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 Latest iOS 5; Classic design; Online data storage with iCloud; Loads of apps and games available.

The Bad Small screen; Non-removable battery; No Siri voice-activated assistant.

The Bottom Line Despite its age, the iPhone 3GS handles iOS 5 with surprising grace. New features such as improved notifications and iCloud combine with a low retail and contract price to make this veteran device one of the cheapest ways to hop onto the iPhone bandwagon.

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The iPhone 3GS is one of Apple's older iPhone models, having originally hit the market way back in 2009. It comes in 8GB, 16GB and 32GB variants and has recently been updated to iOS 5 -- the latest version of Apple's world-beating mobile operating system.

Refurbished, the 3GS is available for free on a two-year contract, with prices starting as low as £13.50 per month. Pay as you go models will cost you about £290, while some retailers are selling SIM-free handsets for as little as £200. If you shop around, you could bag yourself a bargain.

Should I buy the Apple iPhone 3GS?

Hardened tech-addicts may consider it foolish to even think of purchasing a phone that is over two years old, but there's clearly still a large market for the iPhone 3GS. According to recent US figures, it outsold every available Android model during the third quarter of 2011.

That's a remarkable achievement and is undoubtedly one of the main reasons why Apple has upgraded this vintage classic to iOS 5 , its latest mobile operating system.

Granted, the 3GS misses out on the headline-grabbing voice-operated assistant Siri , but almost every other important feature of iOS 5 has made the cut. There's a completely overhauled notifications system, iCloud storage; an improved camera app; and a raft of new apps, including the Reminders app and access to Apple's new Newsstand service, which allows you to purchase digital copies of many famous magazines.

Apple iPhone 3GS iOS 5 Newsstand
The Android-style slide-down notifications bar works brilliantly (left), and Newsstand is another welcome addition to iOS 5 (right).

Of course, the 3GS has access to all of the other stuff that makes the iPhone brand so great. You can obtain thousands of games and applications, download music and podcasts and sync your phone with your home music library via Apple's iTunes desktop application.

There are moments when the 3GS does tend to show its age, however. The 600MHz processor occasionally becomes a little overwhelmed; it can stutter when you have a lot of activities occurring simultaneously. The 320x480-pixel, 3.5-inch screen also looks a tad small when compared to rival Android phones.

Ultimately, such issues matter little when you consider the current asking price of the 3GS. You can pick it up relatively cheaply on a monthly contract, or adopt the SIM-free route for around £200 to £250. The reduced pricing and continued software support from Apple effectively mean that the 3GS has almost unwittingly become the fabled budget iPhone that many industry experts were predicting would appear before the 4S was confirmed.

If you've enviously witnessed your friends picking up their shiny new iPhones and wished you could have a slice of the action, then the 3GS represents the perfect opportunity -- and it won't break the bank either.

Apple iPhone 3GS iOS 5 App Store
The App Store and iTunes make for a thrilling combo -- there's more content available than on any rival mobile platform.

iOS 5 on the 3GS

Apple's track record for bringing new software to older phones hasn't exactly been encouraging -- just ask anyone who upgraded their 3GS to iOS 4. The problem is that new software usually places increased demands on the host hardware. In the past, Apple's older devices have struggled to keep up with the rapid advance of the OS.

Thankfully, Apple seems to have learned from its past mistakes because iOS 5 on the 3GS runs amazingly well. Granted, there's no Siri , so you can't offer your hand in marriage to a virtual assistant, but that's probably the single biggest omission.

The raft of other improvements -- including iCloud, an Android-style Notifications Bar and iMessage -- are all present and accounted for. The most stunning aspect of all of this is that iOS 5 runs pretty smoothly on the handset's aging hardware. It's only when you've got several apps open while multi-tasking that the phone begins to stumble.

iCloud

iCloud was one of the last big announcements Apple founder Steve Jobs made before he sadly passed away. It's no exaggeration to say that it's the best thing to happen to iOS in years.

It wirelessly syncs all your phone's data -- including mail, contacts, music, calendar appointments and photos -- and stores them in your 5GB repository on Apple's cloud-based servers.

Apple iPhone 3GS iOS 5 iCloud
iCloud takes the complexity out of uploading and downloading data from the cloud.

Previously, if you had more than one device and wanted to exchange information between them -- a photo, for example -- you'd have to download the image via iTunes and then sync it to your other device.

iCloud circumvents this laborious process and allows you to grab items from the cloud and deploy them across all of your iOS devices.

It means that if your phone is lost or broken, you don't lose any of your precious data.

The final bonus about iCloud is that it frees you from having to use the infamously bloated iTunes application to update your phone's firmware. New OS updates are simply pushed to your device over the air, just like with Android .

Apple iPhone 3GS iOS 5 updates
Over-the-air updates mean you may never need to load up iTunes on your PC again.

iMessage

Seen by many as a response to RIM's famous BlackBerry Messenger functionality, iMessage is such an ingenious means of communication you may not even realise it's there. Instead of a separate iMessage app, this feature is found within the standard text message program.

iMessages can be exchanged with fellow iOS 5 users. They are sent over your Internet connection instead of using up your contract's valuable text messaging quota.

You don't have to do anything to enable this feature -- iOS 5 detects if the person you're texting is also using the new OS and it gives iMessages a unique colour to differentiate them from standard texts.

Notifications

When you consider how sensitive Apple's bigwigs get when a competitor appears to steal an idea, it's rather ironic that one of iOS 5's most notable improvements happens to be lifted almost wholesale from Google's Android OS.

At first glance, the status bar at the top of the screen looks the same as it always has. However, tracing a line down from the top of the display reveals your shiny new notifications area.

Apple iPhone 3GS iOS 5 notifications
iOS 5 completely overhauls the way in which the iPhone handles notifications, but you can revert back to the old-fashioned pop-up method if you so wish.

Here, you'll find a quick summary of all your important information, including a weather report, text messages or the latest stocks and shares info.

You can edit what data is displayed in this section from the phone's settings menu, should you find that you're getting overloaded with alerts. It's also possible to switch back to the old 'pop-up' notifications if the pull-down bar proves to be a little too much like Android for your liking.

The good stuff doesn't end there. When the iPhone 3GS is locked, notifications appear on the lock screen itself. You can quickly jump to the notification -- be it an email, text or appointment -- by swiping from left to right on the message itself.

This time-saving method saves you from having to unlock the phone and then open up the relevant application. It is a prime example of how Apple's software designers are masters at streamlining the mobile experience.

Applications and new features

iOS 5 doesn't just bring with it improvements to the operating system -- it also has a few new apps to enjoy. The one that has us the most excited is Newsstand, which allows you to download digital versions of popular publications, including Fast Car, Elle and Esquire.

There's a new Reminders app, which is handy if you're constantly forgetting to pick up milk on the way home from work. In typical Apple style, using this app is a breeze and you can set up time-relevant alerts in the space of a few minutes. These pop up on your home screen when required, which ensures you never miss an important event again.

Apple iPhone 3GS iOS 5 Reminders
The new Reminders app is straightforward to use and should ensure you never miss another important event again.

Apple has tightly integrated Twitter into iOS with version 5. You can post directly to your account from almost anywhere in the phone's operating system, including Safari, Maps or YouTube. While this won't be news to Android owners -- who have enjoyed the ability to share content directly to multiple applications for quite some time -- it's something of a revelation on the iPhone.

Apple iPhone 3GS iOS 5 iBooks
iBooks turns your phone into a smaller version of Amazon's Kindle, with plenty of tomes to choose from.

You can now effortlessly post a photo to your Twitter stream with nothing more than a few taps on the screen. It's a shame that other services haven't been included too, such as Facebook or Google+, but we imagine it's only a matter of time before Apple expands its sharing prowess.

Apple iPhone 3GS iOS 5 Twitter
You can now post images, links and videos directly to Twitter via iOS 5's built-in sharing feature.

Design

Although the iPhone 4 and 4S have since charmed millions worldwide, there's no denying that the 3GS (and its predecessor, the iPhone 3G) possesses a timeless, iconic quality.

Apple iPhone 3GS iOS 5 design
The iconic curved back of the 3GS remains visually appealing, even after witnessing the beauty of the iPhone 4.

That rounded plastic back panel and the chrome accent still look great, even by today's standards. The phone feels solid, robust and dependable. You can see why rival manufacturers have been so keen to imitate this device because it's genuinely attractive.

Apple iPhone 3GS iOS 5 build quality and design
The iPhone 3GS looks a little plump by today's standards, but it fits snugly in the palm as a result.

The front of the iPhone 3GS is dominated by that 320x480-pixel capacitive touchscreen display. While many Android and Windows Phone handsets have since eclipsed it, the 3.5-inch screen is still perfectly usable. In fact, many people will prefer the fact that the small display is a more pocket-friendly device.

Apple iPhone 3GS iOS 5 top
The lock button and 3.5mm headphone socket are located at the top of the device.

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Where to Buy

Apple iPhone 3GS

Part Number: CNETApple iPhone 3GS

Typical Price: £290.00

See manufacturer website for availability.

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