How Much Longer Will Apple Support the iPhone 3GS?

The next piece of Apple equipment to upgrade is my phone, but will that be an iPhone 3GS? I’m slowly dragging myself into a “current” Apple user: My aging G4 has been replaced with a 2009 MacBook, capable of running OS X 10.7 Lion today and 10.8 Mountain Lion when it is released in a few months, so will my next phone be an Apple handset.

My current contract is up in a few months, and I haven’t decided whether to renew it or not – or even decided which handset I am going to go for. I am currently using an original iPhone and have an iPhone 3G that I don’t use because it has horrible reception. If I sold both of them, I could put the funds together and possibly grab an iPhone 3GS.

The iPhone 3GS was what the iPhone 3G should have been. The original iPhone and the iPhone 3G share almost identical hardware (with the obvious addition of 3G and GPS), but the addition of 3G and the ability to run iOS 4 on the iPhone 3G made it almost unusable. When Apple released iOS 4 for the iPhone 3G, it nearly killed it – the problem was semi-resolved with later updates (the last being 4.2.1), but it still lags a lot. The iPhone 3GS – the S being for speed (running a Samsung APL0298C05 CPU at 600 MHz vs. the Samsung ARM11 at 412 MHz in the 3G) – was a much needed speed improvement over the iPhone 3G. It shares the same form factor.

Apple is still selling and supporting the iPhone 3GS, even though the iPhone 4 and 4S are out, and even though (according to MacTracker) the iPhone 3GS was discontinued in June 2010. They are still being sold in the UK with two-year contracts on the major networks (O2, Vodafone, T-Mobile, and Three) as well as in other markets. The 3GS also runs the latest version of iOS, and by all accounts runs it very well, but how long will Apple continue supporting it?

The 3GS was released in June 2009 and shipped originally with iOS 3. Going by previous iPhones, each model lasted three revisions of iOS – the original shipped with 1.0 and stopped at 3.1.3, and the iPhone 3G shipped with 2.0 and stopped at 4.2.1.

At this time, the current iPhone range (3GS, 4, and 4S) runs the latest version, which is 5.1, but how many more revisions will the iPhone 3GS see? Will it be cut midway through iOS 5 (like the iPhone 3G was in iOS 4), or will it be left behind with the eventual jump to iOS 6?

Who knows.

The hardware in the iPhone 3GS is a long way behind the 4 and the 4S.

  • The iPhone 3GS sports a 600 MHz Samsung processor (underclocked from 833 MHz to increase battery life and reduce heat) with 256 MB of RAM and a 320 x 480 pixel screen (163 ppi). It has 8, 16, or 32 GB onboard storage.
  • The iPhone 4 sports an 800 MHz Apple A4 processor (underclocked from 1 GHz) with 512 MB of RAM and a 960 x 640 pixel Retina Display (326 ppi). It has 8, 16, or 32 GB onboard storage.
  • The iPhone 4S sports an 800 MHz dual-core Apple A5 processor (also underclocked from 1 GHz) with 512 MB of RAM and the same 960 x 640 pixel Retina Display (326 ppi) as the iPhone 4. It has 16, 32, or 64 GB onboard storage.

I don’t expect the iPhone 3GS to work with iOS 6.

Apple has a clever, very clear, and very clean way of telling whether your device will run certain software and it is done by iOS version.

When Apple wanted to ensure you had an iPhone 3GS to run certain software and not on an iPhone 3G, so they just made the requirement of iOS 4.2.5 as the cutoff point (the iPhone 3G was cut off at 4.2.1). It was simpler for the original iPhone – if a piece of software requires iOS 4, it won’t run on the original iPhone.

Will the next few months see iOS 5.4, leaving the iPhone 3GS behind?

Who knows.

One thing for sure, I won’t be getting an iPhone 3GS on a two-year contract. If I get one, I will buy a used one so as not to be tied to a device nearing the end of its life. Apple has been very aggressive of late, marching forward and leaving older (or not so old) hardware behind, and Apple still supporting the iPhone 3GS surprises me.

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