Three years after the first rumors of an Apple cell phone began to make the rounds, the iPhone continues to garner huge buzz, long lines, and a growing share of the cell phone market. And as we approach the second anniversary of the first model's frenzied launch day, Apple drops the newest model in our laps. The iPhone 3GS, which will hit stores June 19, promises faster processing and network speeds, extended battery life, more memory, and additional features. It's enough to get our attention, but not enough to get us completely excited.
In many ways, the iPhone 3GS delivers on its promises. The battery, which could sometimes deplete in less than a day on the iPhone 3G, lasted longer in our preliminary tests, and the phone's software ran noticeably faster. Yet, we still have some concerns. A faster AT&T 3G network isn't going to happen overnight, and some features, like tethering and multimedia messaging, aren't scheduled until later in summer 2009. We also struggled to see any change in call quality, which, as any iPhone owner can tell you, remains far from perfect.
So should you buy it? That will depend on how much you'll have to pay for the privilege. If you don't own an iPhone yet, and you've been waiting for the right model, now is the time to go for it. The same goes for iPhone Classic owners who never made the jump to the iPhone 3G. But, if you're a current iPhone 3G owner, the answer isn't so clear. If you're eligible to upgrade at the cheapest prices ($199 for the 16GB model and $299 for the 32GB model), we suggest doing so, as long as you don't mind the required two-year contract. If you own an iPhone 3G, but are not yet eligible for the upgrade, we recommend upgrading to the new iPhone OS 3.0 operating system, and then waiting.
Design and interface
The iPhone 3GS looks exactly like the previous model. It shares the shape and the same external controls, but the iPhone 3GS is unique in a handful of ways. You can get both memory sizes in white or black, and the iPhone 3GS display sports a fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating that is supposed to attract fewer fingerprints and smudges. The new model shares the same dimensions as its predecessor, but it's slightly heavier (4.76 ounces versus 4.7 ounces), a virtually unnoticeable difference.
The menu interface is also the same, but in the past year, as we've added apps to the Home screen, something new has begun to bother us. As intuitive and simple as the interface is, it becomes unwieldy after you get above four menu pages. Swiping through multiple pages is tedious; and it's rather painful to drag applications from page to page if you're an organizational freak. We hate that there's no way to categorize related apps into folders, such as one for news, another for social networking, and so on. Not only would this cut down on menu pages, but you'd also be able to find your app faster. And while we're at it, how about letting us delete some of the native apps we never use?
Since the iPhone 3GS inherits many of the features from the previous model, we'll concentrate on what's different on this device. If you need a refresher on such elements as the clock, YouTube, weather, iPod player, calculator, and e-mail, please see our iPhone 3G review. We'll start off with the new features that only the iPhone 3GS will offer.
Until now, the iPhone's camera has been good, but far from great, with decent photo quality, but no editing features. Apple didn't include options such as white balance, a digital zoom, or a self-timer that come standard on many basic VGA camera phones. The minimalist shooter bothered us so much that we began to worry if Apple was leading a new trend of "dumbing down" cell phone cameras.
The iPhone 3GS puts some of those fears to rest. Apple boosted the camera's resolution to 3 megapixels and added a new "Tap to Focus" feature. As you point the lens toward your subject, a small box appears on the center of the display. Tapping that square focuses the camera automatically on that point and adjusts the white balance, color, contrast, and exposure accordingly. If you'd rather focus on the edge of your shot, just tap the display at your chosen point and the square moves with you.
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