Apple iPhone 3G S Digital Camera Review

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The Apple iPhone 3G S adds some significant under-the-hood improvements, including an updated three-megapixel image sensor with autofocus and video recording. The camera performed well in color accuracy and resolution, but we disliked the shortage of controls.

Product Tour









**Size Comparisons **

*Images not to scale

For this review, we decided to test the iPhone 3G S's mettle against both older iPhones, and a point-and-shoot camera. The camera we decided on was the Sony T900, because it has a similar look and feel to the iPhone, uses a touch-screen, and also has a small lens.

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**In the Box **


**Color Accuracy ***(9.48) *

For color accuracy, the iPhone 3G S performed decently, but struggled with reds and blues. To test how accurately the camera recorded color, we photographed the X-Rite ColorChecker chart under 3000 lux illumination, and used Imatest software to analyze how far the recorded image deviated from the known values. Click here for more on how we test color

The chart below shows the colors that the cameras recorded, which can be compared to the ideal.

NOTE: Because of the way computer monitors reproduce colors, the images above do not exactly match the originals found on the chart or in the captured images. The chart should be used to judge the relative color shift, not the absolute captured colors. 

Compared to the other generations of iPhone, the 3G S is slightly worse than the 3G for color accuracy, slightly better than the original, and they all pale in comparison to an actual camera.

Color Modes*(3.00)*

The iPhone 3G S doesn't offer any different color modes, so you're stuck in the default for everything. Luckily, it's relatively accurate. 



For digital cameras, we test image noise at two light levels across various ISO settings. Unfortunately, on the iPhone, you have no manual control over the ISO, so we had to use the default. The iPhone 3G S is the first iPhone to include proper EXIF data, so for the first time we can see what ISO it was shooting at, which is something of an improvement at least. Under our 60 lux setup, the phone shot at ISO 561, and under 3000 lux it shot ISO 144.  In the former, the noise levels were 2.15% and the latter was 1.39%. Compared to a camera, this is a bit high, but not too bad for a phone. Click here for more on how we test noise.

Related content

This chart shows the noise under the two light levels.

Compared to the other iPhones, the 3G S is an improvement over the 3G but worse than the first generation. It has a better score than the Sony T900 because the Sony's score takes into account higher ISO levels, all the way up to ISO 1600.


While there is no manual control over the ISO, we photographed with the 3G S in bright direct light, and in pitch black, in order to figure out the range of ISOs it would use. The lowest we could squeeze from it was ISO 70, the highest ISO 1016.

The chart below shows a 100% crop of our still life setup. Usually we show it across all the ISOs, but due to the lack of control on the iPhones, we can only show the one. The iPhone 3G S EXIF data tells us that it shot at ISO 72. The other two iPhones don't attach EXIF data properly, so we must work on the assumption that they shot at a similar level. The Sony T900's lowest ISO level is 80, and we're using that for comparison.

NOTE: The images above are not used in our testing or scoring, but are included here to show real-world examples of the differences between cameras at the various ISO settings.



In our normal course of testing, we would look at resolution at three different focal lengths of the lens. The iPhones don't use optical zoom, so it has only one fixed focal length. Because of this, we were only able to look at one distance. The iPhone 3G S did very well in terms of distortion and chromatic aberration, but had very low sharpness. Click here for more on how we test resolution.


The 3G S has very low distortion, just 0.20% barreling at its sole focal length of 3.85mm. This is an improvement over both other iPhones, and significantly better than the Sony T900.

Sharpness (3.76)

Even with the new three-megapixel sensor, the iPhone 3G S has very low sharpness. The images all look distinctly soft.

Chromatic Aberration (9.15)

The fixed focal length lens showed very low chromatic aberration. With an image this small, and this lens, you won't have to worry about color fringing.

In terms of overall resolution, the iPhone 3G S is a bit of a step up from the 3G, a significant improvement over the original iPhone, and manages to outscore the Sony T900 due to the iPhone's much better distortion score.

Picture Quality & Size Options*(2.00)*

The Apple iPhone 3G S has no options for picture quality or size. You are restrained to the three-megapixel mode that is the camera's maximum resolution.

Image Stabilization*(0.00)*

The iPhone has no image stabilization system.


Movie Mode*(9.75)*

The iPhone 3G S records video at standard definition (640x480) at 30fps, using the h.264 codec. As with still photography, there's almost no control over the video mode. You can tap on an area to focus there, easily trim files down, and upload them to YouTube.


Video Color*(8.47)*

The iPhone 3G S's color was pretty good in video mode. It had a color error of 4.72, and oversaturated the color by 110%. This is quite accurate, as you can see in the chart below. The bars represent color error, so shorter is better. There are no scores for the other two iPhones, as neither can record video.

Video Sharpness*(1.79)*

In terms of video sharpness, we were able to see fine detail down to 500 line widths per picture height horizontally, and 375 vertically. For standard definition video, that isn't bad, though it struggles when compared to the Sony T900, which records in HD. There are no bars below for the other two iPhones, as neither can record video.


Sample Photos

Sample Photos


Click on any of the following image samples to see them at full size. If you're on a slow connection, this may take some time to load, as they're very large files.





Still Life Examples

Click on the images below to download full-size sample images. The iPhones all shot on automatic ISO, and the Sony image was at the ISO 80 setting. These images are large, and may take some time to load.

NOTE: The images above are not used in our testing or scoring, but are included here to show real-world examples of the differences between cameras at the various ISO settings. 


Playback Mode*(10.00)*

The playback mode on the iPhone is decent, though it hasn't really changed in this update. You can pinch or stretch an image with your fingers to zoom in or out. The slide show can be set to various transition effects (dissolve, ripple, wipe or cube), and you can control how long each image appears, whether to use shuffle, and whether or not to repeat. There is an album mode, but it only shows albums imported from iPhoto. The photos can be used a wallpaper, emailed out, or assigned to a contact.

In-Camera Editing*(2.00)*

There's no way to edit photos on the iPhone, though there are plenty of downloadable apps for this purpose. It does include a rather nice tool for editing video, though, that lets you easily trim it down to size. It can also send directly from the device to YouTube.


*The yellow box outlines the length of video

being edited.


Direct Print Options*(0.00)*

The iPhone cannot output directly to a PictBridge printer.




The LCD is a major selling point on the iPhone. The screen is 3.5 inches diagonally, with 461,000-dot resolution. It's a capacitive touch screen, rather than the inductive type used on the Sony T900. The capacitive screen is more accurate, but requires either a finger or a special type of stylus to work. The iPhone 3G S also has a new coating on the screen, which is meant to reduce fingerprinting.


The LCD is large and a pleasure to use

All photographic controls are handled via the touch screen. There's a button that appears to take the photo, and digital zooming is controlled by making a pinching motion on the screen.


The iPhone has no flash.


Unfortunately, we know very little about the lens, as there are no official specifications, and no manual settings to play with. It has no optical zoom, and the aperture seems fixed at f/2.8 for all situations. According to the EXIF data, the lens always has a focal length of 3.85mm, and with some experimentation we found the closest focusing distance to be approximately two inches/50mm.


The lens is small and easy to obscure


The iPhone's battery is rated for up to 300 hours of standby, and 5 hours of 3G talk time. We're not sure how much this amounts to, in terms of photography, but it's unlikely you'll completely drain the batteries on your phone by taking snapshots.


The iPhone cannot take any sort of memory card, but comes with either 16GB or 32GB of internal memory, depending on which model you get.

Jacks, Ports & Plugs*(0.00)*

There's a single, proprietary port underneath the iPhone 3G S, which is used for charging and synching with a computer. By purchasing additional cables from Apple for a rather excessive $49, you can plug the camera directly into a TV.


The sole port on the bottom of the phone


Shooting Modes*(3.00)*

There are only two shooting modes on this phone: still or video. There's no manual control, except for the new addition of 'touch to focus' capabilities.


*The slider on the right switches

between still and video*


Picture Effects*(0.00)*

There are no effects of any sort available on the iPhone, without purchasing additional applications.


Previous generations of the iPhone had a fixed focus. The new iPhone implements an autofocus system, as well as the ability to touch anywhere on the screen for choosing focus and metering points. The touch focus system is a little iffy, as it has a tendency to refocus itself after you've touched somewhere.


There are no exposure controls.


The phone meters automatically, though we don't know if it uses full-screen evaluative metering, center-weighting, or spot metering. When you 'touch to focus' it also appears to re-meter, based on the area you clicked on.

White Balance*(2.00)*

There are no white balance controls on the iPhone, leaving you eternally in automatic mode.


As far as we are able to ascertain, the aperture is fixed at f/2.8

Shutter Speed*(5.00)*

Given the lack of manual controls or specifications, we took photos in very bright and very dark situations to get a feel for the shutter speed range. The shortest exposure we managed to get was 1/3171, and the longest 1/10.



There are no self-timers on the iPhone.


Drive/Burst Mode*(0.00)*

There is no drive or burst mode on the iPhone 3G S.


Other Features*(8.00)*

Even though we are reviewing this as a camera, the iPhone is a smart phone, and so has many other useful features. In addition to being able to make calls, it can send SMS messages, email, browse the internet, upload images to MobileMe, and use GPS to geotag photos. All of these are very well implemented, and blend seamlessly with the photographic experience.


Design & Handling


The iPhone is quite thin, and very comfortably balanced. It's designed to slip into very tight pockets, so it gets substantial praise for portability. The touch screen is very responsive, and the icons are all well-sized and easy to hit.


Buttons & Dials*(6.50)*

Even though the iPhone is almost entirely touch-screen based, there are a couple of physical controls. A single button on the face of the phone, a rocker switch for volume, a switch to make the phone silent, and a lock button on the top of the phone. None of these are used in photography.

The touch screen buttons are all laid out clearly, with good icons and text. For taking photographs, most of the time only a single button is used, which is large and placed at the bottom of the screen. We found this button a little awkward to hit, unless you were holding the camera very low down on its body.


The menu system is very straightforward, with an emphasis on large buttons, simple icons, and easy to read controls. There aren't many menus, mostly due to the fact that there aren't many controls.

Manual & Learning*(2.00)*

The iPhone's included manual is tiny, and mentions nothing about photography. The website is substantially more useful, with tutorials on how to use all of the functions on the phone. As much as Apple's minimalist aesthetic is easy on the eyes, it can be quite frustrating when you don't know what you don't know how to use.




Apple iPhone 3G: Compared to the year-old iPhone 3G, the iPhone 3G S is an incremental update, but with some weight to it. While the 3G S is better in terms of image noise and resolution, the 3G has the advantage in color. In terms of performance, it's not a huge difference one way or the other. Where the 3G S pulls ahead is that it has an autofocus system, embeds EXIF data better, and can record video. Of course, there are also other, none photographic, updates. Voice dialing, a magnetic compass, and improved memory and processor speeds all jump out. If you already have an iPhone 3G, the photographic performance increase probably isn't enough to warrant the money required to upgrade. On the other hand, if you haven't sipped the Apple Kool-Aid yet, it is a tempting time to try it.




**Apple iPhone:** In terms of photographic quality, the 3G S is a significant improvement over the original. It has much better color accuracy and resolution, but is a little worse on the image noise front. It also shoots a three-megapixel resolution rather than two, and has the advantage of autofocus and video modes. There's also a substantial feature difference between the two, as the original iPhone can't use the 3G networks, and doesn't have the incredibly useful GPS feature, or the magnetometer, voice control, or the ability to remotely detonate your data if someone walks off with your phone. Upgrading from the original iPhone to the 3G S seems like a much more sensible decision at this stage, rather than going from the 3G to 3G S.          

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T900: Comparing the iPhone 3G S to an actual digital camera gives an idea of what sort of performance differential you can expect from a piece of gear that is dedicated solely to photo and video, as opposed to Apple's multifunction dilettante. The Sony is a good camera to compare to the iPhone due to its stylish look, small lens, and touch screen interface. Even though the T900 feels low on manual controls compared to other digital cameras, it is far more full-featured here than the iPhone, as it has the ability to set white balance, metering, focusing mode, color mode, resolution, ISO and so on. Plus, there's also the whole 12-megapixels compared to the the iPhone's three, which makes a bit of a difference, as does the built-in flash. In terms of performance, the Sony has much better color, has an excellent image stabilization system, and has a burst function. The iPhone performed better in the resolution test entirely on the back of its excellent distortion result, and the T900 did worse for image noise due to it being measured over the range of ISOs, rather than just the automatic settings that the iPhone had. While the iPhone performed respectably, for a phone, it's no match for a dedicated camera.




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