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iPhone 3G review

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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.

The camera: For a product as on the cutting edge as the iPhone, its built-in camera is an embarrassment. Like the camera on the original iPhone, it’s got a basic two-megapixel resolution, doesn’t zoom, has no flash, doesn’t work well in low light, and doesn’t take videos. With still subjects in well-lit areas it produces nice results. In terms of quality, the consumer point-and-shoot digital camera I bought seven years ago still blows it away, and most of the iPhone’s smart phone competitors offer better cameras as well.

Bluetooth: And if you think you could just send that picture to your buddy via Bluetooth, you’re wrong there too. The iPhone’s Bluetooth implementation is rudimentary at best. Pairing headsets works fine, although Apple has removed the feature that let you listen to voicemail via the headset—a company spokesman says they’re working on a replacement for that functionality. And the phone seems to pair with most in-car Bluetooth systems, though we’ve heard some reports of cars that have had trouble pairing with the device.

But that’s about it. You can pair an iPhone to a Mac, for example, but there aren’t any configurable services available—for example, a quick Bluetooth exchange of photos. And despite the fact that the iPhone 3G has a very fast connection to the Internet, there’s no way to share that connection with your Mac. The iPhone 3G also doesn’t support stereo bluetooth headphones, so you can’t listen to music wirelessly.

Select, copy, and paste: There’s still no way to pick up text from one place on the iPhone and drop it down somewhere else. Say someone emails you an address where they want you to meet them. There’s no way to extract that information and, say, place it in the Maps application or add it to their Contacts entry. I’ve talked to numerous iPhone users who have done what I’ve done in that situation—find a piece of paper, write the address down, switch apps on the iPhone, and type it back in.

Perhaps the old desktop computer metaphor of cut, copy, and paste is not appropriate for the iPhone. I’m sure Apple’s iPhone interface wizards have given it a lot of thought. But the fact remains, transferring arbitrary information from one place to another is a necessity on a device like the iPhone, and after a year, the phone still can’t do it.

Getting horizontal: The built-in applications on the iPhone are still largely tied to a portrait orientation, despite the iPhone’s ability to operate in landscape mode. In many cases, landscape mode is a much more appropriate format—especially if you’re doing a lot of typing. And yet key Apple programs such as Mail and Notes simply don’t work horizontally. At a time when new developers are coming to the iPhone and looking to Apple’s programs for cues about how to develop a good iPhone application, it’s a shame that Apple can’t provide more examples of support for both portrait and landscape orientations.

Multimedia messaging The iPhone has no support for MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service), a way to send photos and videos between cell phones that even my ancient Treo 650 offered years ago. Yes, you can send photos via email and upload them to the Web, but if you take a photo and quickly want to send it over to your buddy’s MMS-capable phone, forget it.

Unified inbox Apple has addressed several of the biggest drawbacks of its Mail application, most notably by making it possible to delete or file several messages at one time. Unfortunately, one glaring problem remains: the inability to view all new messages in a single, unified inbox. You can do it in Apple’s own Mail application on the Mac, and you view all your calendars together on the iPhone, but if you’ve got four different mail accounts on your iPhone, you have to check them all separately.

Voice dialing: The trend toward handsfree use of cell phones—California’s recently-enacted law against holding a cell phone to your ear while driving being the most high-profile example—would logically lead to providing users with a way to dial their iPhones without having to take their eyes off the road. The situation is even worse on the iPhone, which lacks physical buttons that users could navigate by feel alone. And yet the iPhone 3G doesn’t support voice dialing, a feature that should probably be available on a systemwide level, not added by a third-party dialing program.

At a Glance
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