IPhone 3G S: What You Need to Know

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The pricing of the iPhone 3G S has engendered a lot of strong feelings, and understandably so. We will be devoting more coverage to this issue in the days ahead. The short version of the story is, when you buy a subsidized iPhone in the U.S., AT&T is actually paying part of the cost of that phone directly to Apple. AT&T gets that money back via your phone bill over the course of a two-year contract. If you want to get a new phone within the contract period, AT&T hasn't had a chance to recoup its investment in your last phone, and things get complicated. We hope that AT&T will be working hard in the next week to better communicate what customers' options are.

We assume that if you've got a family member who is eligible for a full upgrade, AT&T will find a way to let you transfer the remaining portion of your iPhone 3G contract commitment to that person and let you do a regular upgrade to the iPhone 3G S. Or swap SIM cards after the fact. Or something. Perhaps we're too hopeful about AT&T, but given the massive amount of iPhone users on AT&T's network, we think the company will realize that allowing iPhone fanatics to upgrade in as many different ways as possible will only help its business. We shall see.

The good news about the iPhone 3G S upgrades is that they seem to be much more widely available than in the past. You seem to be able to upgrade via either Apple or AT&T's Web sites, or either company's retail stores.

I've already got an iPhone. Should I upgrade to this one?

It depends on a variety of factors. If you have an iPhone 3G, you're not going to get the special $199 and $299 prices that Apple is touting, at least not for a while. That makes the upgrade a lot less appealing. And getting an iPhone 3G S means committing to another two years of AT&T service in the U.S.

If you routinely make calls when driving, the iPhone 3G S's Voice Command feature may keep you from driving your car into a tree, by allowing you to call while keeping your eyes on the road. For many people that will be the feature that sells the phone.

But there's one vitally important thing you should keep in mind: Many of the features Apple touts in its iPhone 3G S guided tour--including copy and paste functionality, MMS support, the new Voice Memos app, and search capabilities--are part of the iPhone 3.0 software update, which is available to all iPhone owners for free starting this Wednesday, June 17. (iPod touch users will have to pay $10 to upgrade to 3.0.) So if those features are more appealing to you than the improved camera, new compass, and Voice Control feature, you're probably better off sticking with your current phone.

The upgrade story from the original iPhone is a bit stronger. Owners of original iPhones will likely be able to upgrade at the lowest prices. You'll gain GPS and access to the much faster 3G data network, as well as all the new iPhone 3G S features we detailed above. And the iPhone 3G S will offer you at least twice as much storage space as you've got now--and imagine how spacious it will feel if you go from a 4GB original iPhone to a 32GB iPhone 3G S!

So which new features are exclusive to iPhone 3G S?

Good question. From what we can tell, here's a complete list of features that are found only on the iPhone 3G S; in other words, you won't get them on your iPhone 3G by installing the iPhone Software 3.0 update:

  • The faster processor, more RAM, and new video circuitry
  • Improved battery life
  • The improved camera hardware
  • Video recording, trimming, and sharing
  • The digital compass
  • Voice Control
  • Accessibility improvements
  • Built-in Nike + iPod support
  • HSPA7.2 compatibility
  • Open GL ES 2.0
  • Hardware encryption
  • Environmental improvements
  • Will existing accessories and cases for the iPhone 3G fit the iPhone 3G S?

    Given that the form factor hasn't changed at all, cases should fit. It also appears that any dock-connector or headphone-jack accessory that works with the iPhone 3G will work with the iPhone 3G S. On the other hand, Apple has whipped out a surprise or two in the past related to new capabilities (as well as limitations) of the dock connector port, so we can't swear all dock-connector accessories will work. But the most likely scenario is that all existing accessories will work with the iPhone 3G S.

    And don't forget that one of the cool new features of iPhone Software 3.0 is the capability for iPhone software to work directly with hardware accessories. All iPhones and iPod touches should gain this functionality through the 3.0 software, but since the hardware differs between the models, we don't yet know if there will be hardware accessories that work with the 3G but not the 3G S. (We're pretty sure there will be accessories that take advantage of new hardware features of the iPhone 3G S--such as the digital compass--and thus won't work with other models.)

    When will the AT&T network support the new high-speed 7.2 HSPA network that the iPhone 3G S supports?

    According to beloved onctributor Glenn Fleishman's story explaining 7.2Mbps networking, AT&T claims that the network will start appearing on cell towers "later this year." However, the full upgrade of AT&T's 3G network won't be complete until 2011.

    No other iPhone can do Voice Control. What allows the iPhone 3G S to pull it off?

    (Image Caption: Voice control features on the iPhone 3G S let you dial phone numbers and control music playback, all with the sound of your voice.) We don't know, but we're guessing that the additional processor speed and RAM of the iPhone 3G S are what enables it to perform voice-recognition tasks, and that previous models just don't have the power to do that reliably.

    I love flash. Will this new phone run Flash? And does its camera have a flash?

    Adobe would love for Flash to run on the iPhone, but Apple has demonstrated no interest. The iPhone still doesn't run flash.

    The iPhone 3G S's camera does not have a built-in flash (just like the camera on previous iPhone models didn't have one). Given the new access that app developers have to the dock connector, perhaps some clever developer will find a way to trigger an external flash unit attached via that port. We'll see.

    Hey! I bought an iPhone 3G on May 9. Can I turn it back in for an iPhone 3G S?

    Yes, if you bought an iPhone 3G between May 9 and June 19 you can return it for a restocking fee and replace it with an iPhone 3G S.

    How does the battery life compare to the iPhone 3G?

    Apple says the battery life for the iPhone 3G S is longer than what you'd get from the iPhone 3G. Specifically, the company is promising nine hours of Internet access on Wi-Fi, 10 hours of video, 30 hours of audio playback, and 12 hours of 2G talk time. The five hours of 3G talk time on the new model is consistent with the estimated talk time of the previous iPhone 3G.

    Can we stream live video?

    Depends on what you mean. Can you stream video you're taking on the iPhone 3G S? We don't think so, though who knows what third-party apps might be able to accomplish? It's not included in the camera's basic functionality. The iPhone 3.0 does offer app developers access to streaming functionality, meaning you should be able to watch live video more readily on the iPhone in the future. But out of the box, no, live video isn't part of the base iPhone 3G S experience.

    Will the iPhone video recorder be on par with the Flip-type cameras?

    It's early days yet so we don't know how the iPhone's camera will work in low light. We do know, however, that it shoots standard-definition video only. Many (if not most) of the current generation of pocket camcorders shoot 720p high-definition video.

    Does it support A2DP and AVRCP?

    The iPhone 3G S--as well as the iPhone 3G with the iPhone Software 3.0--support A2DP, which lets you stream stereo audio over Bluetooth--for example, to headphones or speakers. It's not yet clear if either model will support AVRCP, a feature of Bluetooth that lets you control audio and video devices over Bluetooth.

    Is A2DP for all system audio, or app specific? In the Tom Tom app, can I still use a headset for hands-free?

    We're anxious to get our hands on the iPhone 3G S hardware to test this, but in the meantime, iLounge provides a summary of A2DP functionality based on the latest developer release of iPhone Software 3.0 and an iPhone 3G.

    Will the iPhone 3GS charge via FireWire again? (Hey, FireWire is back on the MacBook Pro.)

    Dare to dream, but almost certainly the answer is no. Apple switched to the USB-only method of charging in order to reduce the amount of circuitry on the interior of its devices. Accessories have been updated to use this new method. There's probably no going back.

    Can Voice Control on the 3G S be used with Bluetooth headsets?

    Voice Control is triggered by either holding the Home button down or holding down the button on your iPhone headphones. When we asked Apple executives if other devices such as Bluetooth headphones and car kits would be able to access Voice Control, they suggested that the makers of those devices would find a way to trigger that same action. That's not exactly a yes, but it's an encouraging sign.

    in a sentence, what does the S get me?

    Speed, swagger, sleek, sexy, sense-of-direction, and sinematography. It's possible that we made that last word up.

    Will the compass and GPS work even when there is no cell signal?

    Yes. As long as you're on Earth and Earth still has its magnetic field, the compass will work, though if you're standing near a giant magnet, you might get skewed results. And although the iPhone tries to use cellular signals to speed the acquisition of your location (a process called "assisted GPS"), if you're out in the backcountry and you give your iPhone enough time to find all the satellites in the sky, it will be able to pinpoint your location. (It won't, however, be able to display it on a map unless you're using an app that includes pre-loaded maps. The good news is that there are a few of those now and a lot more on the way, including both turn-by-turn direction apps and apps more oriented toward hiking and mountain biking.)

    I want to know if Apple will have a separate App Store for the 3GS apps, since they will have different features.

    Apple hasn't said anything about this. We're guessing that two things will happen: Developers will write apps that simply behave differently on the different devices, and eventually the App Store will add some sort of compatibility filter that makes it clear that certain apps only work on certain devices.

    How many minutes of video can the 32GB iPhone GS hold?

    By our back-of-the-envelope calculations, about a zillion. Seriously, it will depend on how much media you've already got loaded on the device. But a lightly-loaded 32GB iPhone should be able to capture hours and hours of standard-definition video.

    Will my old, deactivated iPhone 3G still work without AT&T service as an iPod touch?

    Yes.

    About that oleophobic coating: Will it prevent me from using protective films for the screen, or all-over treatments like InvisibleShield or BodyGuardz?

    Great question, and one for which we don't yet have an answer. Zagg, makers of the InvisibleShield protective coverings, told a Macworld reader that it'll be testing its products with this new screen as soon as it get its hands on the iPhone 3G S.

    This story, "IPhone 3G S: What You Need to Know" was originally published by Macworld.

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    At a Glance
    • Third-generation Apple mobile phone

      Pros

      • Bright, high-quality fingerprint-resistant touchscreen
      • Built-in GPS and compass
      • Decent autofocus camera with SD video capability
      • Extremely fast and responsive
      • All the new features of iPhone OS 3.0 Software Update
      • Voice control for phone dialing and music

      Cons

      • Onboard video trimming is destructive
      • Requires two-year commitment to AT&T Wireless for lowest prices
      • Soft-looking video
      • Voice Control lacks some polish
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