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Apple Fills in Some Gaps With Latest iPhone

Assessing the 2007 and 2008 iPhone models was an excruciating experience. You were torn in half — between your heart and your head.

Apple iPhone 3G S
AP
Apple iPhone 3G S

Your emotions were swept away by everything Apple does so well: beauty, polish, elegance, simplicity and the thrill of interaction. (Those were not, ahem, phrases typically used to describe existing cellphones.)

Meanwhile, your brain kept waving its little hand in the back of the classroom. “But the camera’s terrible!” it would say. “It can’t record video! There’s no voice dialing! No copy and paste! The iPhone can’t even send picture messages — even $20 starter phones can do that!”

But 21 million iPhone sales later, it’s become clear that the heart usually manages to shut the head up.

With the iPhone 3G S, in stores Friday, Apple is finally throwing your head a crumb. After two years, the iPhone’s designers have finally gotten over whatever weird objections they had to providing those basic functions.

Better yet, Apple intends to give many of those features, and dozens more, to everyone who has ever bought an iPhone.

If you do buy the iPhone 3G S, you get twice the storage — 16 gigabytes — for the same $200 price as before. For $300, you can even buy a 32-gigabyte model, enough to hold the entire “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the DVD extras and 75 gazillion songs.

(These are prices for new customers. If you bought last year’s iPhone relatively recently, you’ll have to pay $200 extra for the new one, a point of outrage among the Apple faithful. Unfortunately, that’s just the way the subsidized-cellphone business works. On the other hand AT&T has just announced a special offer: if your existing iPhone will be “upgrade eligible” this July, August or September, you can get the new iPhone now, for the new-customer price. More on this complex subject is at nytimes.com/pogue.)

You can still buy last year’s model, the iPhone 3G, for $100. But do find a way to afford the new one. It looks identical to last year’s iPhone, but its faster circuitry makes a huge difference. (The S stands for speed, says Apple.) If you’re used to the old iPhone, the speed boost hits you between the eyes, especially when you’re opening programs, playing games and loading Web pages.

The built-in three-megapixel camera is much better, too. The camera still tends to blur moving subjects, and even still lifes aren’t as crisp as from an actual camera. But the color and clarity are definitely improved, especially in low light.

The new autofocus feature lets you tap the screen preview at the spot where you want the exposure, white balance and focus to be calculated. Except when the subject is a few inches away, you don’t see much difference in the focusing — but your tap location can make a big difference in the brightness and color (exposure and white balance) of the finished photo. (You can see sample photos at nytimes.com/personaltech.)

Better yet, the 3G S now captures video. It’s the real deal: sharp, smooth, 30 frames a second. Once again, it’s not quite what you’d get from a proper digital camera or a Flip camcorder—it tends to “blow out” the bright areas — but it’s darned close.

You can’t beat the capacity, either; in theory, the 32-gigabyte iPhone can capture 17 hours of video — just enough for the elementary-school talent show.

With a fingertip, you can trim the ends of a captured video and then upload it to YouTube or MobileMe, right from the phone. (That part, it does much better than a digital camera.)

The new voice-control feature may be the most useful change of all. Hold down the iPhone’s Home button for a moment, say “Call mom’s cell” or “Dial 800-555-1212,” and the iPhone places your call, crisply and accurately. (Yeah, I know: welcome to 2003.) This feature goes a long way toward addressing what’s always been the iPhone’s weakest feature: the number of steps required to place a call.

The iPhone also recognizes spoken iPod commands like “Play songs by Abba” or “What song is this?”

The new Compass program looks like a classier version of a regular Cub Scout compass — great when you emerge, disoriented, from the subway. In Google Maps, it adds an indicator beam, showing which way you are facing on the map. No longer must you walk in a circle, staring at the iPhone map like an idiot, just to figure out which way is up.

The iPhone 3G S also gains what Apple calls an oleophobic screen. It may sound like an irrational fear of yodelers, but in fact, it’s a coating that lets you wipe away fingerprints with a single rub on your clothes. It really works to keep the iPhone looking new longer. Maybe fewer people will now bury the iPhone’s gorgeous, slim shape in a homely, bulky case.

Finally, the iPhone 3G S harbors a better, beefier battery, thereby confronting another chronic complaint. It gives you about 25 percent more life a charge (five hours talk time or 30 hours of music), easily enough to last at least a day of moderate use. As Palm Pre owners know, that’s rare on a 3G superphone.

There are dozens more new features on the iPhone 3G S — but the really exciting part is that older iPhones can get them, too. They’re part of a free software upgrade called iPhone 3.0. (You get the upgrade when you sync your phone to iTunes. For $10, the iPod Touch can get this upgrade, too.)

Chief among them: the long-awaited copy and paste commands, which appear at your fingertips when you double-tap text in most programs. Now you can paste text and graphics from a Web site into an e-mail message, for example, or copy an address from a text message into your calendar.

Leaps ahead of rivals

There’s Bluetooth stereo audio, too, meaning that you can listen to your music with cordless headphones, leaving the iPhone itself in your pocket or backpack. (It’s available on the iPhone 3G S, 3G and the current iPod Touch.) A handy voice-recording app comes complete with trim editing and e-mailing commands, thereby turning your iPhone into a high-quality, huge-capacity digital audio recorder.

If you have a MobileMe account ($100 a year), you can also make your iPhone beep for two minutes — and display a plaintive message on the screen — when you’ve misplaced it. How many times have you wished your cellphone had that feature?

The 3.0 software also brings, at last, picture and video messaging (known as MMS) to the iPhone 3G and 3G S — or it will, once AT&T turns on this feature later this summer.

The iPhone app store offers a staggering 50,000 instantly downloadable programs, in every conceivable category; it’s become a crucial reason, maybe the crucial reason, to get an iPhone in the first place. These programs are getting very sophisticated indeed.

Documents to Go ($5) lets you create and edit Word documents right on the iPhone, for example; programs like Gokivo and TomTom will bring real, spoken, turn-by-turn GPS navigation to the iPhone.

But the more fun you have trying out these apps, the more desperately you need a way to manage them. After all, the iPhone can now hold 176 apps on 11 side-by-side Home screens.

Therefore, the new universal-search feature could not arrive at a better time. Type a few characters, and up pops a list of every match in your calendar, address book, notes, music stash, e-mail headers (subject, to/from, and first few body lines) — and apps. That’s right: you can now call up a program by typing a bit of its name.

All of these changes make it much harder to resist the iPhone on intellectual, feature-counting grounds. The new iPhone doesn’t just catch up to its rivals — it vaults a year ahead of them.

At this point, the usual 10 rational objections to the iPhone have been whittled down to about three: no physical keyboard, no way to swap the battery yourself and no way to avoid using AT&T as your carrier.

In short, the substantially improved, still elegant iPhone 3G S makes it dangerously easy for your heart and your head to agree.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.

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