iPhone 3GS: refinement in stylish package

New hardware offers a speed boost, but the overall look remains the same

Getting going

Hardware is only a part of the equation. Once you have the phone, you still have to set it up and get it activated so you can use it. How long that takes depends on a number of factors. Activation is handled through iTunes, and it's necessary before you can do anything with the phone other than make an emergency call. There were reports of activation delays over the weekend, but I had no problems activating my phone on Friday, and a Computerworld editor reported no delay in activating another iPhone 3GS on Saturday. By now, those problems should be about gone.

Once activated, you need to get your data onto the new phone. As a subscriber to MobileMe, Apple's package of Web-based online data services, all I had to do was enter my MobileMe address in the Mail application. Doing so began an instant over-the-air sync of my calendar, contacts, e-mail and bookmarks. Within a minute, the phone contained everything I needed.

For those without MobileMe, similar support can be found in iPhone OS 3.0 for Google and Exchange, allowing for wireless syncing of contacts and e-mail. For businesses using iPhones in an Exchange environment, the most notable improvement is the iPhone's newfound ability to enable users to create meetings with invitations on Exchange systems directly from the phone. It's now possible to reserve conference rooms, a feature a lot of users had wanted.

What about making phone calls? This is, after all, an iPhone, not an iPod. I found call quality to be better when using the 3G network rather than the EDGE network my first iPhone used. As a matter of fact, a friend from England noted the improved voice quality, which has much to do with the higher bandwidth offered by the 3G network.

That said, AT&T is still AT&T. The day the iPhone 3GS was launched, I had friends complain that they couldn't even make a phone call in the Orlando area without the connection dropping -- if they could get through at all. Considering Apple's tone at this month's WWDC -- and AT&T's slow rollout of MMS and its lack of support so far for tethering -- some Apple execs obviously aren't thrilled with their partner.

Although MMS support is supposed to be in place by the end of the summer, AT&T has yet to say when it will allow users to tether the iPhone to a computer and use it as a modem.

Long-lasting battery

If you're someone who likes to gab, you'll be happy to learn that the iPhone 3GS's battery life is pretty good. I spent a significant amount of time on the iPhone; it wasn't out of my hands for more than five minutes the first few days I had it. It was in heavy use one day from 10 a.m., when I unplugged it from the wall charger, until after 8:30 p.m., when it finally needed a recharge. That's 10.5 hours of constant use.

If that doesn't sound impressive, consider that I sent three dozen text messages, made half a dozen phone calls, edited photos with Photogene, browsed the Internet extensively, wrote several dozen e-mails, updated software on the phone, tested the GPS and Compass features, updated my Twitter status, used the camera and video recorder, shared several videos over e-mail and played a networked game of Apple's Texas Hold 'Em game with friends while controlling the sound system using the Remote app and iTunesDJ.

Note: I turned off Bluetooth and the "search for Wi-Fi networks to join" feature. Those two factors will help extend battery life.

The next day, after recharging the iPhone, I was able to stretch the battery life even further. Over the course of the day, I made a half-dozen phone calls, sent a dozen text messages, took some photos and videos, surfed the Web, played several video games, used it on a mile-and-a-half jog to test out the Nike+ integration, and played some music. Fifteen hours later, the battery was still half-full.

For comparison purposes, the iPhone 3G running iPhone OS 2.0 only lasts about five hours. Software updates from Apple helped extend battery life a little, but the 3G's fast battery drain is one reason I held onto a first-gen iPhone for so long.

More good news

Another major improvement is the new 3-megapixel camera. Picture quality is significantly better than it was with the old 2-megapixel, fixed-focus camera. The new camera auto-corrects white-balance, and you can focus the shot simply by tapping an area of the screen. It's a simple and intuitive way to focus -- and it works.

Video recording is an even more welcome addition, and the iPhone handles the task fairly well -- it works well enough that most people who use consumer-grade recording gear might opt to use the iPhone 3GS instead. But the video camera's inability to autofocus on the fly is a drawback. If you start off with a close-up shot of a subject, you can't zoom back to show the entire subject without the image getting blurry; the lens will remain at the focal depth of the original shot. The end result is blurry footage until you stop recording and allow the camera to refocus. Hopefully, this is something that can be remedied in a future software update.

Also, Apple's "trim" function for footage uses destructive editing; once you trim the video, you lose what's been cut. Within those limitations, it is handy to be able to shoot decent-quality VGA video -- 640 pixels by 480 pixels -- and edit on the go. Plus, you can upload the video directly from the iPhone to YouTube and share videos through e-mail.

Other welcome additions, some of them long overdue, include the ability to sync the iPhone's Notes app with your computer, the systemwide Cut/Copy/Paste function, and the Voice Control feature. Each one is well integrated into user experience. You can copy text from one application and paste it into another, for instance, and Voice Control can be used to dial the phone. As with all voice-activated software, your mileage may vary, but overall I've found it pretty accurate.

The Maps application has been updated to take advantage of the new Compass app, but only superficially. By tapping the Locate Me button in the lower left of the Maps app, the iPhone will lock onto your position using GPS. Tapping the button twice rotates the map to indicate which direction you're facing; it changes in real time as your location changes. But Street View -- the portion of Maps that allows you to look around from the perspective of someone standing on the curb -- lacks Compass support, which would have been a useful addition. Superfluous? Maybe. Cool? Definitely. As I noted in my first look at the 3GS, last year's iPhone 3G was all about the network. This year's model is all about updated hardware: a faster processor, more RAM, more storage space and a better camera.

All of it works together to produce a more refined iPhone that first-time buyers will love and upgraders will appreciate. The design is classic iPhone, and the price for what you get still makes it a deal -- assuming you qualify for AT&T's subsidized pricing. No doubt, the OS is still a work in progress. But if you're sold on Apple's i-Universe (iTunes/iPod/iPhone), this latest update enhances what is already the industry-leading mobile experience.

Michael deAgonia is an award-winning writer, computer consultant and technologist who has been using Macs and working on them professionally since 1993. His tech-support background includes tenures at Computerworld, colleges and Apple, and in the biopharmaceutical and graphics industries. He has also worked as a Macintosh administrator at several companies.

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