iPhone 3G: The First 48 Hours

I was lucky: My iPhone 3G activation went about as smoothly as could be. I was up and running within 30 minutes. I've been stopped countless times by breathless passersby ("Is that the new iPhone?").

I've spent the past 48 hours reacquainting myself with the joys of using an iPhone: A mobile operating system that's visually attractive and brilliantly easy to maneuver with; the iPod player with Cover Flow and finger-flick navigation; the slide-and-glide of the photo viewer; YouTube on demand; and graphical Web browsing (though viewing content using Adobe's Flash is still problematic).

I've also become accustomed to being frustrated--an experience I'm not used to associating with Apple. Of course, my frustration emanates as much from the inadequacy of the AT&T network as it does from the iPhone's issues.

Whither 3G?

I've yet to experience AT&T's 3G network the way it's meant to be. I've driven a nearly 2-hour stretch on Long Island, New York--a stretch that is clearly marked on AT&T's coverage map as being 3G capable. Along one stretch of the major highway I achieved wildly varying data rates, spanning from 96 to 350 kilobits per second. Not once did I get above 400 kbps on the iphonenetwork.com bandwidth test. Assuming that test is accurate--and from the looks of how slowly Web pages loaded, it was--those results are highly disappointing.

I found it humorous on that first day that when I asked AT&T Store employees whether they were achieving 3G speeds, they really didn't have an answer. Instead, they kept saying that "everything" was down because "everyone" was activating their phones at the same time. Forty-eight hours later, though, the AT&T 3G service continues to be slow.

Now, this is only one metro area, but my experience makes me wonder about the strength of AT&T's 3G service and whether its network will be able to handle the iPhone traffic load.

It also makes me wonder about the iPhone itself. Sure, I saw it auto-sensing and switching between 3G and the slower EDGE service, but plenty of times the phone would register as being on 3G when it was connecting at pokey speeds of 192 kbps or less. I'm guessing that the phone is sensing that I'm on a 3G network, just a slow one. But if that's what I'm going to get, then why buy an iPhone 3G in the first place?

GPS-- Little Function, Yet

Let's face it: GPS is cool. But the iPhone 3G's native implementation of Assisted GPS is limited, and it remains unclear whether third-party apps will do anything to change how the iPhone can be used as a GPS. (Apple's implementation uses a built-in GPS antenna, along with cell towers and Wi-Fi, to determine your position.)

I tried out the iPhone 3G's built-in Google Maps and was disappointed to discover that the app lacks audible turn-by-turn instructions. It doesn't even have automatic direction prompting, which could anticipate where you are and switch from page 2 in directions to page 3, so you can see your next step at a glance.

On a recent excursion in which I compared the iPhone's GPS capabilities with a Delphi GPS system, I found the iPhone's limitations to be quite clear. In addition to the lack of audible prompts alerting you where to turn, the iPhone lacks auto-recalculation when you change your route or inadvertently go off track.

Even the one nice feature I found was tempered by its limitations: The map and route showed where traffic jams were, but didn't provide any way to get details on what a jam-up involved or how to avoid it.

Sometimes the map would move along with the car; other times, I'd watch my car's current location move right off the map...not to be seen again unless I manually moved the map.

As it stands, I can see how the iPhone's GPS would come in handy in a few scenarios: if you're in a unfamiliar city trying to find a hotel, restaurant, or shop; if you're the passenger in a car playing navigator for the driver; if you're using location-based services; or if you're in a pinch and need some help finding your way.

The iPhone is not a replacement for a dedicated GPS unit. Whether third-party applications will step in to address its inadequacies--or whether some of the limitations are caused by the iPhone's hardware itself--remains to be seen.

App Store Grumbles

I still maintain that the iPhone's user interface is light years ahead of competing mobile phones. But even this interface isn't conducive to searching and finding apps. So far, I've not had much luck with downloads from the App Store.

One free app I wanted to try, Instapaper, indicated that it would be waiting for me to download via iTunes the next time I logged in. Another free app, AOL Instant Messenger, appears to be having issues, too: I tried downloading the file three times--and still, no AIM icon on my iPhone. Hmmm. The next step would be syncing with my PC, I guess--but that takes away from the allure of downloading direct to the phone.

On Saturday, the Apple Store where I bought my phone, in Roosevelt Field Mall on Long Island, claimed it was unaware of any App Store issues. Then again, the store was still fielding a line out the mall's doors for would-be iPhone 3G buyers. It was also still dealing with on-again, off-again activation problems, along with AT&T Wireless activation eligibility issues.

At least everyone who stood in line at that mall location got an iPhone on the first day--even if it took until well after 1 a.m. to finish getting through the line of buyers, according to one employee.

I hope that some of those folks are having better luck with their new iPhones than I am.

For another opinion on the iPhone, read my colleague Tim Moynihan's take on what the iPhone 3G is missing, and browse our complete iPhone coverage.

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