History of iPhone 3GS: Faster and more powerful

Leading up to the iPhone 6 event we're updating and expanding our series on the history of the iPhone, continuing with the more powerful iPhone 3GS

Steve Jobs didn't give the WWDC keynote on June 8, 2009. He was away on medical leave. So, a team of Apple executives soldiered on without him. That included Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing, Phil Schiller, who's task was to fill the biggest New Balances in the business for what was becoming Apple's biggest business. Schiller started off quoting Time Magazine's praise for the last generation, "the phone that has changed phones forever." He'd go on to make that phone more affordable forever, while also introducing its successor. It boasted twice the speed, both for processing and data networking. It was the iPhone 3GS.

iPhone 3GS is the fastest, most powerful iPhone yet and we think people will love the incredible new features including autofocus camera, video recording and the freedom of voice control. And with a breakthrough price of $99, we are thrilled to get iPhone 3G into the hands of even more users who want them.

Schiller recounted how the iPhone had captured 65% of mobile browsing, and how the App Store had grown to feature 50,000 apps. Then he launched into the "same great design, all new insides" segment that would be the theme for the iPhone 3GS (and for subsequent S-class iPhones to come).

S is for Speed

The iPhone 3GS, codenamed N88, and model number iPhone 2,1, was the third iPhone, but the second generation. Confusing, perhaps, especially since it sported an almost identical design to the previous year's iPhone 3G. The 3.5-inch screen was the same 320x480 and 163ppi as the last two iPhones, but Apple added an oleophobic coating to the screen to help it better resist finger prints and other oils.

Turns out, however, Apple cares more about the guts than the casing, and the insides of the iPhone 3GS had far more striking differences. The cellular radio was updated again, this time to a twice-as-fast UMTS/HPSA 7.2 mbps. Wi-Fi stayed the same at 802.11 b/g, as did aGPS, but Bluetooth got a bump to 2.1 + EDR.

The chipset, however, got a big bump to the also twice-as-fast ARM Cortex-A8-based Samsung S5PC100 CPU and PowerVR SGX535 GPU that included support for OpenGL ES 2.0. RAM was doubled to a better-if-still-anemic 256MB. Storage got an increase, with the addition of a 32GB model. Battery, to power it all, jumped to 1219mAh, and significantly increased battery life.

Speed wasn't just a factor of hardware, but of software as well. Thanks to Apple's integrated model, both the new processors and iPhone OS 3.0 made everything from app launching to web browsing 2-4 times faster. T

Apple added a magnometer (digital compass), which brought directional and rotation data to the mix. Combined with the existing accelerometer, it was a huge boom for precision and accuracy, especially for gaming. Nike+ was also integrated, as was hardware encryption for added security.

The camera had become so popular on sites like Flickr, and Apple finally started to pay attention to optics as well. It went to a slightly-less-terrible 3 megapixels with auto-focus, auto white balance, and auto exposure, and macro. Thanks to the better processing power, it could also record video at 30fps... if only at 480p VGA resolution.

The iPhone 3GS also added voice control, a very early, rudimentary precursor to Siri. Activated by a long press of the Home button, it could handle calls and music playback, among select other things. Likewise, Accessibility gained a Voice Over option, and more.

For the third year in the row, there was still no CDMA and EVDO Rev A model, so still no iPhone for Verizon or Sprint in the U.S., but the iPhone was still exclusive to AT&T in the U.S., so it still didn't matter.

Like the casing, the price stayed the same, though you were getting a much faster phone with double the storage for the same $199/$299 on contract.

Scratching the surface

iPhone 3GS back

The iPhone 3GS launched on June 19 in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and several European markets. It reached 80 countries by the end of the year. iPhone OS 3.0 came with it. Steve Jobs shared the news that, once again, over a million were sold the first weekend. Apple:

Customers are voting and the iPhone is winning. With over 50,000 applications available from Apple's revolutionary App Store, iPhone momentum is stronger than ever.

Apple didn't mean for the iPhone 3GS to be a compelling upgrade for iPhone 3G owners. They were, more sensibly, targeting original iPhone owners whose 2-year contracts were up, and the much larger pool of people who didn't yet own an iPhone. Not all reviewers got that, of course. Some judged the phone by its casing. (Something that would haunt Apple again and again.) Still, reviews were mainly positive. David Pogue of the New York Times:

All of these changes make it much harder to resist the iPhone on intellectual, feature-counting grounds. The new iPhone doesn't just catch up to its rivals — it vaults a year ahead of them.

At this point, the usual 10 rational objections to the iPhone have been whittled down to about three: no physical keyboard, no way to swap the battery yourself and no way to avoid using AT&T as your carrier.

In short, the substantially improved, still elegant iPhone 3G S makes it dangerously easy for your heart and your head to agree.

Anand Lai Shimpi for AnandTech

Honestly, if you have the original iPhone then this is absolutely the one you'll want to upgrade to - you'll feel like you've been swept off of your feet one more time (assuming you did like your iPhone). Upgrading from the 3G is also a good idea in my opinion, just because of the tremendous increase in performance.

Yours truly on iMore:

Apple had me at speed. The minute I saw the performance potential of the new hardware, I had to have it. Video is nice and I'll likely use it a lot, but just cutting that much overhead off my day to day usage is priceless.

With the iPhone 3GS, the hardware finally caught up to the software.

Palm tried, Droid did

2009 saw the introduction of the most novel smartphone since the iPhone — the Palm Pre. Run by former Apple SVP Jon Rubenstein, built by former Apple engineers and designers who, perhaps, thought Apple erred in going with UIKit over WebKit for the apps, it featured a gorgeous interface, elegant multitasking metaphor, excellent Synergy messaging system, and... terrible hardware. It was also locked on Sprint, which proved to be far, far worse than being locked on AT&T. For all of its HMTL5 app ambition, poor business decisions, inept marketing, lack of funding, and a conspiracy of other events meant it never gained the traction it deserved. Which was a huge pity. Roger McNamee, one of Palm's principle backers through then-owners Elevation Partners, didn't do them any early expectational favors either:

You know the beautiful thing: June 29, 2009, is the two-year anniversary of the first shipment of the iPhone. Not one of those people will still be using an iPhone a month later.


Our product is just going to run rings around them on the web. If you want to go the web, it's going to be a million time faster, well, not a million times, several times faster and that's a huge deal for most people.

Ironically, one of the biggest complaints about webOS at the time was speed. The calendar app, for example, could take 20 seconds to load. As to the other claim, one month later more people than ever owned iPhones. Palm, wisely, took away his microphone.

Microsoft, still lost in the weeds with Windows Mobile, largely sat out the year. Steve Ballmer, of course, did not.

The truth of the matter is all the consumer market mojo is with Apple and to a lesser extent BlackBerry. And yet, the real market momentum with operators and the real market momentum with device manufacturers seems to primarily be with Windows Mobile and Android.


Windows Mobile 6.5 has touch on it. The way Apple does touch drives cost. [The] way they do it on the iPhone is not an inexpensive component. We'll do it in a way that you can afford to do it on most phones.

And, of course:

Let's face it, the Internet was designed for the PC. The Internet is not designed for the iPhone. That's why they've got 75,000 applications — they're all trying to make the Internet look decent on the iPhone.

Apple manufactured their own phones, of course, so it's uncertain what kind of momentum they could have with other manufacturers. Operators would soon show what kind of momentum Apple had with them, however, to the tune of billions of dollars of upfront payments. As to capacitive vs. resistive screens, Microsoft's Windows Mobile couldn't yet support them, so he was playing the hand he himself had so poorly dealt. However, the market apparently understood the difference between cost and value. They also understood the value of apps that fed off of the internet. Deeply.

RIM (now BlackBerry)'s Storm hadn't fared well for Verizon, and Mike Lazaridis was contrite about it. Sort of.

We're finding — if you look at the surveys, you can see that large amount of the customers that have purchased touchscreen devices in last two years, they intend to get a device with the QWERTY keyboard on it now, right. I mean, they've got into a point where they've realize that a touchscreen alone is not enough; so that's important.

That's our first touch product, and you know nobody gets it perfect out the door. You know other companies were having problems with their first releases.

Unfortunately, Apple did. They nailed the touchscreen, and the multitouch experience, out of the gate. The physical keyboard market never recovered, and BlackBerry took far too long to understand that sea change.

Google's Eric Schmidt, meanwhile, was forced to resign from Apple's board of directors. Steve Jobs, likely through tightly clenched teeth, said via Apple:

Eric has been an excellent Board member for Apple, investing his valuable time, talent, passion and wisdom to help make Apple successful. Unfortunately, as Google enters more of Apple's core businesses, with Android and now Chrome OS, Eric's effectiveness as an Apple Board member will be significantly diminished, since he will have to recuse himself from even larger portions of our meetings due to potential conflicts of interest. Therefore, we have mutually decided that now is the right time for Eric to resign his position on Apple's Board.

Behind the scenes, Jobs was far less cordial:

We did not enter the search business, Jobs said. They entered the phone business. Make no mistake they want to kill the iPhone. We won't let them, he says. Someone else asks something on a different topic, but there's no getting Jobs off this rant. I want to go back to that other question first and say one more thing, he says. This don't be evil mantra: "It's bullshit." Audience roars.

Unfortunately, Verizon, still lacking the iPhone, hurting from the Storm's failure in the market, and spurning the Palm Pre, went all in on Android. Licensed from Lucasfilm by Verizon itself, Droid was a new line of Android phones that finally made the world stand up and take notice. Their marketing campaign, filled with quasi-pornographic metaphors, was aimed squarely at young men and squarely against the iPhone, highlighting numerous features that Android had, and the iPhone at that time lacked. While Android was just as immature in its own way, and Google hadn't yet gotten serious about user experience — they'd do that later, ironically, by luring Matias Duarte away from Palm — it began Android's ascension to the top of the market.

Three years later

By June of 2010 the iPhone 3G was being cleared out, the iPhone 3GS had outsold all previous iPhones combined, and what's more, it had been joined by another iOS device — the iPad. Yet the hardware was ripe for innovation, and we'd see it sooner than even Apple intended...

More on the history of the iPhone

Have something to say about this story? Leave a comment! Need help with something else? Ask in our forums!

Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

More Posts



← Previously

How to use parental controls on iPhone and iPad: The ultimate guide

Next up →

Best iPhoneography of the week

Reader comments

History of iPhone 3GS: Faster and more powerful


I got the 3GS the day it came out. I'm still using it to this day. I'm fortunate enough to not have any battery issues, not one scratch on the screen and the oleophobic coating is still there. Finally with ios 7 it's not getting all the new goods, but considering it's age... I'm voting this as the best iPhone ever released.

Great read. Sold my 4s last year after having money probs, bought an old 3GS for the "mean time". But heck iv had it almost year now and its still perfectly adequate. Runs ios6 & the latest apps. overall navigation is still smooth & battery life is fine too. Props to apple & developers for still supporting it till now. Will upgrade to the 5s when it comes around but the 3GS has served me very well indeed :)

Yep, 3GS white! My first iPhone!

Reasons: 1) nasty recession, 2) Rogers was the only provider. I hated them both!

Imagine how painful it was looking at others carrying their iPhones. :(

Finally ... got a good $$ job and Telus started selling them too. Didn't waste a second ... LOL

After white 3GS locked, 4 black, 4S white, 5 black... all 3 UNLOCKED! Can't wait to grab 5S now! LOL

Thanks Rene again! Fun to read these articles. :)

This was my first iPhone- and first smartphone. I might as well call it my first phone, since I don't count the Nokia I had before it anyway.

As a teenager at the time, the iPhone 3GS was the first one I'd really used–as opposed to the Nokia which I only kept for emergency calls.

I loved the 3GS and I would've been using it until I got a 5 (or my current 5s) had I not been forced to sell it due to money constraints.