There’s a reason why the hardware is called the iPhone 3G and the software update is called iPhone 2.0. It’s because the iPhone 2.0 software brings much more innovation to the table, from the Apps Store (which lets you download a host of compelling third-party applications for the first time) to Microsoft Exchange support (for push e-mail and calendar), and lots of other small but important enhancements. And this software is readily available for the first-generation iPhone.
So the iPhone 3G itself ($199 for AT&T) is no big deal, right? Wrong. Its data speeds are more than twice as fast as the original iPhone, and the call quality difference is almost as dramatic. Even though the built-in assisted GPS technology hasn’t yet realized its full potential, the iPhone 3G is easily the best touchscreen phone you can buy--even if it remains our second-favorite smart phone.
Slightly Improved Design
The first iPhone’s design was practically perfect, so we’re glad Apple didn’t tinker too much this time around. The dimensions of the 3G and original iPhone are basically identical, but on a table the iPhone 3G seems just slightly thicker. However, the 3G is just a bit lighter than the original at 4.7 versus 4.8 ounces. The overall design is still slim enough to easily slip into a pocket.
The biggest change is on the back of the iPhone 3G, which is now made of smooth but durable black plastic instead of the aluminum back found on the first iPhone. This change has two benefits. One, plastic causes less interference than metal when it comes to the internal radios, so you should get better reception. Second, the iPhone 3G feels better in the hand and is less slippery. The only downside is that the glossy back, like the front, picks up fingerprints quickly.
The left side of the iPhone 3G still houses the Volume Up/Down buttons and Ring/Silent switch, but they’re now metal instead of plastic, giving the design a sturdier and classier look. The Sleek/Wake button on top is also silvery chic. There’s even a silvery ring around the 3.5mm audio jack, which unlike the first iPhone is flush against the case so you don’t have to spring for proprietary earphones.
From the front, the iPhone 3G looks nearly identical to the iPhone when turned off, with the exception of a silver mesh behind the speaker (it was previously black). When turned on we were surprised to see that the iPhone 3G’s 3.5-inch glass display was brighter than the iPhone’s, even though it still sports the same 480 x 320-pixel resolution. Web pages, for example, popped more, as did the touch keyboard layout. The iPhone 3G's display has a slight yellowish cast to it compared to the iPhone, but Apple says it purposely made the screen "warmer" and more natural by design.
If there’s one thing we still wish Apple would add it’s dedicated send and end buttons for making calls, as opposed to having hit the Home button, then hitting the phone icon, and then dialing out.
User Interface and Touch Keyboard
UI is the one area where other phone makers are continuing to play catch up. The iPhone 3G features the same unique and highly responsive multi-touch interface that made the original iPhone such a breakthough. You can still swipe your finger to scroll through pictures and album covers, double tap to zoom in and zoom out on Web pages, and pinch your fingers to zoom in and out of photos.
The menu system is as intuitive as ever, too, with a series of icons dominating the main screen. Moving apps, widgets, and Web Clips (your favorite sites saved as shortcuts) around is a cinch once you’ve tapped and held your finger on the display, whether you want to move them to the dock down below or to a whole new screen. You can create nine of these menu screens in all, but we’d like to see an option to group similar items into folders. For instance, you might store all your Web Clips in a Safari folder or e-mail and instant messaging apps in a Communications folder.
The iPhone 3G’s accelerometer also continues to help this smart phone stand out from the pack, as it automatically changes the display’s orientation from portrait to landscape mode depending upon how the phone is being held. Our original iPhone was often slow to respond to our turning the device, but the iPhone 3G is more reliable in this regard.
As for the keyboard, even after a year of practice we still prefer physical keys to a touchscreen. Although we can now type fairly accurately and rapidly, and have learned to trust Apple’s excellent error-correction software, it doesn’t help when it comes to passwords and e-mail addresses. The bottom line is that even though the iPhone’s keyboard is first-class for a touch device, it’s nearly impossible to make a mistake with a tactile plastic keyboard, even with very little practice.
3G Is Great, Where You Can Get It
By enabling the iPhone 3G with HSDPA connectivity on AT&T’s network, this smart phone flies on the Web compared to the original iPhone. In our tests the iPhone 3G trounced the iPhone on three sites: The New York Times, Laptopmag, and ESPN.
Overall, the iPhone 3G was more than twice as fast, taking an average of 35 seconds to completely download these pages. The EDGE-enabled iPhone took well over a minute.
What the below results down’t show is that you can start reading most sites within 15 seconds, compared to 30 or more seconds for the iPhone. The Safari browser itself continues to make other mobile browsers look ancient; pages look like what you see on the desktop, although Flash sites are still not supported.
The problem is that AT&T’s HSDPA network doesn’t have as large a footprint as the 3G networks offered by Sprint and Verizon Wireless. For example, during my usual 1 hour and 20 minute commute home to central New Jersey from Manhattan, the iPhone 3G switched from 3G to EDGE when I was about half an hour away from home.
This poky EDGE connection is the very reason why I created bookmarks for text-heavy, mobile friendly versions of NYTimes Mobile and Yahoo. AT&T currently blankets 280 cities and will be rapidly expanding its service throughout the year, but many suburbs aren’t yet lit up with 3G. In other words, I would still resort to mobile-friendly sites on the new iPhone. To see if you can get coverage in your area, visit AT&T's coverage viewer.
During our initial tests, the iPhone 3G was a few seconds faster loading pages over Wi-Fi, but the iPhone was only a second behind the iPhone 3G in other tests. More importantly, the iPhone 3G offered better Wi-Fi range. From about 100 feet away from our access point, the iPhone 3G showed 3 bars of signal strength, whereas the original iPhone showed only two.
App Store and iPhone 2.0 Software
It might surprise you to learn that the average smart phone owner downloads less than two applications during the life of the device. That’s likely because finding and downloading apps for Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, and Symbian just isn’t as fun or intuitive as using Apple’s App Store. Not only is it tightly integrated with iTunes, complete with top ten lists for Paid and Free apps, but you can easily browse and download iPhone programs from the iPhone 3G itself (although the store will remind you that anything over 10MB in size must be downloaded over Wi-Fi).
Thus far, most of the stronger applications—there are 500 in all, and 25 percent of those are free—are console-quality 3D games that show off the iPhone and iPhone 3G’s graphics power and accelerometer for motion control, such as Super Monkey Ball and Cro-Mag (a racing title). But there are plenty of gems in other categories, including Facebook (complete with messaging), Pandora (streaming customized Internet radio), and MLB.com At Bat (real-time scores and in-game video highlights).
There are a fair number of promising location-based applications that leverage the iPhone’s A-GPS technology, too, including Where. With this program you can find nearby buddies, the cheapest gas, and user-generated restaurant reviews. Or at least you should be able to. During our tests the application crashed a few times. We experienced similar stability issues with other applications as well.
The iPhone 2.0 Update includes much more than the App Store, although many of the enhancements are long overdue. You can now move and delete multiple e-mail messages at once, search contacts with ease (but for some reason not e-mail), and view PowerPoint and iWork attachments. MobileMe is Apple’s replacement for its .Mac service, which enables users to get push e-mail, contacts, and calendar, as well as backing up and sharing files online. It costs $99 per year.
GPS A Work in Progress
It’s a bit surprising that the iPhone 3G A-GPS technology wasn’t paired with a service that offers spoken turn-by-turn directions a la TeleNav or VZ Navigator, a feature you can get on many handsets that cost $50. But that doesn’t mean that this type of navigation isn’t a possibility in the future. Apple would only tell us that the platform would evolve over time. For now, Google Maps is your best bet for basic navigation and local search.
Here’s a good example of how well the iPhone 3G's GPS works with Google Maps. I wanted to pick up dinner on the way home at a local Mexican restaurant but forgot the name. So I fired up the Maps application and it found my location in seconds. I typed in “Mexican food” and the restaurant was one of three locations that popped with a push pin animation. I then tapped on the location and dialed the number to place my order. No other smart phone makes this kind of search so simple and seamless.
Even though the original iPhone has similar functionality, it’s not nearly as accurate because it uses a combination of Wi-Fi location and cellular triangulation to pinpoint your location. So on a map it will give you a relatively large circle on the map it thinks you’re within. On the iPhone 3G, the dedicated A-GPS technology is accurate down to a few meters. After plotting a route while on the New Jersey dot, a tiny dot showed up on screen that showed us moving along the highway past the airport. But even though turn-by-turn directions are offered, they’re not spoken. We’re hoping that a third-party developer steps up to the plate with a dedicated nav application.
In the meantime, there are a growing number of free and cheap location-based programs worth checking out in the App Store, such as the aforementioned Where, Local Picks by TripAdvisor, and several city transit and subway guides.
E-mail and Messaging
By far the biggest news with the iPhone 3G (and iPhone with the 2.0 Software Update) for business users is the added support for Microsoft Exchange. This means that iPhone owners who can tap into an Exchange Server can get push e-mail, calendar, and contacts. As has been widely reported, however, you can’t have your personal and work contacts and calendar on the device simultaneously.
We tested the iPhone 3G with Gmail, and after entering our username and password, the device instantly downloaded our last 50 messages. HTML e-mails displayed perfectly, and attachment support is quite broad, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and PDF. You can’t create these types of documents, but we honestly wouldn’t want to do that with a touch keyboard.
Alas, neither the iPhone or iPhone 3G features a integrated instant messaging application, but the AOL Instant Messenger program in the App Store is a start. We’d like to see a Google Talk app added to the mix, as well as multi-client native apps like Digsby and Meebo. Threaded text messaging is still on board, but MMS support is frustratingly absent.
Music, Video, and Camera
There’s not much new to report here. The iPhone 3G is a superb audio and video player, with wireless access to the iTunes Store for downloading music (but not video) and streaming YouTube videos. Cover Flow remains one of the easiest and best ways to navigate your music collection on the go, and video playback was smooth and sharp on the 3.5-inch display. As mentioned above, having a standard 3.5mm jack is a big plus for people who want to bring their own headphones, although we appreciate the clickable button on the bundled headset for pausing and skipping tracks.
We didn’t notice an improvement in the 2-MP camera, whose photos are high-quality enough to share via e-mail but not quite sharp enough to print. Like its predecessor, the iPhone 3G lacks a flash and doesn’t record video, which is disappointing. One cool feature is the ability to have the iPhone 3G automatically geotag the photos you snap (the device asks you for permission). This makes it easy to share the location of photos you took once you upload them to Google Maps or social networking sites. Strangely, you can’t look at photos on a map on the iPhone 3G itself.
Better Voice Quality
One of the most frustrating aspects of the original iPhone was its mediocre call quality. Volume on our end was weak, to the point that we often couldn’t hear the beep that tells you when to start leaving a voicemail message. And overall sound quality was scratchy and sometimes downright garbled. The iPhone 3G benefits from improvements to the device’s microphone and speaker, as well as to a boost in power when you’re in 3G coverage areas.
To put these improvements to the test we left two sets of voicemail messages indoors and outdoors using the iPhone and iPhone 3G (listen to our iPhone quality test). As we expected, the iPhone 3G’s messages sounded clearer and louder. You won’t have to shout to be heard on the iPhone 3G. Even in EDGE coverage areas the iPhone 3G offered better call quality. AT&T’s network isn’t as good as Verizon Wireless’ when it comes to reliable voice coverage, especially while in a moving vehicle, but we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the iPhone 3G as one’s only phone.
We did notice that the iPhone 3G’s battery drained more quickly in areas with 3G data coverage. That’s why Apple makes it pretty simple to toggle the 3G data connection on and off from within the settings menu, a feature not offered on any other phone. On our tests, the iPhone provided 5 hours and 33 minutes of talk time in 3G-blanketed Manhattan, which is about a half hour longer than the rated talk time on 3G. When on EDGE, the iPhone 3G is rated for 10 hours of talk time.
iPhone 3G Verdict
Yes, first-gen iPhone owners benefit from the 2.0 software upgrade, but that doesn’t diminish the magnitude of the iPhone 3G's faster data speeds and improved call quality. Upgrading isn’t exactly a no-brainer, however, especially since the monthly data fee is now $10 more per month. But if you surf the Web a lot when you’re on the go (where you can’t use Wi-Fi)—and you don’t like the idea of straining to hear the other caller or worrying about whether your words will sound clear—we highly recommend this phone for both upgraders and first-time buyers.
Despite the continued lack of features like MMS, stereo Bluetooth, and a video recorder, the iPhone 3G is the best touchscreen phone and media player by far on any network. It delivers the best mobile Web experience on any smart phone, and the Microsoft Exchange-friendly messaging experience should be good enough to satisfy many business users.
Although we still prefer the BlackBerry Curve because of its physical keyboard and more robust mobile e-mail solution, and we think the Bold will be even better, the iPhone 3G makes downloading applications easier and has a much better user interface than either the Bold or Curve. If you don’t mind using a touch keyboard, the iPhone 3G is second to none.