Special Report: Living with iPhone 3GS (AKA Episode #88)

First things first: I'm sorry I didn't get this report/review done sooner. My excuse is that I had this little project (iPhone For Dummies, 3d Edition) that I had to finish before my publisher would unchain me from my desk. I assure you that as soon as I was cut loose I began writing.

It turns out the delay may turn out to be a blessing. You see, when I wrote my (much shorter) review for the Houston Chronicle I had only been using the new iPhone 3GS for a couple of days. And while I still agree with everything I said in that review, I now know a lot more about the phone and feel better qualified to express my opinions to you here.

By the way, in order to keep this review a manageable length, I'm going to focus on the iPhone 3GS handset and its exclusive features. Don't despair -- I understand a separate review of the free iPhone OS 3.0 update is in the works and should be available here soon (if it's not already available).

I began my Chronicle review by saying, "I won’t keep you in suspense... it’s easily the best iPhone yet." The only thing I'd add is that after almost three weeks of using the iPhone 3GS daily is that I like it even better now than when I wrote those words.

Overall Performance

I was on Craig Crossman's Computer America radio show last week and he asked what I liked best about the iPhone 3GS. It didn't take me more than a second to reply, "definitely the speed." Everything is faster. Apps launch faster. Almost all pages load significantly faster in Safari. E-mail attachments appear faster. Maps load faster and are more responsive to your touch. And games run better with noticeably higher frame rates.

Apple doesn't publish specs but it appears the iPhone 3GS has a faster processor, a faster graphics processor, and twice as much system memory as the iPhone 3G. If you're interested in reading more about the internals of the iPhone 3GS, here are some articles you might enjoy:

Oleophobic screen

The first time I saw the words "fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating" in the Apple literature I had no idea what it meant. When I looked it up, I found that Dict.org defines it as, "lacking affinity for oils." And that's just what it does. The iPhone 3GS screen has a special polymer coating that resists oil. It sounds weird and I was quite skeptical, but it turns out the stuff works great.

My iPhone 3G screen was almost always greasy and I would clean it several times a day with a microfiber cloth and occasionally using OmniCleanz (RadTech's advanced multi-use cleaner, which I love). When I read Apple's instructions for cleaning my iPhone 3GS. . .

If your iPhone has an oleophobic coating on the screen (iPhone 3GS only), simply wipe your iPhone’s screen with a soft, lint-free cloth to remove oil left by your hands and face.

. . . I was a bit concerned. But it turns out a quick swipe with a microfiber cloth (if I have one handy) or a soft t-shirt (if I don't) is all it takes to remove any fingerprints or grease from the iPhone 3GS screen. The cool part is I don't have to clean it several times a day. In fact, sometimes I don't have to wipe it off for days at a time, something I could never have done with my old iPhone.

I deem this a very good feature.

If you are interested in the science behind the oleophobic coating, Gizmodo had a great explanation by Bill Nye the Science Guy. Read it here.

Voice Control

The new Voice Control feature works as well as or better than voice dialing on any other phone I've owned. It's speaker independent so it requires no voice training, and its overall implementation is elegant beyond compare with one glaring omission.

To use Voice Control, press and hold the Home button for a couple of seconds. The Voice Control screen appears and a musical note plays so you know that your phone is ready for voice input. The cool part here is that until you begin to speak, random words you can use to command your iPhone -- such as call, play, previous track, play artist, and so on — float across the screen as shown here:

Voice Control Main Screen

If you say "dial" or "call" and the person has multiple numbers in your Address Book, Voice Control displays the person's name and "Multiple Numbers" on screen as shown here:

Voice Control Screen

At the same time your iPhone speaks the caller's name and lists the available phone numbers. In the figure above, the voice said, "Call Lisa LeVitus. Home, mobile, or work?" Notice that words representing the three appropriate answers -- home, mobile, or work -- float across the screen while your phone awaits your reply. That's elegant.

You can also control iPod functions by voice with commands such as: play (artist, album, or playlist), shuffle, next song, previous song, and so on. Or you can ask questions like, what's playing, what song is this, who sings this song, or who is this song by? You can even use the Genius feature to play similar songs by saying, play more songs like this.

It seems to recognize names of people in my Address Book somewhat better than it recognizes names of songs, artists, or playlists. That could be because I have a lot more songs on my iPhone than people in my Address Book. And it works best when there is little or no background noise, but that's to be expected.

The one thing I didn't expect is that while Voice Control works with the included Apple earbud headset, it does not work with any Bluetooth headset. You heard me -- it doesn't work with ANY Bluetooth headset. I don't know why and Apple's not talking, but I consider that a glaring omission. Even the old Sony-Ericsson mobile phone I had before iPhones existed let me voice dial through any Bluetooth headset.

I sure hope it gets fixed and sooner rather than later. It would be so sweet keep the phone in my pocket while I tap the button on my Bluetooth headset to make a phone call. Sigh.


The camera is decidedly better in the iPhone 3GS than in previous iPhone models. It offers 3 megapixels (vs. 2 megapixels in previous iPhones), so pictures have a higher resolution and more pixels (1536 x 2048 pixels vs. 1200 x 1600 pixels in previous models).

Picture Size

NOTE: This image has been reduced in size for Web viewing and is actually 600 pixels wide. It's meant to illustrate the relative difference in size between a 3MP image and a 2MP image.

The 3GS camera offers two other very nice features, namely autofocus and video recording.

Autofocus provides a couple of sweet benefits. The first is that it allows much better extreme close-ups (sometimes called "macro focus" or "macro lens"). You can see it in the picture above, but it's even more pronounced in this pair of pictures taken with the camera around 2.5 inches from the subject:


Extreme Close Up

The second tasty benefit is that you can tap the iPhone touchscreen to selectively focus on anything in the frame, letting you achieve a fairly dramatic depth-of-field effect as shown here:

Depth of Field

The image on the left is a screen shot of me tapping the toy in the foreground. Notice that the soccer ball and greenery in the background is out of focus. The image on the right is the picture I took after tapping on the soccer ball in the background. Notice how the ball is now the focal point and the toy in the foreground is a bit out of focus. That's soooo cool. While it's not a substitute for a DSLR or even a good point-and-shoot digital camera, it is a lot better than the original iPhone or iPhone 3G cameras.

Before I talk about video I'd like to mention that I've seen many reviews that proclaim that the new 3GS camera does a better job in low light situations. I'm not sure I agree, at least not all the time in every low-light situation. Under some lighting conditions the 3GS camera will take a better picture than the earlier iPhone models. But in other low-light situations, the older iPhone cameras actually do a better job as shown in this pair of images:

Low light

These images were shot within seconds of each other under the exact same lighting conditions and the same distance from the baseball card. As you can see, while the 3GS image displays slightly more detail and is a little bit more in focus, the 3G image is brighter and better exposed.

The bottom line is that the iPhone 3GS camera is a lot better than in previous generations in many ways. I feel that almost every picture I shoot is better than it would have been had I used my iPhone 3GS. That being said, there are certain situations where the older iPhones will capture better pictures in low light situations.

As for video, I've come to the conclusion that it's a great thing to have in your iPhone. I love the simplicity of trimming your video by dragging little handles at either end of the filmstrip as shown here:

Video screen

I also like the ease of sharing video via e-mail, MobileMe, or YouTube.

The actual video files import to your Mac or PC as 480 x 640 pixels (or 640 x 480 if you hold your iPhone sideways) QuickTime movies (.MOV). And while the quality usually isn't that great, it doesn't suck either. I've had several people ask if it was as good as video shot with a tiny Flip Video camera. The answer is a most definite, no. Even the best video I have ever captured with my iPhone 3G isn't as good as video from any of the Flip Video camcorders I've tested (and that's pretty much all of them). On the other hand, I don't carry my Flip camera with me every minute of every day. My iPhone, however, is never out of reach. So I'll definitely catch moments with my iPhone video camera that I would have completely missed capturing otherwise.

Bottom line: The 3GS camera is a huge improvement over the previous models.


The iPhone 3GS battery is supposed to outperform the iPhone 3G battery, at least according to Apple:

battery specs

Unfortunately I have no scientific way of proving or disproving those claims. (If you must know, the first problem is that I can't do without my iPhone long enough to test it performing those tasks until its battery dies, much less test it several times to insure accuracy. Furthermore, I can't sit still long enough to see precisely when the battery does die in each test.) I suspect the Apple numbers are somewhat optimistic for both models, but since they're probably equally optimistic for both models I suspect the 3GS really does get somewhat better battery life for 2G talk time, Wi-Fi Internet, video playback, and audio playback.

I can tell you that a full charge of the iPhone 3GS seems to last longer than a full charge of my iPhone 3G, but I wouldn't swear to it in court.

The one cool battery-related feature I can swear to is the iPhone 3GS battery percentage indicator shown in the top-right corner here:

battery percentage

I'm pretty sure it's not enabled by default; if you don't have it on your iPhone 3GS you can enable it by tapping Settings-->General-->Usage. By the way, I'm not sure why this feature is only available on the iPhone 3GS but I sure am happy to have it.


I have to admit when I first heard about the new Compass built into the iPhone 3GS I was underwhelmed. I can't remember even needing, wanting, or using a "real" compass so I didn't see what having one built into my phone was going to do for me. Turns out I was half right. The Compass app, shown below, is pretty much useless to me.

Compass App

You see, I don't much care which direction I'm going. If the Compass told me when I was headed in the right direction, well, that would be awesome. But telling me I'm pointing 271° West just doesn't do much for me.

But the Compass does something else that I find totally useful -- when you use the built-in Maps app it can spin the map to show which way you are facing. It's easier to show than to explain so watch closely.

I am standing on a street called Anderson Mill Road and I'm facing West. About 300 yards in front of me is a highway called either Research Blvd. or Highway 183 (depending upon who you ask). Here's the view from my eyeballs:

Compass view

If I launch the Maps app now, here's what I see:

Compass North

Notice that although I'm facing Research Bl./Hwy 183, the map displays Research Bl./Hwy 183 a little more than 90° to my left. Now I'm going to enable the Compass in the Maps app by double tapping the compass icon in the lower left corner. As soon as I do, the map spins around and a little cone of direction appears to indicate the way I am currently facing, which, in this case, is towards Research Bl./Hwy 183.

Compass Rocks!

And here's another nice touch: When the Maps app is in "Compass" mode, the little compass icon in the lower left corner displays its own little cone of direction as you see in the image above.

I wish I had this feature the last time I was in San Francisco. I got off the BART train and when I got up to street level and looked at the Maps app, I knew exactly where I was, but I had no idea which direction I should walk to get to my hotel. I stood on a street corner trying to figure it out for at least two minutes (I admit I'm a bit directionally challenged); having the Compass would have had me pointed in the right direction in an instant.

Other Stuff

Two other things I would like to mention before I conclude this already lengthy discourse.

First, the iPhone 3GS comes with a cool volume-adjusting headset. That is, in addition to the usual Answer/Disconnect/Play/Pause/Next Track/Previous Track button, this one also has + and - buttons that let you adjust the volume without touching your iPhone. Too bad the earphones still suck.

Second, the iPhone 3GS has Nike+ iPod apparatus built into it and a Nike+ iPod app that magically appears if you have a Nike+ iPod sensor that goes into or onto your shoe (available for around $20-30).


If so, your iPhone can keep track of your workouts -- how far you run, how fast you run, how many calories you burned, and more. It's pretty cool if I do say so myself. Since I have the sensor, I'm thinking about actually starting an exercise program now that I have an iPhone that can keep track of it! (On the other hand, it's been over 100° here every day this week... maybe I'll wait for cooler weather).

For more info about Nike+ iPod, click here.

To Buy or Not to Buy

So do you want one? That depends. The first thing I'd consider is your budget. If you don't already have an iPhone or a contract with AT&T, you have three choices -- the 8GB iPhone 3G for $99, the 16GB iPhone 3GS for $199, or the 32GB iPhone 3GS for $299. All three prices also require a 2 year contract with AT&T.

If you're already using an iPhone with AT&T your pricing may or may not be the same, depending on how many months remain on your contract. To determine the price you'll pay for a new iPhone, check your eligibility by clicking here.

My opinion: If you can afford the iPhone 3GS you definitely want one for all the reasons outlined above. As you might expect, I'm ordering one as soon as Apple asks for this review unit back.

On the other hand, if money is tight, the $99 8GB iPhone 3G is still an awesome phone at a great price. Or, if you already have an first generation iPhone or an iPhone 3G, just remember it's an iPhone. Even though it may not be the latest and greatest, it's still one of the best phones ever built.

One Last Thing

If you're like me, you can't get enough of this stuff and wouldn't mind reading some other opinions of the iPhone 3GS. Let me make it easier for you -- here are some other reviews by people and publications I trust:

And that's all he wrote. . .