The iPhone 3GS is the third version of Apple’s smartphone. It looks almost identical to its predecessor, the iPhone 3G, but features a faster processor, better performance and more memory.
The iPhone 3GS is the same size and shape as the iPhone 3G, with only slight differences in design. The main one is the coating on the display, with Apple employing an oleophobic, fingerprint-resistant surface aimed at reducing the amount of smudges and making it easier to clean; Apple no longer includes a screen cleaner in the sales package. When we compared the iPhone 3GS to an iPhone 3G after a few days of testing it was clear that the screen picked up fewer fingerprints. Another point to note about the display is that it’s dimmer and much warmer than the iPhone 3G’s screen. Colours seemed slightly washed out in a side-by-side comparison with the previous model and we actually prefer the iPhone 3G’s display.
Apple claims the ‘S’ in the iPhone 3GS stands for speed and without doubt it is a much faster and more responsive than its predecessor. Applications open and close almost instantly, there is no keystroke lag in any of the apps we tested (unlike the sometimes sluggish iPhone 3G) and overall it feels much-improved. The speed benefits are really apparent when using the Mail, Safari, Maps and Notes applications in particular, though nearly all of our third-party apps from the App Store also received a speed boost. Apple has also upped the storage, with the top-of-the-range iPhone 3GS now boasting 32GB of memory, up from the iPhone 3G’s upper limit of 16GB.
Some of the benefits of the iPhone 3.0 software update — including MMS, a landscape keyboard, Internet tethering and Voice Memos — may be enough to put iPhone 3G owners off purchasing the iPhone 3GS. For those without an iPhone, though, an improved camera with video recording capabilities, Voice Control and a built-in compass are some of features exclusive to the third-gen handset.
The camera on the iPhone 3GS has been boosted to 3 megapixels, up from 2 megapixels. There is still no flash, but Apple has included a nifty feature that allows you select a focus point by tapping on the display. This "tap to focus" feature allows you to take macro photos; there is no macro setting, but simply tapping the item in the foreground will blur out the background. It’s a very sound implementation of autofocus, though it can sometimes be hard to keep the phone still with just one hand. Photos are definitely better than those taken by the iPhone 3G, though the lack of flash is still a big disappointment.
Video recording is also a new addition. It's available by flicking the small switch in the camera application. The iPhone 3GS records in VGA quality at 30 frames per second, and we were impressed on the whole. In particular, the iPhone deals with movement quite well: it doesn’t autofocus once you start recording (it does focus when you switch to the video recording mode, before you press record) but focus remains steady throughout sharp movements. Once you’ve recorded a video clip, you can e-mail it, send it via MMS, send it to your MobileMe account (if you have one set up) or post it directly to YouTube. You can also edit the video clip straight on the phone itself. A frame by frame editing bar appears on the top of the video when you select it, and you can tap a cursor into any point in the video and start playing from there. You can edit by touching either end of the frame bar, sliding to the section you want and pressing trim. Unfortunately, trimming a video replaces the original instead of saving it as a new file, but being able to edit videos directly on the phone remains a nifty feature.
The iPhone 3GS includes Voice Control — Apple’s name for voice activated commands. Available by holding down the home button, the Voice Control app works out of the box and doesn’t require any configuration. To call someone you can speak the name of a contact or the phone number. For contacts with multiple numbers (for example home and mobile phone) you can say “call Joe Blogs mobile”. Saying “call Joe Blogs” will prompt you to choose between the numbers and display the options on the screen. We were very impressed with accuracy and 95 per cent of the time the Voice Control app understood us correctly.
Unlike most mobile phones with voice recognition, which use it purely for calls, Apple has gone a step further and included the ability to control your music. You can ask “What song is playing?” and the phone will say the track and artist name. “Next track”, “previous track” and “shuffle” commands can control your music without pressing any buttons and “play more songs like this” will create a Genius playlist based on the current track. We can’t see many people using Voice Control's music features on an everyday basis, but it is very handy in the car.
The iPhone 3GS also includes a built-in digital compass and compass app. The app's interface shows a large compass with your bearing, longitude and latitude, and you can select either true north or magnetic north. On its own, the compass app isn’t especially useful for most people, but its integration with Google Maps is superb. The app uses the compass to rotate the map to match your orientation. Strangely, though, the feature doesn’t work in Street View.
Other features exclusive to the iPhone 3GS include Nike + iPod support and a range of accessibility features for users with visual or hearing impairment. You can use Apple’s Voice Over feature to navigate menus, a zoom function can make instructions easier to read, and you can invert the display's colours to show white on black.
Apple claims the iPhone 3GS' battery life is much improved compared to the iPhone 3G and during our few days of testing the new smartphone's battery definitely lasted longer, though it could still be improved. With heavy use, including taking photos and recording some video, using Wi-Fi, leaving Bluetooth on and occasionally browsing the Web, the iPhone 3GS lasted a full day. Battery life can be increased greatly by turning Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and push off, which should let you stretch it to two days. A nifty new feature is a battery percentage indicator, which can be displayed alongside the battery icon in the top right corner of the notifications bar.