iPhone 3GS Review
iPhone 3GS Review

By now, there’s no need to introduce the iPhone 3GS: if you’re looking at this review, chances are that you are just wondering how it feels and if you should jump on the wagon and get one. However, you want to know if everything that you would be enjoying on the 3GS is worth the price that the device and plan cost. Also, what are the alternatives out there? In this iPhone 3GS review, I will tell you how the iPhone has been working for me in the past month and you will hopefully be able to extrapolate from my experience what yours will be. The review is slightly aimed at those of you who don’t have an iPhone yet, but if you do have one and want to upgrade to the 3GS, you might want to read this.

Context

We all have a different usage pattern that influences how we perceive certain features. It will also affect the battery life greatly. I used the iPhone as my main phone, to check Facebook updates and emails (a lot) but I replied only moderately. I browsed the web often to check on news or stock quotes and used the map application, at least for a few minutes every other day. I don’t call much (10mn a day?) and I didn’t play games.

Physical design

The iPhone 3GS looks and feels (physically) like other iPhones before it. I’m pretty sure that you held one already, but if you have not, I can tell you that it feels good in the hand, but it is a little heavy in the pocket. I hold it in my left hand, and my thumb falls right onto the volume controls and the “silence” button. I can use the index to put the iPhone to sleep using the top button. It’s convenient.

One of the new physical feature is the use of an oleophobic surface, that is supposed to make the surface less prone to fingerprints and easier to clean. Honestly it doesn’t feel any better or worse than the iPhone 3G. If anything, the first iPhone aluminum surface in the back was much better with fingerprints. Note that the iPhone 3GS can be identifiable by the reflective material used on the text in the back.

iPhone 3GS ReviewThe iPhone display performs well in direct sunlight, which is always a plus. It is slightly better than the MyTouch 3G (HTC Hero) and much better than my BlackBerry 8900 in that respect.

iPhone 3GS ReviewWhy can Apple make a small wall plug,
while the rest of the industry has brick-sized ones?

Basics

iPhone 3GS ReviewThe iPhone does very well with the basic phone stuff. That’s one of the reason why it was so popular when it was introduced. From the unlock to the dialing to the in-call functions, it’s hard to complain about any real issues. With the OS 2.0 then 3.0, Apple has fixed most of the user-interface issues, mostly related to the contact search and Exchange support (not supported when the iPhone was introduced). The basic phone functionalities work very well and that’s a powerful thing to have in any phone.

With 4/5 bars, the audio quality was very good and the volume was OK, although not on the loud side: in noisy places that could be an issue.

If supported by the wireless carriers, you can enjoy visual voicemail, which is pretty cool when compared to the dumb voicemails that most people get. I personally use PhoneTag, a voicemail service that sends voicemails as .mp3 and an audio-to-text translation to my email inbox. I prefer that to AT&T’s Visual Voice mail.

Phone settings

iPhone 3GS ReviewI keep all my contacts online, on an Exchange Server, so for me, setting up the iPhone mainly consisted of entering a WIFI password, then setting up an exchange account and a Gmail account. In general, the exchange setup is not too hard if you have all the information handy. Gmail is very easy to setup, so all in all, you should get started in no-time.

All the menus are fairly easy to find, because the user interface is logical, certainly more so than the Nokia N97, or Windows Mobile phones. Android is pretty good on that front.

Virtual keyboard

iPhone 3GS ReviewLet’s go to the heart of what could make or break your iPhone experience: the iPhone relies only on virtual controls because it is currently the only way to get a thin phone with a large and comfortable display. The only (but important!) drawback is that you will lose some serious typing speed.

When you have physical keys, most people basically use two senses to type: touch and vision. On the iPhone, half or more of that is gone. Now, you can only rely on your eyes to type properly. For most people that translates into a much slower typing pace. In my case, I type much faster with a physical keyboard.

Now, you will probably hear that it gets better with time: it’s false for most people that I know and for myself. It might get *marginally* better, but not by much. Secondly, an iPhone “fan” will tell you that he/she or someone they know can type as fast as a Blackberry-user. Well, that might be true, but that’s beside the point. The real question is: can you do it? and usually, the answer is no.

If you don’t type a whole lot, then you won’t mind. If you come from a numeric pad phone, the virtual keyboard will be a big improvement for typing. If you come from a Blackberry, go try an iPhone and imagine yourself typing one of those long work emails or IM conversation. Everyone’s tolerance to the virtual keyboard is different, that’s why I recommend you to try it in a store or with a friend’s phone. Type something long. For those who would not like the iPhone, this is ground zero.

If you wonder how the iPhone compares to the competition, I would say that it’s better than the myTouch 3G and better than any of the touch Windows Mobile phones that I have tried like the Samsung Omnia and the HTC Touch Pro. That said, I prefer the suggestion feature of Android to be better than Apple’s because it suggests more words, faster.

What I like about virtual controls is that they change depending on the context. In the web browser, there’s a “.com” button, which saves four taps. It is also very easy to switch to a foreign layout like AZERTY. These are some of the huge advantages in having virtual controls: developers can do a lot of cool things.

Web browsing

iPhone 3GS Reviewfinance.yahoo.com is an interesting test for mobile browsingWeb browsing is another area where the iPhone has changed the game. There are three things that basically make it great: display size, pinch & zoom and good JavaScript support. The net result is a very good web browsing experience. First, most sites “just work” and render properly (except when Flash is required). Secondly, pinch & zoom provide the user the best way to control how big they want things to be and what they want to look at in the page. As we said earlier, JavaScript *usually* work well. for example, the comments on this website don’t work on the BlackBerry 8900…

iPhone 3GS Review
This is a message that I’m getting too often on the Curve 8900 iPhone 3GS ReviewAnother problem on my Curve 8900: Disqus comments dont’ work iPhone 3GS ReviewFortunately, Disqus works the iPhone (and Android)Depending on your connection and on the site, the page loading speed can vary a lot, but overall, I think that the iPhone 3GS provides the best mobile web experience of all the phones that I used. The Palm Pre would be the next in line. The 3GS version has a faster processor and uses a faster wireless protocol (3.5G), so independent tests have shown that pages can load almost twice as fast when compared with the iPhone 3G – this is definitely not negligible if you are on the web a lot.

iPhone 3GS ReviewFlash is still not supportedFlash still doesn’t work, so watching videos on sites like Hulu is still out of reach. However, YouTube for mobile will launch video in the embedded YouTube app, so you’re not completely out of options, even if Hulu is better. If you wonder why Flash isn’t supported, here’s my opinion: On PC, Flash requires a lot of assembly code optimizations and Adobe doesn’t have the manpower to write code for each platform/processor, so those who can write that code (like Nvidia and others) get good Flash support, while others don’t. Apple should be able to dedicate some software resources to a Flash player, but having flash content go through an Application like YouTube effectively gives Apple more control over how web content flow to their users.

Data Speed Connection Quality

iPhone 3GS ReviewThe data speed is relatively good… when you actually do have 3G coverage. I have not tested the 3G coverage in the whole city of San Francisco, but I found myself without 3G coverage in hugely popular area like near by the Ferry building and in other places Downtown (please post a comment if you don’t get 3G coverage in a popular public place). My experience might not be representative of yours, but the user experience is much better with a good connection. After all the S in 3GS means “speed”, including the 3.5G speed. Over time, it should get better as AT&T is supposed to expand its network. I say “supposed to” because you would think that placed like downtown SF should be well covered already.

I’ve run some speed tests using the free CISCO Gist (free in the app store) app:

  • 3/5 bars: 481kbps, 479kbps, 595kbps
  • 5/5 bars: 652kbps, 654kbps, 690kbps
  • WIFI: 2329kbps, 1876kbps

Email

iPhone 3GS Review
Great email experience + ability to add many accountsSince OS 2.0, the iPhone has a had support for Microsoft exchange, my favorite work-email back-end. We tested Exchange, GMail and Yahoo mail, and in all three instances, email worked very well. You can also use MobileMe, a paid service from Apple, but I’m not sure how many people actually do that. It works well too.

The iPhone is a great phone to read emails on and ideally, if you don’t sent back a lengthy reply, you should be more than happy with the experience. The HTML email and image attachment handling is impeccable too. I rate the iPhone email reading above any Blackberry that I had my hands on.

I personally find the Blackberry 8900 to be more productive for emails or for Live Blogging. Thanks to the keyboard shortcuts, it’s faster to go to the top of the email stack, forward or reply. The typing speed obviously makes all the difference, for me. Live Blogging on the iPhone is just too painful.

Security

iPhone 3GS ReviewSecurity: not bullet-proof, but it’s simple and doesn’t slow down the userThe iPhone security has come under criticism recently. In my opinion, security is good enough for consumer use, the password and the remote wipe should be enough to keep most thugs away from your data. They probably just want the phone, anyway. I don’t have any particular industrial secret that I want to protect, and I assume that most of you share my situation. But it’s important to realize that although nothing is uncrackable, making it harder to crack reduces greatly the chances that someone will actually have the skills, time and motivation to crack it. If you want a strong encryption on your handset’s content, a BlackBerry might be a better choice.

Photo and Video

iPhone 3GS Review
The iPhone 3GS (left) has better white balance, out of the box
when compared to the Curve 8900, which is very decent.
The iPhone and iPhone 3G have often been criticized for the low quality photos (they sucked), and their lack of video recording capabilities. The iPhone 3GS has a new camera hardware that takes good photos (for a phone). Out of the box, it is better than my Blackberry 8900 that I often consider to be quite good too. When taking photos, you can use your finger to choose the point of focus. That’s a feature that works relatively well. Overall, I prefer camera phones that have a physical shutter button because I find that tapping on the screen to snap a photo sometime induces a shake right before the photo is taken, and that makes the photo blurry.

iPhone 3GS ReviewPhoto taken with an iPhone 3GS. Check our samples on FlickrThe lack of camera flash in the iPhone 3GS is annoying as I have become accustomed to having one on my Blackberry 8900. Also, I tend to snap “mobile” photos during dinners, parties and other dimly lit events where I clearly don’t carry a better imaging device.

The 3GS also comes with video recording, something that is still missing natively for older models, even after the iPhone OS 3.0 update. I’m not sure why Apple doesn’t add video recording to the old models: there are applications out there that could do it (although at 15fps), but I don’t think that they made it to the App Store. The video quality is “OK”, but is far from being as good as DVD-quality. To get a feel for it, look at our video samples. Overall, video recording works very decently, for a handheld.

This video is also on our Ubergizmo Flickr accountVideo editing is very basic (trimming, basically), but given that most phones don’t have any form of video editing, it’s hard to complain. It’s possible to upload videos directly to YouTube, which is cool.

Overall performance

The Interface of the iPhone 3GS is very fast and responsive. I have only 26 apps on my home screen, but after a few weeks, I’ve never experienced any slowdown or sluggishness. To run a quick comparison, the Blackberry Storm would need
a brain transplant to be like this – especially once it is bloated with emails. The Blackberry 8900 is regularly sluggish while waking up from locking state, I suspect that the content protection makes is slowing things down (don’t keep a bunch of encrypted files on the device). The iPhone 3GS is also more responsive than the Nokia N97 (by far). Only the HTC Hero (MyTouch 3G) comes close, but even then, scrolling in the Map application reveals that the iPhone 3GS can move graphics about twice as fast (I’m eyeballing the framerate). At the moment, the Toshiba TG01 or a Tegra-powered device *should* deliver similar or better results.

App loading speed

One of the major improvement on the iPhone 3GS is the loading time for applications. In my own experience and in independent tests, applications have loaded faster on the iPhone 3GS when compared to older models. The additional memory that was added to the 3GS and the extra CPU clock speed make a big difference.

Battery Life

The battery life can vary greatly depending on what you do, but with my particular usage pattern, I got about 39h in between charges. Battery life can vary greatly, but you’ve seen my usage pattern at the beginning of this review. I have heard a lot of horror stories about the iPhone battery (the original and the 3G). Honestly, it’s hard to tell what’s going on unless I can investigate and try for myself. Sometimes, even the local conditions (signal reflectivity, distance to the tower) can affect battery life in non-negligible ways.

Misc

Boot time: the iPhone 3GS boots in 20 seconds, which is not so far from what a Netbook would do with an instant-boot OS. The N97 is comparable, but the Blackberry is just horrible during a reboot. It can take *minutes*.

Multi-tasking: The iPhone OS is getting some bashing for not being “really” multi-tasking. This is somewhat religious debate at this point. To most users, the phone is seemingly multitask. Messages do arrive in the background, phone calls arrive when you are doing something else. However, an application cannot run in the background. For example, I would like to leave Skype on in the background so that I get messages, even if I’m doing something else, like reading my emails. But right now, Skype will log-off as soon as I switch to another application. It’s conceptually annoying, but so far it is not a roadblock at all, for me.

Search box: I can clear text in any search box with the cross on the right. Both Android and Windows mobile don’t offer this functionality. It’s one of the little things that make life easier many times a day…

OpenGL ES 2.0

Apple didn’t make a whole lot of noise about the 3D performance of the iPhone 3GS, but it is substantial. I’ve said in a previous post that applications have the potential of looking much better than they used to, if developers dare using features that are not in previous iPhones, that said. I already know a couple of developers who are going to make a 3GS-only version of their game.

If you want to learn more details about this, head to our “iPhone 3GS: Prepare For a 3D Graphics Shock” post. In a few months, other devices will come out and will probably challenge the iPhone’s graphics capabilities, but right now, no other phone can claim the portfolio of 3D applications that the iPhone has.

Software Features Highlights (3.0)

Copy/paste: It was ridiculous that it took so long before Copy/Paste was added to the iPhone OS, but now it’s in and it works fairly well… mostly. Weirdly enough, it’s not possible to paste a phone number into the phone dialing app. The issue is well documented.

For a touch screen, the copy paste is well implemented, but the Blackberry 8900 and its trackball do a better job in my opinion. Fingers just aren’t as good as a thin cursor for text selection.

Find my phone: If you subscribe to the Mobileme service, you can trace your iPhone remotely. First, you will need to setup a mobileme email account on the iPhone. I suspect that upon a location query, MobileMe sends a notification to the phone, which replies back with its location. If the thief removes the SIM, or disables your MobileMe account, you won’t be able to trace the phone anymore. May be that’s why it is important to put a password in the phone to start with.

Remote wipe: If you iPhone has been stolen/lost you might want to wipe your iPhone but you should know that once you do that, you won’t be able to locate it (the mobileme account gets nuked as well). The remote wipe will only prevent the other party from looking at your data (emails, contact…) and that’s already a lot. Again, you need to have setup a MobileMe account and the iPhone needs to be in a state where it can receive the wipe notification and act on it.

Search: The search on the iPhone is really handy. I use it to not only search for notes or emails, but it is often faster to search for contacts there as well. I have several hundreds of contacts, and using the search makes things faster than going into the phone app, then the contacts… The results are popping in near real-time. I haven’t tried to scientifically measure the search quality, but at the moment, nothing has been bugging me on this front. It works.

Voice control: Apple has added voice control to let users place calls or play a song without interacting with the touch interface. It might come in handy if you *really* can’t use your hands (while driving?). It works well, if you pronounce something that’s easy to recognize, like “call Randy”. Now, I have a bunch of friends with foreign names and the system has a much harder time with those and ends up wasting my time. I would try using it to save my life, but otherwise, I’m not a fan of this implementation, even if I like the idea a lot. Also, pushing the home button for 3 seconds feels a little long. Having a walkie-talkie style button would be great, but yeah… it adds a button. It’s not clear why Voice Control didn’t make it into older phones, as it seems to be a software-only feature. May be Apple deemed the iPhone 3G to be too slow.

Nike+: Nike+ was previously available on iPod Touch, and now works the same way on the 3GS. I don’t run, but most people run with their phone with them, so if you were previously carrying an iPod Touch + your phone, you just got a little lighter.

Applications

I noticed that the iPhone had the best implementation for most popular applications (Yelp…), but the ones that I use the most are Maps and Skype:

Mapping: Mapping is a pretty cool application, when it’s implemented properly. Fortunately for iPhone users, Google Maps on iPhone is the best implementation that I’ve seen to date – it’s even better than the Android version (ironic)… First of all, it is fast. When compared to the myTouch 3G, the iPhone 3GS scrolling speed is about 2X or 3X faster (20fps or less versus about 60fps) – I’m just eye balling here. Secondly, there is a search box right at the top that saves a few seconds when searching. Results are displayed directly in the map, while on other platforms, results are shown as a list. Finally, there’s a little “my position” at the bottom-right on the map. Again that saves a second or two each time you have to use it. Also, simple things like dropping a pin can’t be done in the MyTouch 3G. It doesn’t sound like much, but all together, this makes a big difference in terms of user interface. That’s the difference between finding something quickly and be happy and being frustrated and lost (my Blackberry 8900′s mapping sucks). in the 3GS, Apple has integrated a compass. In the mapping application, the rotate to you show where you are headed. The compass is accurate, and unlike the Nokia N97, walking with the compass on doesn’t lead to a pendulum effect in the mapping application. As a p
edestrian, I can certainly do without it. In a car, the iPhone 3GS still has a lag that I consider important when compared to a personal navigation device. It’s handy, but not my first choice for a GPS if I’m driving.

A final note about the iPhone 3GS and mapping: it seems to me that the GPS is invoked and shut down when not in use. It might sound like a “duh”, but on my Blackberry 8900, if you leave the GPS on it just sucks power forever. Apps don’t seem to do a good job at turning it on and off as needed (the downside of multitasking, I guess…).

Map scrolling speed: iPhone 3GS and MyTouch 3G (HD on YouTube) Web page scrolling speed: 3GS versus MyTouch 3G (HD on YouTube)Skype: Either for IM or for voice calls (over WIFI) Skype for iPhone works well. In my tests, calls were clear just like they are on a computer. I really wish that Apple would let us call over 3G, but I suspect that this is not going to happen anytime soon. It is clearly not in the interest of wireless carriers that Voice over IP (VOIP) apps start to proliferate on a popular platform.

On the IM side, you must know that it works well, as long as you stay in the Skype application. If you switch to a different task, Skype will effectively log you out (!!). That goes back to our multi-tasking discussion from earlier. This didn’t bother me so much, but I can imagine that some users would be furious over the lack of background IM availability in apps like Skype.

Things that could be better

Data plan pricing: There not a lot of stuff to hate in the iPhone 3GS (hardware and software). The obvious thing that I would like is a lower price for the data plan, but business is business and if people are willing to enroll with current prices, I don’t see any incentive for AT&T to lower the price.

UMA Support: I wish that the iPhone had UMA support, because it would let you use a WIFI network to: 1/guarantee perfect reception quality at home. 2/ Call without roaming charges from abroad. To be fair, the carrier must also support UMA, and the only one in the USA is T-Mobile with its HotSpot@Home. If T-Mobile USA ever carries the iPhone, we hope that it will support UMA.

Productivity: I’m entering in dangerous ground just by suggesting it, but the typing speed of the iPhone is a productivity issue and I don’t think that any touch display technology will solve it in the short-term. There are promising alternatives out there, but what about making a second iPhone design with a keyboard, or do something (anything) to achieve typing speed parity with a Blackberry? Touch screen purists, fire at will!

iPhone 3GS Review
QWERTY iPhone designed by Olivier Demangel for UbergizmoScreen quality + resolution: It’s not that the iPhone display is bad, but current technology would allow for something better. A higher resolution and more importantly, an OLED display would be on the top of my wish list.

Locked phone: Welcome to the world of carrier subsidies. I’m not sure that AT&T would unlock the phone after two years if you ask them nicely, but they should. If they don’t T-Mobile does it on a regular basis. If you don’t want an unlocked phone, buy an unlocked one. Welcome into a market economy.

Closed eco-system: There’s an app for everything… well, almost. In recent weeks, Apple has been more and more in the headline for refusing to distribute potentially popular applications like Google Voice. The system would gain to be more transparent.

Conclusion

Today, the iPhone 3GS is the king of touch phones, not only because it has good hardware, but because it also has the best applications. I suspect that it will continue to become increasingly popular with the self-employed and small businesses as well. If you’re thinking of getting an iPhone 3GS, the first thing that you should consider is the total cost of ownership. With the cheapest plan, you will get close to $2,000 over the 2-year contract.

If you don’t own an iPhone yet but want to get one, get the 3GS. The additional speed is well worth the $100 premium over the iPhone 3G. If you don’t yet know if you should get an iPhone, then ask yourself why. If you can’t afford one, don’t go for it (duh!): there are more important things in life. If you fear that the virtual keyboard will impair your productivity, you are probably right. The iPhone is not great for heavy texters. Go back to the “virtual keyboard” section of this review and read it again.If you would like to know something in particular, drop a comment. I’ll try to reply asap.

Update: don’t miss our iPhone 4 Review.

Links:

Don’t miss these reviews:
Apple: iPhone 4 ReviewiPad Review, iPad 2 Review
AndroidNexus S Review, EVO 4G ReviewEpic 4G ReviewDroid X ReviewDroid 2 ReviewHTC Hero Review
BlackBerry: BlackBerry Torch Review, Blackberry 9700 Review
Windows Phone 7: Samsung Focus Review, HTC Surround Review

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