Apple's Latest iPhone Has Learned New Tricks, but So Have Competitors

By Rob Pegoraro

Two years ago, the original iPhone was the phone that changed everything. The new iPhone 3GS can't make the same difference, not when it shares the market with both predecessors and competing models that have learned some of the same tricks.

In that context, the 3GS -- $199 for new or renewing AT&T Wireless customers in a version with 16 gigabytes of storage, $299 in a 32-GB version -- makes an excellent upgrade over the first iPhone. And though AT&T's voice and unlimited-data plans, starting at $69.99 a month, don't quite match other carriers' smartphone deals, the 3GS still provides a better overall value than competing devices.

But the days of the iPhone mopping the floor with rivals are over. And users of last year's iPhone 3G -- now available for $99 -- need not feel awful about sticking with their current devices.

As the "S" in its name suggests, the 3GS's major contribution is its speed. Apple won't identify the components behind this improvement (dissections reveal a faster Samsung processor), but you can't miss the results. Set an iPhone 3G and a 3GS side by side, using either AT&T's mobile broadband or a WiFi signal, type in the same Web address on each, and the 3GS can display the site about twice as fast as its predecessor.

The new iPhone's camera is also more capable, taking 3 megapixel images with an autofocus mechanism -- a flash is still absent -- and shooting standard-definition video. It even lets you trim video clips and upload them to Google's free YouTube or Apple's $99/year MobileMe services.

Like other iPhones, the 3GS lets you control its software through one- and two-finger gestures across its screen (which now resists fingerprints better). But it can also listen to you: You can speak the name of somebody in your address book to call them and control music playback with simple speech commands.

But other iPhone 3GS features, such as its digital compass or built-in support for the Nike+iPod run tracker, seem less useful.

Apple says the 3GS's rechargeable, inaccessible battery should last for "up to five hours" of talk time, a figure that seemed realistic in my tests. But the Cupertino, Calif., company's estimates don't capture how switching between iPhone functions-- calls, Web and e-mail access, Global Positioning System-guided mapping, and music or video playback-- can leave it needing a recharge by nightfall.

The 3GS also runs a new version of Apple's iPhone operating system, iPhone OS 3.0, but iPhone 3G and original iPhone users can get that for free. This release fills in longstanding gaps in the iPhone repertoire -- with two embarrassing exceptions in the U.S. market -- and adds valuable new capabilities. It, rather than the new model, constitutes the bigger upgrade in the iPhone universe.

Among the many welcome changes OS 3.0 brings: you can now copy, cut and paste text; you can search through all the device's records, from e-mail to your address book; you can sync notes written on the phone (in addition to calendars and contacts, but not to-do items) to a Mac or a Windows computer; and you can record a voice memo.

MobileMe users also get the option of a new "Find My iPhone" feature. If the phone goes missing, a page on the MobileMe site can locate it on a map, allowing you to hunt it down. You can also have a message displayed on the device's screen and, if necessary, remotely erase its contents.

Two needed 3.0 features, however, are stuck on hold here. AT&T won't support MMS picture and video messaging until "later this summer"; AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel said the Dallas-based carrier, which supports MMS on other phones, needs to "do some additional fine-tuning" of its network. The company has yet to announce a timetable for supporting "tethering," the option to connect an iPhone to a computer via a USB cable or Bluetooth wireless for use as an external modem.

Apple's new iPhone hardware and software, for all its wizardry, falls short of competitors in two ways: multitasking and carrier choice.

While the 3.0 software allows a limited level of background operation for add-on applications-- its App Store stocks more than 50,000, a wealth of choices other smartphones can't match -- it doesn't let you switch among multiple programs. If you want to listen to a Web-radio program while writing an e-mail, you'll need to get a phone like a BlackBerry, T-Mobile's G1 or the Palm Pre.

Unlike those other smartphones, the iPhone remains handcuffed to AT&T for the indefinite future. If you don't like AT&T's coverage (it doesn't yet offer service in the subway parts of Metro) or its roaming rates, you can't even use an iPhone on another carrier by swapping out its Subscriber Identity Module card. Apple blocks that option, although many iPhone users hack their devices to undo this lock.

Remedying those two problems ought to be on the list for the next iPhone. For now, the 3GS should suffice to keep a shrinking lead over competitors that have begun to wise up.

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