X
Why You Can Trust CNET

Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement

Apple iPhone 3GS review: Apple iPhone 3GS

Apple iPhone 3GS

Kent_German.jpg
Kent German
Kent_German.jpg

Kent German

Senior Managing Editor / Features

Kent is a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and has worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog, or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).

See full bio
19 min read

Editors' note: On September 25, 2009, AT&T activated multimedia messaging for the iPhone 3G and 3GS. Also, for more on the TomTom Car Kit for iPhone, please see our full review.

8.0

Apple iPhone 3GS

The Good

The iPhone 3GS finally adds common cell phone features like multimedia messaging, video recording, and voice dialing. It runs faster; its promised battery life is longer; and the multimedia quality continues to shine.

The Bad

The iPhone 3GS' call quality shows no improvements and the 3G signal reception remains uneven. We still don't get Flash Lite, USB transfer and storage, or multitasking.

The Bottom Line

The iPhone 3GS doesn't make the same grand leap that the iPhone 3G made from the first-generation model, but the latest Apple handset is still a compelling upgrade for some users. The iPhone 3GS is faster and we appreciate the new features and extended battery life, but call quality and 3G reception still need improvement.

On October 24, 2011, we lowered the rating of the iPhone 3Gs following the release of the iPhone 4S.


Photo gallery:
Apple iPhone 3GS

Three years after the first rumors of an Apple cell phone began to make the rounds, the iPhone continues to garner huge buzz, long lines, and a growing share of the cell phone market. And as we approach the second anniversary of the first model's frenzied launch day, Apple drops the newest model in our laps. The iPhone 3GS, which will hit stores June 19, promises faster processing and network speeds, extended battery life, more memory, and additional features. It's enough to get our attention, but not enough to get us completely excited.

In many ways, the iPhone 3GS delivers on its promises. The battery, which could sometimes deplete in less than a day on the iPhone 3G, lasted longer in our preliminary tests, and the phone's software ran noticeably faster. Yet, we still have some concerns. A faster AT&T 3G network isn't going to happen overnight, and some features, like tethering and multimedia messaging, aren't scheduled until later in summer 2009. We also struggled to see any change in call quality, which, as any iPhone owner can tell you, remains far from perfect.

So should you buy it? That will depend on how much you'll have to pay for the privilege. If you don't own an iPhone yet, and you've been waiting for the right model, now is the time to go for it. The same goes for iPhone Classic owners who never made the jump to the iPhone 3G. But, if you're a current iPhone 3G owner, the answer isn't so clear. If you're eligible to upgrade at the cheapest prices ($199 for the 16GB model and $299 for the 32GB model), we suggest doing so, as long as you don't mind the required two-year contract. If you own an iPhone 3G, but are not yet eligible for the upgrade, we recommend upgrading to the new iPhone OS 3.0 operating system, and then waiting. As much as the iPhone 3GS brings, it's not worth the extra $200 that the 16GB and 32GB models cost.

iPod Touch OS 3.0 media features

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 (4.76 ounces versus 4.7 ounces), a virtually unnoticeable difference.

The iPhone 3GS has the same external design as the iPhone 3G.

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 organizational freak. We hate that there's no way to categorize 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 e-mail, please see our iPhone 3G review. We'll start off with the new features that only the iPhone 3GS will offer.

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" cell phone cameras.

The iPhone 3GS' camera still lacks a flash.

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 center of the display. Tapping that square focuses the camera automatically on that point and adjusts the white balance, color, 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.


Photo gallery:
iPhone 3GS camera photos

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.

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.

The iPhone 3GS' indoor shots were just average.

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 colors. 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 optimized for fluorescent light. For a full gallery of shots taken with the camera, see our iPhone 3GS camera slideshow.

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.

The video recorder has a simple interface and you can edit clips right on the display.

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 colors look muted and some videos appear washed out, the iPhone 3GS did better at handling movement than most cell phone cameras. After you're done recording, you can send your clip in an e-mail 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.

Watch a video of the iPhone 3GS' video quality.

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 touch screen. 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 cutoff 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.

Voice Control

We've long berated Apple for not including voice dialing 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.

With the Voice Control feature, you can make calls and control the iPod player.

As with hundreds of other cell 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 recognize your voice; you'll be ready to go the first time you turn on the phone.

In our tests, the voice dialing 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 dialer. 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 cell 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.

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.

.

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

8.0

Apple iPhone 3GS

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 7Performance 8
Shopping laptop image
Get the best price on everything
Shop your favorite products and we’ll find the best deal with a single click. Designed to make shopping easier.
Add CNET Shopping