On schedule, Apple released the new iPhone 3.0 upgrade today. I’ve talked about those features in the past and in use Apple delivered well on what they promised.
The iPhone 3G S itself won’t go on sale until Friday 7am local time, but I was fortunate to get an early look at the new model. Here’s some thoughts. I’ve talked about the 3.0 updates in the past but combined with the new hardware, Apple once again has raised the bar for features and performance for smartphones along with changing the price/performance curve as well.
First, the hardware. The new iPhone 3G S hardware is very nice, and feels identical the 3G model it replaces, It has the same great hand feel. Apple says the screen now has a special coating to make it easier to keep clean. It definitely is easier to give the screen a quick swipe to get rid of accumulated face grease and other gunk. All older accessories I’ve tried seem to work well including the Mophie Juice Pack Air I sometimes use to augment battery life on plane rides.
The S in 3G S stands for speed and Apple isn’t kidding. This is the best performing phone I have ever used. Apple claims 2-3X performance and I believe it. Tasks such as launching and reading mail are much faster. Just swiping from page to page or paging through pictures is more fluid and seamless. Apps that were frustrating to use, such as the NY Times Reader now work flawlessly and nearly instantly. I found going to back to the 3G was almost frustrating after carrying the 3G S around for a bit. While the $99 3G might be tempting, the speed and overall performance, along with greater memory capacity should make the 3G S a serious choice for anyone purchasing. As a phone, The 3G S performs well and in general seems to get better coverage than my 3G. I find I get 3G connections more often and less dropped calls which is nice.
It’s a little early for me to talk battery life but it looks like it passes my personal battery test, can I make it through a very busy day of phone calls and data access without a recharge. That was something that was hard to do on the 3G but seems to be just fine on the 3G S. The iPhone still underscores the problem with smartphones, as they increase features and those features become usable, we will use them more and that will affect battery life. Start using your phone a lot for 3G access, phone calls and media playing and it’s a challenge to make the battery last as long as you’d like. Call quality was excellent over speaker, handset and Bluetooth. I also had no problems pairing and streaming Bluetooth audio to a set of Bluetooth speakers.
So what’s new other than speed and battery life? The new compass feature is quite cool and it ties nicely into the GPS/Google Maps app. While it sounds gratuitous, it’s actually quite useful to help orient yourself correctly when you’re out and about. Is it a killer feature? No, but it showcases the attention to detail that Apple puts into devices. The new voice control feature is fun and I found it to be quite accurate. Tied into the GPS is the new “find my iPhone feature”. This feature is for Apple’s MobileMe customers and is in my opinion worth the price of the Mobile Me service. Leave your iPhone somewhere and you can see exactly where you left with on screen maps on your PC. You can also a send a message to the device that will display along with an audio cue. Perfect for attracting a waiter’s attention when you leave your iPhone in a restaurant. Even better, it will sound the audio tone even if volume is off. Worst case, you can do a full remote wipe as well. While I didn’t test the remote wipe capability, the service had no problem finding the device when I left it on the living room couch and beeped loud enough so I could find it. Excellent feature!
As my car has integrated Bluetooth and voice control, it’s not a feature I use a lot but if you’re lacking such integration, the iPhone 3G S is excellent. I had no problem initiating calls, creating new Genius playlists Having the commands float by on the screen as part of the help function works quite well. The camera update is welcomed, although I’d still like some sort of flash for indoor use. The camera launches quickly (and can be set to load when you double click the home key). Pictures were nice and clear and the new 3MP resolution looks great. A flash would still be welcome. Video capture at 30fps in VGA quality worked well. I had no problems trimming a video clip and then sending it on through email. Unfortunately, I couldn’t test either tethering or MMS as neither is currently supported by ATT. Finally, the added memory capacity is quite welcomed. My test unit has 32gb of memory and this is the only unit I’d consider purchasing. Given the size of media files and new applications, make sure you’re thinking about your current and future needs before you buy. Like previous models, there’s no way to add memory to the device post purchase.
The 3.0 update delivers on what Apple promised and I’ve found almost no issues with the new OS and hardware in terms of backwards compatibility. The only application that didn’t work for me was Galaga which seems to flake out on the new video hardware. I haven’t had a chance to test 3.0 on older devices yet so it’s hard to tell whether it’s a hardware or software issue. All other games and apps I tested worked just fine.
As part of the 3.0 update, Apple has added cut/copy/paste as well as landscape support for the keyboard in most apps including mail. While a clipboard is nice, it’s not a feature I find I need that often (mostly to paste URLs from Safari into Tweetie). Landscape keyboard on the other hand is a huge improvement. I’ve never been super comfortable typing on the portrait display but with landscape mode I can type as well, if not faster, than I can on most keyboard based devices I’ve used. If you’ve been skeptical of the iPhone’s virtual keyboard, then you must try the new landscape mode. It makes a world of difference in my opinion.
Apple has also integrated Spotlight search directly into the UI. From the home screen it’s easy to search for an app, calendar appointment or email. In email, it’s not only possible to search email on the device but emails located on the server. This is a huge feature and something that every mobile device needs. Fortunately, it’s here today on iPhone.
Finally, the voice memo feature works, but I found the Mic pickup to be low and I had to speak much louder than I’d have liked to record. As with features like this, your mileage may vary. In addition, there’s a lot of little tweaks to overall usability and much better support for foreign languages. I changed the UI to Hebrew and had no problems working with full right to left character support. This will no doubt be welcomed in places outside of the US with non Roman languages.
The new hardware and software remain only part of the story and perhaps not even the most the least important part. Both the 3G S and OS 3.0 are evolutionary and not revolutionary (although parts are quite revolutionary) The real magic is in the all the software that’s available on the iPhone and iPod Touch devices, going back to first generation devices. That’s because iPhone is a now a bona fide software platform, with more than 50,000 applications. I’ve talked in the past how everyone wants to be a platform, because platforms are powerful, they generate revenue. But there’s a natural catch-22 to platforms. Developers typically are not interested in developing until there’s a solid base (like a million + units) and device companies can’t get that base without third party apps. Apple has now broken this logjam, giving a real user base of 40 million + devices fpr developers to go after. The app store is now the standard which other platforms will be measured against and will serve to not only help keep existing users but drive new users to the platform as well.
Bottom line? The iPhone 3G more than made up for my initial issues with the platform and the 3G S takes it to a whole new level in terms of performance and features. While Apple hasn’t fundamentally changed the way we organize and sync information as Palm has with Synergy or HTC ingrates with their new TouchFlo UI, they have done a good job of taking the platform to the next level and delivering a powerful updated experience.
Perhaps, it would be nice to see a removable battery but I’ve learned to live with sealed batteries over years of iPod and iPhone use and have never found it an issue. New buyers should strongly consider the upsell to the 3G S and avoid the 3G if budget permits. The performance gain, new hardware features and added capacity make the additional cost well worth it in my opinion. If you’re an existing 3G user, you’ll have to factor in that you’ve already been subsidized once by ATT and getting onto the new platform is going to cost more for you. That’s pretty much standard in the industry. I’ve already seen some ATT customers reporting they’ve been given the upgrade pricing. It’s worth a try and of course, it always pays to be nice and courteous when you make those calls. I personally would bite the bullet and upgrade, the performance and capacity alone make that equation worthwhile for me but if you don’t decide to upgrade, remember you can get many of the 3.0 software enhancements for free with the new update available today.
Nearly two years ago, Apple was a new player entering the market and was met with skepticism by some that they could have an impact so late in the phone game. The reality is Apple is now firmly established as a major player in the mobile space with a powerful combination of platform, services and devices with a solid foundation for future growth and adoption. The newest member of the iPhone family, the 3G S, while not perfect once again sets the standard for the competition and is the gold standard for smartphones. At least as of today.