First look: iPhone 3G S still stylish, now speedy

New hardware -- and the iPhone OS 3.0 -- make for a powerful combo

When Apple Inc.'s new iPhone 3G S -- the "S" stands for speed -- officially went on sale this morning, I made sure I was one of those standing in line at an AT&T store so I could snap one up as soon as the doors opened.

This time, the number of people waiting at stores around the U.S. to get the new iPhone was smaller than those of past years, perhaps because the latest model is evolutionary -- not revolutionary -- compared to the original iPhone or the 3G model that debuted last summer. (More likely, it's because buyers could pre-order it and either pick it up at the store or have it delivered directly to their home.)

AT&T divided the 20 or so people in line into walk-in buyers and those who pre-ordered. I was a walk-in, so I had to wait while those who pre-ordered the phone by last Friday got their phones first. Time to wait for the 32GB model I wanted: about 55 minutes after the store opened. Price out the door: $299. (I've been using the first-generation EDGE-based model, so I qualified for AT&T's upgrade pricing.)

AT&T activated my phone at the store, then I dashed home to sync up my personal data and apps using iTunes. The sync took about an hour, which is not surprising, given that the restore copied over 16GB of apps, music, movies and TV shows.

Physically, the iPhone 3G S looks and feels no different than the last-generation model. The only tell-tale sign is the small text that reads "32GB" on the back of the phone, storage capacity that wasn't available in previous phones. In one fell swoop, I've doubled the space I have for apps and data.

The new 3G S comes in a choice of colors, as long as your choice is white or black. I stayed with black. And I quickly noticed that the new coating on the screen actually works. The iPhone is still a fingerprint magnet, but the screen wipes clean very easily.

Given that the form factor hasn't changed, anyone with an older 3G model shouldn't have any problems using previously-bought accessories like external cases. What new 3G S owners will notice are the under-the-hood changes Apple has made. Though the company isn't talking about the hardware details, other sites have reported that the 3G S has a new Arm processor and more RAM, so it should run faster and more smoothly -- just like a newer, faster computer.

It does. Navigating around my apps, I found the 3G S to be more responsive when launching programs and surfing the Web.

The original iPhone, released at the end of June 2007, shipped with hardware that at the time offered a pretty significant jump for mobile technology. Two years in technology terms is like two decades in human years, more than enough time for products that have lived normal, active lives to be sent to retirement homes in Florida. Even so, the release earlier this week of iPhone OS 3.0 freshened even the first-generation iPhone I had been using. (Its UI worked more smoothly after the update.)

On the 3G S, the updated OS works well with some of the phone's new features, especially the higher-resolution camera -- 3 megapixels -- that now offers video and auto-focus. The Camera application produces noticeably sharper, more color-balanced pictures than before. Touching any part of the screen automatically focuses on the area you've tapped. It easily outshines the camera used on earlier models.

Better yet, the new camera can record VGA-quality (640 pixels by 480 pixels) footage in either landscape or portrait modes. While not great for shooting feature films, this is fine for Web video and maybe even iMovie projects. Plus, you can now upload movies shot on the phone to the Web in much the same way still photos could be uploaded on earlier models. One note: Once you start shooting video, you can't change the camera's focus.

The 3G S also has a compass, which will make it hard for you ever to get lost as long as you have your 3G S with you. The virtual compass follows your movements in real-time, displaying a readout of your position in terms of which direction you're facing. The compass also display the coordinates received from the GPS signal -- and a single touch of the compass' location button automatically displays that location in Maps.

I haven't had time yet to fully put the iPhone 3G S through its paces, but will be doing so over the next few days for a full review that Computerworld will post next week.

But it's clear that Apple's latest iPhone should be another winner. With the addition of a bumped-up processor, additional memory, the new camera and more storage, this iPhone is simply a faster, more capable computer. It's the equivalent of moving from an old PC or Mac to newer and better hardware.

If last year's iPhone 3G can be summed up as "faster data connection/more accurate location support," then this iPhone can be summed up as "upgraded hardware and a noticeably improved user experience."

All in all, I'm quite taken.

Michael deAgonia is an award-winning writer, computer consultant and technologist who has been using Macs and working on them professionally since 1993. His tech-support background includes tenures with Computerworld, colleges, the biopharmaceutical industry, the graphics industry, Apple and as a Macintosh administrator at several companies.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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