Another Year, Another iPhone – 3GS

Posted: June 21, 2009 in Apple, iPhone, iPhone 3GS

What a difference a year makes.  No lines this year, no 8 hour wait and insane anticipation, no Smart Water handouts or bizarre conversations with strangers, no free popsicles to beat the heat.  Instead, the Apple faithful, but faithfully lazy, stayed at home and watched and waited with baited breath to see if the power combo of Apple, AT&T, UPS and Fedex could all work in tandem to get thousands and thousands of phones into their preorder customers’ hands all on the same day, Friday 6/19.   Many promises were made, and from the looks of it, the majority of them were kept.  Amusingly enough, forum-goers were spun into a tizzy by the http://www.flightaware.com website, anxiously tracking every flight that may or may not have been carrying their precious cargo.  I was not immune to the hype, I had flightaware and UPS both loaded and ready to refresh on my MBA, hoping for some sign of an early (or at least on-time) delivery.  It all came down to the wire, with UPS holding delivery in Kentucky, and not until 8am PST the morning of delivery did the update tell me a flight from KY to LAX had flown out in the 4am timeframe.  Talk about cutting it close!

But in the end it was kind of anti-climatic.  The termite guy had just left my home, and I was brushing my teeth and washing my face around 10am.  Thankfully I had left the pre-signed approval to leave the box safely taped to the front door, because I had no idea the UPS guy had shown up; I was expecting a day of waiting.  It was only when I opened up the MBA to check email, and refreshed the UPS site, when I noticed it had already been delivered!  Hungrily I opened the door and saw the pre-sign sheet was gone, and quickly opened the plastic drawer we leave outside for packages.  Inside was the tiniest of boxes, so small it seemed insignificant.  But inside I knew was another year of iPhone heaven.

It took a couple hours to get synced up and activated, but again, none of the craziness of years past.  There was some delay in AT&T activation, but it cleared up soon enough.  And then, ultimately, the turn on…. honestly it was kind of a non-event.  It booted up to the main screen and looked exactly like I had left my previous phone.  This was even with the complete overhaul to iPhone 3.0 OS.  On the surface it really looked like absolutely nothing had changed, save for a couple icons and one of my Apps being pushed to another page.  Harumph.

I realized at this point that the truth is, this year’s “upgrade” was even more “under-the-hood” than last year’s.  Last year brought the triumphant App Store into our lives, and that in many ways overshadowed masked the relatively few changes to the hardware.  Now of course I knew this the case since the phone was announced, but the gadget guy in me was likely still hoping for something to wow over, when the reality is that the best phone on the planet had simply evolved internally – and that was about it.

This is not to degrade the obvious increase in power of the new device, which has been compared to the evolution from the 486 processor to the Pentium (a big deal for us old PC guys).  It’s noticeable almost immediately, from turn on to opening Apps, from using email to snapping photos (and video!).  For someone who has spent big bucks buying the latest video card or processor to get something like 30-40% better performance improvements, a jump in hardware like this is absolutely incredible.  Of course, the one major hardware addition/change (the video camera) is extremely welcome, but the fact is most us know that Apple blocked a potential App that allowed the old still camera to take video through software.  Granted this is “real” video and is probably a substantial improvement in quality, but it’s still more of a feature that was “missing” from the original releases, rather than a stunning new one.  As a counter example, I would have loved to see a front-facing cam for iChat, which I presume is slated for future releases (as well as future improvement in the networks’ capabilities to handle live video chat).

The one thing I can say is incredibly impressive in my first day of usage is the battery life, which thus far feels significantly enhanced.  I’ve had a lot of activity so far, much more so than normal since I’m still in “testing mode”, and the battery looks to be at half still.  I guess it makes sense that if you do all the same activities twice as efficient, even if you consume 50% more power per activity, in the long run you will come out on top.  The doubling of available RAM also seems to have drastically improved performance, though it has rendered the “Free Memory” App in desperate need of an upgrade.

So it may sound like I’m a bit underwhelmed, and the fact is that the “experience” – relative to the drama of years past – was really underwhelming.  But that in itself could be considered a major accomplishment – a virtually seamless upgrade to truly next generation internal hardware, all from the comfort of my home.  If I hadn’t been home sick, I could have worked and the upgrade would have had virtually no impact on my regular day, the phone would have been waiting for me when I got home.

An awesome piece of hardware has evolved yet again, refined its ability to perform tasks faster and more efficiently, giving the end user an improved experience with what was already a great interface.  The look and feel have really remained more or less unchanged, as clearly it’s one of those cases where you are hard pressed to tamper with (near) perfection.

So where does Apple go from here?  They can continue to improve the internal hardware, with faster chips and speeds ad infinitum.  They will need to add multi-tasking capability whether it is needed or not, if only to shut Palm up.  But is that going to be enough to secure their domination in the market?  Or are they going to need yet another next generation leapfrog to showcase their superiority in hardware design?  I have no idea, but I’d have to say the iPhone interface, along with the revolutionary App Store and all the talented developers, is peaking toward perfection.  Sure, refinements can always be found, and speed and memory capacity can continue to be bumped, but for the most part, it’s a complete design as I can’t see the shape/size/weight undergoing major changes, aside from further optimization.  Perhaps then it’s finally time for Apple to unveil their Next Big Thing, hopefully the iPad Touch (or whatever you want to call it) that bridges the space between the phone and the laptop.  Come on Steve, we’re ready for you!

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