Apple iPhone 3GS review: Same clothes, new feel

Same clothes, new feel

GSMArena team, 30 June 2009.

Unboxing the iPhone 3GS

Apple continues to use the same boxes for the iPhone 3GS. At least, it says 3GS on the box - a sign that is not to be found on the iPhone itself.

The contents of the box are pretty standard issue stuff - a USB cable, a charger that uses this very cable to charge the phone and a pair of headphones. You also get some Apple stickers to proudly advertize your loyalty to the brand.

There's no docking desk stand again (it was there with the iPhone 2G) and there's no cleaning cloth (it was there on both the iPhone 2G and 3G).

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The box (and its contents) are pretty much last year stuff

Apple have supplied the iPhone 3GS with a new set of headphones - this time there's remote function for controlling the music playback and voice control. Except for the new three-key remote, the headset looks exactly as the previous models and can only be described as "basic" - both in looks and performance.

You might be misled by the looks of the remote as it only has three keys and they seem to be assigned to different functions. But the remote has its tricks and once you learn them, you'd controlling your music as easy as pie. On the other hand, a remote that comes with a manual cannot be called user-friendly.

By default the top and bottom keys control the volume. The central key is where the magic happens. One click during music playback plays/pauses music, two clicks start fast forwarding, three clicks activate rewinding.

In the same time, a click during an incoming call accepts the call and in almost every situation clicking and holding briefly triggers new Voice Command feature.

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Apple Earphones with Remote and Mic are welcomed upgrade

Apple iPhone 3GS 360-degree spin

The iPhone 3GS looks just the same as the iPhone 3G, but you knew that, right? The shell has remained the same so there are no changes in the dimensions whatsoever. The iPhone 3GS has put on some weight though, but it's just 2-3g we're talking about here, so it's not a big deal. Alright, let's get the thing spinning now, shall we?

Design and construction

Describing the iPhone 3GS is no-brainer. Hey, you've seen the iPhone 3G already, right? Well, it's just the same. And we mean THE SAME. Finding a visible difference between the two is quite a challenge.

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The iPhone 3G (on the left) • the iPhone 3GS (in the middle) • the iPhone 2G (on the right)

The only difference we could find is a really subtle one - the fine-print text on the back of the 3GS (including the "iPhone" sign) has chrome finish now instead of the grey ink used on the iPhone 3G.

And unfortunately, much to our disappointment, there's no sign of any "3GS" branding - so it would be hard for you to really show off with your new Apple handset ('cause it's just the same as the old one).

The display of the iPhone 3GS is again the same industry-leading stuff as last generations. It's got great viewing angles, excellent colors and most of all, yet unsurpassed among GSM handsets sunlight visibility.

The display has a resolution of 320 x 480 pixels. While that resolution seemed hot two years ago when the first iPhone was launched, year 2009 saw WVGA resolution screens becoming more common in the upper market segment and they are already found on a number of non-smartphone devices by competing brands.

We guess however that changing the screen resolution along the way would mean compatibility issues with many AppStore applications. So there might be a point in keeping the same display unit for future phones, but still the geek squad will most probably object.

The iPhone 3GS however has a changed white balance much like the 3G had it changed as compared to the 2G. It's kinda geeky to make a point of it, but we couldn't help ourselves.

The iPhone 3GS has a slightly warmer representation of the colors as compared to the 3G and that's a good thing since the 3G had it way too cool and even bluish (check out the last photo). But that difference is obvious only when you compare the devices head-to-head. When you have them on their own, chances are you'd never notice it.

Display test 50% brightness 100% brightness
Black, cd/m2 White, cd/m2 Contrast ratio Black, cd/m2 White, cd/m2 Contrast ratio
Nokia N9 0 349 0 596
LG Optimus Black P970 0.27 332 1228 0.65 749 1161
Apple iPhone 3GS 0.84 134 160 2.51 504 201
Apple iPhone 4 0.14 189 1341 0.39 483 1242
HTC Sensation 0.21 173 809 0.61 438 720
Samsung I9000 Galaxy S 0 263 0 395
Sony Ericsson XPERIA Arc 0.03 34 1078 0.33 394 1207
Samsung I9100 Galaxy S II 0 231 0 362
Nokia E6 0.52 757 1456 0.57 1004 1631
Nokia 701 0.64 619 964 1.12 1022 905

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iPhone 2G on the left, 3GS in the middle and 3G on the right

Apple claim to have laid a special oleophobic coating on the screen glass, which simply means cleaning those smudges should be easier than before. And indeed it is. You see, the difference is nothing ground-breaking, but it's still there. Where several good scrubs with the cleaning cloth were needed on the 3G, now only a quick T-shirt rub will do for the iPhone 3GS.

The right side of the iPhone 3GS could have made a good use of a camera shutter key - we're dying for one, especially now when there's auto focus. Yes, we know the camera works with touch focus making the old focus-and-recompose technique a thing of the past, but still touching on a feedback-less screen to take photos is not our thing.

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The iPhone 3GS right and left-hand side: the volume key and the Silent mode switch are the same as before

Now as you may have guessed it, the top of the iPhone 3GS has seen no changes at all. The awkward SIM card slot, the 3.5mm audio jack, and the On/Off key - they are all here, conveniently placed to make you at home with the device.

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The iPhone 3GS top side: to pull the SIM tray out, you need the special supplied ejector tool

The bottom is where the mic and the loudspeaker is situated. The loudspeaker is a single one unfortunately, which is a shame, we would have enjoyed stereo speakers on the 3GS. The particular location of the loudspeaker is the very same reason we prefer landscape AppStore games to be rotated the opposite way (with the loudspeaker on the right instead left). Otherwise, your fingers holding the iPhone muffle the loudspeaker unless you go the extra length of putting it out of the way.

The good news however is Apple have finally tuned the loudspeaker performance, and yes, it's noticeably louder than before. Not that it's a great achievement, as the previous iPhone bottomed out our comparative loudspeaker tables, but it's a really nice upgrade. The loudness level is now pretty much acceptable, but you'll have the chance of checking out the test results in the Telephony part of this iPhone 3GS review.

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iPhone 3GS bottom part: loudspeaker is on the left, mic is on the right

The back of the iPhone 3GS is the same shiny stuff that's best suited to showroom floors than everyday usage. It's a true fingerprint magnet and quite hard to clean. And unlike the display, we don't think it has that extra oleophobic coating to make things easier on the cleaning cloth.

The camera lens is on the same place on the back but nothing suggests its improved functionality - higher resolution, auto focus and video recording.

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iPhone 3GS back panel is as shiny and smudge welcoming as ever

And finally, Apple claim to have pimped the battery life to as much as 20%. The talk-time in 2G network has been upped to 12 hours (10 on the iPhone 3G) and the audio playback has reached 30 hours (24 on the iPhone 3G). Video playback endurance has been upgraded from 7 to 10 hours, while the stand-by and 3G talk time remain unchanged.

In real life scenarios we hardly saw any improvement over the iPhone 3G. If you intensively play around with apps - downloading, testing, tinkering, etc, the battery won't last you a full day, which is exactly what we had with the iPhone 3G. Perhaps turning the 3G off would help, but it makes no sense to voluntarily give in the HSDPA speeds.

Reader comments

  • at
  • 15 Aug 2022
  • sgk

Curious, what os is it running? iOS 6 wasn't kind to this phone for sure. It works but gets fairly laggy at times

  • Jaisal Lakum
  • 11 Apr 2022
  • YQT

I am typing this comment with iPhone 3gs

  • killer
  • 01 Jan 2015
  • U{p

yes you can .. since they will lag sometimes .. i use to play turning everything off no cellular n it use to work better ..