Apple iPhone 3GS review: Same clothes, new feel

GSMArena team, 30 June 2009.
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Tags: Apple, iPhone 3GS

General user interface and key features

On the surface, the traditional flat (no submenus) interface should be all too well familiar by now. Tap an icon to open an application, and then press the hardware Home key to close the application and return to the Home screen. That's all there is to it. Only the Settings portion goes several levels deep.

Apple iPhone 3GS
Main menu

As you've probably seen on the previous page there are quite a few changes that have been introduced by iPhone OS 3.0.

Regular iPhone users won't notice any performance improvements just by the very fact of upgrading (except perhaps in the web browser), but the new iPhone 3GS does bring some pure American muscle in the equation. The original iPhone 3G is a responsive device by all means, but the capable hardware under the hood of the 3GS makes a noticable difference. The iPhone 3GS is faster in all aspects - initial starting of menus, programs, and the responsiveness of screen auto rotation has also noticeably increased.

We've prepared an impromptu speed test between the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3G. Though it's nothing professional, we admit, it does give a perspective to how the new iPhone handles some everyday tasks.

After we shot this video, we also decided to clock the opponents and give you some figures to chew on. So here it goes (taken straight from the video above):

Task at handiPhone 3GSiPhone 3G on 3.03GS over 3G
Opening gsmarena.com over Wi-Fi13.7 sec16.0 sec17% advantage
Opening autoblog.com over Wi-Fi17.4 sec28.9 sec66% advantage
Opening Google image search over Wi-Fi6.4 sec10.2 sec59% advantage
Launching Fast&Furious native demo9.3 sec17.6 sec89% advantage
Launching Google Earth native app24.4 sec41.4 sec70% advantage

In case you are interested in some more numbers, we also clocked how long it takes the iPhone 3G and 3GS to boot the iPhone 3.0 OS. Well iPhone 3GS finished in 15 seconds, while the old dog needed twice as much time.

In terms of new useful features brought about by 3.0 the first thing to mention is definitely the system-wide system search engine Spotlight. The easiest way to start that is by sliding left from the main Springboard screen.

By defaults, the iPhone searches in 9 "places": contacts, music, applications, mail, calendar, notes, audio books, video and podcasts. You can filter out some of those places however, or you can change their results listing priority.

The search itself is quite fast, but we didn't have that much info on our test iPhone(s) so we can't eally comment how clogging-proof it really is. Opening any of the search results is generally fast but when you start iPod tracks directly from there, it gets a bit slow.

The Spotlight would have been a great system settings launch tool if it included features such as Bluetooth or Wi-Fi in the results.

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Spotlight search app

The iPhone as it was had no multitasking support, and so does the iPhone 3GS. With the iPhone OS 3.0 however Apple introduced the push background notifications service instead. The service can inform you of new events in applications that support it (such as some IM client) by changing the app icon (via an icon badge), by invoking a pop-up reminder or through sound alerts. In the same time the applications can simulate that you are constantly online.

The next big thing is the Cut, Copy and Paste text feature. It works throughout the whole interface where you deal with text. It's not a ground-breaking feature we know, however iPhone users have been waiting for that simple thing for two years now.

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Cut, Copy and Paste are very handy

The support also stretches to the Safari browser (you can copy stuff from web pages), but fails to cover pop-up text boxes and games.

Apple iPhone 3GS
The support also stretches to the Safari browser

It works quite logically - you simply press and hold the finger over the text you want to start to copy, while the selected word gets marked in blue with start and end markers. Then you drag the markers until the text you want is marked. And finally, you use the cut/copy/paste/select all pop up tabs to do the action.

Peculiarly, the copied text is preserved in the clipboard even after a system restart.

The next feature is the redo/undo function, which can be used in any program that calls up the keyboard. You have to shake the phone or just flick it to see the undo/redo dialog box. Of course, if you do not need it, you can switch the feature off so it won't bug you.

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The undo/redo option can also be switched off

The system-wide landscape QWERTY keyboard is also among the handy upgrades. You are now allowed to use the landscape keyboard mode in messaging, notes, contacts (partially), and of course in the browser.

We were surprised that the landscape mode is not available when entering text in Calendar - somebody at Apple must have missed that we guess. The same is with the Contacts - the only possible way is via "Add to Contacts" feature from new message opened in landscape mode. Google maps also cannot rotate the map and the keypad.

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The system-wide landscape QWERTY keyboard

The new Apple iPhone 3GS has two new features that are not available to the iPhone 3G. This is the Voice control and the magnetic compass.

The Voice Control app supports lots of commands: call a phone name/number, play music by song/album/artist name, shuffle music and Genius support for playing more similar songs.

You don't need to pre-record your voice commands, as the recognition is speaker-independent. There's support for over 30 with their local variations such as Chinese Mainland or Chinese Taiwan, etc.

The Voice Control app can be launched with a longer press of the Home key. The interface is simple. You pronounce a command and the application response. If you have a match, the result is automatically displayed/dialed, if not, the program quits. That quitting is quite inconvenient, because you have to start the application again to retry the command.

The key when using it is to say the right commands. The music-oriented functions include “Play artist” or “Play songs by,” “Play playlist,” “Play album,” “Pause,” “Play music,” “Genius,” “Next track,” “Previous track,” “Shuffle,” and “What is this song called?”

If you try and improvise saying "Play Sting" or whatever artist you need, the iPhone won't handle it at all as it’s expecting to hear “artist” or “songs by” as a prefix.

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The Voice Control app still need lots of improvement

The compass works in Google maps and third party maps, but also has its own application, which allows you to see your exact GPS coordinates and toggle between true North and magnetic North.

The dedicated application seems quite inaccurate at times and quite often gave us some interference alerts In Google Maps however, the maps auto rotation is quite accurate.

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The compass application gets confused easily in our hands

And finally, the new iPhone 3GS is also optimized for the disabled people. Three features are integrated to aid those get around the interface easier: Voice over, Interface zoom and White-on-black color combo. We haven't seen so much optimizations targeted at disabled people on any other mobile phone. The Voice over is a text-to-speech feature, which also pronounces the name of each menu item as you go through the interface.

In this mode a single click marks a button and reads its name; a double click opens it, while swiping with tree fingers allows you to scroll up an down. The pronunciation speed and voice can also be customized.

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The Voice Over text-to-speech feature

The Zoom feature magnifies the interface screen in every application. To zoom in the UI you have to double-tap the screen with three fingers. The White on Black makes the UI high-contrasty to help the visually impaired.

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The White on Black makes the UI high-contrasty to help the visually impaired

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