iphone_3g_sYou can’t throw a stone on the Internet without hitting an iPhone 3G S review, so let’s quickly skip over the basics and then get to the meat.  The new iPhone has a faster processor, twice the system memory, a better camera that supports video and autofocus, and a digital compass.   Version 3.0 of the iPhone OS adds a handy search screen, landscape mode for SMS and email composition, video capture and YouTube upload, cut and paste, and support for MMS and tethering (unless you’re an AT&T customer).

Great, but how does Apple’s latest compare to previous iterations for real world use?  It’s a mixed bag, really.  Let’s start with the good stuff.  The phone is simply more usable than its predecessors.

On the original and 3G iPhones, there were times when I would tap the email or SMS button, wait a couple of seconds, then put the phone down and go get a glass of water while waiting for it to launch the app.   Things got better after I found the excellent MemoryInfo app, but the phones always felt like they were struggling to deliver.  Not so the 3G s; it’s snappy and responsive even after using several apps.  I have yet to find myself typing a single letter ahead of text input areas, let alone the 6-8 characters I was often ahead on the older models.

Frankly, I would have been satisfied with just that key user experience fix.  But the 3G S goes considerably further.   I’ve already found cut-and-paste to be useful for moving tracking numbers from email to FedEx’s website, and the voice command feature may yet see regular usage, at least after I learn that “call voicemail” will invariably be interpreted as a request to call a random contact whose name starts with “L”.

The camera largely lives up to the improved specs, and the ability to tap a spot in the preview image to adjust exposure and white balance makes for dramatically better pictures than previous iPhones were capable of.    There’s still some unwieldiness: because the camera snaps the picture when you remove your finger from the button, and because the tap-to-adjust feature can’t continue to adjust exposure and white balance, taking good closeup pictures requires more hands than most people have.  But, with care, the results can be pretty good.

Shot from about 5cm way -- note that the Windows key is blown out because auto exposure / white balance is focused on the "Fn" key.

Shot from about 5cm way -- note that the Windows key is blown out because auto exposure / white balance is focused on the "Fn" key.

How about outdoor use?  Since the phone has GPS, a digital compass, a 2-axis accelerometer, and a 3G data connection, it should be pretty capable, right?  Well, here’s where some issues appear.  Fundamentally, this is a phone designed for tech enthusiasts (most of the population these days, it seems), not adventurers.  But the features of the phone really beg for hiking and travel apps, and the results can be disappointing.

For instance, I downloaded the Trailguru application in preparation for a long day of hiking.  The app sounds promising: it uses GPS to measure one’s progress, and records current location and elevation, total time, distance traveled, average and maximum speeds, and current pace.   It’s a great idea and a very good implementation — but this is a case where the hardware specs suggest a capability that can’t be realized in a reliable, satisfying way.  In particular, the iPhone 3G S battery just wasn’t up to the task, and only lasted about four hours of a 12 hour hike, and its GPS reception was spotty enough that Trailguru often displayed incomplete or incorrect information — even while my GiSTEQ CD111, located right next to the phone in my pack’s top pocket, had no dropouts at all.

And while the camera is much improved, there are limitations to what the auto-exposure and white balance can do.  Backlighting, in particular, is a real problem.

The auto-exposure feature has its limits

The auto-exposure feature has its limits

All of which is by way of saying that the 3G S is a phone, and a very good one at that.  However, it is not a replacement for your regular camera, GPS gear, or (God forbid) your compass.  That day may come, but for now the phone is far more appropriate in the office or at home than it is on the trail, and it is not yet as capable as even entry level specialty devices.

On the whole, the iPhone 3G S is well worth the (subsidized) price.   The iPhone itself is clearly the most capable, most useful phone out there, and the improved performance of the 3G S eliminates my greatest frustration with the platform.  The additional and improved features are welcome, of course, and the whole package is very compelling — as long as you don’t get carried away using it in scenarios that it wasn’t really designed for.

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