Apple iPhone 3GS review: Apple iPhone 3GS

Compass
You'll find the iPhone 3GS' 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 application shows your location and sports an attractive interface.
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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.

Accessibility features
The iPhone 3GS 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 e-mails. 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 cellular network signals. What's more, it speaks each character as you type a message, and it will suggest autocorrection choices. Voice Over can read text messages, e-mails, and even Web pages.


You can change the display's contrast with the iPhone 3GS' new accessibility features.

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 3GS also adds multitouch 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, e-mail in-boxes, 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 3GS 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 traveled 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 3GS 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 3GS 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 June 17, 2009, for the iPhone Classic and the iPhone 3G.

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 cell phone can do, and has done for ages.


This is what MMS looked like in the beta version of iPhone OS 3.0.

But, and this is a big "but," AT&T doesn't have things ready on its end. We don't know the real reason for the annoying delay, nor do we have a timetable for deployment; we just know that AT&T will support MMS "later this summer." (Also, because it wasn't integrated with the proper radio, the iPhone Classic will not support MMS.)

When we first tested the beta version of iPhone OS 3.0, we were able to compose, but not send, a multimedia message in a few quick steps on our iPhone 3G. In subsequent OS 3.0 updates, Apple removed the process for doing this; presumably you'll get it back when MMS goes live.

On the upside, 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.

Cut, copy, and paste
The cut, copy, and paste feature is long overdue. The interface is simple and easy to use, and it works across all applications, including notes, e-mails, messages, and text on Web pages. Developers will even get access to it in applications.


Cut, copy, and paste is easy to use.

To get started, just double-tap a selection of text and the cut, copy, and paste commands will appear. You then can change the highlighted area by dragging the blue grab points around the page. Once you get to your pasting area, just tap the screen again and select the paste button. If you make a mistake and paste in the incorrect place, you can shake the iPhone to undo your command. When in Notes and e-mail, you also can highlight with a long press (aka holding your finger down). You'll see two options: Select and Select All. The former command highlights just the word that you're touching, while the latter highlights the entire block of text.

Using the feature in the Safari browser takes some acclimation, but even then we needed only a few minutes to get the hang of the process. Because the double-tap motion is also used to zoom in on a Web page, you must use a long press to select text that you want to copy or cut. You then can drag the blue points as normal. Depending on how closely you're zoomed in, you can highlight just one word or an entire block of text.

Landscape keyboard
Formerly--and inexplicably--available only in the Safari browser, the landscape keyboard now works in e-mail, text messaging, and notes. After haranguing Apple over the past two years to get it, we have to admit that it took a second to get accustomed to it. Though the landscape keyboard is much wider, with larger buttons, it's also a lot shorter. It did take us a couple of days to get the hang of it. Don't think that we're complaining, though, as it's quite the opposite. We love being able to use two hands, but we had grown accustomed to the one-finger tap dance on the vertical keyboard.


The landscape keyboard is a welcome addition.

You can also now view your e-mail in-box, contacts, and text messages in landscape mode. The calendar remains in a portrait orientation, but the changes we received are welcome.

Spotlight
Until now, it's been rather painful to sift through the data to find e-mail or calendar entries on the iPhone. Luckily, iPhone OS 3.0 adds a Spotlight feature that makes the search process vastly easier. Similar to many of the OS 3.0 additions, it took way too long to get here, but we have few complaints about the final product. To get to the Spotlight feature, swipe your finger to the right from the first menu page. You'll then see a keyboard with a typing field above it (this keyboard only works in portrait mode). As you type in a search term, the results appear below the search bar, with results grouped together by category for easy navigation. You can search calendar entries, music, notes, apps, contacts, and e-mail, and you can search within an individual e-mail in-box. For IMAP4 and Exchange accounts, you'll also be able to search messages saved only on the server.


The Spotlight feature lets you search a variety of files on your iPhone 3GS.

Tethering
In March, we heard that tethering would be possible with the OS 3.0, but that it would be completely carrier-dependent. Here again, AT&T isn't on the ball. While other iPhone carriers around the world will be ready when the iPhone goes live, AT&T is saying that the carrier will support tethering later this summer. Unfortunately, we don't know the exact reason for the delay, when tethering will actually arrive, or whether AT&T will charge extra for it.

Text messaging
Deleting and forwarding individual messages in a texting thread works just like the e-mail app. When you select the edit button, small dots appear next to each message. Hit the dots for your desired messages before pressing the delete or forward options. Thanks, Apple, but this should have been on the first iPhone.

Stereo Bluetooth
We were very glad to see a stereo Bluetooth profile arrive with iPhone OS 3.0. We tested it with the LG HBS-250 stereo Bluetooth headset. The pairing process was easy and incident-free. In the music player, a small Bluetooth icon appears next to the player controls. Press it to route audio to the headset; you then can toggle back and forth between the speaker and the headset. Speaking of Bluetooth, the update also adds Bluetooth peer-to-peer networking for gaming. Yet, neither Bluetooth feature is available on the iPhone Classic, even with the OS 3.0 update installed. Apple has a chart with more information.

Turn-by-turn directions
iPhone OS 3.0 brings support for turn-by-turn directions, making the iPhone a fully functional GPS device. The bad news is that, along with MMS, we'll have to wait until later this summer for complete functionality. Directional services won't come from Apple, but will instead come from third-party apps. TomTom will be one of the first companies to offer an app; a TomTom executive demonstrated it at WWDC 2009. AT&T has built an app for its AT&T Navigator service and we expect that other companies will offer their own apps.

From what we could tell from the brief demo, TomTom's service looks promising. The interface was attractive and the audible directions were clear. TomTom will also offer a car kit that will secure your iPhone to your windshield or dashboard while charging it at the same time. That's good news for a device that sucks up juice quickly.

We're concerned with how much the app will cost. TomTom will offer a "range" of U.S. and international maps, but that's as much as we know. GPS maps are not cheap, so we'll be interested to see how TomTom will package and price the content to make it affordable for consumers and profitable for TomTom.

What's more, we're curious how much memory the maps will consume and how the app will integrate with the iPhone's other features. From what we understand, we'll be able to make hands-free calls and play music on our car's radio while getting directions. Unlike the Palm Pre, however, the iPhone doesn't multitask (we have more to say on that below). If the GPS feature has to suspend because you get a call--just as the iPod player suspends when you take a call--then things could get tricky. We suspect, though, that Apple and TomTom have this covered.

iTunes Store
With the software update, your iPhone's iTunes Store experience will change a bit. Now you'll be able to rent and purchase movies, download TV shows and audiobooks, and access iTunes U. You'll also be able to redeem iTunes gift cards on the phone in the iTunes App store. Previously, you could only redeem in the iTunes music store.


You can rent movies on your iPhone 3GS.

Also new is the capability to make purchases while inside apps. For example, you can renew a magazine subscription or buy additional levels of a game. This is a small win, at least for us. Sure, it's nice that you won't have to close the application and return to the iTunes Store, but this is almost one of those "problems I didn't know I had." Just remember to keep a limit on your impulse buying.

Apple promises that free apps will always be free, to avoid a bait-and-switch scenario. While that's great for consumers in that you'll never have to shell out money for an update, even now we see two versions of many apps cluttering the App store. The free app get you hooked, much like a demo version of a game, while the paid app offers the whole experience. As we see it, that's not much better than offering an app for free, but then charging later for an update.

Find My iPhone
If you're prone to losing your iPhone 3GS, OS 3.0 will give you some peace of mind. If your handset goes missing, you can use a computer to find its position on a map. You can then send it a message that instructs anyone who finds your phone to call you. It plays a tone to get a passerby's attention, and it even plays the tone when the sound is off. Presumably, however, it won't play the tone when the phone is

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Where to Buy See all prices

Apple iPhone 3GS - 8GB - black (AT&T)

Part Number: 4850248 Released: Jun 19, 2009
Low Price: $92.97 See all prices

Quick Specifications See All

  • Release date Jun 19, 2009
  • Talk Time Up to 720 min (2G)
    Up to 300 min (3G)
  • Technology WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM
  • Combined with With digital camera / digital player
  • Service Provider AT&T
  • Weight 4.8 oz
  • Diagonal Size 3.5 in
  • Sensor Resolution 3 pixels
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