When the original iPhone arrived in November 2007, it was preceded by massive hype. But a lot of people in the UK who were interested held back. We’d like to think they were guided by a thoughtful and careful technological principle: “Never buy version 1.0”. But, in reality, the high price, stingy O2 contract, lack of 3G and GPS, plus the lackluster camera, all weighed heavily against the iPhone.
With the release of Apple’s iPhone 3G and its new iPhone 2.0 software, the hype is back – with good reason – and the era of iPhone 1.0 is officially over. Those who waited for the second version of the iPhone will appreciate dramatically faster data access via 3G, mobile precision with GPS, and an impressive software update including a raft of third-party programs. For original iPhone buyers, the iPhone 3G is only a must-have upgrade for those who will take full advantage of the fast 3G data network.
All new hardware in the iPhone 3G
At a casual glance, the iPhone 3G looks just like the original iPhone. At the front sits its bright, beautiful high-resolution 3.5in diagonal touch screen, offering a resolution of 480 x 320 pixels. It’s only when you look at both models side by side that you notice the face of the iPhone 3G is slightly wider, allowing a bit more black space between the sides of the screen and the chrome frame.
On the bottom, the black speaker and microphone grills of old have been replaced by two oval cut-outs with recessed silver grilles. Between the grilles and the iPhone 3G’s dock connector are two recessed Philips screws. It’s not every day that you find an Apple product, especially a slick consumer-electronics product, that’s got visible screws.
At the top, the most obvious change is the replacement of the original iPhone’s recessed headphone jack – which required the use of an adaptor in order to attach most non-Apple headphones – with one that lies flat. That recessed jack was one of the most ridiculous design decisions on the original iPhone and it’s great to see that Apple has addressed the problem and made the iPhone 3G accessible to just about any set of headphones.
The iPhone 3G’s left side includes a volume rocker switch and a sliding switch to place the phone into silent/vibrate mode, just like its predecessor. These buttons, as well as the Sleep button on the phone’s top, are now made of metal rather than black plastic. While they’re a pretty silver colour, the metal edges are also much sharper than the original iPhone’s plastic ones, and they press uncomfortably into the fingers as you’re using them. We also found the iPhone 3G’s vibrate switch more difficult to slide than the original model’s, though that extra resistance does mean it’s less likely that your phone will slip into or out of silent mode by accident.
Although it’s more curved (and therefore thinner) than the original iPhone at its edges, it’s slightly thicker in the middle. However, your hand curves to hold the phone (unless you’ve got really small hands), and that curve is where the extra thickness is, making it undetectable. Apple truly designed the iPhone 3G to feel identical to the original iPhone.
Apple’s curved styling, first seen in the MacBook Air, hides the fact that the iPhone 3G is slightly fatter than the original model
The iPhone 3G’s back is curved shiny plastic (available in black on the 8GB model and black or white on the 16GB model), rather than the flat matte aluminium of the original model. Whether that’s better or worse is a personal, aesthetic choice, although the plastic case shouldn’t block radio signals as much as the aluminium did. However, the shiny plastic is much more adept at collecting fingerprints and smudges than the old textured aluminium.
The curved back does make the iPhone 3G slightly unstable when laid on a flat surface, but it only wobbles slightly, and we found it acceptably steady for typing and tapping. There’s a gap between the sides of the iPhone’s display and the edge of the phone itself, making it unlikely that you’d touch close enough the edge to cause the phone to wobble dramatically. The extra width also makes typing on the iPhone with two thumbs slightly more comfortable by giving the thumbs a bit more room on which to roam. We’re not sure if thumb typing is any more accurate on the new phone, but it is certainly more comfortable to thumb-type on the iPhone 3G than on the original model.
Although the physical changes to the phone are subtle – so subtle that if you haven’t spent a lot of time with an original iPhone, you’d never notice them – they’re enough to prevent some old iPhone cases, docks, and other accessories that are carefully tailored to the original model’s dimensions from working with this new model. If you buy an iPhone 3G to replace a first-generation iPhone, you’ll probably want to bequeath your cases and dock to your old iPhone’s new owner and prepare to invest in new accessories. (However, some less exacting iPhone cases will fit the iPhone 3G. Our Speck ToughSkin case fits the iPhone 3G just fine.) Unlike the original iPhone, the iPhone 3G does not come with a dock included so you will need to buy a new dock from Apple (£19).
It’s always hard to judge a brand-new product when it comes to issues of durability, since we only have a few days to test the product and it’s very hard to short-circuit the test of time. However, our colleagues at PC World chose to sacrifice an iPhone 3G in order to see how rugged the product was. Although PC World’s iPhone 3G did end up completely shattered, the editors who tortured it were mightily impressed with its durability. The iPhone 3G survived several simulated trips through a pocket full of keys and other sharp objects, withstood being dunked in a bowl of cereal and milk, and even kept on working through a few drops on concrete from five feet up. The iPhone 3G’s glass screen cracked beyond repair on the fifth drop. The moral of this story: the iPhone 3G is pretty tough, but don’t use it to play a game of catch in a car park.
NEXT:The iPhone 2.0 software
Although this review is supposed to focus on the iPhone 3G as a hardware product, it’s impossible to fully separate it from the software it runs. The iPhone 3G ships with version 2.0 of the software that powers both the iPhone and its non-phone cousin, the iPod touch. This new version adds numerous features not present in the previous iPhone until now, including support for push email, contacts, and calendars via a corporate Microsoft Exchange server or Apple’s new MobileMe service. Among some of the features we’ve noticed slight tweaks across the board that fix some of the more complicated functionality of the original interface. The most impressive feature of this new software is the App Store, which allows users to download programs written by software developers outside of Apple.
The iPhone 2.0 software is, in many ways, the most important feature of the iPhone 3G. And it’s excellent.
The iPhone 3G now has the ability to delete multiple emails and text messages; the calendar application now supports multiple iCal calendars with different colours; the calculator has been refreshed and flipping the iPhone horizontally now produces a scientific calculator.
There have been various improvements to the Settings. It is possible to have Airplane mode on but access WiFi (some planes now have WiFi access); you can disable the 3G mode; the Fetch rate for email servers can be set individually (you can also request Push if you have an Exchange or MobileMe email account). Push is also supported for calendars and contacts. You can now turn the US keyboard off. Other features we’ve noted are the ability to set restrictions (if you’ve bought an iPhone for your child). The Settings menu also houses options for installed Apps.
You can import contacts from your SIM card, which will be handy if you’re upgrading from an old phone. There is also a dedicated Contacts application, which makes searching and accessing people’s information much easier. It always seemed odd to have this under the phone section, when you were just as likely to be emailing or texting a person.
We also noticed a few improvements to multi-touch, and we noted with satisfaction that typing in UK is no longer automatically changed to I’m, which makes Google searching much easier.
Full speed ahead with O2’s 3G network
What puts the iPhone 3G head and shoulders above the original iPhone is the addition of support for 3G networking. The third-generation wireless network that gives the iPhone 3G its name is much faster than the EDGE network. If you’re in an area with 3G network coverage, you’ll find that the iPhone 3G’s internet connection is quite fast.
One downside of the 3G network is that using it drains the iPhone 3G’s battery more than the slower EDGE network. However, if you’re worried about running out of juice, Apple has provided an option (Settings› General›Network›Enable 3G) so that you can turn off 3G networking. Once 3G is disabled, the iPhone 3G uses the same 2G network as its predecessor.
As far as we can tell, the iPhone 3G is ‘faster’ than the original iPhone solely because of the access it has to a faster cellular network. On WiFi and EDGE connections the phones seem to be about the same speed, and taxing games such as FreeVerse’s Wingnuts Moto Racer appear to perform the same on both devices.
In our tests, an iPhone 3G downloaded media files and loaded web pages between two and four times as fast as an original iPhone. We noted that 3G speeds in some areas almost matched WiFi, although much depends on your location in relation to the 3G mast.
iPhone 3G Speed Tests
We tested the iPhone 3G load times for three of our favourite Web sites. The iPhones loaded data simultaneously in the same location (Macworld’s UK office in London). After each page was loaded we cleared the cache in the settings. The web pages were loaded to completion and timed using a stopwatch. The time format is is minutes, seconds, milliseconds.
BBC News Web site
Edge: 42:88 secs
3G: 26:47 secs
WiFi: 15:35 secs
Edge: 37:97 secs
3G: 24:72 secs
WiFi: 18:62 secs
Edge: 1.04:66 secs
3G: 39:84 secs
WiFi: 25:28 secs
More impressive than the raw download speeds is the fact that they enable internet features that simply weren’t practical on the slower EDGE network. You can now to walk through London, listening to a radio station streamed over the 3G network by the free AllRadio program from the App Store. Similarly, you can access the BBC podcast site and listen to shows direct over the internet. Although this was technically possible over EDGE, we found the experience too unreliable; that’s no longer a problem. Likewise, streaming YouTube videos works fantastically under 3G.
Phones on the 3G network also have the ability to download data and make voice phone calls simultaneously. On the previous model of the iPhone, you couldn’t talk on the phone while downloading data over the phone’s wireless data connection. But if the iPhone 3G is on a 3G network, you’ll be able to talk and check Google Maps simultaneously without trouble.
Getting local with the iPhone 3G’s GPS feature
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. This means that the phone’s search for GPS information is assisted by computers at mobile phone masts; improving speed and reliability. (And if the iPhone 3G can’t get a GPS fix, it can use WiFi and phone mast 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 too. The built-in Maps application uses GPS to track your location, represented by a pulsating blue dot at the centre of the map.
When we first tested this feature, we weren’t very impressed. Instead of the blue dot, we only had the traditional target, although it did zoom in to around the 100m mark and follow us around as we walked. However, we have since put it down to a fluke bad signal caused by the mass of tall buildings where we were in central London. Since then, we’ve had the blue GPS dot track us with aplomb.
The iPhone’s camera also uses GPS to embed the 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 we 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 site that supports geotagging) that Jason Snell’s house is located somewhere in China’s Yellow Sea.
Of course, the killer app for a GPS-enabled mobile phone is probably turn-by-turn driving directions. The included Maps application will show where you are in the context of driving directions. However, 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 mobile service, it won’t be able to download map data from Google. A program that can use the GPS data to offer more precise directions and doesn’t need to rely on Google’s map data would be welcome. Here’s hoping it happens.
Loud and clear calls on the iPhone 3G
If you tried to call someone on the iPhone and just got their voice mail, they probably had a good excuse: they 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 we found ourselves cranking up the volume to the maximum at all times, and wishing we 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 we 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. We were able to set the iPhone 3G right next to a 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!)
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 2-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 cameras we owned seven years ago still blow it away, and most of the iPhone’s smartphone 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 it’s 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 place it in the Maps application or add it to their Contacts entry, for instance. We’ve talked to numerous iPhone users who have done what we’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. We’re sure Apple’s iPhone interface wizards have given it a lot of thought. But the fact remains that 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 the 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 friend’s MMS-capable phone, forget it. If your friend sends you a image, you’ll need to go online to look at 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 dialling The trend toward hands-free use of mobile phones 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 dialling, a feature that should probably be available on a system-wide level, not added by a third-party dialling program.
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 WiFi), 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.
The price issue
When we reviewed the original iPhone last year, an 8GB model cost £269, plus a minimum of £35 per month for 200 minutes and 200 texts. A deal we rightly called “lousy”.
Within a few months of launch, Apple and O2 worked to sort out the tariff. Now £35 now gets you 600 minutes and 500 texts, and there is a cheaper £30 tariff available (as well as £45 and £75 tariffs for heavy-duty users). All of the tariff’s include unlimited mobile data usage, plus access to The Cloud WiFi network and now also BT’s OpenZone network.
In the end, as with any product, it will be up to all prospective buyers to look at the figures 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 an 18-month commitment.
What is clear is that the price of the iPhone is now competitive, so our biggest worry about last year’s model – the price – is less of an issue. And even if there are better deals available, no phone on the market is currently as advanced as the iPhone 3G.