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iPhone 3G review

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Power and battery

The iPhone 3G tech specs claim battery life of up to five hours of talk time (10 if you turn off 3G networking), five hours of Internet use (six on Wi-Fi), seven hours of video playback, 24 hours of audio playback, and 300 hours of standby time. Those specs are basically the same as the ones Apple claimed for the original iPhone. However, Apple arrived at these figures under testing conditions that may not necessarily reflect your own use.

Battery testing takes time. We’ll be running battery tests of our own, and we’ll post the findings once we have them. Anecdotally, it appears that if you use the iPhone heavily—which is a lot easier now that there are so many snazzy new applications that take advantage of the iPhone’s computing power and Internet connectivity—you’ll drain the battery pretty fast. Take it from a one-year iPhone veteran: charge your iPhone at home and at work, and if you’re someone who spends a lot of time in the car, get a car charger too. Heavy iPhone users won’t be able to go a full day on one charge without some serious power management and restraint in using the latest and greatest iPhone apps.

Speaking of power, the North American version of the iPhone 3G comes with a dainty power adapter, a tiny cube that takes up about as little space as any power adapter could. If you attach it to a power strip, it’ll cover its own plug, but won’t encroach on other plugs, nor will it stick out over the sides. The one sacrifice of this design is that this adapter doesn’t use Apple’s swappable power plug system, which lets international travelers replace the standard North American plug with any plug from the $39 Apple World Travel Adapter Kit. However, the iPhone adapter itself still supports voltages from 100 to 240, meaning it should work overseas with the help of a standard plug adapter.

The iPhone 3G will only accept a charge via the five-volt connection that’s a part of the USB power specification; the previous iPhone and previous iPod models also supported charging via the FireWire specification, which allowed as much as 18 volts. If you own an existing charger, it may not be compatible—even if it doesn’t have a visible FireWire plug anywhere. Apple representatives say that several companies will be offering adapters to address this issue, so depending on the physical design of your charging accessories, you may only have to buy an adapter, not an entirely new charger.

While on the topic of charging and connectivity, it’s worth noting that unlike the original iPhone, the iPhone 3G comes only with a USB charging cable and AC adapter, not a dock. If you want to place your iPhone 3G upright in a dock, you’ll need to buy the $29 Apple iPhone 3G Dock.

The AT&T factor

In the United States, iPhone 3G owners must be AT&T customers, and commit to being AT&T customers for two years. AT&T’s 3G data plan is $30 a month, up $10 from the data plan offered to owners of the previous iPhone. In addition, heavy users of text messaging will need to pay above and beyond the standard voice plans in order to cover their texting.

It’s fairly hard to judge AT&T aspects of the iPhone, because the experience will vary depending on what you do, where you go, and who you are. I’ve been an AT&T customer (and before that Cingular, and before that AT&T) for years and have been relatively happy with the service, but many other people detest AT&T.

If you’re not sure AT&T is the right carrier for you, despite your interest in the iPhone, I recommend that you find someone who uses AT&T and who uses their phone in the same places you do, more or less. See how their experience is. Or ask a friend to borrow their AT&T phone for a couple of hours and take it to the places you tend to use yours, so you can see for yourself.

The price

When we reviewed the original iPhone last year, a 4GB model cost $499. Over the past 12 months, Apple slashed the price of the iPhone, increased its capacity, and has now introduced these new iPhone 3G models, all of which provide a fine value. An iPhone 3G with twice the capacity of the original iPhone costs $300 less than that phone’s initial sticker price.

Apple has managed to drop the price so aggressively by changing its financial terms with AT&T, so that the telephone company pays Apple a subsidy for each iPhone sold. In essence, this means that with the iPhone 3G, consumers will pay for some of the value of the phone as a part of their monthly bills. For some users, this won’t make any difference. For others, it’s quite an inducement, because it trades a single large financial hit for a somewhat increased set of payments over a few years.

In the end, as with any product, it will be up to all prospective buyers to do the math and decide if the phone is worth it for them. Unlike most Apple products, the iPhone is not a device with a single price—it’s a complicated combination of a ticket price and a two-year monthly commitment. However, generally I have to think that making it cheaper to get your hands on an iPhone is a good move, even if the result is a higher monthly bill.

Macworld’s buying advice

If you’ve been cautious and waited a year for the second generation of iPhone, your patience will be rewarded. The iPhone 3G improves on the original iPhone’s audio quality, offers access to a faster data network, and sports built-in GPS functionality. You’ll also be getting in on the ground floor of the exciting new world of third-party software written for the iPhone. And business users will appreciate the iPhone’s new Exchange syncing features.

If you’re an existing iPhone user, the fact that your current phone will be able to take advantage of all the iPhone 2.0 software features, including Exchange syncing and third-party applications, blunts some of the excitement of this upgrade. If you live in an area with a 3G network and find yourself chafing at the comparatively slow speeds of the EDGE network all the time, it’s probably worth the upgrade. But if you don’t mind the Internet experience on your current phone, you’d be better off installing the 2.0 software update and holding on to your existing device.

[Jason Snell is Macworld’s editorial director.]

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