iPhone 3GS 2009: A Minor Upgrade with a Major Impact
Almost two years to the day when Apple released its first-generation iPhone to the public for purchase, the tech giant unveiled its most powerful phone to date: the iPhone 3GS.
The third iPhone in an already game-changing lineup of technology, the 3GS was touted to be the fastest, most feature-rich smartphone of its time. And even though it wasn’t larger in terms of screen size compared to its previous two iterations, it continued to build on Apple’s growing legacy of a smooth, sleek interface, innovation, and performance.
And for most consumers, that was all it took to earn their buy-in.
A Hope to Build on Previous Successes
Apple launched the 3GS on June 19, 2009, as the successor of its highly-successful iPhone 3G. However, 2009 also brought some fierce competition to the smartphone market, and Apple was relying on its juggernaut track record to maintain its momentum.
That same year, we also saw the emergence of the Palm Pre, arguably the most novel smartphone since the introduction of the iPhone. Former Apple SVP Jon Rubenstein was a driving force behind the Pre, and included all of the features that the iPhone had lacked, including a physical keyboard.
It was commonly believed, at least by the Pre’s principle backers, that the Palm Pre would dethrone the iPhone thanks to its features and speed. But that didn’t stop research analysts from speculating that Apple would easily sell 500,000 iPhone 3GS models in its debut weekend alone. To be fair, that’s only half the number that its predecessor sold in the same time period — but 10 times more than the estimated Palm Pre sales in its first two-day span.
And So Begins Apple’s Tradition of Adding “S” for Upgraded Models
The iPhone 3GS was the first instance where we saw the tech giant adding an “S” to an existing model to indicate an upgrade. The 3GS wasn’t a total redesign of its predecessor, as the general shape and size and many of its features remained the same. However, it was enough of an upgrade to compel first-gen iPhone owners to want to consider making the switch, as their models were nearly two years old at the time of the 3GS launch.
This is a trend that we’ve continued to see from Apple, specifically in the iPhone 4S (2011), iPhone 5S (2013), and iPhone 6S (2015). For the iPhone 3GS, it’s commonly said that the “S” stands for speed. Truly, it was a faster model than its predecessor, with more processing power and more memory.
Others may argue that the “S” is better suited to stand for style, as Apple had already begun earning its reputation for its sleek aesthetics. We could probably make strong cases for other terms like superior or second. But whatever the real case is, we know from history that the "S" clearly designates a newer and improved version of the one before it.
A Series of Firsts for Smartphones
Apple has released new models of its flagship iPhone each year since it introduced its very first model. But being only the third in the lineup, the potential for the 3GS was seemingly wide open territory. Let’s take a look at some of the “firsts” we saw emerge with this iteration:
New iOS 3.0
The iOS 3.0 was to come pre-installed on all iPhone 3GS models. This new operating system came with a number of upgrades, including the ability to copy, cut, and paste text across multiple applications. In addition, users could now undo their last action simply by shaking their device.
Double the Memory Capacity
One of the iPhone 3GS’s biggest claims to fame is its noticeably increased memory capacity. The original iPhone offered three memory sizes: 4 GB, 8 GB, and 16 GB. With the 3GS, 16 GB became the new minimum. It also offered a model with 32 GB, double the size of the best version of the OG.
Apple believed that the increased memory capacity would be one of the core features to convince first-generation iPhone owners to upgrade to the newest model.
The Dawn of Voice Control
We also see the very earliest version of Apple’s voice control in the 3GS, though it wouldn’t receive the name of Siri until the iPhone 4S in 2011. In the 3GS, it was simply called Voice Control, and it could be activated by a long hold of the home button. Early uses for Voice Control were limited, with most users primarily relying on it to request songs or make quick calls simply by saying a name or number.
However, it was the beginning of what has become one of the most essential features of the iPhone and the smartphone market at large. Voice-assisted controls were impressive pieces of technology back then, something we largely take for granted now. Two years later, we would see Siri emerge as the cornerstone voice assistant that helped to further cement Apple’s place in tech innovation.
By the time the 3GS hit the market, Apple had curated more than 75,000 apps within its App Store. Though some experts believed this was a ploy to make the internet more attractive on Apple devices, since the internet was believed to be built for the PC, it also helped to pave the way to integrative technology.
One such integration that stands out with the 3GS is the Nike and iPod integration. Previously only available with a handful of iPod Nano devices, the integration featured a Nike shoe communicating wirelessly with the iPod. This could help the user to track steps and distance traveled in real time. With the emergence of the 3GS, this integration also became possible on the iPhone.
Video Recording Sets a New Standard
One of the 3GS’s most prized features was the introduction of video recording on a smartphone. This was arguably one of its most chart-busting features that catapulted the brand into the future. Though cameras were fairly common on cell phones at this point, video recording took visual capabilities to a whole new level — and the crowds went wild.
If any feature was going to woo owners of previous iPhone iterations to upgrade, it was going to be video. The previous two generations of iPhones didn’t have video recording capability. And given that Apple is largely the go-to brand for creatives, this feature was poised to rack up sales.
The camera itself also got an upgrade, with a bump to 3 megapixels and features like auto focus, auto exposure, and auto white balance. For comparison, the 3G featured a 2 megapixel camera with no auto focus.
Not Perfect, But Pretty Close
There’s no question that the iPhone 3GS was a pretty epic upgrade from the previous 3G, but it still wasn’t without its downsides. Many users complained that the device would overheat while in use. Others noticed that the white outer casing had discolored after weeks of use, which was attributed to the rubbing of external iPhone cases against the device.
Apple did add an oleophobic coating to the 3GS screen that would help to reduce fingerprints and oil residue. But nothing more was done to protect the appearance of the body.
The other biggest downside? Apple iPhone was still exclusive to AT&T, at least in the United States.
If users wanted the iPhone badly enough, they’d have to switch carriers. And if using AT&T wasn’t an option, then neither was becoming an iPhone owner. Of course, that’s no longer the case today, but it might make you wonder how much more (or less?) successful the 3GS would have been had more providers been able to offer it.
The Envious Cost of an iPhone 3GS
One of the most shocking comparisons of the iPhone 3GS to today’s standards is its seemingly low price: the 3GS 32 GB hit the market at a maximum price of $299 with a new AT&T contract activation. Its lower-memory counterpart, the 3GS 16 GB, could be yours for just $199 with a new AT&T contract. And the price of the iPhone 3G from the year prior dropped to a steal of just $99.
It seems crazy to think that such a piece of advanced technology back then cost so little when reports of an imminent $2,000 iPhone emerged in 2018. Smartphone prices have increasingly grown each year, but then again, so have the features, functionality, and benefits with each new version.
By June 2010, the iPhone 3GS had outsold the other two iPhones combined. Stay tuned for our next chapter on iPhones through the years.