Apple iPhone 3GS (AT&T)


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If you like apps or the Internet, go buy the iPhone 3GS right now. The new model's improved processor and graphics chipset significantly boost the speed of everything from Web browsing to games, cementing the iPhone's role as the nation's most flexible handheld computer. No, it still isn't the world's best phone. But that's never been the true goal of the iPhone line: Apple is devoted to bringing handheld computing to the masses. And it's succeeding brilliantly, remaining one of our 10 best touch-screen cell phones.






In case you've been hiding in a cave since 2006, the iPhone is a combination video iPod, GPS, and pocket computer with an AT&T phone tacked on, almost as an afterthought. You interact with it using a touch screen, and its easy interface has been the standard on smart devices for years. Check out my review of last year's iPhone 3G, version 3.0 of the iPhone operating system, or our "All About the iPhone 3G" page for some good background on the smartphone that's become a cultural icon.
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The phone's body is the same slab as ever (it's available in either black or white), with one important change: an invisible "oleophobic" screen coating that repels grease and fingerprints, making watching videos on the phone much more enjoyable. The 320-by-480-pixel screen is slightly brighter, with a little more shadow detail. The iPhone 3GS also has increased storage capacities (and prices) compared to the $99 8GB 3G: A 16GB model costs $199, and a 32GB one $299. Otherwise, it may appear there aren't many differences between the 3GS and the 3G—but appearances can be deceiving.

Player TypeFlash MP3 PlayerService ProviderAT&TOperating SystemiPhone OSScreen Size3.5 inchesScreen Details320-by-480, 16.7M-color TFT LCD capacitive touch screenCameraYesNetworkGSMBands850, 900, 1800High-Speed DataHSDPAStorage Capacity (as Tested)16 GB More

Apple has made it clear this phone is faster than the 3G, but not really how much faster, or what that means. According to various independent analyses (because Apple isn't saying), the 3GS is only the second phone (along with the Palm Pre) to use an ARM Cortex-A8 processor, a significant architectural step beyond the ARM11 used in the iPhone 3G and most other high-end smartphones. The graphics chip has been similarly boosted.
The results are very impressive. Boot time has dropped from 47 seconds with the original 3G to 20. Launching the New York Times app takes 8 seconds—it used to take 22. Google Earth's start time has dropped from 24 seconds to 15. Opening the weather app needs only 1 second, down from 4. Action games such as Need for Speed Underground feel easier to play, with no stuttering and much smoother controls. The whole iPhone experience is more seamless.
The Internet seems much faster as well. The iPhone 3G (and most other smartphones) always appeared to access the Net slower than AT&T's network would allow, because of processing limitations. The faster processor and additional memory in the 3GS raise apparent network speeds in Safari from 550 Kbps to 900 Kbps—as big a jump as AT&T's promised 7.2 network upgrade will deliver next year. Web pages also render much more quickly: The time needed to access over an 802.11g Wi-Fi connection dropped from 15 seconds to 9, and over Wi-Fi dropped from 36 seconds to 25. Raw Internet speeds measured by a native speed-testing app were also much faster: an average of 1,454 Kbps down on AT&T's 3G network as opposed to 1,002 Kbps with the 3G model.
Just as exciting as this speed boost is where software developers will be able to take this new hardware. Apps tend to expand to consume available power, and iPhone developers (especially game developers) had hit the 3G's limits. The 3GS clearly opens up new vistas.
More power doesn't mean shorter battery life. The 3GS managed 11 hours and 30 minutes of video playback time, which is a major jump over the 7 hours and 53 minutes we saw with the 3G. Talk time was more on par: 5 hours and 27 minutes, compared to the 3G's 5 hours and 43 minutes. With continuous 3G data streaming, I got 5 hours and 4 minutes with the 3GS; the 3G did 4 hours and 45 minutes. In day-to-day use, I expect the 3GS to have about the same battery life as the original iPhone—one to two days. But if you're upgrading, the 3GS may feel like it has more battery life simply because a new phone's battery is fresher than the one in an older phone.
The new phone's other major feature, its improved camera, is a mixed bag. The video camera mode can be excellent, as long as you're outdoors in decent light. In that case, you get 640-by-480 video at a smooth 30 frames per second (fps); sure, it washes out bright areas, but it's the best I've seen on a U.S. camera phone, and it's definitely good enough to include in your iMovie projects. Using the camcorder indoors lowers the frame rate to 15-24 fps; in a worst-case low-light situation, you get dizzy, jerky, vertiginous recordings. The camcorder smartly uses the accelerometer to ensure that both portrait-mode and landscape-mode video are right side up, so you don't end up with videos rotated 90 degrees. You can do very simple video trimming on the phone itself, and post your videos to MobileMe or YouTube.
Still-camera performance is less groundbreaking. Yes, the new camera is 3.2 megapixels and quick, with almost no shutter delay. But it's a somewhat fuzzy 3.2 megapixels, taking rather dim indoor shots and severely washing out bright areas outdoors. The "tap to focus" feature also alters the exposure based on what you're focusing on, which helps bring out some shadow detail on dark objects. The 3GS camera is still way behind dedicated digital cameras or camera-focused phones like the Motorola MotoZINE ZN5 in quality.
The 3GS also has a compass, and I can't say much about it except that it works. If you need a compass, you'll probably be very happy. The compass also adds some minor enhancements to the map application; for example, double tap "find me" in a map to reorient the map so it's facing the right direction. Presumably third-party app developers will use the compass to develop useful new navigation apps. Turn-by-turn direction applications, enabled by the compass and built-in GPS, have already started to appear in the App Store.
The iPhone is still a stellar music and video iPod, with one major advantage over the older 3G model: Stereo Bluetooth works much better. Music played over Altec Lansing BackBeat 903 Bluetooth stereo headphones had much less distortion than on the iPhone 3G. Otherwise, iPod performance was very similar: clear music, sharp video, and lousy included earbuds (although this year's model has a volume control on them). —next:The 3GS's Downsides