Smartphone user review: Apple iPhone 3G

After much anticipation, Apple released its updated iPhone on Friday, offering a device that operates on a 3G network.

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This article originally appeared on Brighthand.com.

After much anticipation, Apple released its updated iPhone on Friday, offering a device that operates on a 3G network. A Brighthand.com contributor documents the new features on the iPhone 3G and discusses first impressions on both hardware and software updates.

The iPhone 3G is Apple's updated version of the first-generation iPhone. As you may recall, the original was announced back in January of 2007, and later released to the public June 29 of last year. It didn't matter if they were geeks or didn't have the slight of interest in technology, a wide variety of people camped out to get a new iPhone.

Still, many complained that it was missing 3G -- faster mobile Internet, compared to the 2.5G EDGE. Others complained about the lack of GPS, a non-user replaceable battery, no Flash support, limited size of storage, and other things that everyone thought the iPhone should have. I mean c'mon, the iPhone is supposed to be "Jesus Phone".

A year later, Apple has released the iPhone 3G, its second generation model. The launch was yesterday, and even though there weren't lines in the 1000's this time, there were still lines in the hundreds, but most were around 40-100 or so people at Apple/AT&T stores.

Why is that, though? How come the demand isn't so high this time around? Well, it's the fact that this isn't a completely new product. It's just like the iPod. If you are one of the 6 million iPhone users currently, why would you need to upgrade if the product doesn't have new ground breaking features? Stay tuned, and I'd explain why I believe the iPhone 3G is a great upgrade, but not a necessary one.

Design
Seriously, this is the best looking phone on the market. Period. I was a fan of the aluminum backing of the old iPhone, but I just love the look and feel of the new one.

When I look at the first generation iPhone now, it looks outdated (I'm completely serious). Personally, black was my choice as it just makes the device all fit together since the front of the iPhone, after all, is black as well.

The black and white back of the iPhone is very, very nice. Even though it is plastic, this seems extremely strong and durable. The only thing that it can't prevent is small scuffs and scratches, and not to mention fingerprints. Hopefully it isn't anything like the iPod backing, but we will have to see overtime. And no, Apple still hasn't invented a device that doesn't scratch or get finger prints. Hopefully in the next 9 years or so it will (I started counting a year ago with the last iPhone). In the mean time, we will just have to take special care of our phones to be smudge free. And yes, white does show smudges, but for both colors, it really depends on the lighting you're in.

This device now also has a slight curved back, but it doesn't rock on the table when you set it down, which is a plus. Did I also say it feels absolutely amazing in your hands? It feels even better than the first version. I absolutely love the feel of the plastic and the curved back. This is my favorite design upgrade on the phone by far.

The headphone jack is now flush, so no more adapters to fit your expensive headphones in the headphone jack. The ringer switch, volume buttons, and the sleep/wake button are all metal/chrome-like now. It really adds a nice touch to the phone. There have been reports, though, that the ringer switch is hard to move at first, and some people have already broken it because they put too much pressure on it. Over time, it will likely loosen up to a comfortable switch, but for now it is harder to move than it needs to be -- but hey, it's better than being loose and switches randomly to silent to ringer.

I would also like to point out that the connector at the bottom of the phone is harder to plug in than it is on the first iPhone. It wasn't like this last year when we first got the device, so who knows if it will go in and out easier over time.

The sensors have been moved. On the previous iPhone they were at the very top of the device, and one was a little circle, and the other one was the same, but wider. Now, there are 3 circles, (there is 1 more they added) and they are all to the left of the accelerometer at the top of the phone.

The speaker and the microphone on the bottom of the iPhone are also smaller, and there are two small screws on each side of the connector. It is surprising for Apple to actually have screws showing in an area that is seen a lot.

Overall, if you wanted to upgrade based on looks, and you weren't sure if you would like the design, I think it is great, and a step forward in the right direction, although it would be nice not to have two areas that smudge now instead of before when it was just the screen.

3G and data plans
Faster wireless networking is the main reason to why I upgraded to the iPhone 3G.

I live in a Chicago suburb that has 3G in pretty much every area. Even though I only get 3 bars of service on average with this device, the Internet speed and calling quality is perfect.

If you live in a well-populated town next to a big city, and don't have 3G yet, I would still consider buying this phone. If you live in no-where-land then I wouldn't bother, because 3G and GPS is the main catch to this phone.

AT&T's data plan for the iPhone for consumers is $30 a month. This is on par with the other AT&T 3G rates as well. Many say that we pay more for the Internet per month, and that's why the initial cost for the device is cheaper, but after all, we DO get faster access.

For the record, AT&T also removed the included 200 texts, so if you send a text and don't have a textingSite Wi plan that will cost you 20 cents. A plan for 200 texts is $5, one with 1,500 texts is $15, and Unlimited is $20.

Again, this is the iPhone, and I want to use it to its fullest extent, so I got the unlimited data/text. For those of us that have AT&T, you have to remember that our rates are still very cheap compared to much of the rest of the world (with the exception of the U.K.).

Overall 3G results may vary by location, but my results when visiting websites:

Site

Wi-Fi

3G

EDGE

Google

3 sec

3 sec

4 sec

Brighthand

8 sec

10 sec

12 sec

CNN (full site)

20 sec

21 sec

39 sec

Apple

7 sec

9 sec

19 sec

MLB (non flash site)

9 sec

10 sec

20 sec

3G had 3 bars of signal, EDGE had 5 bars, and I was 5 feet away from my router.

GPS navigation
One of the features that many phones are starting to have is GPS, which is helpful when you want to know precisely where you are.

Before there was GPS on the iPhone, Apple included the "Locate Me" feature. This used cellular triangulation -- this is how they locate you when you call 911 and the Skyhook wireless points, which would also try and pin-point where you are based on Wi-Fi signals. Personally, I never liked this. I would sometimes be in the circle it indicates, but other times it would show this huge circle and I would still be out of it. In my opinion, this was just a way to keep people quiet until something was done about GPS.

I love how the GPS works on the iPhone 3G. When it finds you the circle will pulsate, and then a blue pinpoint will show up. Then, after a few seconds it will start closing in on your location.

Using this outside is of course the best way. I walked around my yard (1 acre) and it followed everywhere I went. Driving in the car, on the other hand, is a different story, especially if you are in a big city with buildings blocking view from the sky. It's probably due to the fact that the antenna for the GPS is so small, but personally I think it does the job, and a very good one at that.

At this point, third-party GPS companies (TomTom for example) can't make navigation and turn-by-turn applications for the iPhone because if violates Apple's SDK rules. I hope Apple goes ahead and allow it, as the maps could be pre-loaded on the device. As of now, when you were to go there is no cell service, GPS would still work, but the maps can't be downloaded, making GPS useless.

The GPS on the iPhone is extremely accurate. Others have commented that A-GPS is worse than GPS. The A stands for assisted, meaning that the "Locate Me" feature in the first gen iPhones is used, but then the satellites position you. This makes it quicker to pin point you, thus making A-GPS better.

As for the latest version of Google Maps on the iPhone, the only things that have changed is now you have the 3D building view in maps, and geo-tagging photos. With this, when you take a picture, it can remember what location you took it from.

Overall, GPS is great for when you are walking or stopped somewhere, but using it while driving can be tricky due to the lag that it has trying keep up with driving speeds.

Screen
The screen on the new device appears to be slightly clearer, or "crisper," than the original.

I have no complaints with it. There have been reports of people with a yellow tinted screen, and yes my 3G iPhone does have that. But personally, it makes pictures look more realistic.

This might drive some people crazy, but most won't even notice the issue. If you are a perfectionist, you might need to get the whole device replaced (if they will even let you), or find some fix for it. But let me assure you, you can only notice this when you have a two iPhones side by side. If you didn't have anything to compare the screen too, you wouldn't even know of this problem at all (see a comparison).

Other than that, the screen is the same screen used in the previous model.

Phone quality
On the first iPhone, call quality was alright, but still had room for improvement. With the latest model, calls over 3G are in one word: perfect.

I talked to various people switching between the iPhone 3G and the old iPhone, and 4 out of 5 times, they were able to tell what phone I was talking on without me telling them because the quality was better.

The ear piece also has better quality in my opinion. This could be to the call quality, but calls were as crisp as could be. The speakerphone is also a tad bit louder, but much clearer while on calls.

There is also a contacts app on the iPhone now, like there is on an iPod touch. Personally, I don't think I'll use this much, but you can't get rid of it, either. I'm so used to just going into the phone app, then contacts.

Another big improvement is the fact that you can make or receive calls while browsing on a 3G network. With EDGE, if someone was calling you and you were transferring date, it would go straight to your voicemail. Since 3G is on a different baseband, this will not occur anymore. Same goes for when you are on Wi-Fi.

Besides quality improvements and calling while on 3G, there are no other added calling features.

Email enhancements
The biggest update to the Email app is support for Microsoft Exchange. This is the email system they use in the corporate world, and the biggest reason why BlackBerry users didn't like the iPhone. Now, RIM has a serious competitor, and without a doubt, the iPhone is making these companies work hard to stay in the game of designing the coolest and latest cell phone. But as we know, the iPhone has been winning that a lot lately.

The other nice feature is the ability to mass delete and mass move email messages. Finally! Something that also should have been in the 1.0 firmware, but hey, at least we have it now.

App store
Any iPhone owner can take advantage of the new App Store, which is where you can get all sorts of software.

Apple did a fantastic job on this. It's great that they made this available to everyone who has an iPhone, rather than just on the iPhone 3G.

You are able to view the Apps like you do in the iTunes store. You can choose from Features, Categories, Top 25/50, Search, and Updates. You can look at screenshots of the apps and look at reviews posted by other users, as well as the post date and download count.

There are around 550 applications on the App Store now, but expect thousands to come. Many are free, and others will generally be less than $10. Usually it is the games that cost the most.

I tried out Super Monkey Ball, and it is a really cool game. It's the most popular item in the store currently. Since it was announced at WWDC, many people fell in love with the cute lovely characters. If you ever have some time to kill, check out this game, or any other application on the App Store to keep you busy, there are plenty of them.

Buying software is a snap. You hit the price in the App Store, then hit Install, then you type in your password. Once that is completed, you iPhone returns to the home screen, and you can see the status of the app installing. You will also get notifications when you need to update the application, which I believe will always be free.

Keep in mind, Apple gets 30% of the profit made on these apps. People who make apps for free don't get charged anything by Apple, such as hosting fees, which also helps out.

Camera
Even though the iPhone 3G still has the same 2 MPx camera that the first-generation iPhone has, some have noticed there is an increase in sharpness to the photos, but it isn't that noticeable.

Keep in mind that if you want to take good pictures on the go, it's recommended you use a digital camera for the purpose instead of using a cell phone, but that is just my opinion.

Battery life
The reason Apple never made an iPhone with 3G and GPS before was due to the poor battery life. This time around, battery times are decent, but in reality, using GPS and 3G constantly will drain your battery more when compared to using EDGE and Wi-Fi.

GPS takes more juice than the 3G, so as long as you aren't checking your position every few minutes while you sit in the same spot, you should be fine during the day.

3G still eats battery life though, so be warned. You do have the option to turn it off, as I would recommend doing when don't need it.

Other than that, battery life can be either better or worse compared to last year. If you are using 3G / GPS it will be worse, but if you use EDGE, talk time has actually been increased from 8 to 10 hours.

Other features you should know about
In the calculator app, you can now rotate the phone sideways, and it turns into a scientific calculator.

When you enter a password, it will show the character you entered for about 2-3 seconds before turning into a dot. This helps to make sure that you entered the correct password.

There are parental controls that block Explicit content, or allow you to disable Safari, YouTube, iTunes, and installing applications. All can be controlled by a 4 digit pass-coded lock.

You now have the ability to save images from the Web and email. All you have to do is press on the image for a few seconds, and you have the option to save the picture(s).

You can take screenshots of what is on the phone by pressing the home button and sleep/wake button at the same time.

There is now support for PowerPoint, Numbers, Keynote, and Pages attachments. Keep in mind you can't edit these on the iPhone, just look at them.

You now have colored calendar items to tell different appointments/tasks from each other.

Support for Apple's MobileMe service, as well as Microsoft Exchange, has been added. Remember though that you can't sync both of your corporate contacts and stuff with your personal things. I didn't find this to be an issue, though.

Note: All of these features are part of the iPhone 2.0 system software, which is also available for the original iPhone and the iPod touch. You do not need the new iPhone 3G to do these.

What's missing
The iPhone isn't perfect, but it's close to it. There are still some basic things that it just can't do. Take for copy and paste. Apple likes to keep it simple and clean. How could they implement copy and paste? That's why I think we haven't seen anything like that.

Other things still missing:

  • MMS, but maybe an App from the App store if Apple allows it? (I have little hope)
  • The battery still can't be replaced, but at least now it isn't soldered into the phone. You still have to send it in to get a new one, but seriously, by the time I need a new battery, I'll just put that $85 towards a new upgraded iPhone.
  • Flash, which many would love to have. Personally, would Flash even been fully functional on the small screen? Maybe for light Flash pages, but for games or sites fully in Flash, don't even bother. Adobe is supposed to be working on something though, so we will see where that goes.

Overall, now that 3G and GPS is built in, which was the most asked for things in the last iPhone, many things left to go are software, so hopefully Apple gets their act together sometime soon.

Conclusion
If it isn't obvious, I love this new iPhone, and I'm extremely happy I bought one.

Many people use their phone for different tasks. As for me, when I'm not home, most of the time I'm on the Internet or texting. 3G is widespread where I live, so it's worth it.

If you live in a 3G-less area, maybe soon they will offer 3G, as AT&T promises to keep upgrading its network. If you aren't going to use 3G, I would still buy this phone. GPS is decent, and gets the job done.

But the main reason is the look and feel of the new iPhone. Some say they really don't like the new design, and to each their own, but personally this is a fantastic makeover. The plastic back just feels so smooth and easy to hold. I love it.

Plus, now that we have the App Store, it just completes this phone even more.

Pros

  • 3G and GPS
  • Fantastic redesign
  • Extremely easy to use for personal or business use
  • The best phone on the U.S. market for the money

Cons

  • No tethering. You Pay $30 for Internet, they should at least allow you to tether.
  • Only available for AT&T
  • No Flash or Java... yet
  • Can't replace the battery yourself

Should I get an iPhone 3G? Which color?
If you are debating about getting the new iPhone 3G, here are some scenarios:

If you own a first generation iPhone, and you live in an area where you have 3G, or expect soon to have 3G, Update to the iPhone 3G.

If you own a first generation iPhone, and you don't live near a big city or even close to 3G, hold off on upgrading if looks don't mean anything to you.

If you own a first generation iPhone, and you want a change from the looks of your current iPhone, then I would recommend upgrading.

If you are an AT&T customer and don't have the iPhone but want one, I would consider buying the iPhone 3G. You could always find an unlocked first-generation iPhone on eBay, though, to use if 3G or a new design means nothing to you.

If you are not an AT&T customer, but want to be one, make sure to look at whether you have 3G in your area. If you don't, and you don't mind slower Internet speeds on the go, then I would buy an iPhone 3G.

Remember the three most important things with this new phone. 3G. GPS. Awesome Design. Everything else you can pretty much do on the first iPhone because of the 2.0 software, such as the App Store.

If you decide you want the 3G iPhone, you will need to decide what color you want. Many people have had a tough time choosing, but personally, I think white is more feminine. There is nothing wrong if you are a dude and getting a white phone, it is what you like. But just take note that:

  • Black shows the smudges better than the white version, but the white iPhone still shows them. It really just depends what lighting you are in, because you can look at the back of the iPhone and not see a thing, and then you can look at it from a different way, and it's all smudged up.
  • If you plan on using the iPhone in the case most of the time, and not showing the back of it, it is a lot easier to find a black case to make your white iPhone look black. It isn't as easy though to find a decent white case to go on a black phone. It was also eventually discolor.
  • The white will discolor over the time, just like the iPods. The black will generally stay black.
  • The black will show scuffs better than the white iPhone. But if the white iPhone gets scuff marks or scratches, dirt can get in the little areas, and then make your white iPhone become dirty over time.

In the end though, both phones are stylish and sexy. Go to your local AT&T or Apple store to experience the iPhone yourself in person.

This was first published in July 2008

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