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Review: Apple's new iPhone 3G S and iPhone Software 3.0

With another year of mobile development under its belt, Apple has released another major update to its mobile operating system and introduced the new iPhone 3G S hardware to entice new buyers and another flurry of upgrades. Here's what's new.

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iPhone 3.0 Software

If you're already using an iPhone or iPod touch, you've had several days to try resisting the urge to upgrade. Fortunately, iPhone 3.0 seems to have none of the standout problems that plagued the ambitious iPhone 2.0 release last year. If you own the original iPhone or picked up an iPhone 3G over the past year, the new software is a free upgrade. If you have either model of the iPod touch, the new software is a nominal $9.95.

If you're an iPod touch user and thinking of complaining about that upgrade price, keep in mind that there aren't any apps in iTunes that offer the major upgrade in features of the new iPhone 3.0 software. Also, remember that if you had a music player made by anyone else, there'd be no 3.0 major upgrade to obtain, let alone for just $10.

AppleInsider has previously covered new features in the iPhone 3.0 software, but here's a brief refresher:

Spotlight Search gives you a global search for quickly finding apps, notes, emails, calendar events, contacts, music and other media files (below). You can selectively enable what items you want show up in your search results from the General / Home / Search Result page in Settings. The Spotlight page is fast, smart and easy to pull up; just hit the home button once to get to the main page, then hit it again to slide over to the search page. Boom. It's also fun and clever that the home page icons slowly dim and fade to black as you enter the Spotlight page.

Spotlight searching is also available within apps, such as Contacts, where its previous omission was a cloying annoyance. Now you don't even need to use Contacts - just pop up the Spotlight page and find who you're looking for. It performs searches on first, last and company names of your contacts, but it doesn't search the middle of words. That means RO would pull up Robert and Dr. Roy, but searching for OB wouldn't find either Robert or Bob.

You also can't search by phone number or email, which is a bummer, although you can draft an email and pull up a quick list of mail matches as you begin entering the address. You can't do the same when dialing a number using the Phone app, however.

iPhone 3G S

MobileMe features: Mail now supports new server-side search when using a MobleMe mail account (below), allowing you to very quickly pull up any messages from the thousands of mails on your mailbox rather than painstakingly loading new pages of 25 messages at a time to find what you're looking for. You can search emails' to, from, or subject field or everything, which searches the body as well. Server-side search in itself makes a MobileMe mail account a thousand times more valuable to mobile users.

Last year's push messaging features have also been built upon with Find My iPhone and the ability to push your phone a message along with a signal ping helpful if you lost it in the couch. The ability to Remote Wipe a lost or stolen phone might also come in handy for users who have suffered a lost phone and are worried about the thief gaining access to their private data. These features work across multiple devices you configure for push messaging.

Announced but not yet available are new iDisk features for accessing your files stored on the MobileMe cloud from your phone from anywhere. You'll also be able to share file access to other iPhone or iPod touch users by sending a link to files in your public iDisk folder, or open access so that anyone who has your email address can look up and browse the documents you publish publicly.

iPhone 3G S

New Text features: Cut, Copy, and Paste and the new Landscape Keyboard make it easy to enter and move around blocks of text as you like. If you make a mistake, shake to undo and a clever button slides in from the side to enable a backtrack (below). There's also new support for 23 languages and 40 keyboard layouts, and new sync support for Notes. There's also those clever Voice Memos if you'd rather say it than type it.

Notes syncing is another one of those "why wasn't it here sooner" things, but I can't think of any major features of iPhone 1.0 or 2.0 that I would have delayed just to sync my scribbles. In any event, all those Notes you tapped into your mobile over the last two years are now synced to Mac OS X Mail via iTunes, making the Notes feature actually pretty useful. Notes also get synced to MobileMe and between your mobile devices.

iPhone 3G S

iTunes and iPod features: You can now buy or rent movies, download TV episodes and audiobooks, and get free podcasts and iTunes U content from iPhone 3.0's iTunes app. It also lets you set up and edit your iTunes account and redeem gift card certificate numbers right on the device.

There's also new support for Stereo Bluetooth headphones for any iPhone or iPod touch apart from the original first generation iPod touch, which lacked bluetooth hardware. A new Shake to Shuffle playback feature works like the latest iPod nano, and can be turned off if you don't like it.

Nike+ iPod software is included for models that support the sensor hardware, which includes the iPhone 3G S and the second generation iPod touch. You just need to activate the software from Settings.

iPhone 3G S

Home Button: In addition to taking you to the home screen and to the Spotlight page, the Home button can also be configured to do a few more tasks when double clicked. As before, you can jump to your Phone Favorites dialing list or launch iPod playback controls. But now you can also set it to directly to Spotlight search or launch the Camera app. When music is playing, it will continue to pull up music controls unless disabled.

This new option on the Settings / General / Home page makes it a bit easier to pull up the camera to grab a photo, or to start shooting video, a feature that's limited to the new iPhone 3G S. The new phone also has a press and hold Voice Control feature tied to the Home button, described below. How many other features can Apple pile onto the unit's only facing physical button? At some point, perhaps Morse Code input.

Application and Gaming Features: everything is slightly faster, with big boosts for Safari browsing. New applications include Voice Memos, which works on any device that can support audio input (that leaves the original iPod touch out), improved Stocks and Calendar with meeting creation features, and new MMS features for sending photos, audio clips, contacts, and videos (videos are only supported on the new iPhone 3G S) through the old phone system to other MMS phone users, if you prefer to pay per message. In the US, AT&T hasn't gotten its MMS support up and running for iPhone users yet, and once it does, you'll need a 3G phone to do MMS.

Using any iPhone or iPod touch, you can already send stuff through regular email to desktop users or other smartphones that can handle real mail with standard attachments. Using copy and paste, you can also now send multiple photos or videos in a mail message. You can also upload photos and movies to MobileMe and videos to YouTube.

iPhone 3.0 also delivers lots of new potential for developers with support for new hardware accessories, Bluetooth peer to peer networking (which again requires a device with Bluetooth), and Push Notification features. It also expands Parental Controls, which are called Restrictions under Settings. This lets you password protect access to Safari, YouTube, iTunes, installing Apps, the Camera and Location Services.

Turning off allow access makes that item unavailable in the iPhone user interface. If you have Location Services turned on and then turn off Allow access, you have effectively locked the service on (below). This offers great potential for locking in settings, but Apple hasn't yet defined a restriction for locking your email accounts or push settings, so it can't currently be used to prevent a thief from quickly disabling your device before you can locate it using the new Find My iPhone feature. In order to do that, you'll have to activate a passcode and leave it on and locked all the time. A thief can still wipe out your device using iTunes, but they won't be able to access your data or ring up calls, and you may have the opportunity to locate them first.

iPhone 3G S

Restrictions also allow you to set a password lock on content. You can turn off support for In App Purchases and configure a threshold for ratings, turning off playback of music and podcasts marked as explicit, turning off movie playback or setting an maximum allowed rating of (when set to US ratings settings) G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17, or anything (including unrated movies apparently); TV shows rated TV-Y, TV-Y7, TV-G, TV-PG, TV-14, TV-MA, or anything; and App Store titles rated as 4+, 9+, 12+, 17+ or anything.

This rating system not only allows parents to set appropriate ratings for their families, but opens up the potential for developers to release apps for mature audiences. Perhaps we'll see a speedy return of both the Kama Sutra reader and the Baby Shaker app.

On page 2 of 4: iPhone 3G S Hardware; S is for Speed; and Network Speeds.