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New iPhone 3GS Boosts Power, Performance, and More

We don’t think there’s any connection to the Apple ][gs from 1986, whose letters referred to “graphics and sound,” but Apple has appended an S to the iPhone 3G’s name to indicate that the new iPhone 3GS has enhanced speed. Gotcha. (Technically, it’s “iPhone 3G S” – with a space before the S – but those of us who spend our lives writing about these products have to draw the line somewhere, and a standalone S is untenable in running prose.)

With the iPhone 3GS, Apple has boosted the performance of the processor (without revealing the actual technical specifications), the throughput of its connection to the cellular network, and its storage capacity. The built-in camera has been upgraded to 3 megapixels, with improved low-light sensitivity along with video recording capabilities.

The new iPhone 3GS will be available in 16 GB and 32 GB models, both of which are available in either black or white. Apple says that the iPhone 3GS should arrive in stores and via mail order from the Apple Store on 19-Jun-09 in the United States and six other countries. Pricing in the United States – well, that’s trickier than it should be, and depends on whether you’re a new or existing AT&T customer.

Pricing — U.S. customers new to AT&T or those adding a line will pay $199 or $299, respectively, for 16 GB and 32 GB models with a 2-year commitment. A qualifying voice plan starting at $40 per month is also required, and you pay $30 per month for unlimited data. No text messages are included; messaging plans start at $5 per month for 200 messages. New customers pay an $18 activation fee, and existing customers who qualify for an upgrade also pay an $18 upgrade fee.

Here’s where it gets murky. Some AT&T customers, including a TidBITS editor with a 23-month-old first-generation iPhone, are being offered the $199/$299 pricing with a new 2-year commitment. All the iPhone 3G owners we know, none of whom could have had their phone for a full year yet, are being offered a $399/$499 upgrade price, again with a 2-year commitment. With no contract, AT&T and Apple will sell the iPhone 3GS for $599 or $699, depending on storage capacity.

Apple will also continue to offer the iPhone 3G under a 2-year contract for $99 for new customers or lines, or $299 for AT&T subscribers ineligible for an upgrade, and $499 without a contract.

This reduced price may be an attempt to woo “value” customers, who see $199 or $299 as too much to spend on an iPhone 3GS, but can justify $99 for an iPhone 3G. The $99 iPhone 3G might also lure some potential buyers who are looking at a Palm Pre or Android-based phone.

An AT&T spokesperson told Ars Technica that there’s no hard and fast rule about when you qualify for the full subsidized prices, but that for most customers it’s about 18 months. That means that most AT&T iPhone 3G subscribers won’t see the cheapest price until December 2009. You can log into your account at AT&T to check on current eligibility.

Some people have been suggesting that paying AT&T’s $175 cancellation fee and signing up again could be cheaper than the upgrade price. Even more confusing is that AT&T, along with other carriers, voluntarily started prorating cancellation fees for new contracts starting in early 2008, which apply to all current iPhone 3G subscribers. However, the iPhone may have continued to carry the full $175 cancellation penalty per phone.

There’s currently a lot of anger on Twitter about the upgrade pricing. If you bought the iPhone 3G when it was released 11 months ago, it seems unfair to pony up an extra $200 – maybe $75 to $100 would be reasonable. However, AT&T hasn’t recouped enough from your monthly fees to pay back the phone subsidy it offers with a contract. Remember, AT&T loses money on each iPhone it sells, recouping that loss through basic monthly service fees and high-margin extras like unlimited text messaging.

The Camera — The improved camera in the iPhone 3GS addresses several complaints with the 2-megapixel still image camera in the original iPhone and iPhone 3G models. The 3-megapixel camera has auto focus, auto exposure, and better low-light sensitivity. It also sports a macro capability with focus down to 3.9 inches (10 cm). In addition to capturing close-up images of your favorite flora, this feature will enable applications on the new iPhone to capture bar codes in focus, enabling the bar codes to be used for tasks such as price comparison, linking to additional information (via a new 2D bar code format that’s spreading fast), and

A new “tap to focus” feature, which helps when the camera can’t guess what you’re looking at, lets you specify not just where the iPhone’s camera should focus, but what portion of the image should be used to set exposure levels.

On top of that, the camera now supports video capture at VGA resolution (640 by 480 pixels) at 30 frames per second. Video capture includes auto focus, automatic white balance, and auto exposure. Video can be trimmed with touch gestures.

It’s unclear at the moment whether developers will be able to build video chat or similar applications around video capture, or whether Apple has limited the use of video to mimicking a camcorder.

Voice Control — Another huge complaint among iPhone users has been the lack of voice dialing, a feature that has been commonplace even in inexpensive cell phones for years. With the iPhone 3GS, Apple has added not only voice dialing, but voice control over a variety of functions in iTunes. You can dial the phone, ask what’s playing, play particular songs or playlists, activate the Genius feature, and so on. We anticipate that additional commands will become available over time.

To activate voice control, you hold the Home button for a few seconds and then speak a command. The iPhone 3GS scrolls the available commands across the screen as you use it as a subtle reminder of what it can do.

Voice control is apparently made possible by a hardware update to the iPhone, and the feature won’t be available to older iPhone models. Since phones with far less performance can handle voice dialing, Apple must have decided that it could offer the feature only if it raised the bar considerably.

Miscellaneous Additions — For those who have found the 3G cellular data connectivity too slow, the iPhone 3GS supports 7.2 Mbps HSPA (that’s High Speed Packet Access; for more details, see “AT&T Plans for Mobile Data Onslaught,” 2009-05-28). This new HSPA flavor has twice the raw throughput of the current 3.6 Mbps offering in the iPhone 3G and other AT&T-sold 3G phones, and net throughput to an iPhone 3GS should be at least 50 percent higher. HSPA 7.2, as it’s known, will start being installed later in 2009, but network upgrades won’t be completed until 2011. In other countries, HSPA 7.2 is on a variety of different timetables, from already installed to not
yet on the table.

The iPhone 3GS has a digital compass that you interact with via a whimsical display in the new Compass app – where it shows both degrees and compass rose labels – or as integrated into Maps and other apps. Previously, the iPhone was useless as a compass, which Adam discovered when trying to see if it could be used in orienteering. Since there’s an API for the digital compass in the iPhone 3GS, we expect to see such apps appear fairly quickly. (An accurate compass requires an additional hardware sensor that wasn’t included in the original iPhone and iPhone 3G.)

The iPhone 3GS will also have built-in hardware encryption, a feature that some businesses require for compliance or security plans. Plus, if you use the iPhone’s Exchange service or the Find My iPhone feature, a remote data wipe that you initiate is instantaneous. All phone backups are also encrypted.

For people who aren’t afraid of exposing a several hundred dollar device to sweat or the possibility of rain, the iPhone 3GS now has the Nike+ receiver built in, much like the second-generation iPod touch. Those of us who run regularly will continue to leave our iPhones at home, thank you very much (see “Nike+iPod Only for Fitness Runners,” 2007-03-12).

Battery life has also been improved, with Apple claiming that the iPhone 3GS can provide up to 5 hours of 3G talk time and up to 9 hours of use when working via Wi-Fi.

Final Thoughts — The iPhone 3GS sounds utterly fabulous on paper, so much so that at least two of our staffers have already placed their orders. The only thing dragging it down, honestly, is the expense of upgrading for those who already own an iPhone 3G. Otherwise, we anticipate that the iPhone 3GS will be a huge hit for Apple, and will continue to push the company to the forefront of the smartphone market.

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