REVIEW: iPhone 3GS Is a (Small) Hardware Step Up

REVIEW: The Apple iPhone provides the best, lag-free performance of any iPhone, as well as native voice dialing, compass capabilities and support for Bluetooth 2.1. But many of Apple's latest and greatest features can be found in the iPhone 3.0 software upgrade, which is available for all previous iPhone models. eWEEK Labs tests the iPhone 3GS to determine whether the device and software improvements above and beyond the iPhone 3.0 upgrade are worth it.

The iPhone 3GS presents a bit of a conundrum.

The new smartphone is undoubtedly a step up from previous generations of the device, particularly as hardware improvements and optimizations enable the best, lag-free user experience seen to date from an iPhone. But because the latest version of the underlying iPhone OS software is freely available for installation on all previous iPhone models, upgrading to the newest hardware isn't necessary-or financially advisable-to obtain most of Apple's latest and greatest features.

The iPhone 3GS comes preloaded with iPhone OS 3.0, which adds long-awaited features such cut and paste, a landscape keyboard for multiple applications, and MobileMe-integrated tracking and wipe capabilities. The new iPhone 3GS hardware, on the other hand, offers a subtler mix of features, including voice control over phone and media playback, stereo Bluetooth support, and video camera capture and editing.

Cosmetically, the iPhone 3GS is a carbon copy of last year's iPhone 3G. The new device measures in at 4.4 by 2.4 by 0.48 inches and weighs 4.76 ounces. It features a 3.5-inch display with 480-by-320-pixel resolution. The one significant and welcome difference in the iPhone 3GS is the new fingerprint-resistant coating on the touch-screen, which does a good job of keeping finger grease at bay.

Available with either a black or a white rear casing, the iPhone 3GS offers two storage densities-16GB and 32GB. The 16GB model can be purchased for as little as $199 with a two-year contract (for those eligible for a full upgrade discount), with a full non-discounted price of $599. The 32GB model costs $299 with the full discount or $699 without. As with the previous iPhone, AT&T data service costs $30 per month (more for enterprise contracts) and extra for any SMS messaging plans.

Although Apple doesn't publish the specifications of the core hardware inside the iPhone, the iPhone 3GS definitely lacks the lag users frequently experienced when opening applications or typing on previous iPhone models. Third-party teardown analysis indicates that the 3GS contains a 600MHz Samsung ARM processor and 32KB of Level 1 cache (compared with the 418MHz ARM processor and 16KB cache in the 3G model). Third-party App Store application MemoryInfo also reports the 3GS has more memory available than previous models to run applications.

At long last, the 3GS brings native voice-dialing capabilities to the iPhone. By holding down the Home button for a few seconds, the user can trigger the voice recognition engine that controls phone and iPod activities. During tests, the 3GS did a good job recognizing phone commands-allowing me to easily dial phone numbers or contacts with my voice. These capabilities worked well using either the handset or a wired headset.

Voice control of media playback was more hit-and-miss, however. The 3GS lets the user voice trigger a certain song, artist or playlist; shuffle music; or query the device to repeat the name of the currently playing song. There's a certain syntax needed to get the device to play back the right content, and deviating from the syntax just a little bit can wield unexpected results. Unfortunately, voice controls do not extend beyond music and playlists, so I could not trigger playback of podcasts or audiobooks unless those files were previously organized in a playlist.

The iPhone 3GS includes support for Bluetooth 2.1, adding A2DP capabilities for stereo sound. However, I found in tests that the Bluetooth implementation in the 3GS hasn't yet been integrated with some of the other new features in the device, and it broke compatibility with Bluetooth devices that worked fine with previous iPhone models.

For instance, in tests I was able to easily connect a Motorola ROKR S9 headset with the iPhone, and I could hear stereo sound from both the integrated iPod and the Pandora App Store application. I found that while paired with the iPhone, the call button on the S9 could be used to answer or hang up calls, and the volume controls also worked. However, the call button on the Bluetooth headset could not be used to trigger the 3GS voice dial and search engine, and if I triggered voice dial from the 3GS itself, I could not speak into the Bluetooth headset for recognition. I presume we will see Bluetooth devices designed to work with the 3GS and voice search in the near future.

In subsequent Bluetooth compatibility tests, I found that I could successfully pair the iPhone 3GS with a BlueAnt Supertooth speakerphone, but no sound could be transmitted in either direction. The speakerphone did work as expected with an older iPhone 3G with iPhone 3.0 OS, indicating further compatibility issues with the newer 3GS model.