iPhone 3G S first take

iPhone fans got everything they were waiting for June 8 when the third-generation of Apple's made its debut during the WWDC 2009 keynote. The iPhone 3G S, which will hit stores June 19, promises a faster iPhone with an extended battery, more memory and improved features. It looks exactly the same the previous model, but both the 16GB ($199) and new 32GB ($299) models come in white and black versions.
Though the jump from the iPhone 3G to the 3G S isn't quite as big as the jump from the first to second generation models, this latest handset still adds enough new features to make it a compelling upgrade for some users. And when you add in all the new features that will come with the iPhone OS 3.0, we finally get an iPhone that can run thousands of snazzy applications and and do something as basic as send a multimedia message.

Yet, we still have some reservations. A faster AT&T 3G network isn't going to happen overnight and some features, like the aforementioned multimedia messaging, won't happen right away. We also came away without any mention of call quality, which, as any iPhone owner can tell you, remains far from perfect. But most importantly, the iPhone 3G S's price will vary widely depending on your eligibility. If you can get it at the lowest prices, it's worth your while. But if you're not yet eligible for a discounted upgrade, we suggest that you wait.

Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide product marketing, promised that iPhone 3G S (the "S" stand for speed) will be faster in a number of ways. Not only will a faster processor enable it to load apps faster, but also it will utilize a faster AT&T 3G network for speedier Web browsing. We've been expecting both of these improvements so we're not surprised they'll be the new model's prime selling points. I'll start with the processor.

Schiller didn't provide any hard metrics on the new processor, but he said that the 3G S would open applications two times faster than previous models. Honestly, this isn't something that we've been pinning for--we would much prefer to get Palm Pre-style multitasking--but we'll welcome any it just the same. We'll have to wait for a review model to see how much faster the 3G S is.

On the other hand, we've eagerly been awaiting zippier 3G speeds, so we're glad to hear that they're on their way. Here too Schiller was short on specifics outside of mentioning AT&T's forthcoming HSPA network upgrade to 7.2Mbps. That is an important qualifier considering AT&T won't start rolling out the faster network until later this year. What's more, full deployment is scheduled for 2011. Though we expect that urban areas will be first, coverage will vary widely for the next year at least. As such, we don't expect any miracles soon.

Battery life
Though battery life on the first iPhone was mostly satisfactory, the iPhone 3G sucks up juice rapidly. Indeed, you're lucky if your handset lasts longer than a day of heavy use. Luckily, the iPhone 3G S offers some hope. Schiller rattled off statistics that certainly sound promising. It should offer nine hours of Wi-Fi battery life, 10 hours on video playback, 30 hours on audio playback, 12 hours 2G talk time, and 5 hours 3G talk time. Like with the processor, we'll have to wait for our review unit to see if these ratings hold up, but we're we what we're hearing so far.

Up until now, the iPhone's camera has been good, but far from great. Though picture quality is decent, camera editing features on the first two iPhones are non-existent. The minimalist shooters bothered us so much that we began to worry that Apple was leading a new trend of "dumbing down" cell phone cameras.

The iPhone 3G S, however, has helped put some of those fears to rest. Apple boosted the camera's to three megapixels and it added an autofocus feature. In the future you'll also get settings for white balance, exposure, low-light sensitivity, and a macro mode for close-up photos. The autofocus feature appeared to work well during the keynote demo so we're looking forward to testing it ourselves.

Video recording
When we last asked about video recording at the OS 3.0 announcement last March, Apple wouldn't comment on whether it would come to the iPhone. So we have to admit that we weren't expecting it to happen anytime soon. But thanks to its improved camera, the iPhone 3G S will offer the ability to record VGA clips at 30 frames per second. It also promises a nifty editing feature that will let you trim clips to your liking. And once you're done, you can upload them to YouTube with just a couple of clicks. Again, it looked good on stage so we're excited to check it out.

Voice Control
We've long berated Apple for not including voice dialing and commands on the iPhone. So when we heard it would be on the iPhone 3G S, our initial reaction was a cynical "its about time." Yet, our hearts softened just the slightest bit when we saw that the new Voice Control feature will go far beyond just voice dialing and commands.

Sure, you'll be able to dial a contact using just your voice, but you'll also be able to activate the iPod player by asking for a particular music track or artist. What's more, you can use Voice Control to identify a song by name and you can ask to play related tracks (as they're associated in the iTunes Genius feature). Seeing those additional features almost makes us forgive Apple for taking so long to add something as basic as voice dialing, but not quite.

We were a little skeptical when we heard that the new iPhone might offer a digital compass, but today Schiller confirmed that the rumors were true. Like any other compasses it will automatically point to north, but it also will integrate with Google Maps to point you in the right direction. A nice touch, to be sure.

So should you buy it?
Like we said earlier, the iPhone 3G S offers some notable feature improvements, but it doesn't offer quite the same leap that the iPhone 3G offered over the first generation model. If you don't own an iPhone yet, and you've been waiting around to see what happens, now is the time to go for it. The same goes for iPhone Classic owners who never made the jump to iPhone 3G.

But if you're a current iPhone 3G owner, the answer isn't so clear. If you're eligible to upgrade at the cheaper prices ($199 or $199), then we suggest upgrading, as long as you remember that a new two-year contract is required. If you own an iPhone 3G, but are not eligible for the upgrade yet, then we recommend waiting. As much as the iPhone 3G S brings, it's not worth the extra $200 that both the 16GB and 32GB models will cost you. In the meantime, you will get everything that OS 3.0 brings when it's released on July 17 and you'll have extra money to spend on apps.

BY Kent German

Kent German is a senior editor for cell phone reviews at CNET. When he's not testing the newest handsets on the market, he's blogging about cell phone news for Crave. In his On Call column, he answers reader questions and gives his take on the rapidly changing mobile industry.

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