Review: iPhone 3G

Still the champ among consumer smartphones. (July 13th, 2008)

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Apple

Price: $199 (8GB, two years), $299 (16GB, two years)

The Good

  • Still the best mobile OS for web browsing and media playback.
  • 3G is much faster and changes the nature of what the iPhone can do.
  • Improved audio quality going in and out.
  • GPS is useful for both first- and third-party apps.
  • New design is easier to hold and finally allows most earphones.
  • iPhone 2.0 software greatly expands the phone's feature set.
  • Lower price for some customers.

The Bad

  • Using 3G shortens battery life; usually need to plug in every day.
  • GPS is purportedly limited in hardware; Google Maps no stand-in for full navigation.
  • Still no MMS, voice dialing, or improved camera.
  • Black model too easily shows fingerprints, and may show scratches.

As tremendous as the original iPhone's impact was, the iPhone 3G is arguably Apple's most important iPhone ever: it not only has to fix as many of the first-run problems as possible but also represent Apple in new but notoriously unforgiving markets such as Japan. With that kind of burden on its shoulders, the company is in the unenviable position of trying to please everyone on just its second try. A full review of the iPhone 3G shows that Apple has come a long way in just a year and has one of its best products yet, but also that it still has a ways to go -- and has made a few sacrifices to overcome its earlier hurdles.

design

As the iPhone's design is essentially just a canvas for its touchscreen and audio, Apple hasn't been under much pressure to rework the iPhone's shape, and from the front it appears Apple hasn't touched the iPhone 3G: the new cellphone is unnoticeably wider.

At the back, however, Apple has been busy. To accommodate its 3G and GPS hardware, the new iPhone is about four hundredths of an inch thicker, but now uses a curved design that is actually thinner at the edges. It's now also completely plastic -- a concession to the need for better wireless reception now that the iPhone depends even more heavily on wireless signals than it did before, using them both for faster Internet access and for GPS mapping.





The combined effect is a tangible overall improvement. The original, aluminum-shelled iPhone was at times slippery and not exactly reassuring for a phone that was once priced at up to $599; the plastic arc of the iPhone 3G not only puts more of the surface in contact with your palm but also produces a grippier texture than smooth metal. Some will complain that the plastic cheapens the look of the iPhone, but a pretty, broken device is never as attractive as a slightly plainer but secure equivalent. The new model always felt safe during calling, and both the solid build quality as well as the one-piece back still give off the impression of a premium device that some rivals still lack.

The change isn't uniformly positive for at least some owners. Apple's choice to gives its most common iPhone models a glossy black finish invariably creates problems for less-than-immaculate owners: it shows every single greasy fingerprint or other smudge. Unless it's regularly sheathed in a case, black iPhones are likely to move from pristine to grimy in a matter of weeks, if not days. It's nothing a lint-free cloth won't remove, but it's an unfair tradeoff for those used to the relatively rugged aluminum of the 2007 model. If the budget exists for a 16GB model, pick up the white version or else wait for additional colors. In testing, a white model would still pick up visible lint in some cases but made it virtually impossible to see fingerprints or palm prints.

Scratches are also a possibility, though reports received early on suggest the casing is resistant (though likely not immune) to incidental damage; nonetheless, anyone putting the iPhone 3G in a pocket with keys should consider protection for at least the back of the device.

Beyond the hand feel, the new model finally makes the headphone jack flush with the rest of the case. For many, this alone may be worth the price of admission. Audiophiles or those simply unhappy with the stock earphones have chastized Apple for forcing them to wait for iPhone-friendly accessories, and now it's no longer necessary to give up a favorite set of earbuds just to enjoy music.





One small, but appreciated, change is the switch to metal for the ringer, volume, and sleep buttons. They don't change the functionality, but they both give off a greater impression of quality and feel better to the touch in most cases.

pack-ins and what's missing

In the earlier days of the iPod, Apple had a reputation for packing in virtually every conceivably important accessory. A third-generation iPod would come with a FireWire cable, a USB cable, and even a dock; it was only when cutthroat competition (and, most likely, a desire to maintain profit) pushed Apple to start dropping accessories to where even its most expensive iPods come only with a USB cable and a polishing cloth. When the first iPhone was released, the inclusion of both a dock and a power adapter gave some hope that Apple would return to its halcyon days and make sure customers were never lacking.

Unfortunately, the iPhone 3G is more evidence of Apple repeating history than improving on it: the dock is now just a $29 option rather than a standard feature. It's not a dealbreaker, but it's certainly less value for money and dampens the initial experience. At least the extra money is well-spent: the new dock is just as easy as the first for slotting in the phone, and takes up considerably less space than a Universal Dock -- although it does lack the infrared receiver of the latter (more expensive) model.





The nature of the phone market does dictate that Apple include an AC adapter, however, and it's here that there's some real ingenuity: the iPhone 3G's power adapter is much smaller than the original and sees the actual brick barely longer than the prongs that plug into the wall socket. Not every country gets this exact adapter -- a number of European territories need a bulkier connector -- but it's considerably smaller than what comes with most phones and is easier to stow away in a bag for a trip.



The stereo headset is the same as ever, which is helpful for some but an annoyance for others. It's very low-profile compared to the headsets bundled with other media-savvy phones and incorporates a clever squeeze action for answering calls and skipping tracks, but the audio quality for music and videos just won't appease discriminating users; it tends to mask higher-quality recordings and muddles some of the high and low end frequencies. It's better than many of the earbuds tried in the past, but not good enough to deter some from preferring the more advanced mic/remote headset of the Nokia N95, which also lets you put in your own earphones without giving up the extra controls.

3G: a (mostly) large improvement

The very selling point of the new iPhone is its Internet access speed; much of the phone's reason for being evaporates without it.

Thankfully, in terms of raw bandwidth, the iPhone 3G is dramatically faster for data on a cellular network than it ever was on EDGE (2G) networks. When using DSL Reports' iPhone speed test, most original iPhone users net an average of just 133Kbps, or just slightly more than double what dial-up access would offer at home. By contrast, tests on 3G using Rogers Wireless have produced speeds ranging between 800Kbps and 1.1Mbps, or up to ten times faster. These speeds will vary from region to region and provider to provider; many AT&T customers have seen averages below Rogers' speeds. Still, the difference is real and very significant.

In practice, latency (often at 250 milliseconds or more) and the sites themselves mean users rarely see that level of increase in speed for actual apps, but the performance jump is enough that accessing most sites is no longer an exercise in patience. Subjectively, web page loading times in Safari did indeed feel much closer to Wi-Fi than to EDGE, although it was just slow enough in loading large graphics for us to remind anyone that this isn't a a multi-megabit home connection.



That speed is enough to open the floodgates for many other apps. Downloading e-mail, even with attachments, is almost indistinguishable from doing the same at home over a hotspot. It was also noticeable in third-party apps (more on these soon) that chiefly rely on an active Internet connection; social networking tools like MySpace Mobile or Twitter load photos without much hassle. There's likewise a raft of programs that will virtually require the newfound speed, too: mobile uploading tools like ShoZu and video streaming tools like Sling Media's expected SlingPlayer Mobile simply won't work very well outside of Wi-Fi on a 2G-only iPhone, while 3G makes them useful nearly anywhere a good signal is available..

Apple's implementation nonetheless feels somewhat hobbled, in no small part due to carriers. Without native video capture support, there's no ability to upload video or stream it outwards. Companies such as Qik are developing custom-made solutions, but it remains to be seen whether these will ultimately ship or work as well as on other smartphones where video is a given. Apple has also consciously limited 3G downloads from the App Store to programs smaller than 10MB -- which is, admittedly, most of them -- and bars access to the iTunes Store entirely when not on Wi-Fi. It's understandable that providers aren't keen on passing dozens or even hundreds of megabytes at a time from each user without an extra fee, but the potential for truly wireless downloads is still wasted in this update.

3G also has an unfortunate side effect on battery life. With the sheer amount of extra data sent through the air, current 3G technology significantly cuts back on battery life for calls: Apple estimates just 5 hours of calling when voice is allowed on the 3G network, with Electronista tests and others' suggesting less. This isn't out of line with other 3G phones and is impressive for a device with such a large display, but it virtually guarantees that the phone will need to be recharged at least once a day for frequent users.

audio quality

A look at Apple's visual design for the iPhone 3G reveals a major redesign for the microphone and speaker; the company clearly knew from listening to users that there were problems with the first attempt and is determined not to repeat those mistakes again. Accordingly, the company now touts "dramatically improved" audio as one of the phone's key features.

This bears itself out through experience. Most calls sounded as good as the mutual connections would allow. When talking to a fellow 3G phone user or a landline, the quality is excellent, if quiet at default volume. Recipients in turn said that call quality was clear, though not pristine. The iPhone isn't immune to background noise but does a good job of maintaining the call with outside sounds at a low to moderate level. It's still recommended to use a noise-canceling Bluetooth headset such as the Aliph Jawbone if loud noises are a regular problem.



For music, ringtones, and speakerphone calls, the speaker sound is definitely improved. At its highest levels, the output could almost be too loud. There's little danger of missing a call or a text message, although it's notable that some ringtones and alerts are still quieter than others and potentially muffled if you put the iPhone in a sleeve case or at a far enough distance away.

GPS and location-aware apps

The iPhone 3G is Apple's first GPS-capable device of any kind, and while helpful, this inexperience shows.

The feature instantly becomes useful out of the box for the camera and for Google Maps. Since shots can be geotagged, or given a location in the world, the resulting shots can be used either on the phone or on a computer for third-party apps that can make sense of the data. Expect many users to quickly create maps of their journeys with photos. In Google Maps, the feature finally lets the mapping software get a near-exact, real time location versus the rough triangulation of cell towers and Wi-Fi. It's now possible to plot a route and see your progress along that route rather than stop and recalculate the position. It's fast and surprisingly quick to achieve a lock; where the N95 and the BlackBerry Curve can often take over a minute to find their GPS position, the iPhone takes just a few seconds on average.



What GPS on the iPhone 3G isn't, though, is a full-fledged navigation replacement. Apple explains that the GPS chip and antennas aren't enough to deliver tracking that would fully support turn-by-turn directions in a car. Whether this is true or not, it's still the case that the new iPhone lacks the rotating map and voice guidance that are virtually necessary for in-car navigation. As-is, no one will be mounting the iPhone in a dash cradle and depending on it for directions, although it's at least good enough to use for pedestrian routes.

It's also worth mentioning that, even with this conspicuous absence, the GPS is still useful for location-aware third-party apps. There are already a number of programs found in the App Store that use the feature to reveal nearby users and locate photos. Companies such as TeleNav and TomTom have even said they may have full GPS navigation suites in the future, which could well change users' views of the iPhone 3G in just a matter of months.

iPhone 2.0 software and third-party apps

As much as Apple may emphasize hardware features, it's the software which is key, and the impact of the iPhone 2.0 software update can't be underestimated, even if some of the features (such as handwriting support for Asian languages) won't be relevant to most users.

Arguably the most important change is a support for push calendars, contacts, and e-mail. Whether it's through an Exchange server at work or Apple's own MobileMe service for home users, the addition definitely closes the gap between the iPhone and other devices that until now have had largely unchallenged credibility at work or even among individual power users. The need to get a BlackBerry or Windows Mobile phone, even for work purposes, is now that much lower.

Certain updates also simply make the phone more practical for very heavy use. Long-overdue mass mail delete and contact search features have already proven useful for this reviewer, whose daily e-mail volume regularly crosses into triple digits and was tiresome to clear out message-by-message.



Of course, the single most significant feature for many will be the App Store and the third-party apps it houses. After trying several, it becomes clear that the iPhone has become a proper smartphone almost overnight, and in some senses is better. The App Store itself is simple to navigate and is much more visual than some other application stores, as virtually every app has screenshots that give a feel for the software before you download. That said, few companies are offering demo versions of paid apps; where iPod games have almost always cost $5, the $10 to $20 for a typical iPhone app may scare away some users.

Apple has launched the store with about 500 apps, and many of these are surprisingly polished for just months' lead time (though it's known that some developers had early access). Many of these by themselves increase the functionality of the iPhone to where the device might feel gutted without them; favorite apps during this test mostly included conversation apps that Apple has unfortunately not developed itself, including an official AIM client as well as Twitterrific. As noted earlier, many apps already take advantage of the iPhone's specific features. Games are also a definite highlight, as they often take advantage of not just the touchscreen but also the 3D hardware and tilt sensor. The iPhone may well be a next major game platform if it can continue to attract developers, as few things are as uniquely entertaining as tilting the iPhone to steer in Super Monkey Ball.



There are some noticeable limits. Apple's development guidelines forbid apps from remaining open in the background and instead demands a push notification service for data. This is supposed to keep AIM and other similar apps up to date on incoming chats, though on more than one occasion we noticed flaws; AIM wouldn't properly flag an incoming chat, for example. Also, without built-in support for features like video recording or voice over IP, many of the initial launch programs are inherently limited in what they can do.

Still, the addition is extremely welcome, and it's almost a double-edged sword for the iPhone 3G. The 2.0 update is free for earlier iPhones and does reduce much of the desire to upgrade from an earlier device; that's especially true as many apps, including text chat apps and some location-based software, can make do with the slower EDGE and triangulation mapping of the old model. All the same, the faster Internet access and GPS definitely sweeten the experience, and even today uploading a photo or browsing an image-heavy gallery is much more enjoyable on 3G.

The effect of data plans on the iPhone 3G

Since the iPhone 3G was first officially announced, there has been a collective chilling effect in many of the countries announced for the first wave of device releases. Like it or not, Apple's new handset is ultimately only as useful as its data plans, and in many cases these have become prohibitively expensive and may well impact the approach to the iPhone.

American and British customers, at least, are expected to enjoy the iPhone as it was intended to be. While the AT&T plan is $10 more expensive than it was, the ability to use unlimited data either on that carrier or Britain's O2 essentially transforms the device into a small and relatively powerful computer, and makes streaming both audio and video relatively trivial.

Other countries, however, aren't so fortunate and in some cases have much of the device's appeal neutered by local providers. As much as Canadians have been eager to complain about Rogers Wireless' restrictive data plans -- enough so that the carrier finally relented two days before launch -- countries like Belgium and Norway are offering just 200MB and 100MB each per month on their basic plans, all but crippling the devices for more than just basic browsing and e-mail. Wi-Fi is an option, but for many of these users it could be the only realistic choice until their carriers also give way or else recognize that mobile data is important.

As such, it's important to carefully weigh up the plans before signing on. Without guaranteed access to the Internet, the iPhone 3G isn't any more effective than an original model and may in fact be worse with overage fees likely to creep up that much faster on the improved connection.



wrapping up

Many smartphones have passed through Electronista's doors , and there have been seemingly as many mobile operating systems: BlackBerry OS, Symbian, Windows Mobile, and more have all been tested. Virtually every operating system does at least one task very well. BlackBerries excel at e-mail, Symbian phones work well with third-party apps and GPS, and Windows Mobile devices integrate the tightest of all with Exchange and other heavy-duty production tools.

At the same time, most of those devices have been let down by those same operating systems, particularly in web access. Few if any will draw an average website properly, or in some cases even acceptably. Similarly, mail is often limited to basic text and photos. Media playback is often not as terrible as some suggest, but is still very frequently limited to just basic output; there's no audiobooks, bookmarked podcasts, or rented movies, for example. Sometimes just configuring options was arbitrarily difficult.

The first iPhone, however, did web browsing, media playback, and the basic interface well the first time, and the iPhone 3G not only improves on that but fixes some of the most glaring flaws from before. With a reasonable data plan, Internet access is wonderfully fast. Combined with GPS and third-party apps, the iPhone now feels more akin to a Swiss Army Knife than the "walled garden" experience it was just one year earlier.

There's still plenty of room to grow. GPS is still very much in its fledgling stage, and however useful it may be now through official and third-party apps, it needs to improve further to where it can be used as well as other smartphone GPS implementations. Battery life on 3G has been weakened to where some may need to always keep an AC adapter at hand. And expectedly, some of the important features that were lamented for their absence in the first model still aren't present in the 3G edition, such as MMS picture messages, voice dialing, or a better camera than the featureless 2-megapixel model. These will still be dealbreakers for some, and not without at least some merit.

Still, Apple has said that continued feature updates are on the agenda, and for the average user who's looking to move into media phones or smartphones, the iPhone 3G still holds on to its crown -- especially now that at least some new and existing customers can enjoy a much lower $199 price tag. About its only immediate challenger is its predecessor, which (with 2.0 software) can do nearly as much post-upgrade, just not nearly as quickly or with the same refinements to design as the new model.

by Jon Fingas


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