SHIFT: Why you should wait before upgrading to the iPhone 3GS

I went to see Paul McCartney at CitiField, the Mets' new home, last Friday night with my wife. We watched and listened to a 67-year-old man energetically perform a two-and-a-half hour show that should have worn him out, but wore me out instead. (I would have been more worn out, but my inner dork easily suppressed the temptation to dance.)

During the course of the evening I used my iPhone 3GS to check and answer several e-mails, booted up MLB.com to monitor the 11-0 Mets battering by the Braves, made a couple of calls to meet up with fellow concert-goers, sent a couple of texts to same, listened to voicemail, took some pictures and captured nearly a half-hour of Beatles classics footage. On the way home on the train, I read a couple of chapters of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells on Stanza e-book reader.

My wife, wielding my old iPhone 3G (how weird is it to refer to the iPhone 3G as "old"?), shot 62 pictures and read some e-mail.

By the time we made it home, despite the radically unbalanced usage, both iPhones had about half battery life remaining, vividly illustrating one of the 3GS's major enhancements. To me, that extra battery life is worth the 3GS's price of admission. Still, any iPhone 2G or 3G owners considering leaping to the 3GS likely want a little more than some extra juice. So, after living with the 3G S for the last month, does it live up to its hype?


One Giant Leap

First, a little perspective: Forty years ago this week, a human first walked on an extra-terrestrial body, relying on the 21st-century equivalent of stone knives and bearskins (extra credit to anyone who gets the reference). Even today's simplest cellphones have several orders more processing power than the computers on board the Columbia command module and Eagle LEM. And here we are discussing whether the combined computing power that guided 12 men to the moon and back is worth less than $500.


iPhone's Small Steps

It's easy to confuse the iPhone 3GS hardware improvements from the iPhone 3.0 operating system upgrade. At the risk of oversimplifying, let's concentrate on S's six primary hardware improvements:

  1. Longer-lasting battery
  2. 3.2 MP camera and video recorder
  3. More storage space
  4. Built-in compass
  5. More powerful processor
  6. Ability to access faster AT&T network

I've already illustrated how much more life the S battery provides compared to the 3G. And according to reports, the pending OS 3.1 upgrade is supposed to further expand the available amps.

As to the video camera — well, I expected better. In fact, I expected H.264 HD video, not VGA. The bright video screens at the McCartney show bleached out all details, and my proximity to the ginormous speakers resulted in distorted audio. Daytime footage, such as this street performance at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, isn't as sharp as it could have been and, sans any kind of anti-shake/image stabilization, a little too jittery for me. Even with these complaints, S's video recorder is still superior to nearly all other cellphones.

While the 3.2MP imager creates bigger photos, they are not necessarily better photos.

I love the S's 32GB of storage — more memory than any other smartphone extant. I've shoehorned in 5,000-plus music tracks, about six hours of video, exactly 100 apps, and around 2,800 photos… with 24 MB to spare.

As a pedestrian coming out of the subway and getting my bearings, the compass-aided Maps app saves time and potential embarrassment by instantly pointing me instantly in the correct direction. I don't own a car, so I'll leave the effectiveness and value of the AT&T Navigation and coming Tom Tom nav apps to you gas-guzzlers.

iPhone 3GS certainly opens apps much faster than the 3G, fast enough to blunt one of the advantages of multitasking OSs such as Android and Pre.


Victim of Its Own Success

iPhone is a mansion built on the quicksand of AT&T's inadequate network. There are too many iPhones desiring to perform too many tasks needing 3G, overloading AT&T's system. S loads Web pages demonstrably faster than 3G, but not all the time. During peak usage times or in crowds and fringe areas, access slows to a crawl. Imagine how frustrated Helio Castroneves would be if he were forced to spend all day navigating his #3 Indy car through Midtown Manhattan.

AT&T is furiously building out its faster network and expanding network capacity to accommodate not only the millions of 3G iPhone users demanding maximum 3.6Mbps connections, but the 7.2Mbps (and faster) network the 3GS can access. But right now, this lack of network speed and especially capacity is why the Slingbox app can operate only via Wi-Fi on the iPhone, and why we still don't have the promised tethering (using your iPhone as a modem) and no MMS — at least not yet.

I have a feeling the iPhone 3GS's potential won't be reached until it's compatible with the coming LTE networks, either with Verizon or AT&T late next year or in 2011.


App Disarray

The 3GS's OS also is a victim of its own success — Apple simply didn't anticipate how many apps we'd all download. I have 100 apps scattered over eight pages. When I had only half that number of apps on half the pages I managed to group them is somewhat logical groups by dragging them from page to page. Even at 50 apps and four pages, the organization process was like trying to solve a multi-level Chinese slide puzzle and took more than an hour. I have no desire to try again.

Please please PLEASE, someone, anyone, create an iPhone home screen emulator so I can drag and drop my apps across multiple screens on my big desktop monitor and have that arrangement transfer to my iPhone. And, let me jump to a specific screen on the iPhone to get to individual pages. Is that too much to ask?

Finally, back to our question: Is it worth it to step-up to the S? From the plain 3G, I'd say wait until AT&T releases OS 3.1 and announces the availability of MMS and tethering — that'll be a sign AT&T's faster and fatter network is in somewhat better shape than it is now. For everyone else, iPhone 3G S is still the best phone available.