Apple iPhone 3GS review: Apple iPhone 3GS

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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.

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8.0 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 7
  • Performance 8

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.