iPhone 3GS

If it ain't broke, don't fix it -- right? We know countless reviews of the iPhone 3GS may begin with that cliché, but there's little chance you'd find a better way to describe the strategy that Apple has just put into play with its latest smartphone. In many ways, the 3GS is a mirror image of the iPhone 3G; externally there's no difference. It's inside where all the changes have happened, with Apple issuing a beefed-up CPU, new internal compass, larger capacities for storage, and improved optics for its camera. More to the point, the release of the 3GS coincides with the launch of iPhone OS 3.0, a major jump from previous versions of the system software featuring highly sought after features like cut, copy, and paste, stereo Bluetooth, MMS, tethering, video recording, landscape keyboard options for more applications, and an iPhone version of Spotlight. At a glance, what Apple seems to be doing is less a reinvention of the wheel and more like retreading the wheel it's already got (and what a wheel, right?). So, do the iPhone 3GS and OS 3.0 tweak the details in just the right places, or has Apple gone and gotten lazy on us? Read on to find out.

As we said in the intro, there is nothing visually different about the iPhone 3GS versus the iPhone 3G, save for the lettering on the back, which is now mirrored like the Apple logo. While we had seen leaked images of a matte finish, bezel-free version of the device, when push came to shove, what we got was essentially a carbon copy of the iPhone 3G. In terms of the general elements of the phone -- the plastic casing, mute switch, home and power buttons, etc. -- there is no change at all. In fact, if you were to lay this phone and its predecessor next to one another face up, the new model would be indistinguishable. Of course, the 3GS is not just a clone of the previous device, and Apple has made most of its significant changes inside the phone.

First off, the company has supercharged the CPU of the 3GS (remember, the S is for speed), jacking up the processor numbers from 412MHz to a rumored 600MHz. Additionally, the RAM is said to have doubled from 128MB to 256MB, the phone is offered with 16GB or 32GB of storage, and Apple has swapped out the previous graphics chip for a new version -- dubbed the PowerVR SGX -- which adds support for more robust visuals via OpenGL ES 2.0. All this should mean that end users will see a noticeable difference in app speeds and loading times (Apple claims an average of 2x faster loads, though since the company has been cagey about upgrade details, it's hard to know what the real differences are).

A spot where we really saw the fruits of Apple's labors (and one we don't expect to decline as you pile on data) was actually in the more graphically intense apps for the phone. Comparing a CPU-hungry 3D game like Resident Evil: Degeneration on the 3GS with the same title 3G yielded striking results. The load time was drastically reduced, and rendering and frame rates on the game were noticeably smoother than on the older device (though game speeds stay the same) -- a side effect of the more powerful guts we'd hoped to see, but weren't sure would be so stark. If you're an avid gamer looking for the device with more power, the difference will be crystal clear: the 3GS obviously flexes in this department.

We mentioned that Apple didn't really make any cosmetic changes to the phone, but that's not entirely accurate. While the 480 x 320 display on the iPhone 3GS is technically identical to its predecessor's screen, it adds one small feature which should make some users extremely happy.

The company has changed the treatment on the surface of the touchscreen, utilizing an oleophobic coating -- essentially a protectant that's highly resistant to fingerprint smudging. For those of you constantly wiping burger grease, WD40, and various other toxic materials from your iPhone, this will come as a tremendous little perk. The most surprising thing about the tech is that it actually does what the company says it will: namely, it resists new smudges and wipes almost entirely clean with a single swipe on a pant leg. This wasn't exactly the most pressing issue we had with the phone, but it's nice to know that Apple is innovating in the dirty screen space.

A camera tweak is a big deal for iPhone fans -- after all, they've had to suffer through not one, but two iterations of a phone with a paltry 2 megapixel camera, no autofocus, and no flash. Apple has tweaked two out of three here, and as Meat Loaf tells us, that ain't bad. The 3GS upgrades the built-in camera to a 3 megapixel version -- not insanely great, but at least competitive -- and has added an autofocus function with a nifty software tie-in. Instead of having to use a gross physical button to snap your shots, the iPhone continues to rely on its onscreen trigger, but cranks up the use of that big display by allowing you to focus in on subjects based on where you tap. In our experience, the parlor trick actually turned out to be quite useful, accurately zeroing in on what we wanted most of the time. Struggles to focus were minor at best, though you won't be able to do any heavy macro work here, and during video recording you're stuck with a constantly focusing lens -- no tapping allowed.

We do have some complaints about exposure, which seems to be permanently cranked to "blinding," and while the shutter speed is faster than on the 3G, it's still not quite snappy enough for our taste. Hey -- we guess we should just be glad they gave us an extra megapixel, right?

As we said in the opener, the 3GS launch isn't just about the hardware -- in fact, you could argue that it's hardly about the hardware. The biggest changes with this device really come in the form of software tweaks, and to a point, the software tweaks provided by iPhone OS 3.0. Apple really piled on the fixes and additions in its latest OS iteration (the company boasts of 1,000 new APIs for developers), and there's plenty to plow through that up until now has only been the domain of those lucky / hard working few. What's all the fuss about? See below.

We'd like to preface this section by saying that because we're testing a US device, MMS and tethering options are disabled thanks to AT&T's current policies on the services. Obviously, not being able to properly test two of the most anticipated aspects of the new OS is disheartening, and while we could hack a solution to get both working (see here), it's not a reasonable option for most end users right now, and probably wouldn't be fair to include in this review. On a "brighter" note, AT&T claims it will be delivering MMS to the iPhone come late Summer as part of its standard SMS packages (no word on tethering), though we think it's patently absurd that the second largest carrier in America -- a carrier which currently has MMS enabled for all of its other devices -- is failing to make this available at launch. Judging from the reaction to this news during the WWDC keynote, it would seem that most others agree. Apple included.

Compass / Google Maps
It may seem like an odd choice, but Apple decided to stick a proper compass inside the 3G S. At first we were a little perplexed by the addition, since we've gotten in this weird habit of expecting bolder moves from the company. Still, in practice the inclusion of a hardware compass is actually really helpful when it comes to doing things like navigating a new city. As far as the hardware is concerned, the compass seems to do what's promised with pretty impressive accuracy.

The Compass app itself, viewed as a standalone product, doesn't really do much for us. We rarely have a need to know which direction we're facing or where north is in relation to where we're standing -- it's just not a piece of data we typically use. The combination of Google Maps and the compass, however, is a powerful marriage that could put an end to many of your navigation woes. Within Maps, you now have the option to not only locate your position via GPS, but orient the map to the direction you're facing. Once the compass picks up your bearing, it rotates the map to reflect. This may not sound like much, but if you've ever tried to walk a new city using just maps and geolocation, you'll understand quickly. Being able to not only see your surrounding landmarks, but how they relate to you from a directional standpoint is incredibly useful, and we found ourselves reaching for the help often with the 3GS. One sour note was that you're not treated to the same reality-bending feat of using the compass while in street view (as Android does -- always great at parties), though it's a minor complaint. We can't say what extended functionality the compass will hold, but the pairing with GMaps here is enough to make it a worthy addition in our opinion.

Landscape keyboard, Nike+, A2DP, further thoughts on iPhone OS 3.0
There are lots of little odds and ends, improvements both small and large, in the iPhone OS 3.0. At the time of this writing, anyone with an iPhone or iPhone 3G should be able to download and test most of them, but we wanted to give a brief overview / opinion on the ones that stood out to us.

The first big one that stands out is the extension of a landscape keyboard to all of the main applications in Apple's arsenal. That means you now have access to the more spacious layout in Mail, Notes, Messages, etc. There are a lot of users out there who were hoping this day would come, and we'll admit, our typing accuracy definitely goes up when we bust out the broader keyboard. Like copy and paste, this is probably an addition that should have been part of the package right out of the gate, but better late than never guys.

Another addition is the inclusion of Nike+ for the 3GS. The app itself is identical to the version which we've already seen for the iPod touch, but it's now in convenient iPhone form. We don't know about you, but carrying around the iPhone for a jog doesn't seem like the best option to us (then again, we don't know if carrying around a touch is preferable). Still, we won't knock Apple for trying to cram as much functionality into this thing as possible -- this is a welcome addition.And for those wondering about A2DP -- it's here, and it works flawlessly. Testing things out with the Motorola ROKR S9-HD yielded a simple pairing right out of the gate, and the sound quality was excellent. We thought we'd never see the day where Apple came around to a stereo Bluetooth profile, but it's here, and it's fantastic.

It's clear that Apple has taken great pains to listen to users and go over the OS with a fine tooth comb -- you see the company's careful work in places like the call log (which now shows much more detailed info on callers), upgrades to standard apps like Stocks, and the thoughtfulness of adding oft-requested features like voice memo recording. We're not saying Apple has gotten kind and gentle, but the company does seem more kind and more gentle as it insinuates itself into the mainstream.