The iPhone 3GS is one of Apple's older iPhone models, having originally hit the market way back in 2009. It comes in 8GB, 16GB and 32GB variants and has recently been updated to iOS 5 -- the latest version of Apple's world-beating mobile operating system.
Refurbished, the 3GS is available for free on a two-year contract, with prices starting as low as £13.50 per month. Pay as you go models will cost you about £290, while some retailers are selling SIM-free handsets for as little as £200. If you shop around, you could bag yourself a bargain.
Should I buy the Apple iPhone 3GS?
Hardened tech-addicts may consider it foolish to even think of purchasing a phone that is over two years old, but there's clearly still a large market for the iPhone 3GS. According to recent US figures, it outsold every available Android model during the third quarter of 2011.
That's a remarkable achievement and is undoubtedly one of the main reasons why Apple has upgraded this vintage classic to iOS 5, its latest mobile operating system.
Granted, the 3GS misses out on the headline-grabbing voice-operated assistant Siri, but almost every other important feature of iOS 5 has made the cut. There's a completely overhauled notifications system, iCloud storage; an improved camera app; and a raft of new apps, including the Reminders app and access to Apple's new Newsstand service, which allows you to purchase digital copies of many famous magazines.
Of course, the 3GS has access to all of the other stuff that makes the iPhone brand so great. You can obtain thousands of games and applications, download music and podcasts and sync your phone with your home music library via Apple's iTunes desktop application.
There are moments when the 3GS does tend to show its age, however. The 600MHz processor occasionally becomes a little overwhelmed; it can stutter when you have a lot of activities occurring simultaneously. The 320x480-pixel, 3.5-inch screen also looks a tad small when compared to rival Android phones.
Ultimately, such issues matter little when you consider the current asking price of the 3GS. You can pick it up relatively cheaply on a monthly contract, or adopt the SIM-free route for around £200 to £250. The reduced pricing and continued software support from Apple effectively mean that the 3GS has almost unwittingly become the fabled budget iPhone that many industry experts were predicting would appear before the 4S was confirmed.
If you've enviously witnessed your friends picking up their shiny new iPhones and wished you could have a slice of the action, then the 3GS represents the perfect opportunity -- and it won't break the bank either.
iOS 5 on the 3GS
Apple's track record for bringing new software to older phones hasn't exactly been encouraging -- just ask anyone who upgraded their 3GS to iOS 4. The problem is that new software usually places increased demands on the host hardware. In the past, Apple's older devices have struggled to keep up with the rapid advance of the OS.
Thankfully, Apple seems to have learned from its past mistakes because iOS 5 on the 3GS runs amazingly well. Granted, there's no Siri, so you can't offer your hand in marriage to a virtual assistant, but that's probably the single biggest omission.
The raft of other improvements -- including iCloud, an Android-style Notifications Bar and iMessage -- are all present and accounted for. The most stunning aspect of all of this is that iOS 5 runs pretty smoothly on the handset's aging hardware. It's only when you've got several apps open while multi-tasking that the phone begins to stumble.
It wirelessly syncs all your phone's data -- including mail, contacts, music, calendar appointments and photos -- and stores them in your 5GB repository on Apple's cloud-based servers.
Previously, if you had more than one device and wanted to exchange information between them -- a photo, for example -- you'd have to download the image via iTunes and then sync it to your other device.
iCloud circumvents this laborious process and allows you to grab items from the cloud and deploy them across all of your iOS devices.
It means that if your phone is lost or broken, you don't lose any of your precious data.
The final bonus about iCloud is that it frees you from having to use the infamously bloated iTunes application to update your phone's firmware. New OS updates are simply pushed to your device over the air, just like with Android.
Seen by many as a response to RIM's famous BlackBerry Messenger functionality, iMessage is such an ingenious means of communication you may not even realise it's there. Instead of a separate iMessage app, this feature is found within the standard text message program.
iMessages can be exchanged with fellow iOS 5 users. They are sent over your Internet connection instead of using up your contract's valuable text messaging quota.
You don't have to do anything to enable this feature -- iOS 5 detects if the person you're texting is also using the new OS and it gives iMessages a unique colour to differentiate them from standard texts.
When you consider how sensitive Apple's bigwigs get when a competitor appears to steal an idea, it's rather ironic that one of iOS 5's most notable improvements happens to be lifted almost wholesale from Google's Android OS.
At first glance, the status bar at the top of the screen looks the same as it always has. However, tracing a line down from the top of the display reveals your shiny new notifications area.
Here, you'll find a quick summary of all your important information, including a weather report, text messages or the latest stocks and shares info.
You can edit what data is displayed in this section from the phone's settings menu, should you find that you're getting overloaded with alerts. It's also possible to switch back to the old 'pop-up' notifications if the pull-down bar proves to be a little too much like Android for your liking.
The good stuff doesn't end there. When the iPhone 3GS is locked, notifications appear on the lock screen itself. You can quickly jump to the notification -- be it an email, text or appointment -- by swiping from left to right on the message itself.
This time-saving method saves you from having to unlock the phone and then open up the relevant application. It is a prime example of how Apple's software designers are masters at streamlining the mobile experience.
Applications and new features
iOS 5 doesn't just bring with it improvements to the operating system -- it also has a few new apps to enjoy. The one that has us the most excited is Newsstand, which allows you to download digital versions of popular publications, including Fast Car, Elle and Esquire.
There's a new Reminders app, which is handy if you're constantly forgetting to pick up milk on the way home from work. In typical Apple style, using this app is a breeze and you can set up time-relevant alerts in the space of a few minutes. These pop up on your home screen when required, which ensures you never miss an important event again.
Apple has tightly integrated Twitter into iOS with version 5. You can post directly to your account from almost anywhere in the phone's operating system, including Safari, Maps or YouTube. While this won't be news to Android owners -- who have enjoyed the ability to share content directly to multiple applications for quite some time -- it's something of a revelation on the iPhone.
You can now effortlessly post a photo to your Twitter stream with nothing more than a few taps on the screen. It's a shame that other services haven't been included too, such as Facebook or Google+, but we imagine it's only a matter of time before Apple expands its sharing prowess.
That rounded plastic back panel and the chrome accent still look great, even by today's standards. The phone feels solid, robust and dependable. You can see why rival manufacturers have been so keen to imitate this device because it's genuinely attractive.
The front of the iPhone 3GS is dominated by that 320x480-pixel capacitive touchscreen display. While many Android and Windows Phone handsets have since eclipsed it, the 3.5-inch screen is still perfectly usable. In fact, many people will prefer the fact that the small display is a more pocket-friendly device.
Below the screen is the only physical input on the front of the iPhone 3GS: the Home button. A single press does exactly what you'd expect, but a double-press opens up the multi-tasking menu, which allows you to jump between running applications.
Along the sides of the device are more familiar inputs. The volume rocker is self-explanatory, as is the unique iPhone mute switch. Up top is the power button -- which also locks the screen -- and the 3.5mm headphone socket.
At the other end, we have the external speaker, microphone and dock connection. Unlike most other manufacturers -- which have all agreed on adopting the micro-USB standard for data and charging connectors -- Apple continues to play by its own rules. You won't be able to borrow your friend's charger at work to top-up your 3GS battery -- unless they happen to own an iPhone themselves, of course.
While the iPhone 4 and 4S share the same pin-sharp Retina display that sports an eye-popping resolution of 640x960 pixels, the 3GS showcases a more modest 320x480-pixel screen -- albeit with the same 3.5-inch dimensions.
Placed alongside the 720x1,280-pixel HD display of the newly-launched Galaxy Nexus, this screen naturally looks a bit naff. But it's important to remember that this is tech from 2009. When you take that into account, the 3GS's humble screen is forgiveable.
While the resolution isn't cutting-edge, the TFT panel is bright and bold, with good viewing angles. From a touch perspective, the display is an absolute joy to use. Each swipe and tap are registered without fail. When you consider that there are much more powerful Android devices out there that still struggle with touchscreen responsiveness, that's something to be commended.
Processing power and internal storage
Despite the fact that it's over two years old now, the iPhone 3GS manages to hold its own against the current competition.
At its heart is a 600MHz processor backed by just 256MB of RAM. There are many budget Android devices out there that have better specifications than that, which might lead you to assume that the 3GS is a relic from the past that's outperformed by bargain-basement blowers.
Such an assumption would be wildly inaccurate. Despite its humble tools, the 3GS offers a nippy and responsive experience. It's a testament to Apple's tight software design that the phone never feels as if it's struggling with tasks. It makes you wonder just how much better some Android handsets could be if Google was allowed to focus on one hardware standard instead of having to support a whole host of different devices.
With a PowerVR graphics chip thrown into the mix, the 3GS remains a seriously decent gaming platform. In fact, it handles 3D games with more confidence than most dual-core Android phones. It's worth noting that the age of the handset does mean that some of the very latest titles won't be playable though.
The 3GS has been released in 8GB, 16GB and 32GB variants. The 16GB edition is the most common these days. There's no way of boosting that amount of memory with microSD cards. If you think you're likely to be a heavy media user, try and get the largest capacity you can afford.
Camera and video recording
With a 3-megapixel camera, the iPhone 3GS isn't likely to make owners of the 8-megapixel Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S feel jealous. While it packs auto-focus capabilities, the lack of flash seriously undermines its usability in dimly-lit locations.
However, the quality of the shots it captures is actually very impressive. Colours are much bolder than we've come to expect from mobile phone cameras. Apple's photo software is easy to use and offers touch-to-focus functionality.
The 3GS was the first iPhone to boast video recording, with footage being captured at 640x480-pixel resolution. Expecting HD video on a phone from 2009 would have been very optimistic indeed. Don't expect the 3GS to match the more recent Android handsets, many of which have 720p and even 1080p resolution recording.
The iPhone 3GS uses Apple's mobile Safari browser to access the web. It offers a slick and speedy experience. Pages load quickly and navigation is smooth and hassle-free. You can use multi-touch gestures to zoom in and out of pages. Complex sites are rendered accurately.
Naturally, there's no support for Adobe Flash -- something that iPhone users have always had to live with. However, Adobe has recently announced that Flash for mobiles is going the way of the dodo, so it's less of an issue now. Many Apple fans will argue that it was never an issue to begin with as Flash is a notorious battery sucker.
Safari on the iPhone 4S boasts tabbed browsing, but sadly that hasn't made its way down to the 3GS. You can still open multiple windows though, and skip between them at will.
Despite coming out in the same year as the 3G-less BlackBerry Curve 8520, the iPhone 3GS is a powerhouse of connectivity options.
You've got 3G, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, all of which enable you to handle mobile data in practically any given situation. Bluetooth also allows you to pair the 3GS with various accessories.
Mobile tethering is possible, allowing you to share your phone's mobile signal with other devices.
Since iOS 5 went live, we've heard some pretty horrific stories regarding battery stamina. It's hardly a shock as the software itself taxes the power cell a lot more than in version 4.
However, after a few days spent in the company of iOS 5 on the 3GS, we have to admit we didn't notice any spectacular drop-off in battery performance. Naturally, heavy usage is always going to swallow up your juice. If you're a power user then you can expect your device to be attached to a wall socket at least once a day.
The point is that iOS 5 doesn't seem to hit the battery as badly as people were predicting. If you've run into real bother, you may find installing the latest 5.0.1 update fixes any niggles.
Like all of Apple's devices, the iPhone 3GS offers no means of changing the battery, short of sending the phone back to Apple for a whopping fee. This built-in obsolescence is disappointing in an era where companies are being told they need to be kinder to the environment. We dare say that many of the 3GS iPhones out there possess internal power cells that are on their last legs. That's something to consider if you're looking to pick one up second-hand.
It may seem like madness to be considering a phone from over two years ago as your next purchase, but with the iPhone 3GS now available for free on a monthly contract -- and for around £200 to £250 SIM-free -- it actually makes very good sense.
The internal tech is now outdated when compared to cutting-edge Android and Windows Phone handsets, but that's not the point. The revised price puts it in direct competition with budget-to-mid-range phones such as the ZTE Skate.
The disparity in technology is less keenly felt when set alongside similarly-priced Android devices. The raft of improvements introduced in iOS 5 actually make the 3GS even more desirable.
It's also worth taking a moment to consider that Apple has rolled out a significant software update on a phone from 2009. Meanwhile, Google has officially abandoned its own Nexus One handset, which is actually a more recent release than the 3GS.
While the iPhone 4S may have become Apple's flagship handset, it's encouraging to see that the company is thoughtful enough to keep its older offspring up to date with the latest software. In doing so, Apple has also -- perhaps unintentionally -- satisfied consumer demand for a low-cost iPhone.
For the asking price, the 3GS is astonishingly good value for money. It offers a gorgeous design, excellent software and access to the world's largest selection of apps and mobile games.