Apple outsmarted the mobile world by releasing the touch-controlled iPhone in June 2007. In July the next year, it rocketed to faster network speeds with the iPhone 3G while creating a massive ecosystem of apps. Now, on June 19, Apple will reassert its dominance by shipping the iPhone 3GS, outfitted with the operating system upgrade iPhone 3.0.
It’s not as dramatic an advance as the previous ones. But the new phone introduces a long list of improvements, big and small. Taken together, they’re enough to re-establish Apple’s once-shrinking lead in a brutal technology competition that is making the chariot race in Ben Hur look like a stroll in the park.
The iPhone 3GS combines two sets of advances. The first group is available only to purchasers of the new hardware. The rest of the features are part of Apple’s iPhone 3.0 software upgrade, which, beginning June 17, will be offered free to those with earlier iPhones. (iPod Touch users can get the new software for $10.)
I’ll talk about the hardware-based features first. As promised, Apple has indeed ramped up the speed with which the new phone performs tasks like launching apps, loading web pages, and displaying graphics. Apple claims speed boosts of up to two times of what the 3G delivers, and in some benchmarks cites even better performance. I haven’t done scientific measurements, but you don’t need a stopwatch to notice the new phone is zippier than its predecessor. I appreciated getting box scores faster and videos playing sooner in the MLBAt Bat application, and it was clear that web pages loaded faster. In the case of a game like Tiger Woods Golf, the boost is significant enough to make me more likely to play when I don’t have much time.
Photos were a weak spot in previous iPhones — they weighed in at a measly 2 megapixels — but the iPhone 3GS has a 3-megapixel, autofocusing camera that’s more sensitive and allows you to choose an object to focus on by tapping on it. (No zoom, though. Bummer.) Better yet, the camera also records quite creditable video. After you shoot your clip, there’s a dead-simple function to for instant editing, after which you can send your masterpiece to YouTube or Mobile Me with a single tap.
The iPhone 3GS also has a hands-free feature called Voice Control. By holding down the Home button you simply say who you want to call or what music you want to hear. This also works with the expanded controls in the new headphones included with the phone. It’s very useful, though it did better at figuring out the people I want to call than it did with music. When I said, “Call Diane Levy home,” the 3GS dialed my sister’s home number on the first try. But when I said “Play Lou Reed,” it played Lucinda Williams. When I said, “Lucinda Williams,” it played Gillian Welch. Close, but no guitar pick. Still, even with some false starts, Voice Control is easier than fumbling through the iPod menus, a difficult task while walking and a dangerous one while driving.
Another 3GS feature is a compass, which on its own isn’t too thrilling (you can get a real compass in a gumball machine) but will eventually shine in a number of upcoming apps. The first of these is Google Maps, where an extra tap on the “locate” button will orient the map to the direction you’re facing.
Of the features that aren’t exclusive to the 3GS, but instead are part of the iPhone 3.0 suite, the biggest news is that you can finally cut, copy and paste text, photos and objects on an iPhone. Sadly, this isn’t part of comprehensive iPhone multitasking — a feature delivered superbly on a rival phone, the Palm Pre. (Apple’s reluctance to embrace multitasking is based on its claim that it would wear down the battery — and it’s true that the Pre has a power issue.) So cut-and-paste will have to do for now. As you’d expect, Apple imaginatively uses its touch interface to make this feature intuitive and fun. Trust me, describing how to do it is much more complicated than actually doing it.
The new software addresses another previous gap by allowing users access to a bigger keyboard in landscape mode not just in the Safari browser but in mail and other apps. This makes Apple’s “soft” keyboard much less prone to constant mistypings. iPhone 3.0 also offers deeper search functions. You can now search through the contents of your iPhone and get results that include apps, contacts, e-mail, calendar and notes. And e-mail search quickly locates messages both on the phone and, with IMAP or Exchange systems on a remote server.
Other iPhone 3.0 features that work as advertised are Voice Memos (a straightforward audio recording app), improved parental controls and auto-fill on Safari.
There’s also a more compelling reason to sign up for Apple’s $100-a-year internet service, MobileMe. As before, MobileMe users automatically have calendar, mail, and contacts synced. But now, those with Mobile Me can take advantage of Find My iPhone, which you call in
to action when your device is lost or stolen. Using your computer, you can locate the phone via GPS (very handy if you left it in a restaurant). You can also put a message on the screen, and trigger a two-minute ringing sound that will turn on even if the ringer has been switched off. The latter is perfect for those who lose the phone around the house. If the phone is really lost, you can then remotely wipe out the data to foil snoopers. I would suggest one further wrinkle: a small capsule of indelible red dye that would explode on remote command, splattering all over the swine who stole your gizmo.
There were two highly touted features I could not test out: MMS messaging (sending media files via a text-messaging-like service) and tethering (using the iPhone’s modem to connect a computer to the internet). The problem is not Apple, which has built these into 3.0 and will instantly offer them in other countries, but AT&T, the exclusive U.S. network carrier. AT&T promises to deliver MMS for no extra cost later this summer, and says that tethering will be available at a future, indeterminate date, almost certainly at an extra cost.
A lot of the new value of iPhone 3.0 will come when all these features (and others I don’t have room to mention) are exploited by the thousands of developers writing iPhone apps. You’ll see apps that can sell things in the course of using them, such as extra levels of a game, apps that make use of your iTunes playlist, and apps that take advantage of P2P connectivity for head-to-head gaming and quick exchange of information.
In short, the 3GS offers a boatload of improvements on the iPhone 3G with no real downside and the same price. Brand-new iPhone customers should have no hesitation before buying: Considering the huge variety of apps, there’s no better smartphone to buy today.
Current iPhone users have a tougher decision ahead. First they must ask themselves if the features offered exclusively on the phone (as opposed to the free upgrade, which they should download immediately) are worth the expense of a new phone. For some users, Voice Control, the new camera, and the speed boost will be worth the cost. For others, it won’t be a huge sacrifice to go without.
Complicating the matter is ATT’s upgrade policy. Generally, those who are in the second half of their two-year contracts can upgrade to iPhone 3GS for the same price as paid by new customers: $200 for the 16-GB version and $300 for the 32-GB. (The 32-GB version is the one to get, especially if you’ll be using video and other media.) AT&T has just announced that people who bought 3G phones as late as September will be eligible for the new-phone price. All those cases involve a new 2-year contract obligation.
But more recent 3G buyers won’t get that deal. AT&T will charge them either $400 or $500, depending on the storage, to upgrade to a 3GS with a new 2-year contract obligation. Another alternative is to pay full price for an “unsubsidized” iPhone: a whopping $600 for the 16-gig 3GS and $700 for the 32-gig version. Despite the fact that those buyers are relieving AT&T of the burden of its subsidy, they get no discount on their monthly bills.
In part because of this — and in part because Apple is offering many of its innovations as part of the general iPhone 3.0 upgrade — the wise thing for those more recent buyers to do will be to install the new software and stick with their 3G iPhones at least until their contracts run down. This will provide a saner upgrade path to the 3GS’s considerable, but not earth-shattering, improvements. Speed is wonderful. But sometimes it’s prudent to wait for it.