iPhone 3GS Review

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.

  • TiPb Video: White 32GB IPhone 3GS Unboxing and Quick Look


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.

  • TiPb Video: iPhone 3GS vs. iPhone 3G Browser Speed Smackdown
  • TiPb Video: iPhone 3GS vs. iPhone 3G App Launch Battle Royal!

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.



Jeremy iPhone 3GS Photo 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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  • TiPb Video: iPhone 3GS Multilingual Voice Control Challenge


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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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.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • It's nice. But I can't get motivated for the few extra features.
  • Question guys...
    What do you think is the best Picture program that will upload to Flickr?
  • Great post i liked it !! Planing on buying my iphone 3G S this week im selling my 3G wht 16GB for $ 300 , and still need 200 + tax for the 3G S 32 GB , nice huh ?
  • Being a heavy iPhone user myself, I agree with this review. If you are a casual user, I'd wait till next year. But, I really needed the added speed. While the iPhone 3G S isn't ground-breaking, it does really help to "speed" up your day. The added speed isn't slight, either. Some web pages open up over 20 seconds faster than on the 3G. The video recorder is also a nice touch and it actually produces really high quality video. So everyone who has been complaining non-stop about how Apple let them down, calm down and just wait till next year. No one wants to hear your whining. How many companies "revolutionize" a phone every single year? So far, I have yet to be let down by the iPhone 3G S. I hope everyone else is enjoying the 3G S as much as I am.
  • Speed is good. I'll ride out the 2g for a lil bit longer and then pick up 32gb
  • Oh yeah, the internet tethering is clutch too.
  • @iPhoneMilk - I like 'Flickit' myself for uploading to Flickr.
  • nice post, BUT:
    of course it has continuous AF in video. there are many examples of this on youtube, where people even go from infinite focus into macro distance while recording.
    ps: i would be interested in a short review about the difference of bitrate and filesize between the original .mov file on the phone, and the highly compressed version that is uploaded to youtube when doing a direct upload from the phone. how big is the visible difference in quality between those? some samples of original vs youtube-compressed would be nice :)
  • iPhoneMilk:
    i was wondering the same thing... i might try out "Mobile Fotos". it looks to have the most features.
  • Video resolution what is vga? 640x480 everyone says it is good but i don't see any dimensions listed anywhere.
  • I upped from the 2G to the 3GS on Friday and glad I did. Using the EDGE network can be painfully slow so that was my main reason to get it now rather than wait. The faster internals are a welcome upgrade too. Though I loved the 2G and never really had a problem with the speed until lately when some apps seemed sluggish when opening, with the new processor it's so fast to open apps and move between functions.
    In addition to having the new phone, I have an iPod Touch to play with as well...another bonus.
  • With the added bump in speed for rendering or just loading web pages I am more likely to use the Internet more often during short down periods. I'll even be more likely to load up a graphic intensive game during these times. And I am loving the fact that I now always have a video camera with me at all times. For me this has been a huge jump as I have upgraded from the 1st gen phone.
  • I upgraded from an iPhone 3G to the 3GS and honestly.. it feels like a totally different phone.. I find myself wanting to use it more and more.. its speed is so SEXY! The video recording is rediculous I was recording in Medival times in low light situations and it was wonderful..
  • So We cant say S.E.X.Y?
  • I love my 3gs. The touch screen feels so much more responsive then the 3g.
  • I'm going to agree with Kayno.. I also upgraded from the 3G to the 3GS and I couldn't be happier.. things I thought were running fine, were running very slowly now when looking back.. example: Baseball 09(fun little game) now goes very very quickly through the simulation process.. and the pitches are delivered without an ounce of lag.. overall, it makes almost every application, and every game, faster/better.
  • Has anyone noticed that the screen is more vibrant on the 3GS? and I'm not talking about upping the brightness, it just seems that everything is sharper.
  • I'm downloading Mobile Fotos right now because it looks like it will upload the FULL resolution!
  • any one here with a 3G S find any differences in the speakers from the 3G??? I find the 3G speakers very quiet when on speaker phone.
  • 3G to 3GS.. no brainer. There is a HUGE difference. The speed alone is worth every penny.
  • Is it my imagination, or is the speaker a bit louder on the 3GS than the 3G? I like it, but I would second the motion that if you have a 3G, wait for subsidized pricing to get the 3GS, mainly because some of the nifty stuff has to wait for AT&T's network upgrade anyway.
  • I'm getting the 3GS soon (today/tomorrow) but I was using my sister's today and it's really not that big of a difference if you don't have a lot of heavy apps.. >_>
  • I'm a heavy iPhone user AND I'm waiting until next year. For one thing, the features I wanted most were mms and PNS. Both of those are solved with software (though us Americans can't take much advantage yet). As much as I would love a speed increase I know that next year there will be an even better phone so I will wait. Plus if there is a Verizon edition next year then I could jump ship out of contract. Paying $100 per month to AT&T only to not support some of the most antcipated features is a complete joke. If I had the 2G still I would absolutely upgrade to 3GS but Im extremely happy with 3G + 3.0
  • I'm thrilled that they kept the form factor and appearance -- it fits all my accessories, and I like that it doesn't advertise that it's the latest and greatest model. I don't need to be a target.
    The doubled capacity, speed, camera, and compass are reason enough to upgrade for me.
  • But I’m not a typical iPhone user, I’m an enthusiast...
    No you are a fanboy plain and simple.
  • @ Truth: if u haven't realized, this is theiphoneblog.com. again. The iPhone Blog .com
    I appreciate the editors showing some enthusiasm for the new great product even if it is not a justified upgrade for myself.
    You, on the other hand, is a troll plain and simple. Heck, even trolls get tired but not u lol
  • What's hysterical to me is that it's been made to do more as in spend more in iTunes. That's the part that is angering me. One it's about functions. Basic functions. The updates we are gettng are being made the holy Grail when people it's basic. If you can't do th things you need it doesn't matter how fast the device. Let's see first of all if you gonna help us it would be with a better mail app. Period. Don't get me wrong I love the 3g. But come on even the app approval is the b s. How man silly apps are in that 50000? Let's be real. Anything that will help functionality is not approved. Some apps need to run in the background some don't. And even if they don't think so doesn't make it right. I hate when people justify these slights with lame reasons which are really excuses. They say notifications drain batteries okay week 2. One maybe two apps. This is crazy and many of you know it. Like as if the people who made this phone never used others and know what they need. What phones did they use before the iPhone is what I want to know. Because ooohing and ahhhing over copy and paste and mms is insane.
  • My 3G is slower with 3.0. Did they do this so I would pay a higher price to upgrade to 3G S? Because it makes me want to upgrade, and not stick it out with a device that does an acceptable job, but which has been downgraded in speed (and battery life as well) and overall quality. Grrrrrrrrr...
  • @Desmond
    Maybe the app approval system is not the best, but plz do show me an existing system that is so fabulous to u. Maybe u r referring to RIM's system? $200 for 10 submissions INCLUDING updates?
    "Anything that will help functionality is not approved" ... quit QQ cause that statement is plain silly. tethering is approved, couple office suites, few navigation apps, BeeJiv 3.0 w/ Push, ... and the list goes on and on.
    Next time u wanna bash something, plz use it or try it (at least) first, and then build arguments, not cries.
  • I am a heavy iphone user but i will wait until next year. if the rumors of apple talking to verizon are true i will leave AT&T to join verizon just cause ther network coverage is better. My contract is over in august of next year anyhow so that works for me.
  • I was happy with my 2g. Last year when they
    came out with 3g I couldn't justify the upgrade
    for a gps unit. We have no 3g service where I live.
    This year when 3gs came out it was a no brainer!
    Cut, copy,paste,video,3.0 camera. I got the 3gs
    32gb cheaper than I bought my 2g 8 gb.
  • Truth Apparently Does NOT know what the definition of Fanboy is.
  • I was very apathetic about buying the newer 3GS and wasn't planning on buying it. I listed my 3G on Craigslist for $350 and someone offered to pay $375. Surprisingly, the guy didn't flake on me and bought my 3G. This justified my purchase of the 3GS.
    Now, I must admit that, all the other features aside, I think that Rene is right and I think that the speed alone is worth the upgrade. Apps just open and pages load faster and there is no keyboard lag when typing (that's really BIG for me). Voice control is cool too!
    Either way, people should be fine with their 3G too. But if you can, sell your old iPhone online and get the new one. It'll be worth it.
  • http://www.samsung.com/global/business/semiconductor/support/brochures/d...brochure200902.pdf
    I believe this is the processor that operates in the new iphone 3gs. Samsung says that this processor can work on 833mhz and its able to capture 720p videos on 30fps. Its all turned off in the 3gs, why is that? Maybe they are holding it back for next year next generation iphone or for an upcoming software update? How knows...
  • Whoops, broken link, heres the right oen:
  • Noop , they didn't want to hold it back. The main problem about speed is it consumes much batteries. I think apple decided to underclocked because of this.
  • I'm typing on my new 3gs and the difference between the original iPhone is amazing.
    I didn't mind the speed of the apps loading the original iPhone until I experienced the difference.
    Also the Internet speed is amazingly fast compared to the 2g iPhone. Page loads faster and it's fast enough to stream pornos on those adult website.
    Now if I can use it to stream live tv sports program and use a tv out, then I really have everyhing I need in terms of mobile functionality.
  • Still love my original iPhone and still have not decided if I want or need the 3Gs. The main thing that puts me off is the plastic back of the 3G and 3Gs. I have dropped my iPhone 2x on a concrete floor and it created a minor dent in each corner. I hate to think what would have happened had it been one of the other iPhones. I would like the extra space but I rarely use the cell network for web browsing and am usually near a wireless network that I can connect to. The speed of the device does not seem that bad to me either.
    I just have to keep telling myself that the original one is good enough so I don't want to upgrade.
  • Great review an d I totally agree!
    I have one question though:
    Does the 3Gs have one speaker on the bottom left side (like the 3G), or does it have 2 (one on each side at the bottom)?
    I wonder since mine seems to have one, but my wife's has sound from both sides. No matter how much I surf the web, I can't seem to find an answer to this, so any help is more than welcome! :)
  • a lot of people are saying if you are a casual user, wait till next year. why? whats coming next year. is a whole new iteration of the iphone envisaged?
    I've not leapt on the iphone bandwagon yet. I held off till things matured. if I go 3Gs now, seems good enough to me unless there is something huge looming on the horizon.
  • i am a iPhone crack head so i am going to upgrade from my 3g as soon as i get the money i use my iPhone on average 8 hours a day seriously.
  • just upgraded on monday, from 3G to 3GS, and I love it!!!!
    the speed improvement is a major major difference, launching apps is so much faster now. and even every little thing like switching from portrait to landscape typing happens faster.
    on top of that i went from 8GB to 32GB and oh man is that a gigantic difference.
  • I just got my new iPhone 3GS from www.goadavntix.com the other day in the mail - it was unlocked and everything - only costs me $599 with free shipping (at least cause I live in the United States). They ship worldwide though. Took PayPal so it was secure. I dunno seemed like a good price to me for a no contract and unlocked iPhone 3GS...
  • I have the same question that Vincent has. What's coming next year w/ the iphone? Will there be considerable improvements? Would I regret buying the 3gs now, when next summer rolls around?
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  • I appreciate you sharing this article.Much thanks again. Great.
  • Ooh ooh this is too gorgeous for words! Really fantastic color and processing!