Review: "S" for speed lives up to its name
Twenty four months ago, Apple introduced a minimalistic smartphone that certainly took the media, the consumer market, and the world by surprise. Since its inception, the iPhone has made its way into the hands of people around the world over 21 million times and has continued an accelerated adoption rate faster than the Sony Walkman during the 1980's and 1990's.
Last summer, the company took its original 2007 device and overhauled its operating system, providing for 3rd party programs through an App Store and the inclusion of push email and other significant features. At the same time, it also addressed the need for more wireless performance, enhanced navigation, and an improved battery. From all these much needed factors, the iPhone 3G was born. However, the majority of hardware architectural change required for a true performance boost remained untouched.
Three days ago, Apple officially launched the iPhone 3G S, a device meticulously designed to address that one much needed factor in the iPhone family - performance. Over the past weekend we had quite some time to explore Apple's new iPhone 3G S and the several new features, settings, and performance improvements it brings over the iPhone 3G introduced last summer.
Perhaps the first and foremost important aspect of the new device is the underlying hardware within. Over the past two years, the original iPhone and iPhone 3G have both used a 32-bit RISC System-on-Chip (SoC) design from Samsung based on the ARM11 core, specifically the ARM1176JZF-S. This CPU runs at 412MHz and operates on an 8-stage integer pipeline and a single-issue front end. In addition, this 90nm SoC package contains both the CPU and a GPU core called the PowerVR MBX-Lite. AnandTech compares this GPU to the equivalent of something in the Riva TNT2 and Geforce 256 generation of 1999.
On the other hand, the iPhone 3G S is equipped with an entirely new CPU architecture found in ARM's Cortex-A8 833MHz processor. Apple decided to go with a Samsung SoC package once again, but this time it has gone for a 65nm Cortex A8 processor with a 65nm PowerVR SGX graphics core. The CPU core has been underclocked to 600MHz and operates on a 13-stage integer pipeline and a dual-issue front end.
Anand Shimpi states, "If the ARM11 is like a modern day 486 with a very high clock speed, the Cortex A8 is like a modern day Pentium. The A8 lengthens the integer pipeline to 13 stages, enabling its 600MHz clock speed. The Cortex A8 also widens the processor; the chip is now a two-issue in-order core, capable of fetching, decoding and executing two RISC instructions in parallel.
In addition, the GPU core is fully programmable and its architecture has been said to look much more like a modern GPU. It theoretically contains seven times the geometry throughput of the iPhone 3G and around two and a half times the fill rate.
On another note, web browsing tests have been run by AnandTech which confirm that the elegant architecture in the iPhone 3G S is superior to both the Palm Pre using the same SoC design and yesteryear's iPhone 3G.
Internet browsing has improved significantly with the architecture in the Cortex A8, not only in rendering times but also in lag reduction. We attempted to load several content-intensive web pages and scroll down at about a hundred miles an hour. Sure enough, there was no sign of any white and grey "lag checkers" unless the menu bar was tapped to bring a web page back up to the top.
Apple's new crown jewel may have some impressive internals, and the competition from other camps may look intimidating given the above results. However, not much has changed to the superficial aspects of the device and its external appearance.
In terms of the general elements, the look and feel of the phone when held in the palm have remained the same.
The text on the back of the phone has been given a different tint, as it now appears to be more of a gold color when shimmered under light.
As far as the LCD screen is concerned, the company added an oleophobic coating to ensure that less smudging would occur when greasy and sweaty fingers and facial features come in contact with it. It doesn't achieve 100 percent resistance, although there is definitely a big difference over the last two generations of the phone.
An article from PC World suggests that the iPhone 3G S screen has warmer colors and sharper text, with the distinction quite noticeable on screens with white backgrounds. We have definitely noticed that there is indeed a difference, as the company did alter the color temperature to achieve a warmer, more natural tone."Apple says that fonts on the iPhone 3G S are rendered by the phone, as opposed to being bitmaps, and that this approach accounts for the smoother and sharper appearance of text," explains Melissa Perenson of PC World.
The new phone is also equipped with a 3 megapixel auto-focus camera, up from a 2 megapixel standard camera in the 3G and the original. Unfortunately, none of the models include a Zoom feature. Even though the phone maintains a very minimalistic design with very few physical buttons, there are still two criticisms we have to point out that would make life a little simpler. There still needs to be a physical camera shutter button, and there needs to be a software update to allow the Volume Up and Down buttons to be used as Forward and Reverse for music tracks as well as Zoom Out and Zoom In for the camera.
Apart from hardware, the launch of the iPhone 3G S in Apple's perspective was very much software-oriented, as OS 3.0 had a large emphasis during WWDC 2009. The main software updates made specifically for the iPhone 3G S include a built-in compass for enhanced navigation, Nike+ iPod support, A2DP, Voice Control, a battery percentage indicator, and an Accessibility options menu.
The compass is particularly useful for those who are
either terrible at directions or simply the adventurous outdoors type. The application's settings
allow navigation relative to Magnetic North and True North directions.
Back in 2006, Nike had this radical idea of teaming up with Apple to create a device which measures and records the distance and pace of a walk or run. The Nike+ iPod platform consists of a small accelerometer attached to or embedded in a shoe, which communicates with either a Nike+ Sportband or a receiver plugged into an iPod Nano or an iPod Touch 2nd Generation. Now, Nike+ users are able to use their gear without the receiver as the iPhone 3G S is now the first and only iPhone at this point to include built-in Nike+ capabilities.
Another cool feature exclusively on the new phone is the Voice Control capability. As of now, feature is limited to a monotonous voice that somewhat resembles Microsoft Mary, although less human like. The interface is very simple, simply hold down the Home button until the Voice menu appears and say any phrase that appears in the flying text menu. More interestingly, yelling the word "help" like a damsel in distress will actually dial 9-1-1.
The OS 3.0 update has also added a battery percentage indicator specifically for the iPhone 3G S that can be activated under the General > Usage menu. Additionally, stocks can now be viewed in landscape mode, and cut/copy/paste is finally available on almost any picture and text content that can be tapped.
Accessibility features also come standard in the new phone, with options for TTY support, closed captions, White on Black, Zoom, and our least favorite called VoiceOver. The reason we dislike VoiceOver is because it can become seriously annoying having to listen to every tap of the finger being verbalized by a robotic woman voice, especially at the fast pace that we use the phone.
As far as battery life is concerned, the iPhone 3G S gives off just about as much juice as the 3G regardless of Apple's improvement claims. The ARM Cortex A8 processes data in a way that, when used at full speed, it would make the 3G S run out of juice faster than its predecessor. ARM’s website lists around 0.25mW per MHz for the ARM11 core but less than 0.59mW per MHz for the Cortex A8, which is almost three times the power consumption. Rest assured, the majority of iPhone users will not demand full CPU usage during the entire charge cycle of the battery. All in all, a full charge cycle on the 3G S will last about the same as its predecessor in general usage, unless Apple cleverly comes up with another software update to increase battery life as they did for the 3G with OS 2.1.
Apple has decided to stick with AT&T as the exclusive carrier for the iPhone until at least next summer, and possibly even until 2011 according to some rumors. However, AT&T has continued to carry the phone at the same subsidized prices of $199 and $299 - but this time for 16GB and 32GB models respectively. Based on the current trend, we can expect the iPhone's flash memory to receive a nice doubling in size every year when a new revision hits the market.
Overall, these are the prices to be paid for consumers starting brand new 2-year AT&T contracts and for those few iPhone and iPhone 3G owners who have had their phones long enough to receive "upgrade eligible" pricing. Apart from subsidies, consumers whom AT&T deems "ineligible" for upgrade pricing can expect to pay $399 and $499 for the 16GB and 32GB models respectively. Finally, those few daring people who want to endeavor into a no-commitment basis with AT&T can expect to pay $599 and $699 respectively for an iPhone 3G S and then unlock it to the carrier of their choice. It is for this very reason that the phone is receiving elevated popularity on eBay and other auction sites.
With all this in mind, there comes a time when every prospective consumer and analyst has to zoom out of the feature specifics and observe the overall demographics and purposes to buying a product.
As of now, the reason to buy an iPhone 3G S likely appeals to two groups - those who currently own an original iPhone or iPhone 3G, and those new buyers who are certainly convinced that this smartphone is for them but are determining whether the 3G S is really worth the additional price over the 3G at just $99. In all honesty, the decision really comes down to how productive the user can be with his or her time in a mobile environment.
For those with skilled learning habits of typing and texting over 60 words per minute, skimming through the specifics of web pages at ADHD speeds, or simply impatience, then the additional fluid responsiveness of the iPhone 3G S is definitely a must have for getting things done. For those users with more reclined habits, we could say the decision is yours truly.
All in all, Apple has produced a smartphone that appeals to many user groups for its intuitive operating system layout combined with an incredibly accurate touchscreen. The jump to the iPhone 3G S is not the biggest we've seen, but it is a considerable "refresh" before the next revision hits the shelves in a year or so from now.