iPhone 3G S shifts iPhone into new gear

Apple's new handset, due June 19, includes dramatic speed boost, better 3-D graphics, compass, and voice control, but no AT&T MMS or tethering at launch

Apple used the keynote address of its Worldwide Developer Conference to roll out new and updated models of MacBook Pro notebooks, talk up a $29 September update to its Mac OS X desktop operating system (Snow Leopard), and announce the delivery of its iPhone 3.0 OS. As it sometimes tends to do, Apple saved the keynote bombshell for last.

Apple's new handset, dubbed iPhone 3G S -- the "S" is for speed -- will land in U.S. stores on June 19, just two days after existing iPhone customers get their free update to iPhone 3.0 firmware. iPhone 3G S's faster processor speeds up everything, but the cited figure of a near-threefold improvement in JavaScript (Web application) speed stood out. That's a true comparison of iPhone 3.0's Safari browser running on the new versus old handset, not iPhone 3.0 on 3G S hardware versus iPhone 2.x on 3G.

[ Take a guided tour of iPhone 3.0. See how the iPhone 3G and BlackBerry Bold fare in a head-to-head comparison. ]

The new iPhone 3G S incorporates a 3-megapixel still camera with autofocus and automatic macro focus down to 10 centimeters. A touch-to-focus feature shifts the focus and metering point to any area on the screen. The image sensor also enables 30-frame-per-second, VGA-resolution (640 by 480) video capture with audio, and according to Apple, autofocus and autoexposure continue to work during video recording. On-phone video editing is accomplished by dragging markers on a filmstrip while video scrolls (using variable-speed playback) on screen.

iPhone 3G S uses its updated architecture to power three new features: device-wide hardware encryption, Voice Control, and OpenGL ES 2.0. Hardware encryption protects all of the data on iPhone 3G S and in desktop iTunes backup images. When a remote wipe command is issued from an iPhone 3G S user's MobileMe account, encrypted data will be erased instantly. Voice Control, activated by holding the Home button down, not only dials contacts from your address book by name, but issues commands to other iPhone apps as well. In iTunes, iPhone 3G S will respond to commands like "play other songs like this" and answer questions like "what song is this?" Open GL ES 2.0, a more advanced API for 3-D graphics and games, potentially brings iPhone 3G S closer to the graphics performance of Nintendo DS and Sony PSP handheld game consoles.

A compass has been added to iPhone 3G S's array of sensors. While it was demonstrated flipping a Google map to its proper orientation, the presenter was enthused about the compass's potential in game titles.

Even with its higher performance and more advanced features, Apple claims that iPhone 3G S considerably extends battery life to allow 9 hours of Wi-Fi surfing, 10 hours of video, or 12 hours of talk time on a single charge.

iPhone 3G S will go on sale June 19 at two price points. A 16GB model will cost $199 with a new two-year contract, and a 32GB model will go for $299. The phones will be available in black or white. Starting June 8, the existing 8GB iPhone 3G will drop in price to $99.

The WWDC crowd booed AT&T in absentia for sandbagging U.S. support for multimedia messaging (MMS) and PC/Mac tethering. These features will be available from wireless operators in several world markets as iPhone 3.0 and iPhone 3G S go global during the third quarter, but they won't appear in Apple's home market when the new firmware and phone launch in June. Apple said that AT&T will support MMS for iPhone 3.0 and iPhone 3G S later this year, but did not make a similar statement with regard to tethering.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.