iPhone, therefore I am – Stephen reviews Apple’s iPhone 3GS

Article also published on Friday 19th June 2009 in The Guardian

A little under a year ago in this very newspaper I reviewed the Apple iPhone 3G and its new firmware release: ‘Now that the Applications store is up and running,” I wrote, “you will soon find it a very common sight indeed to see people crowded around each other’s iPhones showing off the latest impossible, breathtaking and ground-breaking application. ‘Ah, but mine can do this!’ will be heard in every café and bar. Satirical sketches will be written and performed on Channel 4 mocking the trend. Once again Apple has changed the rules and nothing will be ever be quite the same again.”

It is very rare for any prophetic utterance of mine to bear fruit, but in this case it seems I was bang on the money. On July 11th 2008 the Apple iTunes App Store Apple iTunes App Store opened its virtual doors and the world changed. The diversity, originality and imagination that has since gone into the authoring of apps has created, from the standingest of starts, a whole new business model, and one that benefits cottage industry amateurs quite as much as established software houses. With over 50,000 apps and more than a billion downloads, it is hardly surprising that Blackberry, Nokia, Microsoft and Google have all now jumped on the app emporium bandwagon. Apple has shown that a mobile phone can be a pedometer, a restaurant guide (one which can make the reservation, direct you there and let you know which kinds of sustainable seafood you can order with a clear conscience), an ensemble of musical instruments that can be blown down, tapped and strummed, a library of literature, a periodic table, a performer of magic tricks, a language translator, a  Skype phone, a Twitter client, a radio, a games platform and a device that can set your home satellite TV to record any programme you like wherever you are in the world. Not to mention a fart machine and perpetrator of other mad, pointless and preposterous one-time-use pranks, japes and wheezes. Now that the others are all playing catch-up, it is easy to forget what a risk Apple took in creating a market out of nowhere. In recent weeks the once great Palm have brought out an immensely exciting iPhone inspired touchscreen phone, the Pre (US-style CDMA only and not available in Europe for ages), Nokia have finally released their long awaited N97, which I will come to later, and the prolific HTC have introduced their Google Android phones, the Magic and Hero.

There were shortcomings with 2008’s iPhone 3G and its software. “No text manipulation (not even basic cut and paste),” I moaned last July, “no Flash plug-ins for the browser, no video recording, no voice memos.” This week the This week the 3.0 firmware was released. It runs on the new 3GS iPhone, last year’s 3G, the original 2G and the iPod Touch and has addressed many user demands, although not the provision of Flash, which Apple has its own reasons for disbarring from the iPhone: Flash provides a back door through which developers could smuggle in unauthorised apps and Apple (for good reasons and bad) is allergic to the word ‘unauthorised’. An excellently intuitive cut and paste functionality is at last present (with a cute and unheralded ‘shake to undo’ feature), there are noticeably increased browser rendering speeds, global search, voice notes, better autocorrect glossary learning (non-editable however), tethering (allowing you to use your 3G or 3GS as a modem) and MMS. That’s right, MMS – Apple had never seemed very interested in Multimedia Messaging, dismissing it as a vestigial or ‘legacy’ service. “Why pay to send pictures and video,” Steve Jobs asked, “when you can send them for free by email?” Apple has relented and sweetly smooth MMS implementation is now available, though not yet in the USA, it being a carrier dependent service.

Whether current iPhone users choose to upgrade their phones or not, they should certainly upgrade their firmware – 3.0 makes a real difference in speed, function and performance. All of the above features and additions and more are possible on your original iPhone, but what about the new model – the 3GS? Well, the ‘S’ stands for speed and plenty of extra zip is delivered courtesy of the ARM Cortex A8 processor and PowerVR SGX GPU (rated seven times faster than the MBX-Lite graphics processor found in previous models) as well as 256MB of DDR. Apps open much faster, everything is smoother and sprightlier than ever before. Using a 3G and 3GS side by side the difference is very noticeable indeed. As with turning left on entering an aeroplane, the experience is spoilingly good.

Aside from the very welcome sight of ‘32GB’ printed in silver on the back, the 3GS is identical in appearance, whether in black or white, to its progenitor. A relief that we won’t be having to fork out on a whole new raft of sleeves, covers and other accessories. A 3.0 megapixel camera with well integrated focus and exposure features allows for really excellent stills and good quality video recording. An intuitive trim tool will help with the uploading of video footage directly over the air to YouTube, MobileMe, Email or MMS. The 3GS also contains a digital compass or magnetometer. Used in conjunction with GPS, wi-fi and cellular positioning your iPhone now knows exactly where it is and which way it is facing. This allows the fascinating possibility of tour guide uses (‘you are now looking at the west door of St Paul’s cathedral’) and other applications (fully featured turn-by-turn SatNav, for example) that will doubtless astonish us in the months to come.

Voice Control is as simple as can be imagined: ‘Play songs by The Incredible String Band’ you say and sure enough it does. ‘Play more like this’ you add, and an on-the-fly Genius list is assembled. ‘Call Steve Jobs, office’ you demand, and it’s done. ‘What song is this?’ you wonder and are told (in a slightly prunes and prism English accent) that it is ‘Rhinocratic Oaths by the Bonzo Dog Band’ or whatever it might be. All this can be done straight into the device or by way of the new earphones that come with it.

Look out too for future peripheral devices that can control or be controlled by the iPhone, thanks to the now addressable dock connector API. Another less trumpeted but typically thoughtful innovation is the addition of an oleophobic coating to the touchscreen that repels greasy smeary fingermarks. Nice touch, Apple. Literally.

In short, the iPhone 3GS is triumphantly the product of a company at the absolute top of their game. If it were a BMW it would badged as the ‘M’ version – the same but with added poke and better spec. Power and performance can be considered a luxury until you try them and realise how much more functionality, ease of use and productivity they can deliver. Cost is a whole other issue: if you already have an iPhone3G you may find an upgrade expensive. Could be worth waiting to see what deals emerge over the next month or so. The more people who do wait, the more pressure there will be on O2 to lower prices.

I know I must sometimes sound like some Apple PR spokesman or unquestioning fanboy, but please believe me when I say that I really do not want Apple to have it all their own way. When it comes to smartphones I am an out and out capitalist: competition and market biodiversity is what I crave. No one looks more keenly forward to the arrival of alternatives. I am panting to try out the Palm Pre and the HTC Magic and have been looking forward to Nokia’s new entry for months and months. It distresses me more than I can say therefore to announce that the N97 is a crushing disappointment. The candybar design is handsome enough (not dissimilar to the iPhone and also available in white or piano black) and offers the best slidey-outy keyboard I’ve yet come across. Nokia’s Ovi Marketplace (their equivalent of the iPhone App Store) allows the simple OTA downloading of apps (including live-streaming Facebook and news widgets) which is all good. But the Symbian S60 operating system that drives the device is achingly old-fashioned, sluggish and unfriendly. Setting up ‘access points’ is fiddly and horribly yesterday. I am aware that Nokia want to position this as a kind of ‘My First Smartphone’ for users who might be put off by the radical nature of the iPhone or the businesslike qualities of the BlackBerry, but a resistive touchscreen (another way of saying a touchscreen you have to keep tapping until it decides to obey you – damn it, they even include a stylus) that displays blocky icons that remind you of the ugly horror of their E63 unit is no way to inspire confidence in the Finnish giant’s commitment to modern smartphones. It really pains me that I can’t rave about this device. I love what Nokia has given to the market – I was devoted to the Communicator for years – but no one who has used an iPhone would do anything other than laugh, weep or bray with contempt at the N97. It just isn’t good enough and that is a terrible pity. It is nothing like as godawful as the BlackBerry Storm, but then nothing is. For the time being the iPhone 3GS and the superb BlackBerry Bold reign. I ache for Apple-busting newcomers.

© Stephen Fry 2009

Initials explained:

CDMA – Code Division Multiple Access (a kind of non-GSM wireless phone system used in America – properly called cdmaOne or IS-95)

GPU: Graphics Processing Unit

DDR: Double Date Rate RAM (a clever class of Random Access Memory)

API – Application Programming Interface (the guts of a device or service that can be addressed, inspected, written to and from and otherwise utilised)

OTA: Over the Air

This blog was posted in Techblog

29 comments on “iPhone, therefore I am – Stephen reviews Apple’s iPhone 3GS”

  1. Momgoth says:

    It sounds…pretty good. I’m still sad that Apple stuck with their US carrier (oh, how I hate their US carrier), but even the future prospect of MMS sounds really good.

    Another less trumpeted but typically thoughtful innovation is the addition of an oleophobic coating to the touchscreen that repels greasy smeary fingermarks. Nice touch, Apple. Literally.

    Does it affect typing/texting speed at all?

  2. Momgoth says:

    Gah! Since my quotefail at Pharyngula, I always have to guess whether or not to use “cite” or “blockquote”. Once again, I guessed wrong. Sorry.

  3. simonwhittle says:

    Great review Stephen and thanks for the full text (read the guardian earlier). A pal of mine is up and running with one today and tweeting his findings too. Not sure I’ll stump for the upgrade (I’m under an AT&T contract) although the increased speed will be key to my decision. Shame about the Nokia, seems like they can’t find their old magic.

  4. wildelycreative says:

    Such a shame O2 have shot Apple in the foot with their pricing strategy. I’m aching to upgrade to the 3GS from my original iPhone. Aching may be too strong a word…no, I am aching to upgrade.

    The tethering feature is almost too good to miss but the extra costs by the UK carrier would make my bank manager hyperventilate. I’m all for making sure bank managers can breathe a little easier – helps them to pass more money in my direction if they are actually alive. So I stick to original iPhone and weep softly as 3GS owners pass me smugly on the street.

  5. Woman on the Verge says:

    Thanks for the thorough review. Really, you could be discussing anything… I just love how eloquent you are.

  6. dutchmaaike says:

    Thanks for the review! It was most helpful. I’d love to hear what you think of Android phones as well – it seems a couple of rather nice ones are coming out soon. I wonder if they’ll be a match for the iPhone.

  7. markalls says:

    You must be a big Apple fan. I am afraid the N97 is the first shot fired by Nokia, the N86 will also hit Apple hard purely due to pricing and getting people away from gimmicky Apple applications and back to hard core multimedia use. I used a Nokia E90 for 2 years alsong with the original I phone, the I phone lasted a week before getting chucked in a draw, the E90? Still going strong. Apple is a designer brand loaded with gimmick software. Nokia has better call handling capabilities, better connection functions and a damn site better network compatibility. The N97 will have more software improvments to follow and I am sure an N98?? soon enough ;) The trouble with Apple is everything happens so slowly after the initial great idea. Why no 3G or wifi originally? Or video, or decent camera. The Iphone is an MP3 player with a phone. The N97 is a phone and data handling device and Camera with an MP3 player.
    I supplied all my field engineers with the E90 after trailing it myself, having had an N97 for 3 weeks i will now be upgrading those with the N97 something I didn’t expect it would be able to do and something the I phone certinaly cant do.

  8. anthonyhocken says:

    I always look forward to Stephen’s articles about smartphones. If it’s a bad device he holds no qualms about giving it his full wrath. So if a device gets a good review, you know it has to be good.

    It’s clear that no device can come close to the iPhone yet. I would have liked to see Symbian S60 and UIQ make ground but they still can’t get a grip yet. As a long time fan (and developer) of Sony Ericsson devices it frustrates me how little ground they’ve made. Even before the original iPhone launched it was clear both S60 and UIQ handsets left much to be desired – Nokia were scared of touch devices completely it seemed, while UIQ had a fascination for pokey little interfaces which fail the “could my grandma use this” test in every sense. They failed to realise that if they ditch the stylus then they kill two birds with one stone because the UI immediately becomes visibly clearer to accommodate our podgy fingers, making it more intuitive for less tech savvy users (which is most people in the real world!).

    The only major issue remaining for the iPhone is lack of third-party multitasking. But people don’t seem to appreciate that Apple took the more difficult choice with Push Notifications. It’s vastly more work to implement than multitasking, and especially compared with the pseuso-multitasking (read “glorified web browser”) used by the Palm Pre. The Pre has already been blasted for poor battery life in relation to multitasking.

    Talking of the Palm Pre. In a discussion thread, someone summed it up quite nicely comparing the two devices. The bottom line is the iPhone has an extensive feature set which a lot of people overlook.

    With the first two iPhones, they clearly had core features missing which had been on other devices for years. With the iPhone 3GS I feel they’ve really nailed it this time. Apple’s “don’t implement it unless we can do it well” philosophy has finally paid off. Interesting to compare for others who throw in every feature upfront, badly, and try to paper over the cracks thereafter, as with Symbian and Microsoft especially.

    The 3GS is a significant update, but Apple have done themselves a disservice in a way by providing OS 3.0 to 3G and 2G owners because reviews are focusing on just the exclusive features of the 3GS, and even docking points because it makes upgrading the device less compelling. Apple can do no right it seems when it comes to the critics.

    Now the main issue left in my eyes is support for more providers. Apple are losing a lot of customers because of this. AT&T are below par in many people’s eyes. Although to give them credit, they listened to criticism. As reported, they have recently made provisions for 3G owners to upgrade at a sensible cost. O2 in the UK still haven’t budged however. They give three upgrade options none of which come close to acceptable.

    The sensible economics of it still escape O2. Of the full unsubsidized cost of the handset, I paid an upfront cost of £160, plus 2/3 of the remainder (I’m 12 months into an 18 month contract). If O2 allowed current 3G owners to pay the difference (circa £100 in my case) on top of the advertised price when a new contract is signed then this would be reasonable. O2 consider the handset paid off (on a £35/mth contract) 1 month before the contract ends, so the fee could be lowered even more at their discretion. If O2 fail to see sense on this they’ll be losing me as a customer when my contract expires. While O2 is a decent company overall, I’d like some sense on the tethering also. £15/mth on top of the contract which already includes unlimited data is steep.

  9. mmalc says:

    “Those about to upgrade, we salute you”

    You don’t *need* an iPhone 3 S
    Thanks to features in the latest OS
    But with better camera and speed
    You’ll redefine “need”
    And end up buying one nevertheless

  10. lee says:

    Great – now I have to get a 3GS. I’m an avid member of the iPhone appreciation society and am keenly compiling a list of reasons to update my current 3G to put to my wife (possibly when she has had a glass or two). The feature list of the 3GS against the 3G upgrade didn’t entirely sway me, until reading your insights. However, what did firmly change my mind was what could be acomplished with the new (3GS only) features. I came across this amazing application from sprxmobile http://www.sprxmobile.com/we-launched-layar-worlds-first-augmented-reality-browser-for-mobile/ that shows you what’s possible. Unfortunately not available here in the UK yet, but certainly worth looking out for when it does arrive.

  11. lisadom says:

    Yay! I am so delighted to hear that iPhone wins again. No I won’t be upgrading anytime soon as I am still in love with my first iSpouse. But I am delighted to hear they win over Nokia.
    I just loaded proloquo2 on to my 3G to test it for autism functionality and have noticed a tinsy slowness. So for future use as a discreet and portable augmentative communication device 3GS sounds splendid.
    I already use my iPhone as a picture exchange communication platform for my 9 year old autistic daughter, and she has recently begun to take photos and store them independently for future requests. As the Polish Guy in the coffee shop said when he saw her requesting Purple Chocolate (Cadburys)

    This is amazing, this is computer, for talking.


  12. nonoyesyes says:

    Thanks for your review!
    100% coverage on all points of interest for devotees..
    Fab blog with all key points covered expertly!
    Nothing less than the best from you Mr. Fry!

  13. Julie Oakley says:

    I lust after this phone mainly for the sketching application (see http://tinyurl.com/l5m5lg). But it’s too damn expensive. Having said that I I did like the suggestion of Steph Kardos (the king of the i-phone painting) when someone else made the same complaint “…Just put a post it on top of your usual cell phone and draw on it, you don’t need a fancy iphone :)”

  14. NickEveritt says:

    Great article Stephen.

    Ive been a company blackberry user for the last few years and a Bold 9000 user since it was launched and thought it was a great device, the storm was utter tosh as you have already pointed out and I feel lucky for missing that one.

    Ive just gone self employed so handed my company Bold back and was considering getting myself one because I really did like it but I help off long enough for the new iPhone and after being a new iPhone 3GS user for about 16 hours now I am really pleased I did.

    Apple really do have the interface sorted like no other company have . Ive been using a Sony C902 for the last two weeks whilst i waited for the new iPhone and it was just horrid going back to that after the Blackberry Bold, the iPhone however feels like a step beyond the Bold.

    Great Interface + Nice Hardware Design (packaging is even pretty impressive) + Apps Store = winning combo for Apple.

    Yup the hardware spec isn’t cutting edge and lags behind what many others are already providing but with the above combo it doesn’t matter, they proved this with the iPod and they are doing the same with the iPhone now …… what will they go after next we wonder???

  15. jai says:

    Call me old fashioned, but i love symbian and nokia devices and loathe anything made by Apple.

    And I know that I always will, because it’s not just about the technology, it’s a cultural thing. Nokia is a company that empowers it’s users to do as much as possible, in new and innovative ways. Apple restricts and manipulates it’s consumers with shortsightedness and greed.

    I think the best way of articulating the problem is to use the term coined by hackers, freeing their devices from Apple’s control. Jailbreaking. Because as an iPhone user you are trapped behind bars, although most people don’t see them. They are too distracted by the decadent furnishings in their cell.

    I’m a smartphone fanatic, an edge case and a bit of a geek. For me it has to be a truly open platform like symbian… or maybe android?

  16. StPatrick says:

    Thank you for review! I’m still waiting for iPhone to arrive to Israel (place I live) and finally, it looks like my wish will be fulfilled – in a few months, iPhone 3GS will be available in my carrier – Orange – woohoo! :) Though I bet, by that time you will have a review for Android-type phones, making me hard to pick between them, but I’m looking forward and interested in seeing the difference, from your point of view ;)

  17. IMGrant says:

    Nice review, shame about the N97, have heard good things about the Pre though (reviewed at AnandTech).

  18. Furie says:

    I’m with Jai on this, although I wont go as far as to say I’d never use anything Apple. A lot of the new features in this update are things I’ve been using on smart and feature phones for a decade now (MMS and Copy/Paste functionality being chief amongst them). If Apple do finally catch on to the idea that the people that pay out all that money for their phones should get a full phone experience and the choice to add whatever functions they want (not being able to replace the core functions is one of the things that makes the iPhone not a smartphone) then they’ll have my approval and full backing. Until then, they seem to making sure people play their way not discover new ways to play.

    Stephen, I’m wondering what you think of the Samsung i8910 HD, which after the disappointing release of the N97 stands as Symbian S60’s flagship model at the moment? Have you had a chance to try one out yet?

  19. Furie says:

    Momgoth, that particular feature is something even I’ll salute Apple for. The only reported change so far is that it does indeed keep fingerprints off your screen. It’s something every phone, touchscreen or not, needs. Especially as these horrific shiny fingerprint magnet models are en vogue at the moment.

  20. offcs says:

    I am a recent iPhone 3G owner, and a six month long owner of a Nokia 5800 S60v5 phone (the same OS as the N97). I adore the ease of use of the iphone, they ease with which i can subscribe to my my server calendars, the app store and many other features, but, and this is a personal but, the Nokia 5800 wins for me.
    There are two reasons, and they are Real Player and Flash.
    I’m a big Tottehnam Hotspur fan, and here in the UK the football is transmitted on AM wirelessly. All mobile phones with radios built in, including the 5800, only work on FM. The solution for me is to get the live stream from the BBC web site and play it through Real Player. Not possible with the iPhone.
    I am also a news junkie, and watch the BBC’s News channel a lot. There is a live stream for my mobile that the BBC provides that, guess what?, needs Flash to play. Again not possible with the iPhone.
    I can do both of the above through a wireless network or 3G (the radio even works with Edge).
    So Apple, if you want to make an iPhone fan of me (I own 5 Macs), then you need to get Real Player and Flash onto the iPhone, and stop pandering to the networks about what amount and type of data I can shift through their networks.

  21. iMark says:

    I’ve been developing a twitter widget for the n97 recently, and I have to echo Stephen’s views. The hardware of the device is nice, but series 60 needs to die a quick death. It’s embarrassingly awkward to use in comparison with the iPhone.

    In the 2.5 years since the iPhone was announced Palm have created the Pre and webOs. I’ll be very surprised if Nokia’s R&D department doesn’t have something broadly comparable cooking – but it needs to reach the market sooner rather than later.

  22. tbrayshaw says:

    Minor nitpick: “DDR: Double Date Rate RAM” sounds slightly indecent. It should be “Double *Data* Rate”. :-)

  23. grungedandy says:

    I really love my iphone I jumped in last year and got the 3G, I hadn’t upgraded my phone for over 5 years at the time, I just couldn’t see the point until the iphone came down in price & I got to play with one, then I was hooked!
    My only complaint is the network (O2) I can rarely get through to my partner who also has an iphone; we both just keep getting the voice mail, sometimes even before it rings!
    If we want to ring each other we have to try between 2 – 6 times especially during the weekends & evenings! I’m wondering if anyone else has noticed this. Is the network over subscribed?
    Anyway great review, I have upgraded my operating system on 3G & it really runs smoother plus there are some nice features. But I won’t be upgrading to the 3GS as although it has some nice new features it’s not enough to justify buying my self out of my contract!

    Seeya Hugya *G*

  24. holdenittogether says:

    Fabulous review!

    This side of the pond has been experiencing multitudes of issues. I have held out for an iphone so far…

    Lovely to find your blog!



  25. iTheatre says:

    I am in the process of developing an iPhone application yet I still do not own one of these little beauties. It’s about time I visit my O2 store! ;-)

  26. shotbyshooter says:

    A photo of the nation’s favourite kitten


  27. Slightly Squished says:

    Wonderful – had a great time working out what a “bray of contempt” would sound like. In the end we settled on a short sarcastic whinnying laugh ending in a disgusted snort. Perhaps not the most literally accurate, but the best sounding.

  28. Sub-Level28 says:

    Thank you Sir for this thoroughly enjoyable and great review!

    I’ve been on the fence about getting this for quite a while (as they are a bit expensive) but this detailed and thoughtful write up about it has convinced me to start saving up for one.

    From your words it seems to be the ideal phone/gadget for me, a nerd. Yes I’m proud to be a nerd. I’ve had the chance to tinker with one thanks to my friend having one and I’m delighted with it.

  29. alex2213 says:

    Man! what a review… you can really comment on this topic ahaha. What could you share about Android phones?

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