You will not find a better internet-connected smartphone than the Apple iPhone 3GS  (apart from possibly Apple's latest phone the Apple iPhone 4).

Apple's latest iPhone hit the shelves on Friday 19 June, 2009, but with less fanfare than previous models. The iPhone 3GS has the same case, style and, apart from the ‘S', the same name at its predecessor - the iPhone 3G. See also: Apple iPhone 4 review.

Updated, January 7, 2010:

In the two years since it first arrived, the iPhone has become synonymous with the consumer smartphone and the hero product for touchscreen gadgets. But is it really the best smartphone around?

Indisputably a market-changing device, the iPhone has twice been refined, gaining 3G, a faster processor and a subtly better camera along the way.

Issues of call quality and battery life have been addressed, although you'd still do well to keep the charger handy - it's such a strong, varied device that you'll use it all day long.

Apple iPhone 3GS review

With those much-trailed apps for everything, the iPhone is now whatever device you'd like it to be: a portable games console, the web on the go, a YouTube player or a repository of photos and music.

Other manufacturers had apps created by third-party commercial partners and admirers, but Apple found a way of monetising the interest and creating a buzz around personalising your gadget.

Web browsing is famously superb - that huge 3.5in display and the ease with which you can search the web and zoom in and out of pages is yet to be bettered.

This ease of navigation has now been added to the contact management features, so you can easily search for contacts and messages. Much of the data management is still dependent on iTunes, of course.

The camera is some way behind the pack, with a meagre 3 megapixels and no flash or zoom. However, we can't help but admire the neat and easy-to-use video capture feature, which is perhaps the most significant addition to the 3GS model.

The iPhone's handy accelerometer allows for true navigation rather than simple geo-location functions, even if it may not be quite good enough to replace a standalone satnav.

And we'd argue that the iPhone falls a little short when viewed purely as a phone - you shouldn't have to press that many keys just to get to the numerical keypad. On the other hand, we find the ability to call direct from numbers embedded in a message impressive.

NEXT: Original full iPhone 3GS review

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In many ways Apple’s new iPhone 3GS is a minor step forward for Apple. After all, it looks almost identical to its predecessor (the iPhone 3G), which itself offered very few changes from the original iPhone model. But with the iPhone 3GS, combined with the iPhone OS 3.0 Software Update, Apple has addressed all of its product’s key weaknesses while adding several important new strengths.

The competition (from Palm, Google, Nokia, and BlackBerry) is much closer to Apple now than it was two years ago. But the iPhone 3GS makes it clear: Apple is still leading the pack, in most cases by a wide margin.

RIM BlackBerry Storm 2 review

The S stands for speed, and although Apple is generally very tight-lipped about what's inside the iPhone 3GS, we understand that it has a slightly faster processor and more memory.

Apple iPhone OS 3.0 review

iPhone 3G S dismantled - in pictures

iPhone 3GS design

Externally, the iPhone 3GS is almost completely indistinguishable from the iPhone 3G model, which is still available for purchase. Front and centre is the iPhone’s signature feature: a bright, beautiful high-resolution 3.5-inch diagonal touchscreen, offering a resolution of 480-x-320 pixels.

The iPhone 3GS weighs 2 grams more than the iPhone 3G.

Instead of revamping the phone’s look and feel, the company’s designers are instead focused on the little things, like making it easy to wipe off greasy fingerprints.

The aforementioned smudge-proof coating, at least, is the real deal - during similar use, it attracted fewer fingerprints than an iPhone 3G did, and those fingerprints wiped off easily. Another benefit: The new screen's texture has an ultrasmooth glide to it. In contrast, our fingers would more easily catch on the iPhone 3G (typically as they passed over a fingerprint or three).

On top of everything, text appears slightly sharper. That's surprising considering that the iPhone 3GS has the same resolution as the iPhone 3G does. Apple says that fonts on the iPhone 3GS are rendered by the phone, as opposed to being bitmaps, and that this approach accounts for the smoother and sharper appearance of text.

Want to see what the iPhone 3GS looks like inside? Check out our feature “iPhone 3GS dismantled - in pictures”.

apple iphone 3gs

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iPhone 3GS speed boost and specs

The iPhone 3GS is a major step forward in terms of the iPhone’s technological underpinnings. Its processor runs at 600MHz, compared to previous models’ 412MHz. It’s got 256MB of RAM, compared to 128MB in previous models.

The result is an indisputably faster device, not just at some tasks, but at every task.

The hardware improvements are obvious as soon as you turn the phone on: the iPhone 3GS boots up in nearly half the time of the previous model. Last year's 16GB iPhone 3G booted to an interactive state in 54.6 seconds. The new 32GB iPhone 3GS was ready to use in just 29.2 seconds - about half the time.

Its Safari browser had the dramatically fastest JavaScript engine as measured by the SunSpider benchmark, and loaded web pages dramatically faster as well.

Every aspect of using the phone felt noticeably faster on the iPhone 3GS than on the iPhone 3G. Even actions that only took moments before now happen instantaneously.

The speed doesn’t stop with app launches and fast-loading web pages, either. The iPhone 3GS is just better when it comes to graphics. Games that featured jerky, low-frame-rate game play on the original iPhone and iPhone 3G – such as Crash Bandicoot Nitro Kart 3D - spring to life on the iPhone 3GS with high frame rates and smooth motion.

This speed boost will also give developers a bit of room to grow. Although the iPhone was already a lot more powerful than other mobile phones, developers only have a small amount of memory to work with and a much slower processor than they're used to in desktop computers.

But users can now expect more complex apps, and especially games, to run a lot faster on the iPhone 3GS.

NEXT PAGE: what comes with the iPhone 3GS >>

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You will not find a better internet-connected smartphone than the Apple iPhone 3GS.

What comes with the iPhone 3GS

The out-of-box experience is similar to last year's iPhone 3G. This year's model arrives in a slightly smaller box that contains the iPhone, a set of redesigned Apple earphones with remote and mic similar to those that come with the iPod Shuffle, a tiny wall plug with a USB connector and a USB-to-iPhone cord.

There's also a pamphlet describing some of the iPhone's new features, a handy SIM card ejector and the usual Apple stickers and legal disclaimers. Like the iPhone 3G, this version does not come with a dock. If you want a dock, you still have to pay £19 separately.

More iPhone 3GS unpacking photos in our feature “iPhone 3GS dismantled - in pictures”.

Protective cases designed for last year's model work fine with the new one. Older accessories also appear to work well, and Apple seems to have avoided a repeat of last year's problems, when a rewired dock connector broke compatibility with some third-party accessories.

In fact, the iPhone OS 3.0 software finally supports stereo Bluetooth connectivity for automobiles and wireless headsets, and Apple now allows third-party developers to write software that utilizes the iPhone's dock connector.

iPhone 3GS activation and set up

Hardware is only a part of the equation. Once you have the phone, you still have to set it up and get it activated so you can use it. How long that takes depends on a number of factors.

Activation is handled through iTunes, and it's necessary before you can do anything with the phone other than make an emergency call.

Once activated, you need to get your data onto the new phone. As a subscriber to MobileMe, Apple's package of Web-based online data services, all I had to do was enter my MobileMe address in the Mail application. Doing so began an instant over-the-air sync of my calendar, contacts, email and bookmarks. Within a minute, the phone contained everything I needed.

iPhone 3GS Mail

For those without MobileMe, similar support can be found in iPhone OS 3.0 for Google and Exchange, allowing for wireless syncing of contacts and email.

For businesses using iPhones in an Exchange environment, the most notable improvement is the iPhone's newfound ability to enable users to create meetings with invitations on Exchange systems directly from the phone. It's now possible to reserve conference rooms, a feature a lot of users had wanted.

What about making phone calls? This is, after all, an iPhone, not an iPod. We found call quality to be better when using the 3G network rather than the EDGE network my first iPhone used. The improved voice quality has much to do with the higher bandwidth offered by the 3G network.

NEXT PAGE: video camera

Compare the best pay monthly, pay as you go & sim only deals on iPhone 3GS 8GB

Our Apple iPhone 3GS review looks at the handset's new features, including faster performance, video camera, voice control, tweaked design and the 3D compass.

iPhone 3GS video camera

The iPhone 3GS finally addresses perhaps the iPhone’s weakest feature, upgrading the camera to a 3-megapixel model. It still won’t zoom or flash, and the low-light images it produces are better, but still not great.

Still, there’s no denying that this new camera is an improvement on the original. In general I found the images from the iPhone 3GS to be clearer, with brighter colours and sharper definition.

Aiding the iPhone 3GS camera’s output is the ability to focus, which the previous iPhone camera lacked. By default the camera auto-focuses on the scene you’re shooting, though you can tap on the touchscreen to make it focus on a particular object.

If that object is in a darker or lighter area of the frame, the camera will also adjust to make sure that location is properly exposed, even if that means other areas of the frame will be blown out or left in darkness. The focus isn’t exactly quick, but it does work, and the resulting images are definitely sharper than in previous models.

iPhone 3GS camera
Then there’s the big news with this new iPhone camera: it shoots video. It’s real video, too - not high-definition, granted, but full standard-def video. To shoot video, you flip the Camera app into video mode by touching a small switch in the corner of the screen and press the big red button. Once you hear a chime and see a time code begin to count upward from zero, you’re recording video.

I compared the video the iPhone 3GS shot to the video from my point-and-shoot camera, a Canon PowerShot SD700 IS. The iPhone’s video is much softer than the PowerShot’s, making it pleasant to look at but fairly lacking in detail. However, the audio recorded by the iPhone 3GS was excellent, far better than the quality of the PowerShot.

The iPhone 3GS shoots decent, albeit somewhat soft, standard-def video. It’s great for shooting video when your iPhone’s the only device you’ve got with you. If you want better-quality video, you probably want a dedicated video camera, ideally one that can shoot in high definition.

The video camera's inability to autofocus on the fly is a drawback. If you start off with a close-up shot of a subject, you can't zoom back to show the entire subject without the image getting blurry; the lens will remain at the focal depth of the original shot.

The end result is blurry footage until you stop recording and allow the camera to refocus. We hope this is something that can be remedied in a future software update.

Once you’re done shooting your video, the iPhone 3GS stores them within the (now confusingly named) Photos app. Videos appear in the same grid as still images, but with a small strip at the bottom of their thumbnail image with a small movie-camera icon and an indication of how long the clip is.

iPhone 3GS photos and videos

If you access your Camera Roll by tapping the small thumbnail icon in the bottom-left corner of the Camera app, you’ll see much the same thing, but this alternate view includes a toolbar that lets you display all media, just photos, or just video.

When you tap on a video, you can choose to play the video or, via a film strip that appears at the top of the screen, trim it by dragging the beginning and end points to different locations.

Once you’ve checked your video and trimmed it if necessary, the Photos app lets you share it with the world by emailing it, sending it to MobileMe, or uploading it to YouTube. Uploading was surprisingly fast and easy. And if you’re not a connoisseur of YouTube, no worries - emailing videos to Flickr and Vimeo worked like a charm, too.

Apple's "trim" function for footage uses destructive editing; once you trim the video, you lose what's been cut.

NEXT PAGE: voice control >>

Compare the best pay monthly, pay as you go & sim only deals on iPhone 3GS 8GB

Our first Apple iPhone 3GS review looks at the handset's new features, including faster performance, video camera, voice control, tweaked design and the 3D compass.

iPhone 3GS Voice Control

With the iPhone 3GS, Apple has added voice-command functionality, but the new Voice Control feature adds not just voice dialling, but voice control of the iPod features as well.

To initiate Voice Control, you hold down the home button or the centre button on the iPhone’s new three-button headphones for about two seconds. You’ll hear a quick double-chime indicating that it’s your turn to speak, and you’d better speak quickly.

When I remained silent, Voice Control somehow managed to tease commands out of the empty air around me, including attempting to dial random people in my phone book. (Press the button again if you want to abort your Voice Control session without saying anything.)

After the chime, you can choose from a small selection of commands. To dial a contact, just say “dial” or “call” followed by the name of the person you want to contact.

iPhone 3GS Voice Control

If you just say the first name, Voice Control will try to figure out who you meant. When I said, “Dial Dan,” it offered me - via a pleasant yet robotic female voice - all three Dans in my phone book, along with a “Pam,” as options.

If you say the person’s full name, accuracy increases. If your contact has more than one phone number, Voice Control will prompt you to choose from a list of options, such as “mobile” or “home.”

If you want to speed things along, say a person’s name followed by the number you which to call (“Call Sally Sparrow work.”) You can even tell Voice Control to dial a bare number, such as “Dial 867-5309.”

To control the iPhone’s iPod functions, you can choose from a slightly broader palette of commands. “Play artist Peter Gabriel” will automatically play all songs by Peter Gabriel, but by default they won’t be shuffled. If you re-engage Voice Control you can then say “shuffle,” and it’ll turn shuffling on.

You can also command that Voice Control play a particular playlist (“play playlist ‘Best of 2009’”) or album (“play album ‘Life and Times’”), trigger a Genius playlist based on the current song (“Play more songs like this,” or the less verbose command “Genius!”), and find out the name of the song (“What song is this?”).

However, you can’t choose to play a particular song, nor does Voice Control appear to have any access to audiobooks or podcasts.

In general, we found Voice Control’s accuracy to be decent, and it does pause briefly after declaring its interpretation of your command, allowing you to belay a misunderstood order.

Unfortunately, when it comes to Voice Control, the Phone and iPod applications are the beginning and the end of the story. No other built-in applications are supported, and it doesn’t appear that third-party applications are able to interact with Voice Control either.

NEXT PAGE: digital compass >>

Our first Apple iPhone 3GS review looks at the handset's new features, including faster performance, video camera, tweaked design and the 3D compass.

iPhone 3GS digital compass

Cub scouts will love the iPhone 3GS’s new digital compass. But it will take some clever app developers to make it truly awesome.

The iPhone compass does have some practical benefits. In the Maps application, tapping the crosshairs button once will locate your position on the map, but now a second tap will re-orient the map in the direction your iPhone is facing, eliminating the whole “hold the map upside-down so we can figure out where we are” effect.

iPhone 3GS compass

Unfortunately, the feature doesn’t work in Street View mode, which is odd.

I found the compass to be generally accurate, though occasionally it would get confused and require me to wave it in the air to clear up the problem. Sometimes, too, the compass would be a few degrees off, though a wave would generally get it back on track.

Adding a compass to the iPhone’s accelerometer means that app developers will be able to use that extra positional data in games and even user-interface innovations.

iPhone 3GS software

Of course, in addition to the features that are unique to the iPhone 3GS, this phone also offers a slew of new features that are available to all iPhones and iPod touches via the iPhone OS 3.0 Software update.

For details on all of those impressive new features, including copy-and-paste, broad support for landscape-keyboard mode, Spotlight search, Bluetooth A2DP support for stereo headphones (but, sadly, no support yet for external Bluetooth keyboards), Find my iPhone, voice recording, MMS, and tethering, see our full review of iPhone 3.0.

iPhone 3GS screen quality

When we first began using the Apple iPhone 3GS, I noticed that the colours didn't quite pop as we'd come to expect with the iPhone 3G. The more I explored various menus and apps, and the more we compared the phones side by side, the more we noticed that the iPhone 3GS seemed... well, different.

In some images, we detected a slightly greenish cast. We found the colour distinction quite noticeable on screens with white backgrounds, such as the search tab, the calendar, and the photo library. While some of these differences may not have stood out when we looked at the iPhone 3GS on its own, the distinction was stark when we put the new handset next to the 3G.

Looking at six iPhones (three 3G models and three 3G S models) with identical settings, we noticed that the 3G models shared the same screen characteristics. The iPhone 3G S models appeared to have a slight variance: two of the three appeared to have the duller texture, while the third seemed slightly brighter than those but not as bright as the 3G handsets.

iPhone 3GS cut & paste

When we asked Apple about this differentiation, a spokesperson said that the new oleophobic (oil-resistant) coating had no impact on the screen, as the coating is transparent. The representative also said that the coating should have had no impact on the colour temperature or the brightness level of the screen, since those settings are the same in the 3G and 3G S. In moving from the original iPhone to the 3G, the company did alter the colour temperature to achieve a warmer, more natural tone.

None of that information explains why we saw what appeared to be an even warmer screen on the iPhone 3GS.

NEXT PAGE: battery life >>

Our first Apple iPhone 3GS review looks at the handset's new features, including faster performance, video camera, tweaked design and the 3D compass.

iPhone 3GS battery life

The iPhone 3GS tech specs claim battery life of up to five hours of talk time (12 if you turn off 3G networking), five hours of Internet use (nine on Wi-Fi), 10 hours of video playback, 30 hours of audio playback, and 300 hours of standby time.

Those specs are slightly better in some areas than the ones Apple claimed for the original iPhone and iPhone 3G.

Apple says that it’s not so much that the iPhone 3GS battery is better than previous models - an iFixIt report suggests the battery holds only 6 percent more juice than the one in the iPhone 3G - but that the iPhone 3GS is able to use its internal hardware in a more energy-efficient manner, eking out more battery life under certain conditions.

iPhone 3GS smartphone

In general, the iPhone 3GS seems roughly comparable to the iPhone 3G in terms of resilience of the battery. If you spend an entire day on the go with the iPhone 3GS and are heavily using the internet the entire time, you will drain the battery.

Savvy iPhone veterans know to plug in their iPhones at home and at work, and if they spend a long time in the car, they plug in there too via an adaptor. (You can get more life out of your iPhone by reducing the amount of time you use the internet and by turning off 3G networking.)

NEXT PAGE: options >>

Our Apple iPhone 3GS review looks at the handset's new features, including faster performance, video camera, voice control, tweaked design and the 3D compass.

iPhone 3GS prices, options and upgrades

Until late 2009, in the UK, iPhone 3GS owners had to be O2 customers, and commit to being O2 customers for either 18 months or two years.

Today you can buy an iPhone with either an O2, Orange or Vodafone contract (from £30/month) or Pay As You Go (from £440). Click the links here to find the latest prices from each carrier.

When you’re considering an iPhone purchase you need to keep in mind the price you’ll actually pay and make your value judgments based on that price of phone and contract - or even the full unsubsidized Pay As You Go iPhone (PAYG) prices starting at £440.

iPhone 3GS prices

You’ll also need to consider that buying a phone for the lower prices commits you to your carrier for at least 18 months. Only new customers and those who are out of contract qualify for the new prices when the next version of iPhone is released.

If you’re convinced that Apple will unveil another snazzy next-generation iPhone again later this year (not a terrible bet, given the company’s track record), keep in mind that buying a subsidized iPhone 3GS today will likely hurt your eligibility for a new subsidized iPhone price as late as 2012 (if purchased on a 24-month contract).

iPhone 3GS internet tethering
If you want to use your laptop out and about, internet tethering lets you connect your iPhone 3G or 3GS to your computer and use it as a modem so you can get on the internet, much like mobile broadband.

You can buy iPhone Internet tethering from all three carriers.

Consider your current mobile phone bills and your potential new bills carefully when calculating the cost of an iPhone.

NEXT PAGE: our expert verdict >>

Jason Snell is Editor in Chief of

Michael deAgonia writes for Computerworld


The iPhone 3GS addresses most of the fundamental weaknesses of the previous models, adding raw speed, voice-activated phone and music navigation, an improved autofocus camera, and video-recording features.

With two major revisions in the past year, the iPhone platform has also progressed a long way. Beyond the wide variety of third-party apps, the base system has added copy-and-paste support; support for Microsoft Exchange calendars, contacts, and email; built-in voice recording; and search capabilities.

All of it works together to produce a more refined iPhone that first-time buyers will love and upgraders will appreciate.

If you’re upgrading from the iPhone 3G, you’ll appreciate the speed, although unless you qualify for a discount or have a friend or family member to give your iPhone 3G to, the upgrade price might make you consider waiting for what Apple’s 2010 iPhone might have to offer.

Users of the original iPhone will be floored by the speed of the phone and of the 3G wireless network, though they may find the phone’s shiny plastic back a step down from the original, elegant brushed-aluminium edition.

If you’ve never had an iPhone before, but are considering the purchase of a smartphone for the first time, you will not find a better internet-connected phone than the iPhone 3GS.

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