iPhone 3GS: refinement in stylish package

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

It's been a busy June for Apple, starting with its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) and the release of new laptops, following that on June 17 with the release of the iPhone OS 3.0 operating system and capping it all off with the release of the iPhone 3GS on Friday in eight countries.

After standing in line at an AT&T store for almost an hour on June 19 -- the lines were shorter this year than they were for previous iPhone releases -- I snagged a 32GB model for $299 and quickly spent a few hours checking it out. My first impression: It's a solid update of an already well-designed mobile device. (Nomenclature alert: Apple started referring to the new model as the iPhone 3GS earlier this week. When introduced June 8, it was called the iPhone 3G S.)

Now, after spending a few days with the iPhone 3GS, I can say that my enthusiasm for the new device has not diminished. It's no secret that I'm afan of the iPhone, but that doesn't mean I see it as a flawless product -- merely the best mobile implementation of the desktop experience. (Don't get me started on AT&T, however.)

The latest iPhone hardware and the new iPhone OS 3.0 software it runs -- the OS also works on earlier models -- combine to offer a well-executed follow-up to the painful iPhone 3G launch of last year.

Unpacking the iPhone 3GS

The out-of-box experience is similar to last year's iPhone 3G. This year's model arrives in a slightly smaller box that contains the iPhone, a set of redesigned Apple earphones with remote and mic similar to those that come with the iPod Shuffle, a tiny wall plug with a USB connector and a USB-to-iPhone cord. There's also a pamphlet describing some of the iPhone's new features, a handy SIM card ejector and the usual Apple stickers and legal disclaimers. Like the iPhone 3G, this version does not come with a dock. If you want a dock, you still have to pay $29 separately.

If you were hoping for a real keyboard instead of a virtual one -- some people want real keys, though I don't -- keep hoping. Physically, the iPhone 3GS is practically identical to last year's model, with the newest model weighing 2 grams extra. The iPhone still sports the same vibrant 480-by-320-pixel screen and uses the same buttons as before. There's still a Home screen button below the 3.5-in. screen, a volume up/down switch and a mute switch -- both on the iPhone's left side -- and the sleep/wake button at the top. If you've seen earlier iPhones, you know what this one looks like.

Protective cases designed for last year's model work fine with the new one. Older accessories also appear to work well, and Apple seems to have avoided a repeat of last year's problems, when a rewired dock connector broke compatibility with some third-party accessories. In fact, the iPhone OS 3.0 software finally supports stereo Bluetooth connectivity for automobiles and wireless headsets, and Apple now allows third-party developers to write software that utilizes the iPhone's dock connector.

The only external difference in this year's model is the "32GB" stamp on the back of my black iPhone 3GS -- that's double the storage space of my old 16GB model -- and the ease with which fingerprints can be wiped off the screen. While the iPhone 3GS is still a fingerprint magnet, those fingerprints are much more easily removed thanks to a new "oleophobic" coating.

The 'S' is for speed

There are more significant differences, however, mostly in terms of performance. While the old and new models are physically similar, the big change in this year's edition involves under-the-hood upgrades to the iPhone's internal components. The hardware improvements are obvious as soon as you turn the phone on: the iPhone 3GS boots up in nearly half the time of the previous model. Last year's 16GB iPhone 3G booted to an interactive state in 54.6 seconds. The new 32GB iPhone 3GS was ready to use in just 29.2 seconds -- about half the time.

Across the board, the latest iPhone showed the speed improvements promised by Apple, offering up a noticeably smoother user experience. Menus and applications are more responsive, and the lag time while waiting for the virtual keyboard to appear is now gone. Mail, Maps and Web pages in Safari load more quickly thanks to the iPhone's new processor, which reduces the wait times necessary to render the complex code.

There's a reason Apple said the "S" in the new iPhone's name stands for speed. ILounge has posted several speed comparison videos for those looking to see the difference between previous iPhone and iPod models. Those seconds may not seem like a big deal, but they add up. If you're looking for directions using the Maps app, for example, the improvement in performance could mean that, instead of waiting for Maps to load while you're traveling through an intersection, you'll know where you're going as soon as the light turns green.

Apple has been mum about just what hardware it's using, but a tear-down of the new phone shows that it uses an ARM Cortex A8 microprocessor running at 600 MHz. (The processor in last year's iPhone 3G runs at 412 MHz.) The newer model also has 256MB of RAM, twice the amount of the earlier version. These upgrades show in day-to-day use.

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Michael deAgonia

Computerworld

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