An evolutionary but very welcome update to the iPhone formula. (June 27th, 2009)
Product Manufacturer: Apple
Price: $199 (16GB contract), $299 (32GB contract)
- Much improved performance; very fast.
- Significantly better camera; simple but capable video capture.
- Voice control on par or better than with rivals, if overdue.
- Oil-resistant screen.
- Navigation improved through the compass.
- Still no multitasking in this generation.
- Battery seems to drain slightly faster in practice.
- Voice control is inaccurate with music, doesn't support Bluetooth.
Apple enthusiasts have almost been lulled into a certain degree of complacency with iPhone releases in the past two years: each one has been accompanied by a major hardware change along with whatever software changes may have been promised. The iPhone 3GS marks the first time Apple has had a subtler upgrade in store. But with a faster processor and graphics, a digital compass and voice control, is it enough to persuade first- or second-generation iPhone buyers to invest? We'll find out in a special review that focuses on what's new.
Quite simply, there are very few practical changes to the outside of the iPhone 3GS. In fact, if not for replacing the matte lettering on the back with chrome-effect material or the tell-tale 32GB of storage (as with our model), it's virtually impossible to tell the two apart. This isn't necessarily a flaw, as it's reasonably easy to hold and slim. We do wish Apple chose a material with better grip and scuff resistance for the back, however, such as the Teflon that HTC uses for the Hero. Without a rubber or silicone case, there's always a sense that the phone may slip out of your hand if you're too careless.
One change is undetectable but very valuable: an oleophobic (oil-resistant) display surface. The change doesn't affect the feel of the touchscreen but has a tangible impact on how it looks. It doesn't eliminate smudges entirely, but it does make them easy to remove and prevents spots from clinging to the screen if it hasn't been scrubbed with a damp, lint-free cloth. In several days of use, the iPhone's display is still looking as good as it did when brand new without extensive attention, which couldn't be said for the iPhone 3G.
speed: the iPhone's centerpiece
Everyone who has had extended time with any previous iPhone has noticed that the near-instantaneous experience shown in Apple's TV ads have been at odds with reality. Apps take longer to load, websites render slowly even on fast connections and 3D games sometimes bog down.
We've also noticed higher frame rates in games, even in not particularly stressful titles such as Zen Bound. Some of this is owed to the processor, but it's here that a graphics update to the new PowerVR SGX (believed to be an SGX 535) can probably be given credit. While the new video hardware's help is generally less evident than the new CPU, it holds a lot of potential for the future: if and when game developers opt to write for the new hardware, they'll have the option of adding more visual detail as well as visual effects that aren't possible at any speed on prior iPhones. If you consider the iPhone a frequent if not only gaming platform, consider trading up soon.
Buying the iPhone 3GS for its faster 3G speeds would be a mistake, however. While it's true that the theoretical peak speed has doubled from 3.6Mbps to 7.2Mbps, real-world speeds don't change. We had the luxury of testing the new iPhone on a 7.2Mbps network with Rogers, and while data did load faster than on an iPhone 3G with the same 3.0 software, we'd attribute that gap more to the processor than the actual access speeds. It likely won't be until 2010, when the iPhone has a chance of supporting next-generation 21Mbps 3G networks, that the difference away from Wi-Fi should be noticeable.