updated 04:20 pm EDT, Wed June 17, 2009
iPhone OS 3 First Look
With the launch of iPhone OS 3.0 today, Electronista and MacNN are taking a look at the major upgrade to see how well the features work in practice on existing iPhones and the iPod touch. We'll see whether the 3.0 update alone will be enough to satisfy owners or whether they still stand to benefit from the upgraded hardware in the iPhone 3G S.
What every user sees first once the (sometimes lengthy) firmware update applies is an extra page on their iPhone's home screen. Flicking to the left of the first page of apps starts Apple's much-vaunted Spotlight search for the entire phone. This by itself may be the most worthwhile feature: in practice, it found content exactly as promised and also loaded apps or media quickly, even on a 16GB iPhone 3G that was nearly full. Power users will immediately find it valuable as it saves having to browse large numbers of app pages (up to 11 on 3.0).
copy-paste text and landscape keyboard
The other most heavily-touted feature is also arguably the most useful for those who live or work from their iPhones. True to form, the feature is fairly intuitive and avoids accidental presses (our main concern) but is also fairly flexible. Apple's method is surprisingly precise and preserves the fonts and other formatting from whatever's cut or copied; this is a blessing most of the time, but possibly a curse for those who like consistent font use. Shake to undo also feels a natural response to undoing a paste, even if it's something you'd have to train yourself to do on instinct.
One disclaimer: while we rarely had situations where we couldn't paste text, the feature is dependent on developers writing apps that create valid text fields. Very occasionally you'll find a third-party app where it won't work without an update.
Having a landscape keyboard is useful but, really, more of a nicety for veterans of hardware keyboards now than a necessity many thought it was when the iPhone was originally released. Knowing you're less likely to make a mistake is comforting for a long e-mail message but, for those who've adapted, not that necessary for fast typing.
voice memos and notes sync
There's not much to say about the Voice Memos app other than that it's properly featured (at least for an initial release). Recording is simple but lets you either pause recording (to create one continuous session) or to stop it (once done). Finished recordings appear in a Visual Voicemail-like list and can be renamed -- extremely useful for students or the chronically forgetful.
We also appreciate that memos aren't trapped on the iPhone as notes used to be. Right from the app, it's possible to e-mail or (if supported by the carrier) create an MMS with the memo. iTunes by default will also sync voice memos and will create a permanent library of recordings if that's what you like.
Our only concern about voice memo capture is hardware support. Apple supports both the default iPhone mic as well as that in most headsets that work with the iPhone's 3.5mm jack. We don't know yet, however, if any future Dock Connector accessories will work. It would go a long way towards suiting the iPhone to class lectures or board meetings, where a built-in mic may not catch everything said in a large room.
On the subject of trapped content: Apple has now, thankfully, opened up Notes so that it syncs with both Macs (in Mail) and Windows PCs (in Outlook). We've already encountered situations in the past where we sorely needed to export notes, and now it's possible.
video: iTunes Store and YouTube sign-in
Visitors to iTunes on the iPhone now have the choice of buying or renting movies and TV shows directly from the phone rather than on a computer. As iPhone OS 2.2 already supported downloading video podcasts, the feature mostly involves just a price tag and more professional content. That said, it's simple to navigate and doesn't unnecessarily clutter up the rest of the iTunes app. A caveat is that it will only allow downloading movies and shows over Wi-Fi; understandably, downloading a 300MB TV show or a 1GB movie is pain-inducing both for the customer who has to wait as well as the carrier's network.
We found YouTube's support for accounts much more useful. It's now finally possible to track updated channel and check one's own videos (necessary for video recording on the iPhone 3G S). It's much more efficient for finding the latest videos from a particular creator, although it notably doesn't perfectly sync with the website, at least at first.
One side benefit is seemingly new support for YouTube playlists, which are popular among those creating multi-segment videos (not uncommon for concerts or public domain TV shows).
speed in Safari and the OS
The operating system itself hasn't changed much, unfortunately. While it's tolerably quick, the only true speed gains come from user interface improvements like Spotlight. It's not clear how much Apple can gain without a more complete reworking of the OS, but those who want the existing software to run quickly won't have much choice but to upgrade to an iPhone 3G S or the eventual iPod touch update.
what we couldn't test: background push, MMS, tethering
Some features depend heavily on app developers or carrier support, and in OS 3.0's case it's these that are some of the more important features. Background push notification is arguably the most important but depends heavily on individual apps. We already know of upcoming updates to AIM and Latest Chatty (among others) that will notify users of incoming messages, but for other apps it may be more of a nicety than essential; you don't need to challenge a high score (as in Tap Tap Revenge 2) or receive constant sports updates in the same way. Thankfully, some of these apps will let you turn notifications off.
MMS and tethering are both off-limits on AT&T until mid-summer, but we hope to test these this weekend on a Rogers iPhone. From early explorations, though, we can already say that both will be easy to use; our messaging client has a handy camera button for snapping a photo or sharing an existing image. Tethering works both over Bluetooth and USB and has a handy always-on notification when it's active so that it's not left on by mistake. How useful it will be should depend both on the carrier and the plan, though.
Lastly, we should add that third-party accessory support is very much in the air. So far, only Belkin has announced an accessory, an FM transmitter that uses the iPhone's on-screen controls to tune channels. There's a lot of promise, but it won't be until weeks or months later that we have a definitive answer. We can say that stereo Bluetooth, however, will be available almost immediately and should be a boon to those who like wireless headphones or speakers.
upgrade or iPhone 3G S?
If you simply want to search faster, move text around and have greater access to notes or videos, it's entirely reasonable to remain with your existing device. While it's too early to report on any hidden bugs, the release won't run any slower than before and unlocks a lot of features, some of which will become more apparent over time.
However, there are certain advantages that software alone won't unlock. An iPhone 3G S will be faster in navigating the OS, web browsing and other tasks that rely on the processor. Games will be faster and potentially show more visual effects (once 3G S-specific games exist).
Moreover, the newer hardware will have features that simply aren't possible. The camera on the 3G S supports autofocusing and video that either don't work properly or don't work at all on previous iPhones. Voice commands and the compass also require DSP chips and magnetometers that are absent on older devices. And of course, anyone who needs more than 16GB of storage has no choice but to opt for a 32GB iPhone 3G S.
By itself, iPhone OS 3.0 is a solid, meaningful upgrade and will content many, but we can't help but see it as a foundation for the future more than a substitute for a full upgrade.