First look: iPhone 3G S is evolution in action

The iPhone 3G S is less revolutionary than its predecessors, but is still moving in the right direction

Bottom Line

The iPhone 3G S handset is well appointed, functional, and nicely packaged, but it’s not at the high end of the smartphone hardware scale. The OS and interface -- and the richly stocked App Store -- remain the best reasons to buy an iPhone. Unless you need 16GB or 32GB of storage, a compass, and a faster CPU, the $99 iPhone 3G will suit you as well as the more expensive iPhone 3G S.

After the drama that enveloped the last two iPhone releases, the party surrounding the iPhone 3G S is somewhat subdued. That's not because the 3G S is lacking. Rather, blame a troubled economy, in which it's much harder to justify spending for a new iPhone -- especially if you already have one.

The 3G S is identical to the 3G in form, distinguishable only by the lettering on the back. Inside, it's definitely a different animal. The CPU is faster, the RAM has been doubled, and there's a magnetometer, a 3-megapixel camera, and up to 32GB of storage. All of these pieces contribute to making the iPhone 3G S a formidable mobile computing platform, even though they are roughly in line with phones from other manufacturers. It's the apps and the interface that make the difference.

[ For more iPhone reviews and analysis from InfoWorld, see "First look: iPhone OS 3.0 is better for business, but IT won't be satisfied" and "Your next iPhone: iPhone 3.0 update or iPhone 3G S?" ]

There's certainly many "oh cool!" tricks in the 3G S, like the maps feature that combines the magnetometer with the GPS receiver to allow you to turn in any direction and have the map revolve to your position as you turn. I found the GPS receiver to be very fast and very accurate in linking to satellites. The camera is far better than the previous iterations, and the video recording and editing features are well done. I also found the voice control features to be useful, but the command listen duration seems too short, and voice control can be somewhat clunky to access.

A higher gear

I moved from an iPhone 2G to a 3G S, so the speed boost and new options were no doubt more dramatic to me than they will be to someone with a 3G. The speed is apparent immediately, with applications launching very quickly and navigation running much smoother than it did on my 2G. But after a few minutes, you won't notice anymore. The 3G S just does what you want when you want it, with little hesitation.

Otherwise, the 3G S offers roughly the same feature set as the 3G, especially with the iPhone OS 3.0 upgrade. Sorely lacking in both are tethering and MMS -- features that are supported by the device, but not by AT&T. This is a sad state of affairs for both Apple and AT&T; it's ridiculous to think that 22 countries and 44 carriers fully support these features, but they're not available to iPhone users in the United States. If anything underscores the fact that the United States is falling behind other countries in many technologies, this is it.

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