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iPhone 3GS review

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The S is for “spoken commands”

One of the biggest weaknesses of the first two iPhone models was their inability to do even basic voice dialing. With the iPhone 3GS, Apple has added voice-command functionality, but the new Voice Control feature adds not just voice dialing, but voice control of the iPod features as well.

To initiate Voice Control, you hold down the home button or the center button on the iPhone’s new three-button headphones (the same ones used by for the latest-generation iPod touch, iPod nano, and iPod shuffle, giving iPhone users remote volume control at last) for about two seconds. You’ll hear a quick double-chime indicating that it’s your turn to speak, and you’d better speak quickly. When I remained silent, Voice Control somehow managed to tease commands out of the empty air around me, including attempting to dial random people in my phone book. (Press the button again if you want to abort your Voice Control session without saying anything.)

After the chime, you can choose from a small selection of commands. To dial a contact, just say “dial” or “call” followed by the name of the person you want to contact. If you just say the first name, Voice Control will try to figure out who you meant. When I said, “Dial Dan,” it offered me—via a pleasant yet robotic female voice (I guess my iPhone 3GS is a girl?)—all three Dans in my phone book, along with a “Pam,” as options. If you say the person’s full name, accuracy increases. If your contact has more than one phone number, Voice Control will prompt you to choose from a list of options, such as “mobile” or “home.” If you want to speed things along, say a person’s name followed by the number you which to call (“Call Sally Sparrow work.”) You can even tell Voice Control to dial a bare number, such as “Dial 867-5309.”

To control the iPhone’s iPod functions, you can choose from a slightly broader palette of commands. “Play artist Peter Gabriel” will automatically play all songs by Peter Gabriel, but by default they won’t be shuffled. If you re-engage Voice Control you can then say “shuffle,” and it’ll turn shuffling on. (I managed to uncover a bug here—once you tell Voice Control to turn on shuffling, it will engage shuffling on every subsequent voice command. I only regained the ability to play albums and playlists linearly by force-quitting the iPod application.)

You can also command that Voice Control play a particular playlist (“play playlist ‘Best of 2009’”) or album (“play album ‘Life and Times’”), trigger a Genius playlist based on the current song (“Play more songs like this,” or the less verbose command “Genius!”), and find out the name of the song (“What song is this?”). However, you can’t choose to play a particular song, nor does Voice Control appear to have any access to audiobooks or podcasts.

I like the idea of using Voice Control to control the iPod functions of my iPhone, but without the ability to toggle shuffle on and off, it’s less powerful than it should be.

In general, I found Voice Control’s accuracy to be decent, and it does pause briefly after declaring its interpretation of your command, allowing you to belay a misunderstood order, such as attempting to dial Peter Hatcher when all you wanted to do was shuffle through all your Beatles tracks. Of course, having a forceful voice and being in a relatively quiet setting help matters immensely.

Unfortunately, when it comes to Voice Control, the Phone and iPod applications are the beginning and the end of the story. No other built-in applications are supported, and it doesn’t appear that third-party applications are able to interact with Voice Control either. I’m also a little surprised that, now that Voice Control can now speak the names of people in my contacts list, Apple doesn’t offer a spoken ringtone (“Dan Moren, mobile, calling”) as an option. But with all that said, Voice Control addresses a major weakness of the iPhone platform while also promising some intriguing future uses for the technology.

The S is for “sense of direction”

Current and former Cub Scouts everywhere will thrill to the addition of a compass to the iPhone 3GS, finally providing orienteers with a smartphone that can tell the difference between magnetic north and true north, at least until the earth’s magnetic poles inevitably reverse themselves.

Cub scouts will love the compass. But it will take some clever app developers to make it truly awesome.

Okay, so maybe people weren’t clamoring for Apple to throw a compass into the iPhone’s soup of features. But it does have some practical—and impractical—benefits. In the Maps application, tapping the crosshairs button once will locate your position on the map, but now a second tap will re-orient the map in the direction your iPhone is facing, eliminating the whole “hold the map upside-down so we can figure out where we are” effect. Unfortunately, the feature doesn’t work in Street View mode, which seems like a natural. Also, occasionally scrolling or zooming in the map would spin the orientation back to north-on-top. Unfortunately, re-enabling the compass feature requires tapping twice, forcing the map to zoom back in all the way, despite your best attempts to alter the map’s view. It can be a little annoying.

I found the compass to be generally accurate, though occasionally it would get confused and require me to wave it in the air to clear up the problem. Sometimes, too, the compass would be a few degrees off, though a wave would generally get it back on track.

Adding a compass to the iPhone’s accelerometer means that app developers will be able to use that extra positional data in games and even user-interface innovations. If you place an iPhone 3GS on a table and spin it around, it will know that it’s spinning and what direction it comes to rest. Beyond the cavalcade of spin-the-bottle apps that will undoubtedly appear in the store starting next week, there could be some other interesting uses for that positional data. We’ll have to see what develops, but this compass should end up being more useful than the one you keep in your toolbox for special occasions.

The S is for “software”

Of course, in addition to the features that are unique to the iPhone 3GS, this phone also offers a slew of new features that are available to all iPhones and iPod touches via the iPhone OS 3.0 Software update. For details on all of those impressive new features, including copy-and-paste, broad support for landscape-keyboard mode, Spotlight search, Bluetooth A2DP support for stereo headphones (but, sadly, no support yet for external Bluetooth keyboards), Find my iPhone, voice recording, MMS, and tethering, see Dan Moren’s full review of iPhone 3.0.

Battery matters

The iPhone 3GS tech specs claim battery life of up to five hours of talk time (12 if you turn off 3G networking), five hours of Internet use (nine on Wi-Fi), 10 hours of video playback, 30 hours of audio playback, and 300 hours of standby time. Those specs are slightly better in some areas than the ones Apple claimed for the original iPhone and iPhone 3G. Apple says that it’s not so much that the iPhone 3GS battery is better than previous models—an iFixIt report suggests the battery holds only 6 percent more juice than the one in the iPhone 3G—but that the iPhone 3GS is able to use its internal hardware in a more energy-efficient manner, eking out more battery life under certain conditions.

Battery testing takes time, more time than we’ve actually had with the iPhone 3GS. While we will be running battery tests of our own, and will post the findings once we have them, we don’t have them yet. In general, the iPhone 3GS seems roughly comparable to the iPhone 3G in terms of resilience of the battery. If you spend an entire day on the go with the iPhone 3GS and are heavily using the Internet the entire time, you will drain the battery. Savvy iPhone veterans know to plug in their iPhones at home and at work, and if they spend a long time in the car, they plug in there too via an adapter. (You can get more life out of your iPhone by reducing the amount of time you use the Internet and by turning off 3G networking.)

Of AT&T, commitments, and subsidies

In the United States, iPhone 3GS owners must be AT&T customers, and commit to being AT&T customers for two years. With the release of the iPhone 3G last summer, AT&T has been compensating Apple for each iPhone purchased by its customers, and making up that money via monthly phone bills. The release of the iPhone 3GS complicates matters, because many of those who bought the iPhone 3G last year have discovered that the low $199 and $299 prices promoted by Apple for this product don’t actually apply to them.

The ugly truth of cell phone marketing in the United States is that it generally involves the selling of phones at low costs, but at the cost of users agreeing to a multi-year commitment to the carrier. The success of the iPhone 3G, which sold for $199 versus the original iPhone’s launch price of $499-$599 (later reduced to $399), suggests that the method of lowering the price of a phone in exchange for higher monthly bills is an effective marketing strategy.

When you’re considering an iPhone purchase, then, you need to keep in mind the price you’ll actually pay—you can get a quote from Apple’s iPhone-purchase webpage—and make your value judgments based on that price, whether it’s $199, $299, $399, or even the full unsubsidized prices of $599 and $699. You’ll also need to consider that buying a phone for the lower price commits you to AT&T for another two years. If you’ve already got an iPhone and are happy with it, but long for the day that there are iPhone carrier options other than AT&T, you might want to consider the length of that AT&T commitment before buying. Likewise, if you’re convinced that Apple will unveil another snazzy next-generation iPhone again next year (not a terrible bet, given the company’s track record), keep in mind that buying a subsidized iPhone 3GS today will likely hurt your eligibility for a new subsidized iPhone price in 2010.

Wouldn’t it be simpler if there weren’t contracts or subsidies? Sure it would. (Although then the iPhone 3GS might cost $400.) Unfortunately, that’s not the state of affairs in the United States at the moment.

The true price of the iPhone 3GS doesn’t end there, of course. As an AT&T subscriber, you’ll be committing to two years of a voice plan (individual plans start at $40 per month for 450 minutes and increase to $100 per month for unlimited calling), an optional text-message plan, and a mandatory $30 unlimited data plan. (Tethering, a feature that the iPhone OS 3.0 software supports but isn’t yet offered by AT&T, will presumably cost even more.) For even a basic plan, that’s $1,680 over the course of two years, plus significant taxes and fees. Of course, you may already be paying something close to that for your existing calling plan. Consider your current cell phone bills and your potential new bills carefully when calculating the cost of an iPhone.

In terms of network coverage, it’s fairly hard to judge AT&T, because the experience will vary depending on what you do, where you go, and who you are. I’ve been an AT&T customer (and before that Cingular, and before that AT&T) for years and have been relatively happy with the service, but many other people detest AT&T. If you live in an area that’s poorly served by AT&T, the iPhone is probably not for you. And since the iPhone uses the GSM cellular standard, which is incompatible with the Verizon and Sprint networks in the U.S., you can’t buy an iPhone today on the AT&T network with the hopes of transferring it to Verizon in a year or two.

Macworld’s buying advice

The iPhone 3GS is, without a doubt, the finest iPhone Apple has made. It addresses most of the fundamental weaknesses of the previous models, adding raw speed, voice-activated phone and music navigation, an improved autofocus camera, and video-recording features. Its larger amount of installed memory suggests that it will run existing iPhone apps not just faster, but with fewer crashes, and its improved video capabilities suggest that it will be an impressive gaming device as well.

With two major revisions in the past year, the iPhone platform has also progressed a long way. Beyond the wide variety of third-party apps, the base system has added copy-and-paste support; support for Microsoft Exchange calendars, contacts, and email; built-in voice recording; and search capabilities.

If you’re upgrading from the iPhone 3G, you’ll appreciate the speed, although unless you qualify for a discount or have a friend or family member to give your iPhone 3G to, the upgrade price might make you consider waiting for what Apple’s 2010 iPhone might have to offer. Users of the original iPhone will be floored by the speed of the phone and of the 3G wireless network, though they may find the phone’s shiny plastic back a step down from the original, elegant brushed-aluminum edition. Certainly original iPhone owners will be able to take advantage of the lowest prices available for the iPhone 3GS, making the device that much more appealing.

If you’ve never had an iPhone before, but are considering the purchase of a smartphone for the first time, you will not find a better Internet-connected phone than the iPhone 3GS. Yes, the launch of the original iPhone two years ago has spurred phone development, so now some legitimate contenders are beginning to approach the iPhone in terms of functionality. Apple will need to keep innovating to keep ahead of that competition. But as of right now, the best smartphone on the planet is the iPhone 3GS. Unless you simply can’t abide AT&T’s service or coverage in your area, the iPhone 3GS is the best choice around.

[Jason Snell is editorial director of Macworld.]

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