Review: iPhone 3GS: Still at the top of its game

Jason Snell
23 June, 2009
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In slightly less than two years, Apple’s iPhone has transformed how the world thinks of mobile phones. Phone companies and hardware-makers alike have rushed to ape the iPhone’s touchscreen interface, easy access to the Internet, and bustling App Store. The iPhone is no longer the mind-blowing, category-busting product it was in the summer of 2007. Our minds have been blown, the category was busted, and now competitors such as Palm, Google, Nokia, and Research in Motion are fighting back.

In the face of the stepped-up competition, it’s possible to consider Apple’s new iPhone 3GS a minor step forward for Apple. After all, it looks almost identical to its predecessor, which itself offered very few changes from the original iPhone model. But with the iPhone 3GS, combined with the iPhone OS 3.0 Software Update, Apple has addressed all of its product’s key weaknesses while adding several important new strengths.

Yes, the competition is much closer to Apple now than it was two years ago. But the iPhone 3GS makes it clear: Apple is still leading the pack, in most cases by a wide margin.

The S is for “same”. Externally, Apple hasn’t messed with success—the iPhone 3GS is almost completely indistinguishable from the original iPhone 3G model, which itself was remarkably similar to the original iPhone. Front and centre is the iPhone’s signature feature: a bright, beautiful high-resolution 3.5-inch diagonal touchscreen, offering a resolution of 480-by-320 pixels. The iPhone 3GS has Apple’s usual complement of four physical buttons (Home just below the touchscreen, sleep/wake up top, a volume up/down rocker on the left side, and a ringer toggle just above the volume controls) and the same black or white plastic back shell introduced with the iPhone 3G.

If you need to know which model is which, there’s only one clear way to do so: Look at the lettering on the back of the phone. If it’s in the same silver ink as the Apple logo, it’s an iPhone 3GS. (Likewise, if 32GB appears below the word iPhone, you know it’s an iPhone 3GS—the previous model was only available in 8 GB and 16 GB editions, while this phone’s capacities have doubled to an impressive 16 GB and 32 GB, allowing users to load their phones up with even more apps, tunes, and videos.)

Beyond the colour-matched lettering, which shows a uniquely Apple-like attention to detail, the only other change to the outside of the device is the addition of an oleophobic coating to the device’s touchscreen. When Apple designed the iPhone to be controlled entirely by touch, the company has had to deal with the unpleasant reality that human beings tend to secrete oil from their pores, as well as stick their fingers in greasy foodstuffs from time to time. The iPhone 3GS’s screen coating is intended to keep fingerprints to a minimum.

I’ve never really found fingerprints to be a major problem with the iPhone, since the device’s screen has always been quite bright. But it’s undeniable that in the right lighting conditions, fingerprints can really get in the way—especially when you’re trying to watch a video.

The iPhone 3Gs’s oleophobic coating doesn’t make your fingerprints magically fade away. What it does is create an oil-repellant surface that’s easily wiped clean. When I handled an iPhone 3G and an iPhone 3GS with similarly oily hands—olive oil, if you must know, from a pizza I was making—I was rapidly able to dump my grubby prints all over both devices’ touchscreens. After I rubbed the iPhone 3GS screen onto my t-shirt’s right sleeve, it was perfectly clear. In contrast, rubbing the iPhone 3G’s screen on my t-shirt’s left sleeve seemed to leave a thin film of oily residue spread uniformly across the entire surface, rendering everything a bit hazy.

Will people buy the iPhone 3GS because it’s got an oil-repellant screen coating? Certainly not. But in adding the coating, Apple combats a weakness—albeit minor—in the design of the iPhone. Given how few changes Apple made to the iPhone’s exterior, this is clearly a company that feels great confidence in its current product designs. Instead of revamping the phone’s look and feel, the company’s designers are instead focused on the little things, like making it easy to wipe off greasy fingerprints.

That said, I have to point out that many iPhone users choose to protect their iPhone’s screen from hazards more noxious than oil by using some sort of screen protector. When you see those people on the street, whatever you do, don’t say the word oleophobic. It will just remind them that this is one feature they’ll have no use for.

The S is for “speed” The lack of external changes belie what’s going on underneath the iPhone 3GS’s glass and plastic exterior. The iPhone’s last upgrade added a faster cellular radio and a GPS chip, but otherwise, the iPhone 3G’s internals were largely unchanged from the original iPhone. The iPhone 3GS, on the other hand, is a major step forward in terms of the iPhone’s technological underpinnings. Its processor runs at 600 MHz, compared to previous models’ 412MHz. It’s got 256MB of RAM, compared to 128MB in previous models.

The result is an indisputably faster device, not just at some tasks, but at every task. The iPhone 3GS booted faster than any other iPhone OS-based device, and launched every app I tried in record time. Its Safari browser had the dramatically fastest JavaScript engine as measured by the SunSpider benchmark, and loaded Web pages dramatically faster as well. Every aspect of using the phone felt noticeably faster on the iPhone 3GS than on the iPhone 3G. Even actions that only took moments before now happen instantaneously.

iPhone speed tests

Boot Peggle PCalc Star Defense Sunspider Web page load
iPhone 3GS 23 10 1.9 22.4 15.7 17.2
2nd-gen. iPod Touch 25.8 12.4 2.8 26.8 30.8 32
iPhone 3G 52.9 24 4.1 35 41.4 39
1st-gen. iPod Touch 26 21.5 4.1 33 41.6 38.6
iPhone (original) 29.5 26.3 3.6 34.5 45.3 52.9

Results are in seconds. Best results in bold. Reference systems in italic.

All devices were tested running iPhone OS 3.0. Peggle, PCalc, and Star Defense were app launch times. Sunspider was the time to run the Sunspider JavaScript benchmark. Page load test was amount of time it took to load nytimes.com.—MACWORLD TESTING BY JASON SNELL

While you’ll notice how responsive the iPhone 3GS is thanks to its increased processor speed, the programmers who develop your favorite apps will appreciate the large amount of RAM. The more memory that’s available for iPhone apps, the faster and more stable they will be. Numerous iPhone developers complained about the extremely tight memory conditions in previous iPhone OS devices, which led to slowdowns and plenty of app crashes. With the iPhone 3GS, those apps have twice as much room to breathe. The result should be a faster and more stable system.

The speed doesn’t stop with app launches and fast-loading Web pages, either. The iPhone 3GS supports the new OpenGL ES 2.0 standard, meaning that a slew of iPhone game apps will be able to capitalise on advanced graphics features to create higher-quality graphics than have been seen on the iPhone up to now. But more important, the iPhone 3GS is just better when it comes to graphics. Games that featured jerky, low-frame-rate gameplay on the original iPhone and iPhone 3G—we’re looking at you, Crash Bandicoot Nitro Kart 3D—spring to life on the iPhone 3GS with high frame rates and smooth motion. The end result: old games will get new life, and the new games to come will blow away anything you’ve seen so far on the iPhone platform. Sony and Nintendo, be warned.

The last component of the iPhone 3GS’s speed is, of course, the speed of the cellular network. Here, Apple’s integrated a new cellular radio that supports the 7.2 Mbps HSDPA specification used across several Australian mobile networks. Basically, what that means is that the iPhone 3GS will support a new generation of mobile technology that will offer dramatically fast download speeds—once AT&T builds the network to support it. AT&T says it’ll start rolling out that network this fall, but it’ll be a lot longer before it’s widely available. So perhaps it’s safe to say that while your iPhone 3GS won’t seem any faster that previous models on today’s mobile networks, it’s got room to grow that the other phones simply don’t have. Now it’s up to the carriers to deliver on that promise.

The S is for “snapshots” The original iPhone included a mediocre 2-megapixel still camera. As I said in my review two years ago, “It doesn’t zoom and doesn’t work well in low light, but with still subjects in well-lit areas it produces nice results. It’s definitely more appropriate for fun shots when no other camera is around, [rather] than as a replacement for your digital camera, even if your camera is five years old.”

The iPhone 3G didn’t improve matters a whit, using the same camera as its predecessor. Quoting myself again, from last year’s iPhone 3G review: “For a product as on the cutting edge as the iPhone, its built-in camera is an embarrassment. Like the camera on the original iPhone, it’s got a basic two-megapixel resolution, doesn’t zoom, has no flash, doesn’t work well in low light, and doesn’t take videos. With still subjects in well-lit areas it produces nice results. In terms of quality, the consumer point-and-shoot digital camera I bought seven years ago still blows it away, and most of the iPhone’s smart phone competitors offer better cameras as well.”

The iPhone 3GS finally addresses perhaps the iPhone’s weakest feature, upgrading the camera to a 3-megapixel model (still not exactly earth-shattering in terms of resolution). It still won’t zoom or flash, and the low-light images it produces are better, but still not great. Still, there’s no denying that this new camera is an improvement on the original. In general I found the images from the iPhone 3GS to be clearer, with brighter colours and sharper definition.


A still photo from the iPhone 3GS camera (left) definitely shows more detail and offers better quality than a still from the iPhone 3G (right).

Aiding the iPhone 3GS camera’s output is the ability to focus, which the previous iPhone camera lacked. By default the camera auto-focuses on the scene you’re shooting, though you can tap on the touchscreen to make it focus on a particular object. If that object is in a darker or lighter area of the frame, the camera will also adjust to make sure that location is properly exposed, even if that means other areas of the frame will be blown out or left in darkness. The focus isn’t exactly quick, but it does work, and the resulting images are definitely sharper than in previous models.

The new camera also allows you to take pictures of close-up objects—a test that previous iPhone cameras utterly failed. Not only is this exciting for people who want to e-mail a shot of a newspaper or magazine page or a close-up of one of their kids’ toys, but it opens up the possibility that the iPhone 3GS can actually function as a barcode reader for the first time, now that it can snap images of barcodes with clarity. (In many countries grabbing a bar code with your mobile phone in order to get more information about a product on a billboard or in a magazine has become a somewhat common activity; personal-inventory apps such as Delicious Library could also benefit from integration with the new camera.)


This extreme close-up shows the dramatic improvement in macro shots on the iPhone 3GS’s camera (bottom) compared to the one on the iPhone 3G (top).

Then there’s the big news with this new iPhone camera: it shoots video. It’s real video, too—not high-definition, granted, but full standard-def video. To shoot video, you flip the Camera app into video mode by touching a small switch in the corner of the screen and press the big red button. Once you hear a chime and see a time code begin to count upward from zero, you’re recording video.

I compared the video the iPhone 3GS shot to the video from my point-and-shoot camera, a Canon PowerShot SD700 IS. The iPhone’s video is much softer than the PowerShot’s, making it pleasant to look at but fairly lacking in detail. However, the audio recorded by the iPhone 3GS was excellent, far better than the (frankly awful) quality of the PowerShot.


This video still shows the relatively soft iPhone 3GS picture (top) compared to video shot by a Canon Powershot point-and-shoot camera.

I asked our Christopher Breen to test the iPhone 3GS against his Flip Ultra, the popular pocket standard-definition camcorder. His results were much the same, with the iPhone 3GS’s video being much softer than the Ultra’s, with bright portions of the image easily blown out in the sunlight. In addition, the Flip Ultra proved to have much superior audio than the iPhone 3GS.


These video stills show that the Flip Ultra (bottom) offers much more detail than the iPhone 3GS (top).

Bottom line: the iPhone 3GS shoots decent, albeit somewhat soft, standard-def video. It’s great for shooting video when your iPhone’s the only device you’ve got with you. If you want better-quality video, you probably want a dedicated video camera, ideally one that can shoot in high definition.


The new photo/video interface displays videos with an icon and video length; the filtering buttons at top are only available via the Camera app.

Once you’re done shooting your video, the iPhone 3GS stores them within the (now confusingly named) Photos app. Videos appear in the same grid as still images, but with a small strip at the bottom of their thumbnail image with a small movie-camera icon and an indication of how long the clip is.

If you access your Camera Roll by tapping the small thumbnail icon in the bottom-left corner of the Camera app, you’ll see much the same thing, but this alternate view includes a toolbar that lets you display all media, just photos, or just video. (I’m not quite sure why this option is absent from the Photos app itself.)

When you tap on a video, you can choose to play the video or, via a film strip that appears at the top of the screen, trim it by dragging the beginning and end points to different locations. Once you tap the Trim button, the video is trimmed—and as far as I can tell, there’s no going back via an undo or any other means. That’s unfortunate because it means you can’t take a long video, trim a small portion for e-mailing or posting to YouTube, and then retain the longer version for later use. You should be able to undo trims or have the option to duplicate a clip so you can create multiple versions. (And—pie-in-the-sky feature request here—have the ability to attach several clips together to make one mini-movie.)

Once you’ve checked your video and trimmed it if necessary, the Photos app lets you share it with the world by e-mailing it, sending it to MobileMe, or uploading it to YouTube. Uploading was surprisingly fast and easy. And if you’re not a connoisseur of YouTube, no worries—e-mailing videos to Flickr and Vimeo worked like a charm, too.

The S is for “spoken commands” One of the biggest weaknesses of the first two iPhone models was their inability to do even basic voice dialing. With the iPhone 3GS, Apple has added voice-command functionality, but the new Voice Control feature adds not just voice dialing, but voice control of the iPod features as well.

To initiate Voice Control, you hold down the home button or the centre button on the iPhone’s new three-button headphones (the same ones used by for the latest-generation iPod touch, iPod nano, and iPod shuffle, giving iPhone users remote volume control at last) for about two seconds. You’ll hear a quick double-chime indicating that it’s your turn to speak, and you’d better speak quickly. When I remained silent, Voice Control somehow managed to tease commands out of the empty air around me, including attempting to dial random people in my phone book. (Press the button again if you want to abort your Voice Control session without saying anything.)

After the chime, you can choose from a small selection of commands. To dial a contact, just say “dial” or “call” followed by the name of the person you want to contact. If you just say the first name, Voice Control will try to figure out who you meant. When I said, “Dial Dan,” it offered me—via a pleasant yet robotic female voice (I guess my iPhone 3GS is a girl?)—all three Dans in my phone book, along with a “Pam,” as options. If you say the person’s full name, accuracy increases. If your contact has more than one phone number, Voice Control will prompt you to choose from a list of options, such as “mobile” or “home.” If you want to speed things along, say a person’s name followed by the number you which to call (“Call Sally Sparrow work.”) You can even tell Voice Control to dial a bare number, such as “Dial 867-5309.”

To control the iPhone’s iPod functions, you can choose from a slightly broader palette of commands. “Play artist Peter Gabriel” will automatically play all songs by Peter Gabriel, but by default they won’t be shuffled. If you re-engage Voice Control you can then say “shuffle,” and it’ll turn shuffling on. (I managed to uncover a bug here—once you tell Voice Control to turn on shuffling, it will engage shuffling on every subsequent voice command. I only regained the ability to play albums and playlists linearly by force-quitting the iPod application.)

You can also command that Voice Control play a particular playlist (“play playlist ‘Best of 2009’”) or album (“play album ‘Life and Times’”), trigger a Genius playlist based on the current song (“Play more songs like this,” or the less verbose command “Genius!”), and find out the name of the song (“What song is this?”). However, you can’t choose to play a particular song, nor does Voice Control appear to have any access to audiobooks or podcasts.

I like the idea of using Voice Control to control the iPod functions of my iPhone, but without the ability to toggle shuffle on and off, it’s less powerful than it should be.

In general, I found Voice Control’s accuracy to be decent, and it does pause briefly after declaring its interpretation of your command, allowing you to belay a misunderstood order, such as attempting to dial Peter Hatcher when all you wanted to do was shuffle through all your Beatles tracks. Of course, having a forceful voice and being in a relatively quiet setting help matters immensely.

Unfortunately, when it comes to Voice Control, the Phone and iPod applications are the beginning and the end of the story. No other built-in applications are supported, and it doesn’t appear that third-party applications are able to interact with Voice Control either. I’m also a little surprised that, now that Voice Control can now speak the names of people in my contacts list, Apple doesn’t offer a spoken ringtone (“Dan Moren, mobile, calling”) as an option. But with all that said, Voice Control addresses a major weakness of the iPhone platform while also promising some intriguing future uses for the technology.

The S is for “sense of direction” Current and former Cub Scouts everywhere will thrill to the addition of a compass to the iPhone 3GS, finally providing orienteers with a smartphone that can tell the difference between magnetic north and true north, at least until the earth’s magnetic poles inevitably reverse themselves.


Cub scouts will love the compass. But it will take some clever app developers to make it truly awesome.

Okay, so maybe people weren’t clamouring for Apple to throw a compass into the iPhone’s soup of features. But it does have some practical—and impractical—benefits. In the Maps application, tapping the crosshairs button once will locate your position on the map, but now a second tap will re-orient the map in the direction your iPhone is facing, eliminating the whole “hold the map upside-down so we can figure out where we are” effect. Unfortunately, the feature doesn’t work in Street View mode, which seems like a natural. Also, occasionally scrolling or zooming in the map would spin the orientation back to north-on-top. Unfortunately, re-enabling the compass feature requires tapping twice, forcing the map to zoom back in all the way, despite your best attempts to alter the map’s view. It can be a little annoying.

I found the compass to be generally accurate, though occasionally it would get confused and require me to wave it in the air to clear up the problem. Sometimes, too, the compass would be a few degrees off, though a wave would generally get it back on track.

Adding a compass to the iPhone’s accelerometer means that app developers will be able to use that extra positional data in games and even user-interface innovations. If you place an iPhone 3GS on a table and spin it around, it will know that it’s spinning and what direction it comes to rest. Beyond the cavalcade of spin-the-bottle apps that will undoubtedly appear in the store starting next week, there could be some other interesting uses for that positional data. We’ll have to see what develops, but this compass should end up being more useful than the one you keep in your toolbox for special occasions.

The S is for “software” Of course, in addition to the features that are unique to the iPhone 3GS, this phone also offers a slew of new features that are available to all iPhones and iPod touches via the iPhone OS 3.0 Software update. For details on all of those impressive new features, including copy-and-paste, broad support for landscape-keyboard mode, Spotlight search, Bluetooth A2DP support for stereo headphones (but, sadly, no support yet for external Bluetooth keyboards), Find my iPhone, voice recording, MMS, and tethering, see Dan Moren’s full review of iPhone 3.0.

Battery matters. The iPhone 3GS tech specs claim battery life of up to five hours of talk time (12 if you turn off 3G networking), five hours of Internet use (nine on Wi-Fi), 10 hours of video playback, 30 hours of audio playback, and 300 hours of standby time. Those specs are slightly better in some areas than the ones Apple claimed for the original iPhone and iPhone 3G. Apple says that it’s not so much that the iPhone 3GS battery is better than previous models—an iFixIt report suggests the battery holds only 6 percent more juice than the one in the iPhone 3G—but that the iPhone 3GS is able to use its internal hardware in a more energy-efficient manner, eking out more battery life under certain conditions.

Battery testing takes time, more time than we’ve actually had with the iPhone 3GS. While we will be running battery tests of our own, and will post the findings once we have them, we don’t have them yet. In general, the iPhone 3GS seems roughly comparable to the iPhone 3G in terms of resilience of the battery. If you spend an entire day on the go with the iPhone 3GS and are heavily using the Internet the entire time, you will drain the battery. Savvy iPhone veterans know to plug in their iPhones at home and at work, and if they spend a long time in the car, they plug in there too via an adapter. (You can get more life out of your iPhone by reducing the amount of time you use the Internet and by turning off 3G networking.)

Macworld’s buying advice. The iPhone 3GS is, without a doubt, the finest iPhone Apple has made. It addresses most of the fundamental weaknesses of the previous models, adding raw speed, voice-activated phone and music navigation, an improved autofocus camera, and video-recording features. Its larger amount of installed memory suggests that it will run existing iPhone apps not just faster, but with fewer crashes, and its improved video capabilities suggest that it will be an impressive gaming device as well.

With two major revisions in the past year, the iPhone platform has also progressed a long way. Beyond the wide variety of third-party apps, the base system has added copy-and-paste support; support for Microsoft Exchange calendars, contacts, and e-mail; built-in voice recording; and search capabilities.

If you’re upgrading from the iPhone 3G, you’ll appreciate the speed, although unless you qualify for a discount or have a friend or family member to give your iPhone 3G to, the upgrade price might make you consider waiting for what Apple’s 2010 iPhone might have to offer. Users of the original iPhone will be floored by the speed of the phone and of the 3G wireless network, though they may find the phone’s shiny plastic back a step down from the original, elegant brushed-aluminium edition. Certainly original iPhone owners will be able to take advantage of the lowest prices available for the iPhone 3GS, making the device that much more appealing.

If you’ve never had an iPhone before, but are considering the purchase of a smartphone for the first time, you will not find a better Internet-connected phone than the iPhone 3GS. Yes, the launch of the original iPhone two years ago has spurred phone development, so now some legitimate contenders are beginning to approach the iPhone in terms of functionality. Apple will need to keep innovating to keep ahead of that competition. But as of right now, the best smartphone on the planet is the iPhone 3GS. Unless you simply can’t abide AT&T’s service or coverage in your area, the iPhone 3GS is the best choice around.

[Jason Snell is editorial director of Macworld.]

Cons Soft-looking video; Voice Control lacks some polish; onboard video trimming is destructive.
Pros Bright, high-quality fingerprint-resistant touchscreen; extremely fast and responsive; built-in GPS and compass; voice control for phone dialing and music; decent autofocus camera with SD video capability; all the new features of iPhone OS 3.0 Software Up
Rating 4.5
Product 16GB iPhone 3GS
Company Apple
Price as rated Varies depending on carrier and plan

Cons Soft-looking video; Voice Control lacks some polish; onboard video trimming is destructive.
Pros Bright, high-quality fingerprint-resistant touchscreen; extremely fast and responsive; built-in GPS and compass; voice control for phone dialing and music; decent autofocus camera with SD video capability; all the new features of iPhone OS 3.0 Software Up
Rating 4.5
Product 32GB iPhone 3GS
Company Apple
Price as rated Varies depending on carrier and plan

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