When the iPhone 3GS debuted its design was already on borrowed time. A straight forward copy of the iPhone 3G, its case wasn’t altered at all from its predecessor, already 13 months its elder. In the next nine months its face has become iconic, used in adverts, movies and TV shows as shorthand for ‘advanced mobile phone’ but the back has been quietly festering, growing old and ugly with every passing week.
The logic of Apple’s design choice is clear: by keeping the size and shape of the iPhone 3GS the same, it ensured all existing accessories would work with its newest smartphone. There’s also the subtle suggestion that this isn’t a true sequel, but rather a tweaked and enhanced version.
And while that’s all true, the iPhone 3GS feels like the neglected stepchild of the iPhone family. The original had its striking all-metal design. The iPhone 3G featured the first instance of Apple’s now trademark tapered edge, but the 3GS seems like a tacked-on afterthought. A phone that was ushered to completion without a care to update its outer shell.
That’s not to say the iPhone 3GS isn’t a well designed mobile. Its case is sturdy, practically bend-proof, and while the plastic back attracts scratches like your cat’s favourite chew toy, its glass screen is almost impervious to everyday wear and tear. Even after nine months in our pocket, the iPhone 3GS remains as fresh as the day it was unboxed, at least from the front.
That screen remains a joy to manhandle too. Its grime-proof, or “oleophobic” in Apple’s lexicon, surface actually repels dirt and moisture. Cleaning it is as easy as giving it a quick wipe on your jeans, and it actually feels smoother too.
Apple gave the internal speakers of the 3GS a tickle when upgrading its insides too. The iPhone 3GS is comfortably loud enough to act as a speakerphone when placed on a desk, and despite its single speaker being shoehorned in at the base of its shell, it’s surprisingly beefy when playing back music too.
Up top, there’s the iPhone owner’s nemesis: the iPhone 3GS’ headphone socket. Apple has a long history of infuriating headphone connectors, ever since the recessed socket of the first generation iPhone. The iPhone 3GS brings its own headphone headaches, by bundling ear-fillers with three buttons embedded in their cable.
The centre button is used to play and pause music, as well as answer calls and activate the iPhone’s voice functions. Either side of it are two volume keys. In typical Apple fashion they’re so convenient you’ll soon struggle to do without them. But do so you must, if you’re to escape Apple’s criminally leaky earbuds.
Of course, there are plenty of third party earphones that’ll mimic Apple’s in-line controls, but few have the same minimalist style. The dinkiness of the iPhone 3GS’s headphone keys are integral to their charm, it’s just a shame the noise-generating ends were as beautifully thought out.