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The iPhone 3GS

Having used it for three months,
how much better is the iPhone 3GS?

by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

In the olden days I used to buy new electronic gizmos all the time, pretty much whenever something new and exciting came along. That was before the gizmo industry handed over its business to the telephone companies. So now I have to fit my purchasing practices into the shackled schedule of two-year service contracts. I am totally convinced that the telcos are shooting themselves in their own foot with those ugly service contracts as they kill people's ability to buy new electronic gadgets whenever they want to as opposed to when the telco says they can. But isn't it nice to get all those fancy phones all nice and cheap and subsidized? Sure, low cost is nice, but no one can tell me it takes a two year contract to "subsidize" a cheap little phone when I can buy an unsubsidized big screen TV or fancy notebook computer for a few hundred dollars. Anyway, that's all beside the point.

What I want to write about is my experiences with the iPhone 3GS. It it really that good? Did it live up to the hype? Was switching to it from my trusty original iPhone worth it?

The answer is yes and no. And here is why.

The iPhone 3GS is definitely faster. As it should be. All of our gizmos get faster all the time, and so I don't view that as something grand and wondrous. Also, speed really shouldn't be viewed as an extra feature. Extra speed is always soon absorbed by more complex software and content. My old Toshiba Tablet PC ran great on Windows XP in 2002. Now, even with a bigger disk and more memory it barely moves after seven additional years of software bloat. Same with phones. Speed always gets absorbed. And even if it isn't, we almost instantly get used to it. So I give the iPhone 3GS a plus mark for a bit more speed. Things load quicker and pages refresh faster. For now. But the old iPhone really wasn't lacking in that department either.

However, if you asked me what the single most notable improvement of the iPhone 3GS is over its predecessors, it is the much more smudge-resistant screen! Put an old and a new iPhone next to each other and the difference is stunning. The new one always looks neat and clean and hi-tech, just as Apple intended. The old one, by comparison, looks grimy and full of greasy fingerprints and who knows what else. That's not only ugly and yucky, it can also impact readability. Yes, sometimes it's the little things that matter. Big plus here. I mean, the difference is such that I know which phone is mine just by looking at the screen.

Now on to the biggest minus. The battery life of the iPhone 3GS is much less than what I got on my original iPhone. I know, 3G, faster processor, GPS, they all want power. But Apple should have accommodated for that. As is, battery life is so much worse on the 3GS that it impacts operation and the way I use my phone. With the original iPhone, battery life simply wasn't an issue. The battery always lasted long enough. When Amazon came out with the iPhone Kindle app, I began using my original iPhone as a book reader on long flights and even at home. That's out with the 3GS as I am always afraid I'd run out of battery for when I need to make a call. Same with games and other entertainment. Having an iPhone 3GS means always keeping a worried eye on the power bar. That is bad and really cuts into overall utility.

One thing I used to be envious about when I still had my original iPhone was the "real" GPS on the iPhone 3G. Now I have real GPS on my iPhone 3GS, and it turns out it isn't quite real. What do I mean by that? Well, on the good side, whereas the original iPhone's triangulation method only gave you a rough idea of where you were, the new GPS works quite well. No matter where I am, it can pinpoint my location to within a block or less. But there are disappointments, too. The GPS tracking apps I have on my 3GS all seem to have a weird (and severe) altitude glitch, so GPS must be reporting inaccurately. On a trip to the Caribbeans, the iPhone insisted my location was in Puget Sound, Washington. And onboard of a liveaboard boat off the Turks & Caicos islands, the GPS simply did not pick up anything. Apparently it only works when there's also a carrier signal.

Of the new features, how often have I used the much heralded "Search" and "Cut & Paste"? Never. That's right. Not once. Now I use Google about a hundred times a day on my computer and I cut and paste constantly in my work. On the iPhone I apparently just don't need it. The Compass, on the other hand, I have used many times. It is sleek and wonderful and works amazingly well. It's also lightyears ahead of compass apps on Windows Mobile and lightdecades ahead of the compass on my hugely expensive dive computer.

When I got my new 3GS I picked the 16GB version, and not the one with 32GB. Yes I know: You can never have enough storage, and you'll always be sorry if you skimp on storage, be it disk or built-in memory. However, after having used an iPhone ever since Apple unveiled this most marvelous of platforms to the world, the System Activity App on my 3GS shows I only used 5.35GB and have 9.65GB left over. And that's with having 5,000 pictures and 80 downloaded apps on board. Granted, I am not a music guy and only have a few dozen songs. So I suppose I won't need much more memory until storing one's feature-length movie collection on an iPhone is here. Considering AT&T's whining about iPhone owners' data usage, that won't be anytime soon, at least not on AT&T.

Speaking of which, AT&T is by far the weakest aspect of the iPhone. I'd drop them in a minute if I had an alternative. Only, I doubt that I'd like whatever alternative there were any better. Telcos just don't get it. GSM, for example, was supposed to make international phone usage simple and transparent. Not with AT&T. When I am abroad I am much too afraid to get zapped with horrendous AT&T voice and data charges to ever use my iPhone with anything but WiFi. Even so, while in the Carribeans on a boat, AT&T gleefully charged me US$1.99 for each call someone made to my off-line iPhone. Gee, thanks. As far as service goes, AT&T's 3G is amazingly iffy. The signal can go from five bars to just one or two in the same spot. Sometimes there's an old EDGE signal, but no 3G or only very weak 3G. Coverage is bad enough, but the on-again, off-again nature of AT&T's 3G signal in many locations is infuriating. You never know if you can make a call. And cost... only a few years ago industry pundits wondered/doubted whether people'd ever be ready to fork over $70 or so a month for industrial-strength voice and data service. Now I am paying AT&T a King's ransom of US$165 a month for two iPhones, and that doesn't even include texting on mine.

The AT&T woes probably contribute to me viewing my iPhone 3GS primarily not as a phone, but as an indispensable little computer that works far better than any other small computer I ever used. Yes, it's a phone, too, but in all honesty, not a very good one. I don't know if this is AT&T's fault or Apple's fault, but voice quality on the 3GS is pretty awful. If you have to use half your brain power concentrating on what the other end says, something's wrong.

I love Apple's "There's an app for that" commercials (bizarrely and tastelessly stolen by Verizon's "There's a map for that" copies). Anyone who does not have an iPhone just has no idea how wonderful those apps are. I remember the olden days when nerds would cram as many apps onto their Windows CE devices as they could find. That was just for bragging rights as using software on a WinMo device was never much fun. iPhone apps, on the other hand, are just terrific. And the price is right.

And then there's touch. It's amusing to see all the new-found enthusiasm over touch. Touch this, touch that. Windows 7 supports touch in a big way, HP and Dell and others are falling all over themselves with new touch devices, and touch is surely the future. It may or may not. The excitement is all based on how well touch works on the iPhone. But touch and multi-touch alone aren't enough. You also need the elegant and utterly effortless way touch works on the iPhone.

So there. These are my experiences with the iPhone 3GS as compared to the original iPhone. You can never really go back, and so I am glad I upgraded. However, I wish I would not feel like I need to take my old iPhone with me for when I want to read an ebook or play with my apps just so I won't run down the precious battery on my fancy new 3GS too quickly.

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer