Apple iPhone 3GS review

4.5 out of 5
Dependent on contract

For

App Store, user interface, simplicity, compass improves mapping

Against

Price, battery life, no FM radio

The iPhone 3G S isn't really a new phone, it's an update, but probably the hottest update of the year. It looks as feels the same as the 3G: externally the device is the same design, which Apple suggests is to retain support for all the third-party accessories you have purchased (assuming you're upgrading).

The speed boost comes in the form of a more powerful processor, with Apple reporting that overall users should see a 2x boost over the 3G model. This speed comes thanks to a new, faster, processor, increased RAM and a new graphics chip.

Now the iPhone 3G was no slouch. In fact, the user interface still beats-off all its rivals. The 3G S is exquisitely fast, really ramming home how good the UI is. We see a lot of phones, but the iPhone still delivers the knockout punch and the new hardware and features help to address some criticisms aimed at the iPhone over the past year.

One of the biggest boasts of the iPhone 3G S is that it has an entirely new 3.1-megapixel autofocus camera, addressing an easy criticism, giving you a 2048 x 1536px image. The camera doesn't give you the same range of controls you find elsewhere, in fact it is pretty much point and shoot, with the added benefit of touch-to-focus. The camera will make adjustments to exposure and so on as you pick different areas of the scene to focus on.

The results are reasonable, but fall short of those phones sporting more technically advanced imaging systems. Your photos can vary a fair degree as it makes adjustments and it is easily confused from an exposure point of view, with highlight blow-outs common in our tests. But as quick snapper to fire off pics to friends or share online it does well enough, accepting that there is no flash, so it won't be great in the pub.

It is perhaps a shame then that a huge shutter graphic plays when you actually take a picture, although it does perhaps distract you from some pretty serious shutter lag, meaning you often miss the picture perfect moment.

Video capture is enabled at a resolution of 640 x 480, which seems an odd choice, given the theoretical capability of the sensor to capture higher resolutions, or even one that would match the aspect of the iPhone's screen. Colours are over-saturated and audio isn't great either, but you do get some simple in-phone editing options to trim your video clips down.

Compare this with something like the Samsung i8910 HD, with 720p video capture, and the iPhone's offering is rather lacklustre, but you can shoot video and upload straight into your YouTube account. It makes sharing easy, but lacks the high-def edge that the Samsung gives you.

We tested the 32GB model and syncing through iTunes meant we were good to go with all our music too. Very simple and easy to do, it also pulled in contacts and calendars with no quibbles from our MacBook. New to the iPhone 3G S is voice control which has an impact on both contacts and your music.

To access voice control you can use the bundled headphones (the usual poor-sounding effort), which feature the controls on the wire, similar to the new iPod shuffle, but with a mic. Press and hold the centre, or press and hold the Home button, and you enter voice control. The screen will display various suggestions which let you see what you could say, but you are unlikely to use voice control whilst looking at the screen…

Voice control is often a little dubious, but here it works well, as long as you are careful. Ask it to play songs by The Prodigy and off it goes. Or, you can ask what song is playing, or even send it off on a Genius mission to play more music of that type - great for controlling your music without getting it out of your pocket.

Calling is supported too, with voice recognition for all your contacts. Simply say "Call Chris home" and off it goes, confirming who it is calling. Unfortunately this is only one-way, so it won't tell you who is calling when you have an incoming call, which seems a relatively simple task given the features already enabled.

Voice control, however, can be dangerous if you pause, stammer, or forget what you are saying. If you have a large number of contacts, you can pretty much guarantee that anything you say will sound a little like someone's name, and the last thing you want when your iPhone is in your pocket, is to hear that it is calling your mother-in-law. Use with caution.

Another hardware addition comes in the form of a digital compass. We've seen digital compasses before, and the iPhone's take on it is rather good, calibrating quickly and easily. The compass on it's own is pretty much irrelevant, but allows orientation of maps, which will be a popular addition.

Maps traditionally put north at the top of the device, but the compass now means the iPhone knows which way you are pointing, so it can spin round the map so it relates to the ground you are on. It means that finding that remote pub or meeting spot is so much easier, as the iPhone will literally point you in the right direction.

BlackBerry users have been laughing and pointing for a while over copy and paste and searching, features that business users often make heavy use of. The iPhone 3G S now brings these features forward. Copy and paste works really well, with magnification and easy drag start and end points meaning you can simply pick up what you want.

Searching can be accessed either by a press of the Home button from the home page, or swiping to the right, opening up what is basically a Spotlight search, so you can easily search emails, contacts, music, applications to get what you want. If you have 10 pages of apps, you can simply type the name into search and punch the link.

Internet tethering is perhaps one of the most contentious issues with the new iPhone. Ignoring pricing or availability, the tethering option is very easy to use. Simply pairing via Bluetooth with our MacBook, meant access to the Internet pretty much instantly - faster than the process of connecting up via a dongle.

Internet tethering does want to roll out whenever you connect the iPhone however, so is worth keeping an eye on if you are going to use it, as we found it was tethered whilst we sat using a Wi-Fi network.

Otherwise this is a fully-specced smartphone, giving you all the major hardware features you'd expect, with HSDPA 7.2Mbps (where supported), Wi-Fi, GPS, Exchange support, email and so on. Setting up email is really easy, you simply plug in the details and it sorts it out for you.

Browsing the internet is gloriously fast, with most pages well supported and loading with easy, but with a lack of website Flash support through the Safari browser. Internet video is supported though, with quick access to YouTube and navigation through to BBC iPlayer keeping us entertained. File format support is a little limited, although adding content though iTunes will inform you if it isn't supported. With no microSD card slot, you can't expand the memory, or move things around as freely as you can elsewhere.

Then there is the App Store, providing easy access to your favourite social networking applications, but also endless variety of everyday applications to entertain, keep you informed or to support your work. The great thing about the iPhone and the App Store is the seamless integration. There are no "make-do" solutions as you find on other operating systems, the rich interactive experience flows through everything the iPhone does.

Another cool new feature is Find My iPhone and Remote Wipe, although this is only available to Mobile Me subscribers. With navigation being well integrated in the iPhone 3G S, it always knows where it is, so you can log-in to Mobile Me, and locate your phone on a Google Map. It's pretty cool and the same screen gives you the ability to send a message to display on your screen, or even, if you think it has been stolen, wipe the contents and restore it back to factory settings to keep your data secure.

The downside of all this data-rich technology packed into a tidy pocket package, is battery life. Apple claim they have improved the battery and we dare say they have, but that doesn't mean it will give you much better performance than before. It still remains the iPhone's nemesis.

The iPhone needs charging often, there is no way around that. We found, even without much usage, that it needed charging pretty much every 24-hours. Start roaming around town, making calls, using the GPS, listening to music or watching video and you'll find it complaining in less than a day. In fact, we charged it 4 times over the past weekend, compared to the humble single charge for a BlackBerry Curve. For some this will be a device they want to charge at home and at work to make sure they can stay connected.

Verdict

There are so many things that work well here making the iPhone a pleasure to use. Text entry is fast and responsive, the new MMS features bring it up to date, email, calendars and contacts are all well handled. Browsing is good and fast, the screen is sharp and bright (but not the best around). The new features like the compass and voice control make it just a little easier to use.

It may offer one of the best experiences that mobile telephony has to offer, but there is still room for improvement, meaning we can all look forward to future updates with that same palpable sense of excitement.