Thursday, July 30, 2009

Should You Get the New iPhone 3GS?

The whole Internet, it seems, is currently fawning over the new iPhone 3GS. That's partially because the device seems to be a worthy upgrade to the iPhone 3G. (We're not sure we'd call it a successor, since it will be sold alongside the existing handset; it's more like choosing between the basic MacBook and the souped-up MacBook Pro.) We also lay responsibility for the hype, though, on the shoulders of one of our pet peeves -- the media's love affair with Apple.

At least one Web site refuses to swallow the story whole, though. The popular tech blog TechCrunch's M.G. Siegler recently wrote an opinion piece arguing that the iPhone 3GS might not be the best bet. But then again, he lays that blame squarely at the feet of AT&T, only backing up our argument that the media may love Apple a bit too much to give a fair assessment.

It's hard to argue with his logic, though. As Siegler points out, AT&T will not be subsidizing the price of the upgrade for existing iPhone 3G customers (as it did for the upgrade from the first-generation iPhone to the iPhone 3G). When the iPhone 3G launched, AT&T offered it for a single price, $199, to new subscribers and existing iPhone customers alike, regardless of whether or not their contracts were up for renewal. Not so with the iPhone 3G. If you jumped on the iPhone 3G last year, you'll have to either wait another year to get the discount, or pay face value for the 3GS ($399 for the 16-gigabyte version, or $499 for the 32-gigabyte). Of course, if you're new to the iPhone or AT&T, or if you bought the original iPhone back in 2007 and your contract is up for renewal, then you can get the new iPhone 3GS for the nice price of $199.

Even worse, AT&T has yet to lock up exclusivity of the Apple handset. Currently, the contract between the two companies is set to expire in 2010, though AT&T is trying to extend that through 2011. If it fails to do so, you can expect the iPhone to find its way onto other carriers pretty quickly. This means that Verizon fans just might want to wait a year before they sign up for a 2-year contract with AT&T just to get an iPhone (we're not promising anything, though).

Given these stumbling blocks, what's the point of upgrading to or buying the new iPhone 3GS? We've come up with a few pros and cons.

Why you should upgrade: The primary reason you might want to get the new iPhone 3GS is because it's the fastest iPhone so far. The current iPhone is sleek and fancy, but certainly not a speed demon. Many purely 2-D games stutter and freeze, and even basic tasks, such as opening a text message, can sometimes take up to 30 seconds. The iPhone 3GS packs a significantly faster processor, more RAM, and a new 3-D graphics processor capable of handling much more complex imagery (in other words, games will more realistic and run more smoothly). Game developers are loving this new processor, and you'll likely see a number of games hit the App Store that require the 3GS and won't run on older iPhones at all.

Then there are the other perks that come with the upgrade, like the upgraded camera with auto-white-balance, auto-focus, and video capabilities. Naturally, it won't replace your point-and-shoot, but it should finally bring the iPhone up to speed with most other feature phones. And don't forget the digital compass, which may not sound like a major feature, but will make finding your way using the included Google Maps app much easier.

Why you shouldn't upgrade: Besides the pricing issues described above, the iPhone 3GS isn't such a big leap forward in technology that current 3G owners will be driven to assaulting those eligible for the upgrade. The move to 7.2 Mbps HSDPA (double the download speed of the current iPhone 3G) is only useful in areas where AT&T will actually upgrade its network (no specific areas or time frame have been announced), and if you can keep a 3G signal for longer than two minutes. AT&T's service is almost universally panned, and is notoriously spotty in many major metropolitan areas.We can tell you that coverage in New York City (where the Switched offices are located) is infuriatingly inconsistent and often slow.

Also, if you already on an iPhone, then many of the benefits of the iPhone 3.0 software update -- cut-and-pasting ability, MMS, a landscape keyboard for all apps, and turn-by-turn directions using the GPS -- will come to you in the way of an automatic software download and installation.

Bottom line: For users of the first gen iPhone -- or some other aging handset, like (gasp) the RAZR -- the iPhone 3GS might be a worthwhile upgrade. Ditto those who don't own iPhones at all, as $199 is a competitive price for a pretty advanced smartphone, and it's simply the best for watching video and listening to music on the go (especially if you already use iTunes). Make sure to check with other AT&T customers in your area to find out about 3G coverage if you're planning on doing a lot of Web surfing or like to use apps that need a Web connection, though. Another option, if you're a first-gen iPhone owner, is an upgrade to the standard iPhone 3G, which AT&T will be selling for $99 with a two-year contract. The 3G is still a capable handset, and more advanced than most other phones at that price point, which often lack touch screens, and can't match the iPhone's Web browser or catalog of applications. We expect Google, BlackBerry, Palm, and Microsoft to slip into panic mode any day now.

Our advice if you're a current iPhone 3G customer? Wait. The smart phone market is changing so quickly you may regret dropping $399 on phone just because you're impatient. Besides, you have another year left on your contract to see where the burgeoning smartphone market is going. . Android, Google's fledgling smart phone OS, is just starting to come into its own, Palm is experiencing a resurgence, Windows Mobile will be getting a major update in the next year, and BlackBerry is not resting on its laurels either.

In other words we're just now entering the golden age of affordable and advanced smartphones, iPhone 3G owners, so sit back, check out the new releases, save your money, and revisit this decision again in a year.

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