Monday, June 22, 2009, 05:00 am PT (08:00 am ET)
Review: Apple's new iPhone 3G S and iPhone Software 3.0
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Same on the outside
In addition to being faster, the new iPhone 3G S sports some other cool new hardware features. You wouldn't know by looking at it though, as the new phone is almost exactly identical to the existing iPhone 3G.
The only exterior difference appears to be that the iPhone capacity and regulatory information on the back is silkscreened using reflective silvery letters rather than using a flat light grey.
The other significant physical difference is its new oleophobic (fat repellant) screen coating that is supposed to make it easier to wipe off oily finger smudges. This wasn't really a big problem that needed to be solved, and the difference isn't very noticeable. If you use cover sheet to protect the screen, the new coating won't matter at all for you.
New on the inside: Voice Control
The new CPU and GPU cores make the device a lot faster overall, but Apple has applied that extra speed to deliver some great new features as well. The new Voice Control app adds a feature that many other phones have delivered first: voice dialing. On many other phones, this works as a phone company feature, where what you say is interpreted by the mobile operator to dial for you. On the iPhone 3G S, the phone is fast enough to perform voice recognition on its own. That also makes this software feature unique to the new model.
Voice Control works pretty well, although its not flawless. You simply hold down the home button for a moment and it begins listening. You can also press and hold the integrated mic button on your headphones. Saying "call Mike" will respond with "home, mobile, or other?" if the name matches a contact with multiple phone numbers; you can select which one by voice. Or, if you have several Mikes in your phone book (below), you'll get "multiple matches found for Mike. Be more specific." If you don't respond, the voice announces it is calling the first match. There's usually enough of a delay to stop the process before it starts to dial, although if you have a passcode set, it can complicate performing a Voice Command if you have to unlock the screen. You can always shout NO to dismiss it.
Using Voice Control for music control seemed a bit rougher, with matches that seemed strange until a comparison of what it picked and what was said were analyzed. "Play songs like this" got interpreted as "play songs by The Ruse." On the other hand, it managed to decipher "play mastercraft" to launch songs by MSTRKRFT. There's not even any vowels in there, good job.
For obvious reasons, it seems to work best if you give it some structure, saying "play songs by" or providing other similarly wordy responses. You also need to wait a second for the listening tone to chime; it's easy to start talking before the app even has a second to launch. Voice Control isn't perfect yet, but for being a 1.0, the new app is Star Trek impressive, even using a voice that sounds a bit like Majel Barrett-Roddenberry rather than the expected Alex of Mac OS X, which is used by the simpler voice navigation system of the iPod shuffle.
New on the inside: Accessibility features
The extra speed also enables support for some new accessibility features, including the VoiceOver screen reader, which substitutes normal navigation methods by allowing users to navigate the screen without looking at it. You touch controls to select them and hear an audible label, double tap to click them, scroll using three fingers, and change settings using rapid swipes up and down. It's hard to maneuver the iPhone interface when you expect it to work intuitively, but for users with visual impairment, it makes the device independently accessible.
A Zoom feature enables users with slight visual impairment to magnify the screen up using three fingered taps and swipes, or to enable White on Black for a high contrast X-Ray inspired display. Speak Auto-text sets the device to read out suggested auto-correct substitution words and auto capitalization changes as you type.
For users with hearing impairment in one ear, Mono Audio allows games and other applications to direct both left and right audio to both earphones.
New on the inside: Camera
In addition to the Voice Recorder app in iPhone 3.0 that works across all models with audio input, the new iPhone 3G S sports a video recording camera that works surprisingly well and uses the same easy to use trim edit controls to cut down your video capture to just the part you want.
Like Voice Control, the new feature demands the faster processor and significantly improved camera of the new model. The new camera sensor in the iPhone 3G S captures with 3.2 megapixel resolution, producing photos with a resolution of 2048 x 1536 compared to the original iPhones' 1600 × 1200. Quality isn't all about resolution though.
The new camera can focus on the subject you tap, providing you a lot more control over the previous camera, which used a fixed-focus optimized for portraits. In addition to tapping to focus, the system also performs white balance and exposure settings for you. That lets you take a picture inside where a bright window might have otherwise cast your intended subject into shadows. Now you can click on the dark subject, or alternative click on the window and focus on the view outside.
The new iPhone 3G S camera won't have you throw away your standard camera, but it is far more useful in capturing usable pictures, especially in lower light conditions. It can also macro focus on close subjects, something the previous camera was particularly worthless at doing. In the shots below, taken in parallel, the old camera could barely see the keyboard, where the new camera reveals a level of filth I didn't even previously notice was there.
The iPhone's camera has always been one of its weakest features. At the launch of the iPhone, we wished for better software, and with the iPhone 3G, the use of the same camera sensor slipped deeper into disappointment. While previous phones could manage to capture video using third party apps, the new camera in the iPhone 3G S has the ability to capture really usable VGA-resolution video at 30 FPS. It also captures very usable sound, something many smartphones that can capture video can't do. It's not really a stretch to say that the video captured by the iPhone 3G S is really spectacular for a mobile device. Critics are comparing it against HD camcorders rather than other mobiles. While there are better ways to capture production video, this camera is really ideally suited to capturing video for the web or podcasts. It might double Google's bill for YouTube.
Apple has frequently avoided delivering features that the company deemed weren't really ready for prime time. The original Mac didn't do color because computers at the time were only really capable of doing sloppy DOS-style 8-bit color. The 4G iPod hardware could be tricked into doing slideshow video, but Apple didn't introduce iPod video playback until it thought it could deliver good video playback. The company has similarly reserved video capture for a camera that can do very good quality video.
Along with video capture quality, Apple has also insisted on keeping the interface simple. There's one switch between photos and video, and one button to start and stop. No cluttered array of options. You can click to focus, but unless you have a camera mount, the autofocus is probably adequate to keep your video sharp.
Played back on the iPhone, the video quality looks really great; on a computer, it looks a bit soft, especially if you're subject and the phone are constantly moving during capture. If you can hold it still enough, it does a great job of capturing sharp detail. With movement, detail suffers but capture remains fluid. Audio recording by the camcorder function is pretty decent considering that it uses the tiny mic designed for capturing voice from a closely positioned mouth. When taking video, be careful not to handle the mic or your video will get noisy. Wearing the iPhone headphones, the integrated mic allows you to narrate videos with very good quality for capturing podcasts and other clips.
New on the inside: Compass
Another hardware software feature unique to the new iPhone 3G S is its electronic compass. It ships with a new Compass app that shows you which way north is, as long as you're not next to a big magnet of some kind. The Compass application lets you select between pointing toward magnetic north or true north, and provides a shortcut for launching Maps.
That's because the best use of the compass hardware is in Maps, where after clicking once for your location you can now click again to spin the map to fit your current orientation, showing you the map in the direction you are looking. If you've ever found yourself lost but knowing exactly where you were on the map, this smart new feature will have your tail wagging.
On page 4 of 4: Same on the outside; New on the inside: Voice Control; New on the inside: Accessibility features; New on the inside: Camera; and New on the inside: Compass.
On Topic: iPhone
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