Apple's iPhone 3GS: A Next Step, Not A Next Generation
I don't want to call Apple's iPhone old, but it is maturing. The new iPhone 3GS just doesn't bring the kind of groundbreaking improvements delivered by its predecessors--the original iPhone's gesture-driven touch screen, auto-correcting onscreen keyboard and Safari Web browser, or the iPhone 3G's App Store and Global Positioning System self-awareness.
Today's review covers what I think is important about the 3GS--$199 to new and renewing AT&T Wireless customers in a 16-gigabyte version, $299 in a 32-GB version--and the iPhone OS 3.0 software inside it. I had a lot of ground to cover in that piece; please read it with a realization that what I deemed important may only reflect my own weird tastes. (For example, one of my favorite iPhone 3.0 features, the ability to sync notes to your computer, only merits a two-sentence mention on page 16 of Apple's reviewer's guide.)
Unsurprisingly, I had to leave out some details in the column. But that's what this blog is for!
I find computerized speech recognition fascinating, so I had to try the iPhone's version of it. And I was pleasantly surprised to see this device understand commands like "tell me what's playing?" in a noisy Metro station. It also recognized the names of some of the more pronunciation-defying artists in my collection (for instance, Meshell Ndegeocello), even ones it couldn't speak correctly when confirming my selection (Björk, which it pronounced as "Be-jark").
Of course, it served up some amusing mismatches, perhaps none more so than when it interpreted "play songs by Herbert von Karajan" as "play songs by Everclear." (Yes, I know he was a conductor, not a composer; it's not my fault iTunes can't keep its tags straight.)
Voice Control also suffers the problem of other command-line interfaces: You have to know the proper syntax upfront. So when I said "play music by Fugazi," it was confused (a failing that led me to Twitter incorrectly that it didn't know the pronunciation); when I instead said "play songs by Fugazi," the D.C. punk-rock band's "Waiting Room" was cranking through the headphones a moment later.
TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington made a good point when he wrote that the iPhone 3GS could quickly make cheap pocket camcorders like Pure Digital's Flip models obsolete. What's easier than having simple video-uploading software that runs when you plug the camera into a computer? Being able to run that software without needing a computer at all.
I should note here that iPhone 3G owners can enable a video mode on their devices by jailbreaking it to install an unauthorized video program. A co-worker of mine did that earlier this week and pronounced himself satisified with the results (as well as his newly-won ability to arrange add-on apps in folders).
The iPhone (Apple's own core applications excepted) remains a mono-tasking device, but with the 3.0 software Apple added a way for third-party programs to hand off tasks to the operating system when they're closed. This "push notification" system won't help you listen to Pandora's Internet-radio program while you tap away at your e-mail (although you can listen to a Web-radio site's streaming audio link through Safari), but it does work well for programs that normally spend most of their time waiting for one input or another.
Like, for instance, instant messaging. I installed AOL's free AIM application, sent a test message to a friend and closed the program. A few minutes later, a beep and a small onscreen dialog notified me that the friend had replied; tapping that dialog brought AIM back up. It's not bad--but it's nowhere near as elegant as the Palm Pre's genuine multitasking.
Have other questions? I wouldn't be surprised. Post them, along with any other comments you might have about the iPhone 3GS, below. Or send them my way during my Web chat, starting at noon EDT today.
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