Apple iPhone 3G S side
Apple’s original iPhone rewrote the rule book on mobile phones. Hell, it tore the old book in half, shredded it up and set it on fire. It’s pricey and lacks some features that are easy to get on other smart phones, but, if you’re wondering why it has inspired such gadget lust, you only have to look at how every other phone maker has been clamoring to match it.
The iPhone 3G S is a new chapter in that book, not a wholesale rewrite. It plugs some of the feature holes that made some people avoid the iPhone, although plenty remain. But it’s not the features that matter, because this is a rare beast: a gadget that’s truly a pleasure to use.
The 3G S is available from O2 on an 18-month or 24-month contract, starting at £29.38 a month with a £184.98 upfront charge for the 16GB model and a £274.23 charge for the 32GB version. You can get the 16GB 3G S for free if you pay £73.41 a month. You can also grab it on pay as you go: the 16GB version costs £440.40 and the 32GB versions costs £538.30.
King of the touchscreens
If you’ve been living in a cave, or are lucky enough to not have friends who sit in the pub bragging about their phones, you may not have had an earful of iPhone already. If you’ve previously used the iPhone or iPhone 3G, skip ahead to the next section, because the 3G S is pretty much identical to its 3G predecessor in terms of its appearance and user interface.
The landscape keyboard is a welcome addition
If you haven’t used an iPhone before, you’ve got a treat in store with the 3G S. It has a big, bright 89mm (3.5-inch) touchscreen that sets the bar for every other touchscreen phone on the market, thanks to its responsiveness. The home screen is simple, featuring large, rounded icons that you tap to open the phone’s functions and applications. Beneath the screen, there’s a single round home button that kicks you back to the home screen.
The user interface is an ode to finger-friendly usability. You scroll menus with the swipe of a finger, and the screen bounces jauntily when you come to the end of a list. Multitouch capability means that you can use more than one finger, so you can do things like zoom into a Web page by pinching your fingers together on the screen.
The 3G S travels well and its display has a new protective coating that resists fingerprints and smudges
Apple’s App Store started the craze that’s sweeping the mobile-phone industry, resulting in the launch of RIM’s BlackBerry App World, Google’s Android Market and Nokia’s Ovi Store. Of course, you could always install applications to add more functionality to your smart phone, but the App Store made it easy to find and install those apps painlessly. It also made it simple to pay for your apps though the iTunes store, which motivates developers to get more addictive and useful stuff up there. From virtual pints to VPNs, there are loads of apps to love.
Similar but different
If you’re upgrading from the 3G to the 3G S, you won’t see a big difference, but there are a few solid improvements. The solid and slick body is totally unchanged from the 3G’s, except for a face-grease-fighting oleophobic coating on the glass, which we found makes it wipe clean on your trouser leg slightly more easily. It’s also a couple of grams heavier, due to a new battery, camera unit and other guts, but that’s not really a cause for concern.
Among the 3G S’ new features, the unsung heroes have to be the improved performance and battery life. Well, the improved performance is somewhat sung, since the ‘S’ in the phone’s name stands for ‘speed’. Although it’s not as glamorous as cut-and-paste capability — we never thought we’d be writing that — it improves the experience of using a phone that already feels top of its class for responsiveness.
When we compared it to our six-month-old 3G, also running the latest iPhone OS 3.0, we found that the 3G S lives up to its promise that many tasks are twice as fast. For example, launching the ‘featured’ page of the App Store took 5 seconds to load on the older phone, but 3 on the newer phone, while connected to Wi-Fi.
You can change the display’s contrast with the 3G S’ new accessibility features
Our favourite Web site, cnet.co.uk, took 10 seconds to load on the 3G and only 5 seconds to load on the 3G S. The increased speed is down to faster hardware and optimised software, and you’ll also benefit from new 7.2Mbps HSDPA support, which means faster downloads over 3G.
The latest iPhone software supports tethering, so you can surf on that fast 3G connection from your laptop, connected by USB or Bluetooth. We managed to get it set up almost instantly, but you need to have iTunes installed and O2 charges from £14.68 a month for downloading only 3GB this way.
The on-board memory has been boosted so that the 3G S comes in 16GB and 32GB versions, which is handy on a device that works as an iPod as well as a phone. Really, though, it’s the least Apple could do, since the 3G S doesn’t have a memory-card expansion slot.
Tap the face of the one you love
Among a host of improvements to the camera, the resolution has been bumped up from 2 to 3 megapixels. Macro shots are hugely superior to those of the 3G, although wider shots look only slightly sharper. Megapixels aren’t everything, though, and Apple’s done a good job of squeezing quality out of the camera. There are, however, hardly any photo options compared to a good camera phone like the Sony Ericsson C905, and there’s no flash or LED light.
The 3G S’ camera lacks a flash
We really like how you can tap anywhere on the screen to activate the autofocus, and get the exposure and white balance to readjust at the same time. The tap-to-focus feature also works with the 3G S’ new video-recording feature, although not while you’re filming. The video looks great on the 3G S’ screen, and a neat little video-editing feature means you can tighten up your clip right away. Then you can send it to YouTube, thanks to new software support for logging into the video-sharing site.
Talking to my phone
The 3G S also supports voice control, which suits us, since we like to yell to ourselves on the Tube to frighten off muggers. It’s activated by holding down the home button or pressing the button on the included headphones. You can use it to control the iPod functionality, as well for making calls. We were happy to see that it supports UK English, so we didn’t have to put on a Cupertino accent to make ourselves understood. It had no trouble recognizing who we wanted to phone or what band we wanted to play, and it prompted us pleasantly when there were several phone numbers on offer.
You can also ask it to identify the song you’re listening to, or create an iTunes Genius playlist on the fly, which should be handy at the gym. That’s also a good place to try out the shake-to-shuffle feature, which mixes up your music without you having to grease up the screen. It does a good job of differentiating between a shake and a harmless jiggle, without requiring too much shaking effort either. There’s also built-in support for Nike +, a running tracker that measures your suffering via a sensor that you put in your shoe.
You can track all that running with the built-in GPS, and there’s a compass to point you where you want to go in Google Maps. It’s also great for finding the correct exit from the Tube, but it isn’t used in Google Street View in the very cool way we’ve seen on the HTC Magic. We’re looking forward to what developers will do with the compass app in the future.
Third time’s the charm
The 3G S runs iPhone OS 3.0, which adds an ant army of tiny feature improvements. Click here to read about the five features that we rate most highly.
The video recorder has a simple interface and you can edit clips on the display
Cut, copy and paste is a feature that’s been around on other phones for a long time, but it’s beautifully implemented in OS 3.0. You can grab words and photos and paste them between applications, and in messages, emails and notes. We particularly like how easy it is to snag sections, including both images and text, from Web pages and paste them into an email, for example.
The landscape keyboard makes its way into the messaging apps and Web browser in OS 3.0, which is great for sausage-fingered typists, and could help if this is your first touchscreen keyboard. We’ve always been big fans of the iPhone’s keyboard, whether in portrait or landscape orientation, because of its great predictive text. It’s even better than a full netbook keyboard for typing in the passenger seat of a rally car going full tilt.
OS 3.0 also includes MMS, so you can send images, video, audio and contacts in text messages. It works painlessly, but only images can be put in directly to a text. You can also send links to locations from Google Maps, which is our favourite use of MMS.
For such a great entertainment phone with access to the iTunes store, we used to be frustrated that we couldn’t grab TV shows and movies as easily as music. Thankfully, Apple’s now remedied that, although we’re still annoyed that we can’t subscribe to podcasts. Damn the data costs, we need our Adam and Joe!
The compass and voice-control features are pleasing additions to the feature lineup
With all that downloaded content, it’s lucky that searching has a new place as the left-most home screen. We miss the ability to whizz over to the left to get to our most-used apps, since now we end up in the search screen if we swipe too enthusiastically. But it’s great to be able to search all of the content on the phone at once, especially since you can exclude categories that you’re not interested in if you’re getting search-result overload.
Playing by Apple’s rules
Apple says that it’s exposed many more of the iPhone’s functions to app developers with OS 3.0, so we’ve got high hopes that they’ll come up with more smart solutions to counter the iPhone’s drawbacks, like they did with some great image-editing apps. But, to keep the phone working so smoothly, Apple rules the phone’s memory consumption with an iron fist.
You still can’t run most apps simultaneously, which means that you have to stop what you’re doing to start something else. Apple says, however, that instant messaging and other real-time alerts will be possible with OS 3.0, although it was too early for us to test this out at the time we published this review.
Also, new support for HTTP streaming means that you can listen to streaming radio or iPlayer audio in the background while you do other things on the phone. We think this is long overdue, and it still feels slightly accidental. It’s especially disappointing that the iPhone doesn’t have an FM radio or podcast subscriptions. Flash support is still lacking in the Web browser, too.
Although other phones have had features like copy and paste capability and voice control for years, it’s hard not to love Apple’s iPhone 3G S once you get your hands on it. The features are implemented extremely well and the apps are addictive. The responsiveness and elegance of the user interface more than makes up for the lack of flexibility — you still can’t run most apps in the background, for example, or customise the home screen much. Those who hate touchscreens may want to stay away, but, if you can afford it, the 3G S is a great phone for everyone from business users to music lovers.
It’s worth noting that all the iPhone OS 3.0 software goodness is available as a free upgrade for the iPhone 3G, so, unless you really crave one of the hardware features, like video recording or faster processing, you may not need to pick up the latest handset, and you’ll save £88.09 over the 16GB 3G S on the cheapest contract tariff.