Review: The iPhone 3G was worth the wait

'It is a generational leap forward that raises the bar,' says Ryan Faas

As I write this, my new white 16GB iPhone 3G is in the process of syncing about 10GB of music from my iTunes library. This is my second sync. Although I was one of the lucky ones able to both buy and eventually activate an iPhone 3G on Friday, I at first opted to copy over just the paltry 2GB of music that was stored on my first-generation 4GB iPhone along with my e-mail accounts and a handful of applications from the App Store. Having waited close to four hours in line at a New York AT&T store, close to 20 minutes for the purchase process, and another four-plus hours attempting to activate my iPhone at home via iTunes, I simply couldn't wait for a full sync before putting my iPhone through its paces.

I had already done enough waiting for one day. It was time to find out whether that time in line was worth it. (See our complete coverage of the iPhone 3G launch.)

Waiting is the hardest part

For anyone buying and activating a new iPhone 3G, Friday was all about waiting. In a scene repeated to various degrees at numerous AT&T and Apple stores nationwide, I spent hours in line. My waiting began about 6 a.m. Friday when I arrived at a suburban AT&T store and found about a dozen people already in line. (Two of them had been waiting in the parking lot since 11 p.m. Thursday and were amazingly still awake when they headed home 12 hours later). Being near the front of the line, I expected no real issues snagging an iPhone, though I figured I might have to wait for an hour or more after the store opened.

Everything seemed to unfold as expected: the AT&T employees put out new demo iPhones and a worker came down the line to verify upgrade eligibility for existing AT&T customers; he also explained the contract requirements to customers and kept a running tally of who was planning to buy which model. After about the 30th customer, he indicated that the store might not have enough stock for everyone.

The doors opened just after 8 a.m. and four customers were ushered inside. Those of us left in line soon began to wonder if things were going smoothly as our wait continued past the half-hour mark. Eventually, we were told that "systems" were running slowly and we should be patient. As more time elapsed, a couple of buyers went home. Others were allowed inside, but we were told that there was a nationwide issue with iTunes and the process of "unbricking" the new iPhones. Finally, we were told we could buy and activate a new iPhone 3G but would have to go home to unbrick it through iTunes on our computers. So much for the ballyhooed in-store activation taking no more than 15 to 20 minutes.

I finally got inside around 10 a.m. Within an hour of spending my $299, I was home, my still-bricked iPhone plugged into my MacBook generating the dreaded "Accessing iTunes Store" message (including those error codes: -4, -50 and -9838). The iTunes Store could not be contacted; I was urged "to try again later." I knew from the buzz online that I was not alone, but I didn't want to try again later. I wanted my phone working and I wanted it now.

Apple, it seemed, didn't learn from last year's iPhone launch, which was also plagued with iTunes activation issues.

I repeated the process so many times that when I finally saw a screen asking if I wanted to activate my iPhone -- it was at 3:10 p.m. -- I stared at it, briefly bewildered before rushing through the steps of verifying my phone number, entering my Apple ID, agreeing to the terms of service and finally telling iTunes to restore from my first-generation iPhone's backup. I held my breath until the iPhone restarted. More than 9 hours after I first got in line for a new phone, I was finally up and running.

Comparisons with the first iPhone

The very first thing I noticed about the iPhone 3G compared to the original model is that it's slightly heavier. The dimensions are almost the same, although the iPhone 3G is slightly thicker in the middle and more tapered at the edges.

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Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs finally unveiled the iPhone 3G on June 9 at the Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco. (Photo by Matt Hamblen/Computerworld)

This slightly rounded form factor feels better in your hand over extended periods, though the combination of smooth plastic and beveled form might also make it a little harder to grip. My advice: Get a case to protect the iPhone if it happens to slip from your hand. As widely noted already, the headphone jack is no longer recessed, enabling the use of any standard set of headphones.

One thing that doesn't come across in photos is how striking the white model actually is. I'd gone into the AT&T store determined to get a black model because the white ones didn't look good to me in pictures and I figured it would show dirt more easily. Once I saw the white model in person, I changed my mind.

Something else you don't notice in photos is a slight difference in the screens between the new and original iPhones. Both offer excellent resolution and clarity, but there are subtle differences in color shading and black tones. The colors seem slightly richer on the iPhone 3G, though the difference is small enough that you need to place both phones side by side to really see it.

More noticeable is the slight change in positioning of the speakers and microphone in the new design. Although I haven't yet noticed a big difference in calls made while holding the phone to my ear, ringtones or application sound effects are definitely louder and clearer when played through the external speaker. Even more dramatic is the improvement to the speakerphone, which is now among the best such feature I've heard on a mobile phone.

New features specific to iPhone 3G

Most of the "new" features in the iPhone 3G are really part of the iPhone 2.0 firmware update that can be installed on any iPhone, new or old. There are, however, two big differences between an original iPhone and an iPhone 3G. The first is, of course, the 3G network access implied in the new iPhone's name. This is, in fact the most significant difference between the first iPhone and the new model -- and it's the most significant reason to upgrade.

It sounds cliche to say there's no comparison between the data capabilities of the two phones, but sometimes cliches are true. This is one of those times. The informal testing I've done so far has involved turning Wi-Fi access on and off -- both at home and at a handful of Wi-Fi hot spots in my neighborhood. While I won't say that AT&T's 3G service matches my high-speed cable modem connection, can say that it does keep pace with the mom-and-pop coffee shop down the block (which I relies on an entry-level DSL connection and which was being used by a handful of laptop users).

Certainly, the performance was significantly faster than the EDGE network-based iPhone. Loading a variety of Web sites and even browsing YouTube can be done in a reasonable amount of time, whereas using EDGE meant pages loaded at a painful crawl. Even checking e-mail over EDGE seemed agonizingly slow. Truly, given the Internet features of the iPhone, this is the performance the first model should have had. For me, the faster download speeds are well worth the price of upgrading as well as the extra $10 a month for 3G data service that is required in the iPhone 3G plans.

The second major addition is built-in GPS capability. Although the original iPhone can approximate your location by triangulating between available cell phone towers and known Wi-Fi hot spots, its effectiveness in this regard varies widely depending on where you are: It could be within 10 or 20 feet in one spot and off by a mile or two just a short drive away. The iPhone 3G's GPS technology could pinpoint my location to within less than five feet in almost any location I tried. And despite some concerns among veteran GPS users that the iPhone might take a long time to acquire GPS signals and calculate a position, I found it could do so within a minute on each try.

That said, some structures (like the 150-year-old brick brownstone in which I live) can impede the iPhone's ability to reliably acquire GPS signals. If that happens, the iPhone 3G will fall back on the triangulation method. To clue you in on which method is being used, the images displayed in the Maps application will vary. Real GPS locations are displayed as 3-D blue dots; locations based on the less precise method are shown with the same two dimensional blue circles used on older iPhones.

GPS capability is also fully real-time, so you can monitor your progress on a map or satellite image view (or a hybrid view) as you move (either on foot or by car) from place to place. The feature also integrates well with Google Maps when you use that application to find directions. I should note that the Maps application also integrates well with other address-sensitive features on the iPhone (either model) such as contact addresses or the search feature. While turn-by-turn navigation isn't yet available on the iPhone 3G, the combination of GPS and Maps is a fully usable alternative. Move over Garmin.

I also can't help pointing out the cool factor -- or, depending on your point of view, the scary, big-brother factor -- of using the GPS capabilities with a satellite view or hybrid map view. With the availability of discernible images of objects as small as cars and trash cans, just walking around the neighborhood -- while looking at the Maps application and watching it zoom and re-center as I entered addresses or requested my current location -- offered a distinct spy/sci-fi movie feeling. I'm just not sure if it's closer to James Bond or Minority Report.

One of the real advantages of built-in GPS support is that any iPhone developer can now use the iPhone 3G's location services. Several free applications currently available through the App Store already use this feature, including the LoopT social networking app and Near Pics, which displays photos of landmarks near wherever you happen to be. As more developers find innovative ways to offer location-based services, the GPS advantages will only grow.

Bring on the apps

Of course, not all new features are specific to the iPhone 3G. The iPhone 2.0 firmware update also released Friday adds a variety of features to first-generation iPhones. The biggest is support for third-party applications via the App Store, which exists as both a stand-alone application on the iPhone itself and as a segment of the iTunes Store, allowing users to browse, purchase and download applications from the device itself or via their computers.

With more than 550 applications of many different types already available -- we're talking about everything from games to foreign language phrase books to dedicated social networking tools -- the App Store is a boon for any iPhone user. With about a quarter of the applications available for free, there's no reason for any iPhone owner to not be excited. Even the paid applications are inexpensive -- generally $9.99 or less.

Although it took Apple a year to bring officially supported third-party apps to the iPhone, the results are worth the care and planning that went into the process. The App Store is easy to navigate, either with the iPhone or through iTunes, and it offers one-stop shopping. Users can even post reviews and comments to help guide would-be app users. Unlike other mobile platforms, with the iPhone you don't have to search for or browse various Web sites to buy an app -- eliminating the confusion many novice users associate with finding applications for their devices. Nor are there any concerns about installation: simply buy or download the application and it installs itself, either directly when downloaded from the App Store to the iPhone or during a sync when downloaded through iTunes. And those applications are backed during the syncing process.

Equally obvious, given the range of features included in many applications, is that Apple wanted developers to take advantage of many of the iPhone's innovative technologies. Location-based services, the ability to use the iPhone's touch screen, direct access to the built-in camera and the ability to track movement of the iPhone using its directional sensors permeate the third-party apps now available. The directional controls used in many of the games add a whole new dimension to mobile gaming and, in combination with the graphics and touch-screen capabilities, turn the iPhone into a mobile gaming as well as computing and communications platform.

I can't possibly review all of the individual applications available, but I will say that whether you're considering a new iPhone 3G or simply installing the iPhone 2.0 update on an older one, you have got to explore the App Store. Given the quality of the applications and the temptation to buy, you could spend a lot of money in the App Store.

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