iPhone 3GS full review - Page 2

Measuring O2's 3G coverage in the UK?

All that 3G speed testing is all right for those of us living in London, with our high-speed data connections (we consider it fair trade for the lousy pubs and having to catch the tube during rush hour), but what about those people living out in the rest of the country?

Ofcom recently provided a map of 3G coverage of the UK and the results for O2 weren't good. While most major cities in the UK has coverage, as soon as you get outside an urban area the chances of getting a decent 3G signal on O2 decrease significantly. This leaves you on the older EDGE or GPRS network, with its significantly slower speed.

The Ofcom map of 3G coverage in the UK. The Orange network (left) is much more substantial than the O2 network (right)

For non-urban dwellers this especially grating because other networks – notably 3 and Orange – have much better 3G coverage. But because the iPhone is locked to the O2 network, iPhone owners can't currently take advantage of whoever has the best technology in their area.

O2 has a map of 3G coverage and a postcode checker on its Web site, so you can see if 3G coverage is included in your area.

Faster app launch and run times

The speed boost also improves load times. The boot load improves load times (from completely switched off to the time the screen appears) for the three iPhones are as follows:

iPhone 32.88 secs
iPhone 3G 38.84 secs
iPhone 3GS 20.44 secs

We're not completely sure why the original iPhone boots faster than the iPhone 3G; we assume that because it has less technical functions (such as GPS and location services) to load into memory it can load the OS more quickly. However, the iPhone 3GS nearly doubles the boot time thanks to its faster processor and improved memory. And that's pretty much the same story with every app as well.

OmniFocus 1.5 takes 3.25 secs to launch on an iPhone 3G; and 1.28 secs to launch on the iPhone 3GS. Another game called Real Racing takes 19.25 secs to launch on the iPhone 3G but only 15.81 secs to launch on the iPhone 3GS. Every app we tested loaded in roughly two-thirds to half the time on the iPhone 3GS.

We did notice some oddities though. Omni Focus syncs with MobileMe, a process that took 21.78 secs on the iPhone 3G, but 38.12 secs on the iPhone 3GS. We tested several times to be sure but something on the iPhone 3GS makes the program sync slower (we assume that there's a technical problem that the developer will soon fix). It's worth noting though that app improvements are somewhat dependent on developer support for the iPhone 3GS.

So, what about that iPhone 3GS magnetic compass?

Speed boost aside there are a few highly documented new features on the iPhone. On the hardware front is a new magnetic compass (also known as a magnetometer) and a slightly larger 3-megapixel camera (slightly up from the 2-megapixel camera found on the iPhone and iPhone 3G). On the software side of things the iPhone 3GS adds video recording and editing to the photo app and integrates the magnetic compass with Google Maps (and provides a separate Compass app).
Maps has always been one of the standout programs on the iPhone, and has always been pretty good for showing off the power of the phone. As regular iPhone users will know, tapping the target icon in the lower left of the screen locates your position; tapping it a second time on the iPhone 3GS swings the map around to show your orientation.

This lack of orientation has always been a minor irritancy (if not exactly a problem) on the iPhone 3G; which could provide directions via Google Maps technology, and pinpoint your location with GPS but couldn't show you which direction to head in. The magnetometer solves this problem; although it was never enough of a problem in the first place for us to get too upset over.

Of more interest with the magnetometer is its ability to combine with the GPS signal and accelerometer to determine exactly which direction the iPhone is pointing at. This can be used to create so-called "augmented reality" applications. This combines a real-life video feed (as provided by the camera) with overlaid graphics that interact with the real video feed.

All this is far from science fiction. An augmented reality app called Nearest Tube is awaiting approval on the App Store. For use in London, you look through the screen at the video feed with an overlay that shows the location of nearby tube stations.

The API for the compass is available to all developers and it'll be interesting to see what uses they can make for it. There are a few quirky apps out that make use of the magnetic compass, but most are little more than tech demos. iPhone 3Gs apps on the App Store to check out include:

Magnetism, an app that displays magnetic fields; Metal Detector for iPhone 3GS, as the name suggests it detects metal. It's more of a toy than a serious metal detector though; and Compassier – Virtual Reality 3D compass for iPhone 3GS. This app shows a virtual 3D plane flying north; as you move the iPhone around it scrolls around the view of the plane.

In the meantime we found the digital compass invaluable on a recent trip to Brussels; the combination of Google Maps and a built in GPS and compass ensures you're never lost again. It occasionally requires a shake due to magnetic interference, but points the Google Map in the right direction pretty much all of the time. The magnetic compass is an impressive, if by no means vital, addition to the iPhone 3GS.

The improved 3-megapixel camera

Another new addition to the iPhone 3GS is a tweak to the camera to improve the quality of the images it captures. The most notable improvement is a 3-megapixel CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) up from the 2-megapixel offering in the iPhone and iPhone 3G.

Eric Jue told us "3-megapixels is nice, although we don't want to convince everybody that it's the be all and end all. We're doing a lot of other things to ensure people have the best possible image."

The iPhone 3GS (left) shows much greater image clarity than the old iPhone 3G (right)

"Previously it was a fixed focus, which was one meter out to infinity" said Eric, "but now we have this great tap to focus feature". As you are taking a photograph, you can tap any part of the screen and the iPhone will focus on that area.

"We're also doing other things," said Eric, "There's auto exposure, auto white balance, and we're constantly adjusting for colour. All of these things combine to produce a better image."

The tap to focus feature makes a lot of adjustments to the image and brings into the frame. We printed out some images from the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS and there is a marked difference between the quality of the two devices. When you use the iPhone in good lighting it produces perfectly acceptable images that you'd be happy to make prints from. In low lighting it doesn't fare quite so well, although it's substantially better than before.

Having said that, the iPhone 3GS is still a far cry from most digital cameras. It still lacks a flash, zoom, and even the most rudimentary controls; the lens is still positioned inconveniently underneath your left finger, which awkwardly hovers over the view and because there's no physical button you have to take shots by pressing a virtual button on the screen.

On the upside taking pictures is another area of the iPhone 3GS that is much snappier than before. And there are plenty of advantages to taking snaps on the iPhone 3GS – your pictures have location information from the GPS, they can be emailed directly to people, or uploaded to MobileMe; and you can share them via Twitter, Facebook, or Flickr directly from the phone. All of these combine to make the iPhone a really great device for taking pictures with; and it's a boon that it now takes decent looking snaps.

Video editing on the iPhone 3GS

The other new feature found on the iPhone 3GS is video recording and editing. The way it works is that to the bottom right of photo app is a small slider with a camera and film icon, click it to switch to video mode. Pressing the capture button starts to record video and audio.

As with the photo app there is a touch to focus mode, enabling you to home in on a specific area. However, you cannot change the focus area once recording has started.

Video editing is an iPhone 3GS specific feature, and is not available on previous iterations of iPhone. Apple's Eric Jue confirmed that video recording and editing was not possible on previous iterations of the iPhone due to hardware constraints.

What makes video on the iPhone 3GS interesting isn't just the recording, it's also the editing. Click on a video in your photo collection and a trim bar appears at the top of the screen. A scrubber can be used to move through the footage, and the trim handles on either end of video can be dragged in to shorten off unwanted areas. A nice touch is that if you hold down one of the trim handles, the trim bar zooms in to show a close up (including frame by frame shots on the trim line); this enables you to fine-tune the video edit.

And when you've edited the video it can be shared via email, MMS (with a 30-second limit); MobileMe, or YouTube. As with still pictures it is this integration of the camera with the internet that makes the iPhone such a good device for this sort of function; the ability to take short clips of video, trim them down, and upload them to YouTube straight from a handheld device is pretty amazing.

Video editing on the iPhone 3GS is fairly basic (you just trim off the start and end of the clip), but Apple has confirmed that the video editing function on the iPhone 3GS is something that developers can build upon. It's certainly possible to create a fully-featured video editing app with titles, transitions, and effects – we're looking forward to seeing just what the iPhone 3GS is capable of video-wise.

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