iPhone 3G – a smart new buy, not such a hot upgrade

Innovative design and seamless integration between software and device propelled the first-generation iPhone to instant stardom.

Its successor, the iPhone 3G, at once expands upon that innovation–and delivers it at half the entry price of its predecessor.
The result is a classy device whose abilities continue to make it a strong choice for smartphone shoppers who value form that supports function–but less of a must-have upgrade than you might think.

Up front, Apple largely delivers on its promises. iPhone 2.0 software supports, among other things, the newly launched and eagerly awaited iPhone App Store. (Owners of first-generation iPhone can download the software for free.)

A faster wireless radio loads Web pages up to three times faster.

But in some ways, the iPhone 3G feels like an incremental upgrade at best – one that does little to capitalize on Apple’s already sizable jump on its competition.

The list of details that remain overlooked or not included is sizable – no removable media, no Java or Flash support in Safari, no cut-and-paste. Most all of these are points that Apple could have easily fixed – which makes their omission all the more frustrating.

IPhone: The Big News

The original iPhone’s lack of 3G support was widely criticized when that model first launched last summer in the U.S. with only AT&T’s slower EDGE wireless data network.

How valuable 3G may be will depend entirely on Rogers Wireless’ network coverage in your area.

In the U.S., I tested the phone in suburban Long Island, New York–where AT&T shows 3G network support.
At Inetworktest.com, the original iPhone’s EDGE bandwidth was 174.8 kbps; the iPhone 3G’s performance was just a little better, at 210.1 kbps.

In this corner of New York (at the Roosevelt Field shopping mall), Wi-Fi performance on the 3G iPhone blew all of those numbers out of the water: 1360.3 kbps.

Another big addition–a GPS receiver.

The first-generation iPhone could triangulate your location based on cell-phone towers and Wi-Fi signals.
The iPhone 3G’s Assisted-GPS receiver should refine those results, both for mapping directions and for location-based applications (such as finding the nearest pizza place or hotel).

We’ll report back on the GPS’s accuracy after we’ve had a chance to put it through its paces.

One pleasant surprise with this upgrade: Talk quality is vastly improved.

The initial calls I made on the 3G network had excellent audio quality and clarity; and, the volume button was very effective in adjusting the audio (I had issues with the first iPhone’s loudness last time year).

Similar Look, Different Feel

The new iPhone 3G has the same width and length as its predecessor, but it is .2-inch thicker. It has a curvier design on its underside, which makes the phone feel comfortable in your hand. The gorgeous multitouch 3.5-inch screen is back; pinch, squeeze and glide gestures continue to make the iPhone one of the simplest–and certainly the most fun–cell phone to navigate.

Some of the iPhone 3G’s design points have been switched up. Whereas before the back was metallic, now it’s all moulded plastic; and the buttons along the side–previously made of hard plastic–are now cast in solid metal (a subtle improvement).
The plastic back helps account for the iPhone 3G’s minutely lighter weight: 4.7 ounces to 4.8 ounces. But, it’s very prone to fingerprints, and both looks and feels a bit chintzy, like stepping down from a Lexus to a Camry.

Thankfully, Apple integrated one very necessary and welcome hardware change: The headphone jack is now flush with the upper edge of the phone, so you can use any headphones with a standard 3.5mm jack you wish.

This marks a notable improvement over the previous version, which required a kludgy plug to connect a headphone.

The charger is significantly smaller and less obtrusive–that’s important considering you may need to take it with you more often. You can’t replace the battery yourself (Apple charges $86 to do it), and if you use the 3G radio, you’ll drain the battery up to twice as fast as you would without the 3G radio.

The phone no longer comes with a charging dock – Apple now charges an extra $30 for that (the dock is slightly smaller now). Instead, like iPods, the iPhone 3G now comes with just a USB charging cable.

Subtle Improvements

You can now save images from the Web or from e-mail; simply press on the image for a few seconds, and you get a prompt asking if you want to save the image. The image then appears in your camera roll.

I welcomed the refreshed e-mail application, which now allows moving or deleting multiple e-mails at once; this feature made it much easier to perform e-mail management on the device itself.

In addition to being able to open Apple iWork documents and Microsoft Office documents, you can now view still-image PowerPoint presentations–a huge boon to mobile presenters, particularly with the impending arrival of micro-projectors that aren’t much bigger than an iPod Classic.

Business features include support for VPN and WPA wireless security, neither of which I’ve tested yet. The iPhone 2.0 software also includes support for Microsoft’s Exchange and ActiveSync for push e-mail, contacts, and calendaring; however, the iPhone only allows you to maintain one set of synced contacts, calendar, and e-mail on the iPhone at a time.

If you’re handing an iPhone to a teenager, you may appreciate that iPhone 3G now has parental controls to limit YouTube and Safari use, for example.

Mixed Multimedia

The iPhone remains a highly capable and easy-to-use audio and video player, thanks in part to its Cover Flow navigation (also found in the iPod Touch)

The new 3G network made it easier to access and watch videos using the YouTube application. Streaming video was smooth, with excellent picture quality.

As before, the iPhone 3G features a still camera. Unfortunately, the camera feature is largely unchanged–it’s still sadly limited to just 2.0 megapixels, still lacks zoom and video recording, and still is clumsy for taking a picture (with no dedicated camera shutter button, you have to touch on the phone’s screen to take a shot, jostling the phone as you do so).

What’s new about the camera application is its integration with the iPhone 3G’s GPS system. Now, you can add geotagging to your photos, which may become useful when you use your images in conjunction with geodata-aware applications.

Battery Life

Apple claims the iPhone 3G is capable of up to 300 hours of standby time, up to 10 hours of 2G talk time (up from 8 hours on the first-gen model), and up to 5 hours of 3G talk time.

Testing is underway at the PC World Test Center; we’ll report on the iPhone 3G’s talk time when our tests are complete.
Furthermore, Apple also reports the iPhone 3G is capable of surfing the Web for 5 to 6 hours using the 3G connection; playing videos for up to 7 hours; and playing audio for up to 24 hours (which puts the iPhone 3G on a par with Apple’s current iPods).

Bottom Line

A year and an upgrade later, Apple’s iPhone 3G stands in a class all its own.

While this smartphone is still not perfect, its lower entry price, 3G radio, GPS, and business-friendly security features broaden the iPhone’s appeal – and cements Apple’s position as a defining force in the cell phone industry.

I fully expect Apple to at least match its sales of the first-gen iPhone–Apple says it sold 6 million of those.
If you already own a first-generation iPhone, though, you should be wary of upgrading.

You’ll pay more for service and if you don’t live in a 3G-friendly area, or can manage well enough using a Wi-Fi network for Web browsing instead of a cellular network, the iPhone 3G doesn’t represent a good value.

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