card, and the 3GS has plenty of space available.

One of the primary reasons I upgraded to the 3GS was because it supports the Bluetooth A2DP profile for stereo headphones and the Nike+ sensor. When exercising, I really prefer the convenience of wireless headphones (wires are so twentieth century) and now I won't have to carry an iPod Nano along with my iPhone when I go jogging. I was able to sync a Samsung Bluetooth headphone (it includes a  microphone) nearly instantly and it worked as expected. I didn't do a stress test of the system, but I listened to music, podcasts and movies for about an hour and it performed very well. I wasn't able to test the Nike+ system. My sensor's battery had drained and wouldn't pair with the iPhone. I called Nike, and they immediately offered to replace the sensor. I should be able to run it through its paces (no pun intended) when I receive it, in about a week. I'll update this review after I receive the new sensor. I give credit to Nike. I was able to reach a sales rep quickly and didn't have to jump through hoops to get support. I might downgrade Nike a few points for not having the technology to teleport the new sensor directly to my home.

Update: I received the Nike+ sensor. It worked just fine with the iPhone, with one exception, I did not hear any of the voice prompts. Aside from that, the display was straightforward and attractive. Now I was able to stress test the system. I was jogging along, tracking my progress with the Nike+, listening to music via Bluetooth and then checked my email, my direction with Compass, and found my location using Maps and GPS. The iPhone never skipped a beat, stuttered or froze. All in all, a very pleasant experience.

I'm very happy about the A2DP support, something already supported by many other cellular phones. But what about support for Bluetooth keyboards? That is still MIA. Apple's Bluetooth keyboard is very compact and would make an excellent travel keyboard for the iPhone, but the iPhone still has no support for a Bluetooth or any other type of external keyboard. This would make the iPhone so much more useful than it is now. I could do some real work with it when I traveled. My hope is that Apple will add this functionality in an upcoming software update to the new 3.0 software. 

Talking about new software features, that add some decent functionality to the 3GS; Cut, copy and paste work intuitively and well. I don't think that Apple could have done a better job with this. There's a new search screen that searches across email (subjects only), applications, contacts and other things. This is very helpful and I hope it continues to be improved. 

Voice Control is a new feature. It works fairly well, but could be better. Voice control is activated by pressing the home key for a second. I would like for Apple to add a triple-click feature for quicker activation of Voice Control. So far, it has been fairly accurate with names, but not 100% accurate. It also allows you to play songs by artist name. Accuracy there is not nearly as good. That's pretty cool and I would like to see voice control of more things. To me, voice control is mostly a safety feature that allows you to keep your eyes on the road while you're driving and I'll need more time to evaluate it as such. One semi-problem is that there's no cancel command. You have to hit the cancel button on the screen. Not a big deal, but since it's a touch screen, you need to look at it to make sure you've hit the button. If it starts dialing the wrong number, it appears that if you say "Cancel" quickly enough, it will cancel the call. As I get used to using it, I'm getting better results and would love to see Voice Control available for all of the iPhone's features, including running applications.

Apple added a magnetometer to support the GPS functions, but also added a compass application. If I were trekking through the woods, I would bring a standard compass with me, but the iPhone's digital compass works well and has a nice visual display. The GPS is excellent. My old iPhone 2G can only estimate its location within a varying radius, sometimes more than a mile. The new 3GS maps your location to within a few feet

The touch keyboard has been improved in that it can be used in landscape as well as portrait mode with email. That does speed up typing and accuracy a bit.

The 3GS still has 802.11.b/g networking built in; I was hoping it would have been upgraded to 802.11n. It's not a major thing, but I would have preferred the faster throughput. Maybe next time.

What would I like to see in this and future iPhones? Primarily, Bluetooth keyboard compatibility, an OLED display, a flash for the camera, a frontside camera for videoconferencing and video chats, and Adobe Flash for compatibility with more websites. I could probably think of more items (i.e., EKG reader and Taser), but I'd like to get these out of the way before burdening Apple with more feature requests -- except for one thing. We desperately need better a better application manager. Moving icons around from screen to screen is a pain. There should be an application manager within iTunes that makes it easy to arrange the position of applications on the iPhone's screens.

This upgrade, both hardware and software, is evolutionary, not revolutionary. In some cases, it simply brings the iPhone into parity with other phones, but executed in the nearly flawless manner typical of Apple. The iPhone 3GS packs a lot of functionality into a single small device: Email, Web browser, music and video player, game console, photo album, camera, video recorder, GPS navigation, game console, eBook reader, voice recorder, exercise aid, and first and foremost, a cellular phone. The iPhone 3GS is a real winner in every sense and is highly recommended. 

© Jon Rosen, 2010