Apple’s iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS are now over a decade old. But how did the two phones differ? What made the iPhone 3GS so much better? Let’s find out…

The iPhone 3G was Apple’s first 3G-enabled iPhone, packing up where its predecessor left off. The iPhone 3G launched in 2008, over 12 years ago now, and was followed by its predecessor, the iPhone 3GS, in 2009.

But what is the main difference between these two phones? Looking back at both cellphones from the vantage point of 2020 not only gives us a look back at two of the most important cellphones in history, but it also shows us just how far we’ve come in a little over a decade.

But back in 2009/2010, these were the phones to have and be seen with. Let’s take a look at each handset now and see how Apple’s first-ever “S” update compared to its predecessor. Get your nostalgia hats on because we’re about to go DEEP on Apple’s first, true smartphones…

iPhone 3G vs iPhone 3GS – Specs & Main Differences

Physically, the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS look remarkably similar; even the most experienced eye would struggle to spot differences between the two phone’s industrial design. Both are plastic and the same size and shape. They both use the same 3.5in display, as well as identical button placement.

Things that we now take for granted, like swipe-based typing, as popularized by SWYPE on Android, weren’t even a thing when these iPhone models launched.

The iPhone 3GS is slightly heavier, however, though by such an amount you’d never notice by holding the phones. The big differences, as usual, are all located inside the phone. Apple called the iPhone 3GS the iPhone 3GS because it was the same as the iPhone 3G, just faster – “S” means “speed” in this context, basically.

iPhone 3G Specs:

  • Display: 3.5-inch display with 320×480
  • Dimensions: 4.6 in x 2.4 in x 0.47
  • CPU: Samsung 32-bit RISC ARM11 412MHz
  • Memory: 128 MB
  • Camera: 2MP
  • Battery Size: 1150 mAh

iPhone 3GS Specs:

  • Display: 3.5-inch display with 320×480
  • Dimensions: 115.5 x 62.1 x 12.3 mm
  • CPU: 600 MHz Cortex-A8
  • Memory: 256MB
  • Camera: 3.15 MP
  • Battery Size: 1219mAh

The original iPhone 3G used a 412MHz CPU, while the updated iPhone 3GS used a 600MHz CPU, bumping the processing power by quite a margin. On top of this, the iPhone 3GS used double the RAM (256MB), a vastly improved GPU for better graphics performance, and included support for faster mobile data connections via HSDPA (up to 7.2Mbps).

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The above improvements were the meat and potatoes of the iPhone 3GS, the #1 things Apple used to market the phone. You could do things faster on the go with the addition of HSDPA, graphics ran smoother and apps looked better thanks to its new GPU, and the overall performance of the phone was boosted considerably thanks to its new processor and stack of RAM.

Apple also upped the storage options aboard the iPhone 3GS, adding in support for 16GB and 32GB, up from 8GB and 16GB on the iPhone 3G. Beyond this, it also featured myriad software tweaks that were designed to improve the usability of the phone – things like copy, cut, and paste as well as a built-in compass to orientate the user’s position when using Google Maps.

Finally, we come to the camera. The iPhone 3GS featured a 3MP rear-mounted camera and would record video in VGA quality at 30fps. Neither the iPhone 3G or iPhone 3GS had a front-facing camera. That wouldn’t happen until the release of the iPhone 4. Back in 2009/10, these specs were more than adequate for a modern phone. Apple charged $199 and $299 for the iPhone 3GS when they first came to market, a far cry from the company’s current pricing model of $699 minimum.

Both the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS were officially discontinued on September 12, 2012, although the handset does live on – you can still buy an iPhone 3GS online, though actually using one would be rather problematic, as we noted inside our iPhone 3GS: Can You Still Use One In 2020 post.

The First, True Apple “S” Update…

Apple’s iPhone S updates are now well known. But the iPhone 3GS was the iPhone that started it all, giving birth to handsets like the iPhone 4s, the iPhone 5s, and the iPhone 6s. Without the iPhone 3GS, none of these phones would have happened. And neither would Apple’s product cycle marketing tactic, whereby new features are deliberately left out in order to secure higher sales volumes for newer models released in proceeding years.

The iPhone 3GS is a great example of this marketing tactic; it had a better camera, it could connect to faster mobile networks, and it had a compass built into it for better orientation when using navigation apps. On top of this, it had a better CPU and GPU. How many of these features could have featured on the iPhone 3G? I’d say around half, at least. But Apple held them back because it knew that, in just 12 months’ time, it’d be releasing the more expensive iPhone 3GS.

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For all intents and purposes, the iPhone 3G was all about giving users a taste of what was possible with iPhone. It popularized the touchscreen and Apple’s mobile operating system (then called iPhone OS). Apple knew it could convince millions to give iPhone a try simply because it was so different. And Apple also knew that those that used the iPhone 3G would almost certainly update to the iPhone 3GS because it “solved” all the current issues that plagued the iPhone 3G – slow mobile data, a rubbish camera, wonky software, not enough power.

And thus Apple’s S-Update was born. And it is probably one of the most impressive marketing tactics ever created by a company. I mean, think about it: Apple basically sold millions of people the same phone twice, and no one raised an eyebrow? All the iPhone 3GS did was speed things up, make the performance better. That’d be like going to buy a new car and then getting resold your current car, just with a few extra horsepowers. Brilliant stuff. And, yes, only Apple could get away with something like this!

Minuscule Processing Power (On Both Handsets)

By today’s standards, the iPhone 3GS looks more like a calculator than a phone. From the size of the device to its internal specs, the iPhone 3GS, when compared to the iPhone 11 Pro Max, looks like a toy by comparison. The changes to Apple’s industrial design is the most obvious difference over the years; iPhones have gotten bigger and bigger, ditching 4in displays and TouchID (AKA the home button) in favor of larger, all-screen OLED and LCD panels on all new models.

But the real difference, meaning the thing that has made all the cool stuff you can do with your iPhone possible, is to do with Apple’s CPUs which have developed at break-neck speed during the past decade. Nowadays, the CPU inside your iPhone 11 wouldn’t look out of place inside a powerful laptop; they’re literally that powerful. Compare this to the iPhone 3GS’ 600MHz CPU, which was built by Samsung, and you can see just how far we’ve come with respect to processing power.

  • iPhone 3GS CPU – 600 MHz ARM Cortex-A8
  • iPhone 11 CPU – Apple A13 Bionic chip (Hexa-core processor with 2×2.65 GHz cores; 4×1.8 GHz Thunder efficient CPU cores)

Apple’s A13 CPU, the one inside the iPhone 11 range, features, among other things, Apple’s coat-core neural engine which can perform up to 1 trillion tasks in one second. To put that figure into context, the A12 – the CPU inside the iPhone XS/XR range – could only do 5 trillion tasks per second. See that jump in performance? It’s massive. And this is now the norm between each iteration of Apple’s A-series CPU.

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Add in larger amounts of RAM and improved GPUs and it is easy to see why two-year-old iPhones are beating brand new Android phones in benchmark tests. For overall performance, you simply cannot beat Apple’s chips right now – and we don’t expect this to change anytime soon. Also, keep in mind that Apple’s competitors – Qualcomm, Huawei, and Samsung – spend BILLIONS every year on R&D for their chipsets and you’ll start to understand just how big – and significant – this performance gulf is…

How Things Have Changed…

Since the launch of the iPhone 3GS, many things have changed on iPhone. But I think the following things can be viewed as the most significant changes for iPhone over the last 10 years:

  • Improved Camera Tech – From around the time of the iPhone 4, Apple started to take its camera tech more seriously. The iPhone 5, iPhone 6, and iPhone 7 all progressed Apple’s imaging pedigree. By the time the iPhone 8 launched, Apple’s camera tech was some of the best in the business.
  • Massively Improved CPUs – The advent of Apple’s A-Series chipset was a huge game-changer for Apple. It stopped it being reliant on Samsung, a close business rival and allowed it to develop its own CPUs in-house. The results of this switch were monumental. Apple’s CPUs are arguably the best in the business by a considerable margin.
  • The Switch To 64-Bit – With the release of the iPhone 5s, Apple literally shocked the entire industry by confirming that it was switching its entire iOS platform over to 64-bit architecture. No one saw this coming and it scared the bejesus out of Apple’s competition, including Google and Qualcomm.
  • Bigger Displays – The iPhone 6 started Apple’s foray into bigger displays. Long-time iPhone users were dubious at the time, leading to the release of the iPhone SE. But from around 2015/16, most began to accept larger iPhones as a fact of life.
  • The Death of TouchID The iPhone 5s introduced the world’s first-ever fingerprint scanner on a phone. Android phone makers followed suit and, then, a few generations later, Apple killed TouchID and the Home button with the release of the iPhone X which utilized gesture-based navigation inside iOS for the first time.
  • More Storage – The original iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS shipped with a maximum of 16GB of storage. Nowadays, you can’t even get iPhones with 16GB of storage. The minimum is 64GB and the range-topping storage is 512GB aboard the iPhone 11 Pro Max.
  • Development of iOS – Apple’s iOS platform has developed massively over the years, going through UX changes and complete design overhauls. The biggest changes, however, have been to do with its features. From around the time of the iPhone 4s, Apple really started drilling down on features and optimizations for iOS. And the result is one of the easiest to use, intuitive mobile operating systems on the planet. iOS is also the #1 reason why most iPhone users stay iPhone users – it has a habit of keeping people locked in, thanks to Apple’s strict usage policies and not letting you take your data or services with you to another platform.

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