iPhone 3GS full review

We've had the Phone 3GS for one month now, and in that time we've run a First Look review, and a video test, and looked at the device in several features and articles.

But we wanted to take a bit more time for the full in-depth UK review. Our experience of both the iPhone and iPhone 3G launch showed that these things develop over time, and not always for the best.

Chances are that most reviews you read will be based on the US version of the iPhone 3GS. The UK proposition of the iPhone 3GS is somewhat different. On the one hand there's the issue of pricing, and the lack of a free upgrade; on the other hand we also get features in the iPhone 3.0 update that our American friends lack, such as MMS and Internet Tethering, plus access to The Cloud and BT Openzone; there's also the issue of having O2 as a service provider versus AT&T. Aside from all the extra features, we get the more advanced HSDPA network offering 7.2Mbps whereas AT&T customers are stuck on the older 3.6Mbps network.

Then there are features such as Voice Control. Previous experience has suggested to us that this might be worth testing thoroughly with a UK accent. A decision that proved wise, but more on that later.

On top of that, we also caught up with Eric Jue, Apple's Worldwide Senior Marketing Manager for a half hour conversation regarding the iPhone 3GS. He offered us some thoughts and insights on the iPhone 3GS.

Since the launch of the iPhone 3GS there has been some concern over the amount of heat the device emits, a concern that Apple has addressed; and there has been some concern over the battery life, a concern that Apple has not publicly addressed. Both of these require further investigation. We have battery and heat testing, on top of a slew of speed and performance tests.

The new iPhone 3GS home screen

But above all there's an excitement factor that we've been through in two iPhone launches now, and it doesn't seem to be abating. Much as though we love getting swept away in the iPhone wave once every 12 months, we thought it'd be best to wait till the storm subsided before giving a definitive UK verdict. The general consensus is that this time Apple has "nailed-it". Despite concerns over heating, battery life, pricing and upgrade options – the iPhone 3GS has sold out in all territories. There's no doubt that the iPhone 3GS is popular, but is it deservedly so?

So we decided to give a couple of weeks and here we are. These are our complete and unmitigated thoughts with regards to buying an Apple iPhone 3GS in the UK on an O2 network, either as a Pay & Go option; as a completely new contract; or by upgrading from a previous iPhone model.

That "S" stands for "Speed"

Sure, there are a couple of new features in the iPhone 3GS. Such as a magnetic compass, improved camera and video recording – they're cool and we'll get to them shortly. But there's no doubt that the star attraction – the one that's given the iPhone 3GS a slightly extended name – is the speed boost.

After using the iPhone 3G for the past 12 months, we found the difference to be instantly recognisable. The interface feels snappier, especially with regards to text entry – the keypad is better at keeping up with fast typing, and the iPhone 3GS device is more pleasurable to use as a result. Search functionality – introduced in the iPhone 3.0 software update – is markedly better on the iPhone 3GS.

And, of course, the speed boost has an impact on iPhone applications, especially games; some of these are improved no end. The faster processor improves frame rates and the doubling of internal memory makes them less crash-prone. It's not just games either; some heavy duty apps such as OmniFocus, that always run a tad sluggish on the iPhone and iPhone 3G, seem to have a new lease of life.

So it's obvious that the new iPhone 3GS is a much more powerful phone, but surprisingly Apple isn't publicly crowing about its specifications. Apple's Eric Jue, Apple's Sr. Product Manager of Worldwide Product Marketing told us: "we don't like to talk about what's on the inside". And Apple has been strangely reticent about the processor and memory allocation of the iPhone; this stands in stark contrast to its Mac range, which has the processor speed slapped all over the product description.

The iPhone 3GS teardown. All the insides have been examined and catalogued.

However, a teardown of the device that took place in the Macworld UK office, by the guys at iFixIt.com, has enabled us to confirm the exact changes inside the iPhone 3GS.

The iPhone 3GS internal specifications

The first thing to note is that the iPhone 3GS has dropped from a 90nm to a 65nm manufacturing process. As with laptop and desktop hardware, this has economic benefits (smaller dies = more chips per square meter of silicon wafer). The smaller die process also means that the iPhone 3GS' main CPU should be more energy efficient, both drawing and wasting less power.

The 65nm process should also result in less heat output because there is less surface area of the chip to heat up. Notice how we qualify that with a "should" because the processor has had a substantial speed boost; this in turn draws more power and emits more heat.

Heat and battery life have both been noted concerns for iPhone 3GS owners, and we've thoroughly tested both and will come to them shortly. But for now, let's take a closer look at the internal technology:

There are substantial design changes and Apple has packed just about everything on top of the main logic board. In terms of processor, Apple has chosen to switch from the ARM 11 Samsung S3C6400 to the ARM A8 Samsung S5PC100 CPU.

The old S3C6400 in the iPhone 3G was clocked at 412Mhz; the S5PC100 in the iPhone 3GS clocks in at 600Mhz. Still substantially slower than the 2Ghz CPUs found in most laptops; but as fast, if not faster, than CPUs found in other mobile phones.

The iPhone 3GS logic board

For comparison put it alongside the 133Mhz Qualcomm MSM7600 CPU found in the BlackBerry Storm. The faster processor puts the iPhone 3GS in roughly the same league as the upcoming Palm Pre, which sports a TI's OMAP 3430 that is clocked at 600Mhz.

As an additional boost, the L1 cache in the iPhone 3GS has been doubled from 16 to 32KB and the internal RAM has been doubled from 128MB to 256MB (not to be confused with the Flash storage space – which has also been doubled from 8GB and 16GB to 16GB and 32GB).

The extra RAM will come as a huge relief to developers who find coding within the 128MB space of the iPhone constraining. After the standard apps are all taken into account the typical app only has around 20MB of memory to run in; compare this to the 2GB available on the average desktop.

Finally there has been a substantial and serious graphical boost in the iPhone 3GS. The iPhone 3GS is packing an Imagination Technologies PowerVR SGX 535, rather than the more commonly SGX 530 (as found in the Palm Pre).

So what's the difference? The PowerVR SGX 530 is designed for the handheld mobile market, and is capable of pushing 14 MPolys/s; the PowerVR SGX 535 in the iPhone doubles that figure to 28MPoly/s.

Pure number crunching aside, the faster graphics chip also supports a new OpenGL ES 2.0 graphics standard, whereas the iPhone and iPhone 3G only support the older 1.1 standard.

According to Imagination Technologies: "The family incorporates the revolutionary Universal Scalable Shader Engine (USSE™), with a feature set that exceeds the requirements of OpenGL 2.0 and Microsoft Shader Model 3, enabling 2D, 3D and general purpose (GP-GPU) processing in a single core."

Ever since the launch on the App Store, the 3D capabilities of the iPhone have been something of a revelation, coming close to the Nintendo DS and not far away from the Sony PSP. However, the presence of cell shading technology should push the graphics firmly into Sony PSP territory. Apple is clearly thinking of the iPhone 3GS (and, we assume, the next generation of iPod touch) as handheld gaming devices, and wants to give it the graphical muscle to succeed.

Dedicated gaming on the iPhone 3GS

So what games can you download that show off the all-new improved of the iPhone 3GS? Well… none. Unfortunately as of today there are still no dedicated iPhone 3GS games that we can see on the App Store. Indeed, apart from the video editing and compass apps supplied by Apple there's nothing on the iPhone 3GS that can't run on an iPhone (although the ability of the iPhone 3GS to crank up the performance of current apps shouldn't be overlooked).

In part this can be put down to development time. Obviously games that require coding to take advantage of the OpenGL ES 2.0 functionality take time; and Apple didn't reveal the specs for the iPhone 3GS until launch day. That's the optimistic view; the slightly pessimistic view is that developers are thinking: "why limit your app to just the iPhone 3GS segment of the market," and that they are sticking to iPhone 3G development until the market picks up.

It may well be that when the iPod touch S appears (and we have no doubt that this one is in the pipeline and will be with us all in September), then the market for iPhone 3GS gaming will be much bigger; and hopefully by then developers will have had enough time to crank out some superb games that really take advantage of the new graphical capability of the iPhone 3GS. But for now, enhanced iPhone 3GS gaming remains very much in the realm of future potential.

iPhone developer tap tap tap is creating an application called Plasma that makes use of iPhone. John Casasanta from tap tap tap says: "In our OpenGL ES testing, the 3GS is generally close to four times faster than the 3G. Results will vary depending on the application but this is remarkable to say the least. Plasma's pretty heavy on particle animation and fairly CPU intensive. The current build only uses features of OpenGL ES 1.1 and we're considering taking advantage of some OpenGL ES 2.0 features for a richer experience on the iPhone 3GS."

While we found it somewhat tricky to do an accurate frame-rate test on the iPhone 3GS (consider it something we're working on) it's fair to say that every complex 3D game runs a lot smoother, and better on the iPhone 3GS. Games such as Galaxy On Fire and Real Racing were vastly improved by the faster chipset and the extra memory of the iPhone 3GS.

Firemint, the developer of Real Racing, has developed an iPhone 3GS demonstration of the game that has 40 cars on the track at once (up from the six cars that are on the track in the regular iPhone 3G version).

Again though, it's worth pointing out that we have yet to come across a single game on the App Store that is coded specifically to take advantage of the iPhone 3GS hardware – although it's only a matter of time.

How fast is O2's 3G network for the iPhone 3GS?

Macworld UK has thoroughly speed tested both the original iPhone, the iPhone 3G and the iPhone 3GS. We tested download, upload and web browser speed on both the EDGE and 3G networks in central London, plus our office WiFi network.

For the testing we used an iPhone app called SpeedTest.net, and we used a stopwatch to monitor the amount of time it took to load three websites: the Macworld.co.uk main homepage; the Macworld UK mobile website and the BBC News website.

We did this with the WiFi enabled, the WiFi turned off, and then with the 3G functionality switched off on both the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS. After each individual website load we cleared the cache in Safari.

Lets start with the Speedtest.net results. This application monitors both download and upload speeds and returns the results in kbps.

One thing that surprised us was that even on WiFi, there was a steady progress from the iPhone (513kbps) to iPhone 3G (723kbps) to iPhone 3GS (983kbps).

One thing we should point out is that our office WiFi has a fairly slow download speed because it is shared by many people. In this sense our office WiFi is similar to a public WiFi hotspot. On a home broadband connection you would see much faster results on download.

When it came to using 3G rather than WiFi the results were even more marked. The iPhone 3G measures 1,167kbps and the iPhone 3GS was 1,890kbps; 62 per cent faster. Measuring the iPhone 3GS speed over the 3G network compared to the original iPhone on EDGE (18kbps) is good for a laugh, clocking in with a 10,400 per cent speed increase.

But what do all these figures mean in real life? Well we measured the web page load times for three websites under WiFi, 3G and Edge.

Under WiFi both the iPhone and iPhone 3G were roughly similar, both loading the Macworld main website in 33.60 and 34.76 seconds respectively. The iPhone 3GS managed to shave 4.92 seconds off this time, loading the page in 29.84 seconds. A good increase but by no means earth-shattering. (Incidentally, if these speeds sound a tad long bear in mind that in both instances the pages were browse-able in under 10 seconds. The time measured is from the point of click, to the point where the blue bar stops and the page is completely loaded.)

Under 3G speed testing the iPhone 3GS showed impressive gains. The iPhone 3G loaded the Macworld website in 43.97 seconds; the iPhone 3GS shaved off almost 10 seconds loading the page in 34.53 seconds. The original iPhone lacks 3G capabilities, so it had to sit out this test.

EDGE testing showed somewhat more mixed results, although we noticed a definite improvement. The original iPhone loading the Macworld website in 2:07.40; the iPhone 3G 1:41.41 and the iPhone 3GS slightly longer at 1:55.41.

However, it is under 3G that the biggest, and most notable gains occur. As you may be aware, the iPhone 3GS supports 7.2 HSPA (High Speed Packet Access) with a maximum download speed of 7.2Mbps, double that of the 3.6 HSPA network supported by the iPhone 3G. Of course, the original iPhone lacks 3G connection and the jump from the iPhone to the iPhone 3GS is fairly substantial to say the least.

Our American friends don't have access to this technology yet, and are waiting for AT&T to upgrade (3G technology in general is somewhat behind in the US than in the UK).

This is interesting because it means the 3G network on the iPhone 3GS is now as fast, if not faster, than most public WiFi networks you come across. We've certainly found ourselves not bothering anymore with WiFi hotspots, as they are invariably slower than the 3G connection accessed by the iPhone 3GS. Our experience with The Cloud and BT Openzone (both offered as free extras on all iPhone contracts) has been mixed to say the least, while they tend to function well in a fixed place, such as a hotel; the public service provided in The City and Canary Wharf have rarely worked well enough. There is a battery trade-off here to take into account though; 3G has a higher energy requirement than EDGE or WiFi; but in general we're finding ourselves sticking with 3G instead of WiFi whenever we're away from home.

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