Apple iPhone 3GS review: Apple iPhone 3GS

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CNET Editors' Rating

4 stars Excellent

Average User Rating

3.5 stars 38 user reviews
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good Multimedia messaging, video recording and voice dialling - finally. Runs faster. Promised longer battery life. Multimedia quality continues to shine.

The Bad No improvement in call quality. 3G signal reception uneven. Still no Flash Lite, USB transfer and storage or multitasking.

The Bottom Line Even substantial concerns about network reception and battery life can't stop us from recommending the iPhone 3GS. The combination of its fantastic browser, the full-featured iPod media player and Apple's App Store form a compelling trio, and are together unmatched by the competition.

CNET Editors' Choice Jul '09

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Editor's note: this review is in two parts. One is written by the Australian CNET team, and the other is by our team in the US. We'll focus on the basic experience of the phone; what's hot and what's not in this upgrade. Continue on to the following pages for the US review with an in-depth look at each of the new features.

Design

Like King penguins, if you've seen one iPhone you've seen them all. Apple has opted to keep the outside of its smartphone identical to the iPhone 3G of last year — the same glossy, piano-black backplate and stainless steel trim around its 3.5-inch display. The 3GS still has only three buttons and two sockets around its exterior; the home key, volume adjustments and a ringer-muting switch, plus a 3.5mm headphone socket and charging port.

Keeping the phone physically the same is wise on the one hand: it's instantly recognisable as the iPhone. But it poses two problems that we can see. Firstly, looking identical to last year's robs us of the "my phone is better than your phone" finger-pointing that we love to do with a new gadget. More importantly, the iPhone design is amongst the most fragile in the smartphone market. Phones, by the very nature of their mobility, are prone to drops, dings and scratches more than most consumer electronics. The 32GB iPhone is valued at around AU$1100, which is a lot of money to blow on a single drop on a concrete surface. We had seen rumoured rubberised finishes for this phone, which would have made a lot more sense than the hard plastic shell we have right now.

Media and the web

It's called the iPhone, but using this phone makes you keenly aware that it is a media player and web browser first, phone second. It is now a year later since we first saw the integrated iPod player in the iPhone 3G, and it is still class-leading. The player organises music well, displays full-screen cover art, and when using Apple's Genius playlist algorithm, it is also great at suggesting what to listen to next.

The iPod player also benefits from the included voice recognition chip. Enter Voice Control and say "Play artist The Smashing Pumpkins" to hear songs by this band in your collection. If you use Voice Control while a song is already playing you can ask the 3GS "What song is playing?" or "Play songs similar to this".

While the Safari web browser is the same in use, one area of difference Apple proclaims is an increase in performance. We tested the browser head-to-head against an old 3G and saw the speed bump first hand. Every page we loaded completed faster on the 3GS, though the difference differed greatly. The New York Times website downloaded in 18 and 28 seconds on the 3GS and 3G, while our sister site GameSpot Australia loaded in 9 and 11 seconds, respectively.

New features

Camera — up from 2 megapixels to 3 megapixels and now including auto-focus, colour levels and white balance, the iPhone's camera specs may be better than the previous model, but they pale in comparison to the 12.1-megapixel monster Sony Ericsson has waiting for us in the upcoming Satio. Like the Satio, the iPhone 3GS features "Tap to focus", letting the user select which element of the image they want in focus by selecting it in the preview with a finger. While adjusting the focus, the camera also changes the colour levels to suit this new frame.

"Tap to focus" is a nice touch, but won't save all your photos from being a blurry mess of colours. The shutter in the camera is comparably fast for a camera phone, helping to catch impromptu moments. However, with that said, our success rate with the camera is still heavily weighed towards more unusable shots than memorable images. The lack of a camera flash also limits the use of the camera to well-lit scenes, like picnics. If you intend on using it in a dark bar remember to try and find a light source before snapping away.

Video mode — along with MMS and landscape keyboard mode, video capture was one of the major bugbears for iPhone 3G customers. Video capture is included on the iPhone 3GS, shooting videos in VGA quality at 30 frames per second. If you're not happy with the video you've shot, you can trim the start and end of the clip. Apple calls this video editing, which technically it is, but extremely limited. You can't join separate clips together, and you can't save the edited clip as a different file and keep both versions.

Once you're happy with the duration of your new video you can MMS the clip to a friend, or upload it to YouTube, if you've set up a YouTube account previously.

Digital Compass — this is one for the developers. Apple has installed a compass chip into the 3GS, but hasn't given us much of an app to use this with. The "Compass" app is cool-looking that does little more than tell you which way you're pointing. Google Maps can use the compass to show you which way you're facing on the map, but we'll really have to wait until some genius writes an interesting location-based app before we see the compass earning its keep.

Voice Control — this is probably our favourite new tool. Combining a voice-recognition chip with the application, Voice Control allows you to dial a number, call a contact or play music in the iPod simply by asking the iPhone nicely to do this. The voice chip is also used to respond, so it can read back your selection, or tell you which song ID playing without you having to open the iPod. But it goes even further than this; the iPhone has new accessibility options for people with impairments and the voice chip is on duty to read out SMS and email messages, or to read current menu listings, etc.

Performance

Adding an "S" to the end of the iPhone 3G may have given us one of the worst mobile phone names next to the LG Cookie, but there's no denying the extra speed in executing applications. Though, that's the weird part, as all of the speed seems to be in the execution; once you're in an app the old iPhone 3G works just fine. The difference in the time it takes to execute varies quite a bit. Built-in apps, like contacts and the iPod are only a few seconds faster at most, where a four- or five-second load time becomes two or three seconds. In third-party apps, especially games, this time can be more significant, a 15-second load may drop down to five or six seconds.

Apple has made quite a fuss about battery life, and though you might be able to identify a difference by using the old and new iPhones by running single-usage tests (internet only, music or video playback only), we found that we had a comparable experience to the iPhone 3G. Our regular usage include calls, messages, one push email account plus one fetch-only account, and music playback. With this sort of use the iPhone barely made it through the working day and we had to charge it every night.

As you'll read in Kent German's CNET US review , call reception and network access can be shaky, with significantly more issues than we tend to see when reviewing Nokia or Sony Ericsson handsets. During our tests we took the 3GS to several places with testing reception and it often fell short. What was surprising, however, is that the older iPhone 3G models using the same network performed far better, holding onto a few bars of 3G coverage while the 3GS reported no service.

What frustrates the issue further is that the iPhone 3GS had difficulties switching back to 2G GSM coverage when 3G struggled. We discovered that the solution to not having 3G network service was to enter the "General" settings and to manually turn "Enable 3G" to off. This forced GSM networking and found us a signal. While this process is simple, it is possibly too advanced a solution for many in our situation and should be a task the phone handles automatically.

Overall

With the implementation of the 3.0 firmware update (more on this in the US review on the following pages), Apple has putty-filled many of the leaks in its offering. While this update is available to owners of the previous model, for the 500,000 Australians who bought an iPhone 3G, the iPhone 3GS is a year late. The upgrades, while few, are significant. The camera upgrade is more than a higher pixel count, with auto focus and auto colour and white balance, the voice recognition chip is an excellent improvement and the speed bump is immediately apparent. We've had a few problems with the iPhone 3GS so far, some may say major issues including reception and battery life, but this doesn't detract us from enjoying the world of mobile computing at our fingertips.

And this is what the iPhone is now and what the competition is scrambling to become: a mobile computing platform. Apple doesn't make the best mobile phone, but the iPhone is today's best mobile computer with built-in telephony. This is due, in part, to the device itself, and in equal measure to the excellent App Store and the mind-boggling level of support it's received from developers around the world. Google's Android compares favourably to many elements of the iPhone, in particular in its performance and web activity, but without the support of developers the Android Market will continue to grow at a much slower rate to Apple's Store.

With all the hype around each iPhone release you might be lead to believe that the iPhone will change your life. One thing that's for sure is it will demand you change the way you use your phone. You'll need iTunes on your computer, you'll need to train yourself to use the on-screen keyboard and you'll need to charge the phone each night. If you're willing to make these concessions then the iPhone 3GS will definitely deliver.



Editor's note: this review was conducted by our CNET US colleagues.

The iPhone 3GS has the same external design as the iPhone 3G. (Credit: CBSi)

Design and interface

The iPhone 3GS looks exactly like the previous model. It shares the shape and the same external controls, but the iPhone 3GS is unique in a handful of ways. You can get both memory sizes in white or black, and the iPhone 3GS display sports a fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating that is supposed to attract fewer fingerprints and smudges. The new model shares the same dimensions as its predecessor, but it's slightly heavier, but the less than 2 grams difference is virtually unnoticeable.

The menu interface is also the same, but in the past year, as we've added apps to the Home screen, something new has begun to bother us. As intuitive and simple as the interface is, it becomes unwieldy after you get above four menu pages. Swiping through multiple pages is tedious; and it's rather painful to drag applications from page to page if you're an organisational freak. We hate that there's no way to categorise related apps into folders, such as one for news, another for social networking, and so on. Not only would this cut down on menu pages, but you'd also be able to find your app faster. And while we're at it, how about letting us delete some of the native apps we never use?

Features

Since the iPhone 3GS inherits many of the features from the previous model, we'll concentrate on what's different on this device. If you need a refresher on such elements as the clock, YouTube, weather, iPod player, calculator and email, please see our iPhone 3G review. We'll start off with the new features that only the iPhone 3GS will offer.

The iPhone 3GS' camera still lacks a flash. (Credit: CBSi)

Camera

Until now, the iPhone's camera has been good, but far from great, with decent photo quality, but no editing features. Apple didn't include options such as white balance, a digital zoom, or a self-timer that come standard on many basic VGA camera phones. The minimalist shooter bothered us so much that we began to worry if Apple was leading a new trend of "dumbing down" mobile phone cameras.

The iPhone 3GS puts some of those fears to rest. Apple boosted the camera's resolution to 3 megapixels and added a new "Tap to Focus" feature. As you point the lens toward your subject, a small box appears on the centre of the display. Tapping that square focuses the camera automatically on that point and adjusts the white balance, colour, contrast and exposure accordingly. If you'd rather focus on the edge of your shot, just tap the display at your chosen point and the square moves with you. If you don't tap anywhere, the camera will focus the entire frame.

Tap to Focus performs well. For example, if we photographed a book cover sitting on a desk, we were able to get a clear reading on the book's title. If we shifted the focus away from the book, the title became somewhat blurry. Alternatively, if we focused on the brightest part of an image, the entire picture would appear brighter. But if we focused on the darkest part of any image, the photo would darken accordingly. The iPhone still doesn't come with a flash, though, so don't expect miracles.

The iPhone 3GS' indoor shots were just average. (Credit: CBSi)

On the other hand, the new automatic macro setting didn't appear to make much of a difference. Close-up shots looked slightly better on the iPhone 3GS than they did on the iPhone 3G, but we couldn't tell when the macro focus was working and when it wasn't. As with the autofocus feature, the macro setting is a welcome addition, but we'd prefer to have more control over it. In other words, the iPhone 3GS' camera is smarter than those on the earlier iPhones, but the camera, rather than the user, still runs the show.

On the whole, the iPhone 3GS' photo quality looks better than the 3G camera's quality, but it depends on the shot. Outdoor shots and photos taken in natural light looked less blurry in our tests, with brighter colours. Photos taken during cloudy days were less likely to be blown out, and photos in low-light conditions looked brighter and had less of an orange tint. Indoor shots without natural light showed little change, however. The iPhone's camera is not optimised for fluorescent light.

The video recorder has a simple interface and you can edit clips right on the display. (Credit: CBSi)

Video recording

The iPhone 3GS is the first iPhone to offer video recording, another feature other phones have offered for years. Apple makes up for some lost time by offering an easy-to-use video-editing option right on the phone.

Controls for video shooting work just like the still camera's controls, and you can use the Tap to Focus feature here, as well. The quality is just VGA, but the camera shoots at 30 frames per second, so while colours look muted and some videos appear washed out, the iPhone 3G S did better at handling movement than most mobile phone cameras. After you're done recording, you can send your clip in an email or upload it directly to your YouTube account. We were able to upload to YouTube and send a video from our synced IMAP4 Exchange account, but when we tried to send a video from a synced Yahoo POP3 account, an error occurred. We're checking with Apple on the discrepancy and will report back.

The phone's video-editing tool is utterly intuitive and fun to use. After loading a previously shot video, you'll see it displayed frame by frame in a linear format along the top of the touchscreen. Using your finger, you can slide the cursor to any point in the video and start playing from there. If you care to edit, just touch either end of the border that surrounds your video. When the border turns yellow, you can shorten the clip by dragging either end toward your desired cut-off point (the image on the display will conveniently change as you move along). Once you've made your edits, just hit the "Trim" control.

We liked the video-editing feature a lot, but it's worth noting a couple of small complaints. First off, when you trim a clip, the edited version replaces your original video, rather than saves it as a new file. Also, you can trim only in a linear format — meaning you can't cut out something in the middle and stitch the remaining two ends of the video together.

We also like a new feature that allows you to quickly open a photo or video that you just shot. After taking your snap or video, a small thumbnail will appear on the bottom of the viewfinder next to the shutter control. Tapping that thumbnail takes you to the photo gallery page, from where you can view your work or send it on to a friend.



With the Voice Control feature, you can make calls and control the iPod player. (Credit: CBSi)

Voice Control

We've long berated Apple for not including voice dialling on previous iPhones, particularly in this age of hands-free driving laws. Overdue as it is, the new Voice Control feature goes far beyond just making calls. To activate it, hold down the home button until the Voice Control feature appears.

As with hundreds of other mobile phones, Voice Control lets you make calls by speaking the contact's name or phone number into the receiver. After you say your command, you'll get audio confirmation and the name or number will show on the display. If the iPhone makes a mistake, you can press an "undo" touch control at the bottom of the screen. The feature is speaker-independent, so you won't need to train it to recognise your voice; you'll be ready to go the first time you turn on the phone.

In our tests, the voice dialling performed well. When using names, it understood us accurately most of the time. It made occasional mistakes — for example, it wanted to call "Siemens" instead of "Stephen" — but that's hardly unusual for a voice dialler. Voice Control performed better when using only numbers. We didn't have to speak loudly, except in noisy environments, but it was capable of filtering out most background noise.

If you call a contact with multiple numbers, but don't specify which number you prefer, it will prompt you with "home", "work", etc. If you ask for a name that has multiple listings in your phone book (we know multiple people named Tim, for instance), it will prompt you for your choice, while showing the options on the screen. Alternatively, you can call a contact using his or her company's name, but that company must be in the contact's electronic business card.

Voice Control also interacts with the iPhone's iPod player and the iTunes Genius list. You can ask it to play a song by artist name and album, and you can request an entire playlist. Once music is playing, you can pause, skip to the next song, and go back to the previous track, using your voice. Say "shuffle" and the player skips to a random song. The feature was accurate most of the time, but it occasionally confused some artist names.

Unsure which song is playing? You can find out by asking, "What song is this?" You'll then get audio confirmation of the track name and artist. Like what you're hearing? Say, "Play more songs like this", and the player will use your iTunes Genius list to play a related song. In either case, the music will dim while you speak. They're nifty features, to be sure, and we can't think of another MP3 player or mobile phone that offers such capability.

On the other hand, we can't imagine that many people would use it outside of a car. And the iPod Voice Control isn't perfect. It read Pink's name as "P N K" in our tests (Pink spells her name as "P!nk" on her album covers), and it twice tried to call "Annette" when we asked what song was playing. Also, we're not sure how Gwen Stefani would feel about being related to Britney Spears in the Genius list, but there you have it.

The compass application shows your location and sports an attractive interface. (Credit: CBSi)

Compass

You'll find the iPhone 3G S' digital compass option directly on the Home screen; just tap to open. The attractive interface shows a large compass with your bearing and your latitude and longitude. Similar to any other compass, it continues to point true or magnetic north as you turn around. Reception was spotty inside, so you'll need to stay clear of any interference. If it can't get a bearing, you'll be advised to move away from the interference and re-establish the compass' orientation by moving the iPhone in a figure-eight motion.

The compass also interacts with Google Maps to point you in the right direction. To switch to the maps, just press the familiar bull's-eye icon in the bottom-left corner. You'll see your position on the map, and if you tap the bull's-eye again, the map will rotate to show the direction you are facing. It's a nice touch, and we like how the standard Google Maps view now shows the 3D outlines of buildings.

You can change the display's contrast with the iPhone 3G S' new accessibility features. (Credit: CBSi)

Accessibility features

The iPhone 3G S is the first iPhone to offer a full set of accessibility features. Visually impaired people can use Apple's Voice Over to navigate the handset's menus and type messages and emails. As you drag your finger around the display and tap a button, the iPhone will read a description of that button. The phone will also read the text of dialog boxes, the time of day, the status and orientation of the display (locked or unlocked, portrait or landscape), and detail information, such as the battery level, Wi-Fi, and mobile network signals. What's more, it speaks each character as you type a message, and it will suggest auto-correction choices. Voice Over can read text messages, emails, and even web pages.

To use Voice Over, you will need to learn a different set of gestures — for example, you'll have to double-tap to open an item — but the feature provides audible instruction. You can set the speaking rate and choose from 21 supported languages. Voice Over works with all of the phone's native applications, but support for third-party apps varies. Though we're sighted and our Voice Over user experience can't compare with someone who is visually impaired, we were impressed by the feature's capabilities.

The iPhone 3G S also adds multi-touch zoom support for the Home, Unlock and Spotlight screens for all applications, both native and third-party. Previously, zoom only worked in the photo gallery, email inboxes and the Safari browser. You can activate the enhanced zoom in the Settings menu, but you can't use it and Voice Over simultaneously.

You also can reverse the display's contrast to white on black. Menus will show white text on a black background, while the Home screen will change to a white background. Just be aware that the contrast change alters the appearance of photos in the gallery so that they look like negatives. It has a similar effect for app icons on the Home screen.



What else is new?

The iPhone 3G S includes support for Nike + iPod, which integrates your iPod with a sensor that fits inside Nike running shoes. You use it as a pedometer to track your distance travelled and your pace. When you turn on the app in the settings menu, an icon will appear on the Home screen. The headphones included with the iPhone 3G S also show changes. You'll find controls for using the Voice Control feature, adjusting the volume, answering calls and controlling music and video playback.

iPhone OS 3.0

The iPhone 3G S will support the new iPhone OS 3.0 update from day one. The OS 3.0 is a significant update that promises 100 new features, including such long-awaited gems as multimedia messaging, stereo Bluetooth, a voice recorder, and cut, copy and paste. Apple has yet to release a fully detailed list — and we've barely scratched the surface in our testing — but we'll continue to report improvements as we find them. First announced in March 2009, it was released 17 June 2009, for the iPhone Classic and the iPhone 3G.

This is what MMS looked like in the beta version of iPhone OS 3.0. (Credit: CBSi)

Multimedia messaging

We've ranted endlessly about why it took so long for Apple to achieve multimedia messaging (MMS), so we're glad that it's finally on its way. Besides photos, you'll also be able to send videos, audio files and map locations. At long last, the iPhone can do something that almost every other mobile phone can do, and has done for ages.

The messaging process was intuitive. When using the text-messaging app, a small camera icon appeared next to the writing area. After tapping it, we had the choice to take a new photo or send an existing shot. If we decided to shoot a new photo, we had the option of retaking it if we wished. Alternatively, we could initiate a picture message from the photo gallery. In either case, the photo appears in the typing area of the message application, and you can delete it if you change your mind.

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