Review: IPhone 3G

When the original iPhone arrived in June 2007, it was greeted by massive hype and long lines at Apple and AT&T stores. But a lot of people who were interested in the iPhone held back, guided by a thoughtful and careful technological principle: "Never buy version 1.0."

With the release of Apple's iPhone 3G and its new iPhone 2.0 software, the hype and the lines are back, but the era of iPhone 1.0 is officially over. Those who waited for the second edition of the iPhone will appreciate dramatically faster cellular data access and an impressive software update including a raft of third-party programs. For original iPhone buyers, however, the iPhone 3G is only a must-have upgrade for those who will take full advantage of the fast 3G data network.

Hardware

At a casual glance, the iPhone 3G looks just like the original iPhone (). Front and center is its bright, beautiful high-resolution 3.5-inch diagonal touch screen, offering a resolution of 480-by-320 pixels. It's only when you look at both models side by side that you notice the face of the iPhone 3G is slightly wider, allowing a bit more black space between the sides of the screen and the chrome frame.

On the bottom, the black speaker and microphone grilles of old have been replaced by two oval cut-outs with recessed silver grilles. Between the grilles and the iPhone 3G's dock connector are two recessed Philips screws. It's not every day that you find an Apple product, especially a slick consumer-electronics product, that's got visible screws.

At the top, the most obvious change is the replacement of original iPhone's recessed headphone jack--which required the use of an adapter in order to attach most non-Apple headphones--with one that lies flat. That recessed jack was one of the most ridiculous design decisions in the original iPhone, and it's great to see that Apple has addressed the problem and made the iPhone 3G accessible to just about any set of headphones in existence.

The iPhone 3G's left side includes a volume rocker switch and a sliding switch to place the phone into silent/vibrate mode, just like its predecessor. These buttons, as well as the Sleep button on the phone's top, are now made of metal rather than black plastic. While they're a pretty silver color, the metal edges are also much sharper than the original iPhone's plastic ones, and they press uncomfortably into my fingers as I'm using them. I also found the iPhone 3G's Vibrate switch to be more difficult to slide than the original model's, though that extra resistance does mean it's less likely that your phone will slip into or out of silent mode by accident.

Although it's more curved (and therefore thinner) than the original iPhone at its edges, it's slightly thicker in the middle. However, your hand curves to hold the phone (unless you've got really small hands), and that curve is where the extra thickness is, making it undetectable. Apple truly designed the iPhone 3G to feel identical to the original iPhone.

The iPhone 3G's back is curved shiny plastic (available in black or, in the 16GB model, black or white), rather than the flat matte aluminum of the original model. Whether that's better or worse is a personal, aesthetic choice, although the plastic case shouldn't block radio signals as much as the aluminum did. However, the shiny plastic is much more adept at collecting fingerprints and smudges than the old textured aluminum.

The curved back does make the iPhone 3G slightly unstable when laid on a flat surface, but it only wobbles slightly, and I found it acceptably stable for typing and tapping. There's a gap between the sides of the iPhone's display and the edge of the phone itself, making it unlikely that you'd touch close enough the edge to cause the phone to wobble dramatically. The extra width also makes typing on the iPhone with two thumbs slightly more comfortable by giving the thumbs a bit more room on which to roam. I don't know if my thumb typing was any more accurate on the new phone, but it was certainly more comfortable to thumb-type on the iPhone 3G than on the original model.

Although the physical changes to the phone are subtle--so subtle that if you haven't spent a lot of time with an original iPhone, you'd never notice them--they're enough to prevent some old iPhone cases, docks, and other accessories that are carefully tailored to the original model's dimensions from working with this new model. If you buy an iPhone 3G to replace a first-generation iPhone, you'll probably want to bequeath your cases and dock to your old iPhone's new owner and prepare to invest in new accessories. (However, some less exacting iPhone cases will fit the iPhone 3G. My Speck ToughSkin case fits the iPhone 3G just fine.)

It's always hard to judge a brand-new product when it comes to issues of durability, since we only have a few days to test the product and it's very hard to short-circuit the test of time. However, our colleagues at PC World chose to sacrifice an iPhone 3G in order to see how rugged the product was. Although PC World's iPhone 3G did end up completely shattered, the editors who tortured it were mightily impressed with its durability. The iPhone 3G survived several simulated trips through a pocket full of keys and other sharp objects, withstood being dunked in a bowl of cereal and milk, and even kept on working through a few drops on concrete from five feet up. The iPhone 3G's glass screen cracked beyond repair on the fifth drop. The moral of this story: the iPhone 3G is pretty tough, but don't use it to play a game of catch in a parking lot.

Software

Although this review is supposed to focus on the iPhone 3G as a hardware product, it's impossible to fully separate it from the software it runs.

The iPhone 3G ships with version 2.0 of the software that powers both the iPhone and its non-phone cousin, the iPod touch. This new version adds numerous features not present in the previous iPhone until now, including support for push e-mail, contacts, and calendars via a corporate Microsoft Exchange server or Apple's new MobileMe service. The most impressive feature of this new software is the App Store, which allows users to download programs written by software developers outside of Apple.

The 2.0 software is, in many ways, the most important feature of the iPhone 3G. And it's excellent. However, because that software is also available for the original iPhone and (as a $10 upgrade) the iPod touch, we've chosen to review it separately from the iPhone 3G hardware--that review will appear on Macworld.com later this week.

Full speed ahead

What puts the iPhone 3G head and shoulders above the original iPhone is the addition of support for 3G networking. The third-generation wireless network that gives the iPhone 3G its name is much faster than the EDGE network. If you're in an area with 3G network coverage, you'll find that the iPhone 3G's Internet connection is quite fast.

In our tests, an iPhone 3G on AT&T's 3G network downloaded media files and loaded Web pages between two and four times as fast as an original iPhone on AT&T's EDGE network. Of course, not even the 3G cellular network can match up with pure Wi-Fi. For example, downloading a 1MB MP3 file took 87 seconds on EDGE, 21 seconds on 3G, and only 8 seconds via Wi-Fi.

More impressive than the raw download speeds is the fact that they enable Internet features that simply weren't practical on the slower EDGE network. I was able to walk through downtown San Francisco, listening to a radio station streamed over the 3G network by the free AOL Radio program I downloaded from the App Store. Similarly, I could watch Major League Baseball video highlights downloaded by the MLB At Bat application, also downloaded over the fast network.

Phones on the 3G cellular network also have the capability to download data and make voice phone calls simultaneously. On the previous model of the iPhone, you couldn't talk on the phone while downloading data over the phone's cellular data connection. But if the iPhone 3G is on a 3G network, you can talk and check Google Maps simultaneously without trouble.

One downside of the 3G network is that using it drains the iPhone 3G's battery more than the slower EDGE network. However, if you're worried about running out of juice, Apple has provided an option (Settings -> General -> Network -> Enable 3G) so that you can turn off 3G networking. Once 3G is disabled, the iPhone 3G uses the same 2G network as its predecessor.

As far as I can tell, the iPhone 3G is "faster" than the original iPhone solely because of the access it has to a faster cellular network. On Wi-Fi and EDGE connections the phones seem to be about the same speed, and taxing games such as FreeVerse's Wingnuts Moto Racer appear to perform the same on both devices.

Where am I?

The other major new piece of hardware in the iPhone 3G is a GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver. GPS is a technology that lets devices figure out exactly where they are by triangulating radio signals from satellites in orbit. The iPhone 3G uses Assisted GPS, which essentially means that the phone's search for GPS information is assisted by computers at cell-phone towers, improving speed and reliability. (And if the iPhone 3G can't get a GPS fix, it can use Wi-Fi and cell tower information to guess at its position, just as the first-generation iPhone could.)

Several included applications on the iPhone take advantage of GPS, and numerous third-party App Store programs do as well. The built-in Maps application uses GPS to track your current location, represented by a pulsating blue dot at the center of the map.

When I first tested this feature, I wasn't very impressed. My location was not displayed very accurately (the blue dot was surrounded by a very large blue circle, representing the iPhone's uncertainty about where I was) and the information seemed to lag behind my true location by as much as 30 seconds.

However, I think my initial problems were mostly due to a lack of a strong GPS signal: I was traveling in a bus through streets full of tall buildings in San Francisco's Financial District, and as a result, the iPhone was probably cut off from most GPS signals. Once I got out into the wide-open spaces, the blue dot's accuracy improved greatly and there was much less lag.

The iPhone's camera also uses GPS to embed the exact latitude and longitude of every picture you take (though you can turn this feature off), a process known as geotagging. The feature generally worked as advertised, though I did discover a strange bug: copying a geotagged image out of iPhoto and into the Finder corrupted the embedded data and convinced Flickr (a photo-sharing Web site that supports geotagging) that my backyard is located somewhere in China's Yellow Sea.

Of course, the killer application for a GPS-enabled cell phone is probably turn-by-turn driving directions. The included Maps application will show you where you are in the context of driving directions, but unlike dedicated GPS devices, it won't speak to you when you need to turn, and if you're driving though an area with no cellular service, it won't be able to download map data from Google. A program that can use the GPS data to give you more precise directions and doesn't need to rely on Google's map data would be a welcome addition. Here's hoping it happens.

Loud and clear

If you tried to call me on my iPhone and just got my voice mail, I have a good excuse: I probably wanted to talk to you, but just didn't hear the phone ring. The original iPhone's speaker, you see, was a bit quiet, which made it easy to miss calls and a bit hard to use the speakerphone. It was serviceable, but I found myself cranking the volume to the maximum at all times, and wishing I could make it louder still.

The good news about the speaker on the iPhone 3G, then, is that it's noticeably louder than the one on the original iPhone. That's an improvement because it's more audible for speakerphone use. It also means that phone ringtones are much louder.

The phone's internal speaker, the one you press against your ear, sounds better and is also a little bit louder. And when I called people on the two phones, they generally preferred the sound of the iPhone 3G.

Finally, there's one way in which the iPhone 3G improves the quality of all your other sound-producing devices: The frequencies used on the 3G network are, unlike those on the 2G network, not likely to generate loud humming and buzzing noises on every device in your vicinity that has speakers attached to it. I was able to set the iPhone 3G right next to my clock radio, and never once heard that famous "GSM buzz." (Of course, if you live in an area that doesn't have 3G service, you'll be on the old GSM network, and the buzz will be back!)

Strange lapses

A year ago, when the original iPhone arrived, it was clearly lacking some fairly obvious and useful features. At the time it was easy to give Apple a bit of a pass, given that the iPhone was a brand-new piece of hardware running on a brand-new operating system. However, now a year has passed and both the hardware and software have been completely revised--and yet some of these feature gaps still inexplicably remain.

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