Your next iPhone: iPhone 3.0 update or iPhone 3G S?

Between Apple's free OS upgrade, the new next-generation handset, and the heavily discounted 3G, it's decision-time for both devotees and holdouts

Over the course of two weeks in June, Apple will deliver more new phones than any mobile handset manufacturer in history. On June 8, paid members of Apple's iPhone Developer Program were given access to the GM (gold master) of iPhone 3.0 firmware, along with a matching version of the iPhone SDK. On June 17, owners of all models of iPhone and iPod Touch will be able to download the iPhone 3.0 update through iTunes. And on June 19, Apple will start selling the iPhone 3G S, a faster iPhone 3G with longer battery life, an autofocus camcorder, a compass, and other goodies. Meanwhile, the original 8GB iPhone 3G will continue to be sold for the giveaway price of $US99.

I say that Apple will set a record in new phone shipments because iPhone 3.0 creates an entirely new platform on every existing device updated to use it. The reach of Apple's OS update is unprecedented, and the fact that it overlaps with the release of a new handset creates some confusion. Some people are wondering what iPhone 3.0 is, what the iPhone 3G S has that the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3.0 don't, whether the original iPhone 3G is still worth buying, and whether owners of the existing iPhone 3G should upgrade. I'll do my best to address these questions.

iPhone 3.0 is a new feature bonanza that requires no new hardware. It will be delivered as an operating system update for owners of all models of iPhone, iPhone 3G, and iPod Touch. Just use your USB cable to connect your iPhone or iPod Touch to your Mac or PC after June 17. iTunes will detect the update, back up your device, download the iPhone 3.0 OS, copy the OS to your device's flash memory, and restore your data and apps. Your device will reboot with an extraordinary set of new features. If you have an iPhone, any model, iPhone 3.0 is free. If you have an iPod Touch, any model, it's $US9.95.

It seems like all the iPhone users I know are in the iPhone Developer Program and already running the iPhone 3.0 beta (now, gold master), so I've been treating the new OS as if it's already shipped. It almost got past me what a huge day June 17 is going to be for that vast majority of iPhone owners who are currently running a 2.x OS.

3.0 is the charm

No matter what kind of mobile device you're carrying, you've never seen a firmware update like iPhone 3.0. It re-creates the device. Heading off the list of changes is global support for cut, copy, paste, and undo. When I say "global," I mean that the functionality has been added at the framework/API level, so all iPhone apps not only inherit the pop-up toolbar that makes drag-selecting text and graphics a cinch, they share a single system-wide pasteboard with other apps. Of course it works with text, but you can send someone an image, or a block of formatted HTML plus an image, from a Web site just by copying it out of Safari and pasting it in an e-mail message. In every built-in and third-party app I've tried, it works. Undo takes advantage of iPhone 3.0's new shake gesture.

The aforementioned Safari browser got a great deal of love in iPhone 3.0. Insanely aggressive development of the underlying WebKit browser engine in the run-up to iPhone 3.0's release gifted mobile Safari with a turbocharged JavaScript interpreter, embedded streaming video and audio support, and a 97 out of 100 score on the Acid3 browser compatibility test, making iPhone the premier device for mobile Web applications. The new Safari also has optional auto-fill of HTML forms and stronger parental (or corporate) controls. The browser is one place where the new landscape keyboard really comes in handy. Plus, I find that typing accuracy and the quality of word completion guesses are much improved overall in iPhone 3.0.

What else is new in iPhone 3.0? Almost too much. A2DP Bluetooth headphones and wireless speakers are supported in iPhone 3.0, and they sound fantastic. You can buy and rent movies from the iTunes Music Store from your phone (downloading requires Wi-Fi), and iTunes U has been integrated into iPhone's iPod app. Apple's notification service lets developers wire asynchronous pop-ups into their apps that will appear on your device's screen even when the app isn't running. Instant messages, update notices, wake-up calls, you name it -- if you're a need-to-know-now kind of person, iPhone's got you covered, and without the overhead of running an app in the background just to listen for notifications.

iPhone hide and seek

One feature of iPhone 3.0 not discussed prior to WWDC '09 is Find My iPhone, a service that drives home my assertion that all individual iPhone buyers should factor the $US99 yearly cost of a MobileMe subscription into their purchase. Find My iPhone does what it says: It shows you, on a map, where your (or your kid's) iPhone is. You can enter a "please return me" message that will appear on the phone's display, or you can issue a remote blanking command that will erase your personal data. A nice loud tone plays, too, even if you have the phone in silent mode, so you can figure out which sofa cushion or bag pocket is concealing your iPhone 3G.

Finding your misplaced iPhone is one thing. Finding misplaced data on your iPhone is a job for Spotlight. Just sweep the Spotlight interface onto the Home screen, start typing, and global search results fill in as you type. Just like on a Mac, you can tap a match to open the appropriate app. A Snow Leopard-inspired feature extends iPhone Spotlight searches to include data on an Exchange Server host, including messages that you haven't yet downloaded to your phone.

What'll really grab you about the new iPhone OS is the deluge of new and improved App Store software that is the result of Apple's brilliant embrace of developers. Apple claims its App Store now has 50,000 applications. Once iPhone 3.0 is delivered, that number will easily double by the end of the year. Expect an absolute explosion in hardware accessories that use the docking connector as well. TomTom used this to create the to-die-for car kit accompanying its turn-by-turn navigation software. If a game pad doesn't show up within a month of iPhone 3.0's release, that's my ticket to riches.

The AT&T way

You'll love that Voice Notes is now a standard app in iPhone 3.0, and that you can send and receive audio or pictures via MMS if your wireless operator permits it. If you're in the United States, your wireless operator (AT&T) does not permit MMS on iPhone, but no matter. In the United States, when you hit the Share button in Voice Notes or Camera, you'll be invited to e-mail your media. iPhone connectivity to various media sharing services is easy to come by in App Store.

AT&T's decision not to support tethering, a business-friendly iPhone 3.0 feature that will be available where carriers permit it, strikes a decidedly sour note. Much will be made of this, but keep in mind that tethering is also not supported in T-Mobile G1 or Palm Pre (among many other models), and BlackBerry and Windows Mobile devices that support tethering require a service plan upgrade. Carriers, not just AT&T, prefer to sell computer cellular data connectivity separately. I'll wager that if you're buying a container load of iPhones from AT&T for distribution to employees, on the condition that they support tethering, the carrier will work with you.

Now, in all of this I've not mentioned the iPhone 3G S at all, and that's partly to make a point: Most of what people consider new in the iPhone doesn't require buying the new iPhone. If you already have an iPhone, you can think of iPhone 3.0 as Apple's gift to you of a new phone in the shape of a software upgrade.

S is for superior

If you don't yet own an iPhone, that's another matter. Even though I have not yet reviewed the iPhone 3G S, I will offer this advice: Skip the sale-priced iPhone 3G and get the iPhone 3G S. The price, $US199 for 16GB of flash and $2US99 for 32GB, is more than right. The faster processor in the iPhone 3G S should make a big difference in 3-D and Web applications. I hope too that the overall user experience of closing and launching apps, a frequently invoked sequence that compensates for the iPhone's lack of multitasking, will improve markedly. The scope of custom applications that the iPhone 3G S can handle should expand as well. Some App Store software and in-house apps that are now implemented as native software for performance reasons might run in the simpler environment of the near-perfect Safari browser.

My expectations for the iPhone 3G S are bolstered by the performance-hungry features that Apple's engineers were able to squeeze into the new phone. The iPhone 3G S has a higher-resolution, autofocus camera that also shoots VGA-resolution video at 30 frames per second. I have a lot of high-end phones, but none that's fast enough to record video like that, much less edit it in the phone as the iPhone 3G S will do.

You can download voice dialers from App Store, but the iPhone 3G S's Voice Control looks a lot like Speakable Items on the Mac with its ability to drive other applications and answer questions. (Responses presumably appear on screen; if text-to-speech were a feature, surely it would have been demonstrated.) Speaker-independent voice recognition with a flexible vocabulary requires speed. Hardware-based data encryption, also a performance-sensitive feature, was mentioned in the WWDC keynote but does not appear in Apple's online marketing.

The iPhone 3G S also has a hardware compass to tilt your maps the right way before you start driving, but I don't think that will push a lot of iPhone 3G owners to pay a premium for a mid-contract device upgrade. I think that the most compelling reasons to upgrade from the iPhone 3G to iPhone 3G S will be speed and the 32GB capacity of the $US299 model. If the App Store really does hit 100,000 apps by the end of the year, as I expect, 8GB will be tight quarters for many iPhone users.

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