New Apple iPhone 3G S shows promise with speed, battery life

SAN FRANCISCO -- On the surface anyway, Apple is giving the smartphone faithful many features they've been clamoring for. The new iPhone 3G S that arrives in the U.S. and certain foreign countries on June 19 adds a better digital camera (3 megapixel, autofocus, still no flash), the ability to shoot and edit video, plus voice controls for making calls or playing back music.

Apple is promising superior battery life (let's hope) and faster performance — the "S" in 3G S signifies "speed." Apple claims it'll render Web pages and launch applications twice as fast on average as the iPhone 3G. We'll see.

A model with 16 gigabytes will cost $199 with the usual two-year AT&T contract; a new 32-GB model goes for $100 more.

Meanwhile, by dropping the price on the existing 8-GB iPhone 3G to just $99, Apple is making a major play for new buyers.

The 3G S models are virtual twins to the iPhone 3G. They come in white and black.

Both the new and existing iPhones can take advantage of iPhone OS 3.0 software. This major upgrade, free for iPhone customers and $9.95 for folks who use iPod Touch, brings cut, copy and paste, better search, expanded parental controls, and MMS picture messaging, among other features.

Actually, you'll have wait for AT&T to turn on MMS for U.S. subscribers. It plans to add the capability late in the summer.

The 3.0 software, coming June 17, also promises to let you "tether" the iPhone to a PC or Mac, meaning your computer can piggyback on the iPhone's wireless connection when Wi-Fi isn't available. AT&T must flip the switch on that, too; no word yet on when, or what (if anything) it will charge.

If you lose your iPhone there's now a feature that may help you get it back, though you'll have to subscribe to Apple's $99-a-year MobileMe service.

It is aptly named Find My iPhone. If the phone is turned on and has coverage, you can display its whereabouts on a map. You can also remotely send a message that will appear on the screen to let the Good Samaritan who may have picked it up know how to get in touch with you. And if it turns out the missing phone is actually in your house somewhere, you can make it sound an alarm (even if it is set on silent mode). If the phone is lost for good, you can erase all its data from afar.

Of course, some touted features are unique to the iPhone 3G S. Take voice. You can dial a number or name in your address book by talking aloud, but lots of phones do that. The difference here is you can also use voice to control music playback. You can ask out loud to play a song or album — and even ask the iPhone to play more music like the song you're listening to. The iPhone taps into the "Genius" feature in iTunes to come up with a playlist.

Also new to the 3G S is built-in digital compass to keep you pointed in the right direction. I'll let you know if Apple is still on the right course once I've had a chance to put the new iPhone hardware and software through the ringer.