Review: The iPhone 3G was worth the wait

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

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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.

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.

Push functionality

While I haven't gotten a chance to connect my iPhone to an Exchange server and begin testing the enterprise functionality it now offers, I have taken a brief look at MobileMe's new push offerings. Despite the initial problems Apple suffered bringing MobileMe into the world last week, the service shows a great deal promise. I was able to sync contact and calendar data wirelessly over the air as promised, though it may take a while to do the initial sync, during which time it may look like nothing is happening. Push e-mail also appears to work fairly well, although I'm not sure it was perfectly immediate in its delivery. I expect MobileMe to more than deliver on the promises that .Mac offered but never quite lived up to.

Final thoughts

While the wait may have been long and trying -- and I do think Apple should have been better prepared to handle the onslaught of iTunes activations -- I can say the iPhone 3G seems to be worth it. After just a few hours of use, I have to tell you that the device packs quite a punch, both in its design and in the 3G and GPS capabilities. Combined with the new features available to all iPhone owners, it is a generational leap forward that raises the bar for what a mobile device can be.

Yes, there are a couple of legitimate complaints about the iPhone not yet addressed: The battery is not removable, the on-screen keyboard is too narrow, you can't expand the memory, the camera is only 2 megapixels and there's no flash or video support. But I suspect it won't be long before Apple or some third-party developer comes along to fix that. For most users, this is the "it" device, and rightly so. It offers the features most people want and manages to do so in an innovative way that makes you feel like you're holding a piece of technology from the future. Despite being exhausted from waking up before 5 a.m. Friday, standing in line for hours and then waiting even longer for iTunes, I'm happy to have my iPhone 3G.

Ryan Faas is a frequent Computerworld contributor specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. You can find more information about him at

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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