The iPhone 3GS: My Impressions

Media Credit: Apple

I’m still proudly holding on to my original iPhone, but fortunately I’ve had the opportunity to have some extended hands-on time with the new iPhone 3GS. My usage of has formed some definite thoughts and opinions. The new model boasts a lot of new features and incremental improvements, and I’ll go in depth into them all. Here we go…

The body of the 3GS is, well, the same as that of the 3G. This firmly plants the phone in the ‘evolutionary’ and not revolutionary camp, and it means that people on the street won’t immediately know that you have the hottest new phone out there. But, it does have a few advantages. The huge variety of cases, docks, and accessories that are available for the 3G will all work with the 3GS, including external batteries and charging solutions. So, if you invested in that bulletproof case or Morphie juice pack, those items will still work.

The ‘S’ in 3GS stands for “speed”, and that speed takes several forms. One of these is network speed, as the phone now faster cellular radio. However, this provides no actual real-world benefit because AT&T doesn’t have their faster 3G network up and running yet, and won’t for months or years.

More practically, speed also refers to a faster processor and graphics chip within the phone. In my experience, the phone is definitely a little snappier. Having used the original iPhone for so long, I’m used to having to pause in certain places in the OS, and it’s refreshing when on the 3G things instead come right up. That said, the performance improvement is more slight than significant – you won’t notice a dramatic difference, especially since the previous iPhones weren’t terribly slow to begin with.

The faster processor and especially the new graphics capabilities will have a much greater impact when it comes to 3rd party applications. Developers should now be able to create games that are more graphically powerful and rich than before. The benefit that comes from this will entirely depend on the development community. We’ll have to see if app makers will want willing to push the hardware to its limits, because it will mean their games have a smaller audience since they won’t run on the older, slower hardware of the iPhone 2G and 3G. People have been questioning whether the iPhone could become a gaming platform on par with the Sony PSP or Nintendo DS. It definitely doesn’t have the controls or layout of those devices, but now it does have the horsepower.

I think that the 3GS feature with the most appeal is video capture. The 3GS has a new camera – it’s bumped up to 3 mega pixels, has autofocus, and records VGA video. The new camera definitely takes better shots, especially those in less than ideal light (I’m not saying they’re great – just that they’re better).

The autofocus works by touching the screen where you want to focus. It’s an easy concept, and really cool the first couple of times. However, in practice, I find it a little annoying to try and hold the camera, frame the shot, tap where I want to focus, and tap the shutter button all at the same time. Maybe it’s just me and my clumsy fingers, but it pretty much prevents me from taking shots quickly, which is often what I need to do when taking cellphone snaps.

As far as the video capture goes – it’s not bad. It certainly isn’t as good as a camcorder or even a pocket camera, but the video is relatively clear and fluid. I wouldn’t watch it on an HDTV, but it’s fine for a computer screen, and more than good enough for YouTube. Audio quality isn’t great, but not it’s bad either, and it will be fine as long as the environment isn’t too noisy.

The old photographer’s adage is ‘the best camera you own is the one you actually have with you,’ and this definitely applies to video as well. Just as iPhone suddenly got everybody taking cell phone pictures, I think that the 3GS will get everybody to start shooting cell phone video. I don’t want to spend too many words pondering the implications of a society where everyone is walking around with capable video cameras in their pockets – but boy, they’re huge.

The 3GS also has basic video editing capabilities, giving you the ability to trim down the clip on the iPhone to just the parts you want. It’s simple and easy, but I found it hard to be precise and get the clip exactly where I want it. It’s always easier and better to do this kind of video editing and manipulation on a computer anyway, but if you are just going to upload the clip to YouTube straight from the phone, it’s better than nothing. One thing to note: currently the editing is not non-destructive, meaning that any changes you make are permanent and the cut video is lost. Supposedly, iPhone software 3.1, which should be coming relatively soon, will fix this and make it so that any changes create a new video file and keep the original intact.

The 3GS has a built-in compass and a new compass application. The application is simple enough, but I doubt many will use it often. The compass is more useful in the maps app, since it can now know which direction you’re facing and orient the map accordingly. However, whether the compass will have much real benefit for users again depends on 3rd party developers, who are coming up with some really cool implementations using the compass. Most notable among these is a type of mobile application called “augmented reality.” These let you pan around the world using the camera on your mobile phone, and based on GPS and the compass will give you information about the buildings, businesses, and things around you. To see what I mean, check out an application called Layar, currently only available for Android OS phones. These apps have the potential to be truly transformative, so watch this space.

There’s voice command on the 3GS, which can be accessed by pressing and holding the home button. An attractive interface pops up, and the possible commands come floating by to remind you what you can do. I found that the voice recognition fairly accurate when it came to placing calls, which is important (otherwise, you might wind up calling someone you don’t want to speak to!). However, I found that trying to get the phone to recognize song or artist names was a hilarious failure, and the phone almost never got one right. Hopefully, Apple can improve their voice recognition with software updates. I can see voice command being useful to those with impaired vision, or people placing calls from the car, but beyond these limited situations I don’t think many people will really need or use this feature.

The battery on the 3GS is bigger than that of the 3G, but it’s balanced out by the 3GS’s faster components, resulting in very similar battery life. This means just about a day with light usage, and ¾ of a day with heavy usage. Whether you consider that good is up to you, but I’m a little disappointed. I need my phone to get me through the whole day, even if I’m using it constantly. I’m aware that more powerful components and 3G radios eat up juice, but I find it a little sad that the iPhone that has the best battery life is still the original model, and that the 5 year old $50 Nokia in my drawer as a backup has a longer battery life still (it can go for days between charges).

This post only covered the hardware updates to the iPhone 3GS over previous models. There are a lot of new features included with the software update, iPhone OS 3.0, that are now available for all the iPhone models and iPod Touch models. I will cover these in a later post.

All in all, the iPhone 3GS is a nice upgrade, but unless video capture or a compass are really important to you, it’s not a must have. Apple really wasn’t in a position where they could change a whole lot – the UI, software, and screen size could not change without breaking backwards compatibility and alienating all of their partners and outside developers.

I think they’ve added just enough to keep people buzzing and upgrading. If you’re a first time iPhone buyer, I would definitely buy the 3GS over the now discounted 3G – all the new features seem to be worth the $99 dollars, and you’re helping to future-proof yourself. If you’re already an iPhone user, I’m not sure there’s enough new value here to warrant buying a new phone and signing on for another 2 years with AT&T.

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