iPhone 3GS review: it's the same as last year. There. Done.

What? That's what everyone's saying, isn't it? With the iPhone 3GS, Apple didn't give the fashionistas their glowing status fix, didn't once again jump high enough over the bar they themselves set way back in ought seven... The iPhone 3GS is increment

Maybe there's a point to the technorati's collective malaise of mobile-dernity. We've already done our iPhone 3.0 Software Walkthrough, so now it's time for TiPb to weigh in the hardware, and on whether or not it deserves the 2,1 designation Apple is seemingly so keen to slap on it.

Outs and Ins. Or, Don't Judge an iPhone by its Casing

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The original iPhone 2G (1,1) established the iconic "black slab" look that still dominates a large portion of the smartphone landscape. iPhone 3G (1,2) replaced the composite metal and plastic backing with a full, un-blendable plastic that curved more to make it feel like less.

The iPhone 3GS (2,2) is almost identical in form factor -- screen, bezel, and casing -- to last year's model. The lettering on the back is as shiny as the Apple brand this time, and according to the tech specs, the new model ever so slightly outweighs the old, but not in any way that really matters.

This is nothing new with Apple, of course. Typically a year of revolutionary design, like the aluminum iMac or G5 tower, are followed by a few years of internal evolution. A few missteps like the "fatty" nano aside, the iPod has followed a similar path.

This may be tragic for those who view handsets and fashion items and want everyone to see they have the latest and greatest, it comes as a blessing to accessory owners and accessory makers alike. Why so? Because unlike the shift from iPhone 2G, this time the accessories you bought last year for the iPhone 3G will, in all likelihood, work again this year for the iPhone 3GS.

Everyone saves money, and the economy thanks us.

Oleophobia

Remember when I said "almost identical". Here's the biggest reason for that caveat: the new iPhone's screen is "oleophobic". This means that, while it doesn't keep your iPhone from getting smudged, its coating repels oils making it much easier to wipe clean. Much.

After waiting in line at the Apple Store on launch day, eager to get my greasy, Tim Horton's breakfast-biscuit'ed hands on one, I liberally transferred as much smearing as possible to the screen and then went to wipe and -- presto! -- a very impressive amount of clarity was restored.

While not a feature anyone was really expecting, and certainly not the most glamorous bullet point of the bunch, it's none-the-less my dark horse pick for feature many people will grow to really appreciate. (Especially the more grease handed ones).

New Guts are Glorious

In stark contrast to the lack of visible changes for the iPhone 3GS, Apple has given it the internals the equivalent of complete makeover. The "S", as we were told, stands for "speed".

First and foremost the iPhone 3GS not only boasts a faster processor (now clocked at 600mhz rather than the previous 412), but a new processor architecture from ARM called the Cortex A8. I forget who said it, but the analogy of going from a 486 to a Pentium isn't far off.

Further upping the ante is the new Power VR SGX GPU with support for OpenGL ES 2.0. Sticking with our previous metaphor, Apple just put a better graphics card in your PC -- Crysis will look slicker. Hopefully OpenCL (where GPUs can function as CPUs) will one day mean everything will look -- and work -- slicker as well.

Topping it off is a reported doubling of the RAM from the previous generations' skimpy 128MB to beefy 256MB. This explains itself. Take your PC from 1GB to 2GB and see what happens.

Oh, and the the upper level storage now available? 32GB.

Even the cell networking got a boost, going from 3G to 3.5G/HSPA 7.2. Most users, unfortunately, don't have those networks in place yet -- or won't see any huge real-world difference even if they do.

Losing out on this year's game of speed-bump musical chairs, however, is the Wi-Fi radio, which stays at the old 802.11g/b protocol rather than the current, much faster and farther reaching, 208.11n. While justifying the investment Apple made in dual-band routers back in March of this year, it does sort of stick out.

Overall, however -- and despite the allure of video (which we'll get to in a bit) -- this is the key upgrade offered by the iPhone 3GS. It's fast...

Screaming Fast

So what if it's got better hardware inside. What does that mean to me? In two words: less waiting. Less waiting for apps to launch, web pages to render or re-render, lists to populate or scroll, less lag, less lock-up, less of a dozen little things that take a dozen seconds and add up to a noticeably better, smoother, and more stable experience throughout the day.

Apple, for their part, claims on average the iPhone 3GS performs twice as fast the iPhone 3G. That may not sound like much, but imagine your car suddenly accelerated from 0-60 twice as fast. Imagine your laptop suddenly doubled its productive speed. It's not something you think you need, but if you ever go back to the slower model, it's something you immediately miss.

Speed matters.

Video Kills, Still Camera Now a Star

Not only does the iPhone 3GS answer the long-standing complaint about the camera on the iPhone 2G and iPhone 3G by raising the megapixel count to 3 (better, if only just), but it adds auto-focus, macro mode, and VGA-quality video recording to the mix.

Photo Realism

Aside from the 3 megapixels being the barest boost possible, auto-focus and macro are very welcome features. The star of the show, however, is once again Apple's ability to make them really easy to use. Since this is a hardware, not software review, I really shouldn't mention the "tap to focus", no matter how user-empowering it is. Nor the auto-white balancing and all the other software-side mojo Apple has going on here. That they blend hardware capabilities with software features so seamlessly will make it hard to keep this review on the straight and narrow. Fair warning on that.

All in all, the quality of the pictures the iPhone 3GS can take are much improved, as is the range of conditions under which hey can be taken in. It's not a DSLR, not even a high-end consumer camera killer by any stretch of the imagination, but it's already killed the need for a separate point and shoot for many (based on Flickr usage stats alone) and this new, improved version just means those pointedly shot pictures are going to look a whole lot better from now on.

Here's a few samples, including the Apple Store in Montreal and one from Jeremy of downtown Chicago.

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Video on the Go

Video being VGA-quality is a bit of a downer, especially considering the chipset seems capable of 720p, and the bar has pretty much been set there by the likes of the Flip Mino HD. Also, like many low-end point and shoots, you can't change focus once you start recording. Those limitations not withstanding, iPhone 3GS is about to do for video what it's previous generations did for stills.

The single most compelling thing about the new video functionality is that it will always be there with you. RED ONE may shoot heaven the way the angels see it, but you're not lugging that beastie around with you all day, every day.

I mentioned above how the iPhone is the most popular camera on Flickr. I'm betting iPhone 3GS will become one of the most popular cameras on YouTube as well. Again, not to stray too far into software, but the ability to shoot video with a device you have with you all the time, easily trim it, and send it straight to YouTube (or MobileMe) is a killer app.

Unfortunately, we're more likely to see 11 billion more "cat falling off piano" videos than UFO footage, Big-foot proof, or an LED flash being developer for the fourth generation iPhone...

Its Master's Voice Control

Is Voice Control really a hardware feature? Apple didn't deign to render it unto the iPhone 3G, so it could well require the horsepower and the same differences in the 3.5mm headphone jack that prevented the remote control from working in older iPhones and iPods. Either way, Voice Control is clearly one of the differentiators being offered on the iPhone 3GS, so we'll take a quick look.

Now, Voice Control is certainly nothing revolutionary. Feature phones have been doing it for a decade. The iPhone 3GS version looks great, of course, and sports a heroic number of language options. That Voice Control itself is not voice controllable -- I can't put on my Scotty accent and simply say "Computer!" -- is disappointing if understandable, but not even a Google Voice Search-style accelerometer and proximity sensor triggered activation scheme?

Holding down the home button and waiting for the tone, it's hard to argue with those who call it gimmicky at this point, but it's equally hard not to be tantalized by the possible future it suggests. If "call" and "play" are options today, why not "email Dieter", "browse tipb.com", "take photo", "launch application Twitter", "take voice memo" or any of a dozen other commands tomorrow?

Also, Voice Control can be launched from within other apps. You can be browsing, playing a game, working on a note, and launch Voice Control, tell it to "play music" and continue working without having to exit your current app, go to Phone or iPod, and come back.

It's still not background multitasking, but it's interesting.

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Accessibility

Connected to Voice Control and worth noting both as a software feature and exclusive to iPhone 3GS are accessibility options including VoiceOver, Zoom, White on Black, Mono Audio, and Speak Auto-text. We'll look at these more in a future post.

All-in Compass

Adding to the iPhone 3GS' location-based services is a digital compass that promises to help us more quickly discover not only where we are, but which way we're going. There's an app for that, of course -- a stand alone wooden-and-brass chromed single-tasker that's fairly meh-worthy. Integration into the Maps app shows more promise, a second tap of the "find my location" button now giving projection of your direction.

It does open up future possibilities for Google street-view to leverage the compass, the way it has on Android since launch. Other applications as well, including the oft talked about "augmented reality" views where data is superimposed on top of live images (rates on hotel rooms, movie times on theaters, etc.) I'm not sold on the relative advantages of that paradigm yet, but I'd happily take being proven wrong.

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Conclusion

I've said it before and I'll say it again: 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.

But I'm not a typical iPhone user, I'm an enthusiast and you may be as well, in which case -- speed and video! If your usage falls more towards the casual, if you just want a phone and an iPod and some nifty apps, then is the iPhone 3GS for you?

If you don't have an iPhone yet, now is a great time to get in. Subsidized prices for the iPhone 3GS are low ($199/$299 in the US on a 2 year AT&T contract), and you won't find a more user friendly and integrated (iTunes ecosystem) device in the mobile computing space.

If you currently have an iPhone 2G and you qualify for subsidy pricing, it's also a no-brainer. Unless you don't have 3G coverage in your area, don't care about GPS or low-res pictures, and want to ride the original until it breaks down, the iPhone 3GS should be on your shopping list.

If you have an iPhone 3G... well, here's where it gets tricky, especially if you have to pay your carrier a hefty upgrade fee. How much, if at all, does lag bother you? How badly do you want to take better quality pictures and video? If speed and the new camera are worth more to you than the upgrade price (and check with your carrier to see what exactly that will be), then go get it. If not, then the iPhone 3.0 software will give you very nice upgrade all on its own anyway.

And as to the big question posed in the beginning -- is the iPhone 3GS worthy of the 2,1 designation? Is it a big enough leap forward?

More of a step then a jump, but a good one and in the right direction. 2,1 is in keeping with how Apple classifies new processors in its Mac line, and it's fair enough here as well.

As much as I would have loved a 480x800 OLED display, a 5 megapixel camera, 802.11n, and -- yes -- a glowing Apple logo, iPhone 3GS delivered where it mattered most and did it without completely shattering the huge advantage of platform compatibility.