Review: Apple iPhone 3G (8GB/16GB)
Pros: A faster and more capable version of last year’s breakthrough mobile phone, preserving the world’s best cell phone operating system, a strong combination of voice and data communication features, and iPod-class audio, video, and photo functionality, while adding impressive third-party software expandability and features for business users. Offers enhanced compatibility with international telephone networks, including high-speed towers, as well as keyboard and language support for users in most of the world’s countries. Now includes GPS for limited purposes, and superior sound quality, particularly through its redesigned headphone port.
Cons: Overall cost of ownership is higher than prior model, despite regressing from last year’s stunning design, screen quality, and pack-ins. Battery life for key phone and data features is significantly worse than before, such that users will likely require inconvenient mid-day recharging. Service contracts require additional payment for 3G data services, despite inconsistent or unavailable regional coverage and performance; callers reported certain in-call sound inconsistencies. New model further decreases compatibility with past iPod accessories, including popular ones, while both camera and screen now have noticeable color tints. Defects and battery replacement will likely require Apple Store or other warranty attention during period of use; purchasing and activation can range from simple to confusing or nightmarish depending on your local service provider.
Last year, Apple did everything imaginable to generate hype for its first mobile phone, the iPhone (iLounge rating: B+). It spent months teasing people with crumbs of information, transforming its favorite journalists into spokesmen for the product, and encouraging customers to form long lines at its stores. The result was a tidal wave of free publicity that instantly established the iPhone as another amazing icon of Apple design, but once the dust cleared, it was obvious that the hype hadn’t translated into iPod-like sales: high prices and slow data speeds had kept mainstream customers away. Price drops in the United States and overseas spurred additional demand, but it was quickly apparent that something more was needed.
Apple’s release of the new iPhone 3G ($99/8GB)* is proof positive that the company—despite what some of its most ardent apologists or detractors might claim—is capable both of making big mistakes and learning from them. It is a rapid second attempt to get closer to the product that customers actually wanted, namely a device with the same interface, only cheaper, faster, and more widely available, and though it makes some significant stumbles of its own, it mostly achieves these goals. Inside are new cellular chips and antennas, while the outside has a sleeker but less expensive-looking body, and the box is familiar, yet marked with a lower initial price tag. It is, perhaps intentionally, what the iPod 3G was to the original iPod: mostly the same thing, but cheaper to make, cheaper to sell, and capable of much more than its pre-installed software would suggest.
Unfortunately, the iPhone 3G’s improvements are offset by regressions that make it less of a joy to use than its now-discontinued predecessor. Just like the iPod 3G before it, battery life has fallen behind to a startling level, and the screen quality has taken a step backwards; there are other surprises that Apple, in a continuation of a disturbing trend that began last year, tried to keep quiet until as late as possible. All of these issues, and much more, are discussed in our comprehensive 10-page review of the iPhone 3G, which includes extensive testing results from four of our editors located inside and outside of the United States. To ease reading, we’ve included both links to individual pages and convenient executive summaries of their contents. Enjoy.
[* Editor’s Note: The iPhone 3G was originally introduced on June 9, 2009 for $199/8GB or $299/16GB, the prices at which we reviewed both models below. On June 8, 2009, Apple announced that the 8GB iPhone 3G would be dropped to $99 effective immediately, and that the 16GB model would be discontinued, making room for the iPhone 3GS in 16GB and 32GB versions. Remaining stocks of the 16GB 3G were sold by Apple and AT&T for $149. Our review is unchanged except for this pricing note; our rating remains a B, reflecting the B+ rated 3G S’s superior value.]
The Phone, Package, and Pack-Ins
Executive Summary: While Apple has preserved the core features of the original iPhone and its packaging, and added new internal hardware, the iPhone 3G has stepped downwards in both casing and pack-ins from the original iPhone.
“Don’t mess with a good thing” is about as perennially wise as maxims get, and Apple generally knows as much: for years, it has kept its MacBook and MacBook Pro designs generally the same as their iBook and PowerBook predecessors, the Mac Pro hardly changed from the Power Mac G5 that inspired it, and the Mac mini looks the same as it did three years ago. Sure, Apple makes tweaks here and there, and certainly has new enclosures in the works, but the company no longer discards its best designs after only a year on the market—unless there’s a reason.
With the exception of the phone itself, the rest of Apple’s iPhone 3G package looks incredibly familiar: a small, attractive cardboard box opens to reveal the plastic-wrapped iPhone 3G on top of a tray, on top of a small collection of manuals, on top of a handful of accessories. Most of the iPhone 3Gs manufactured are black 8-Gigabyte models, with 7.1GB of usable storage capacity; the rest are either black or white 16-Gigabyte models with 14.6GB of empty space. The black ones come in black boxes, and the white ones in white ones, each with the identical front of the iPhone 3G on its face. Silver is used to represent the device’s front bezel, as well as the iPhone 3G and Apple logos on its other sides. Capacities are indicated only on the back of the box; they have not doubled since last year.
There is little remarkable about the contents of each package. As with the prior iPhone and all of its iPods, you get a USB cable and stereo headphones, brief instructions, and a couple of Apple stickers. There’s also a black screen cleaning cloth, a metal SIM card removal tool, and in the United States, a redesigned version of the 2006 USB Power Adapter.
This one is smaller and easier to carry than the last, but usable only in countries with identical wall blades, a potential inconvenience for foreign travelers. International versions of the phone include the old Adapter, with blades specific to their countries. Gone from all of the packages are the original iPhone’s Dock, which has been redesigned to fit the iPhone 3G and is now sold separately for $29.
That brings us to the iPhone 3G itself. Praise for the original iPhone’s physical design was unanimous last year: without question, Apple had found a way to make a touchscreen-based phone classy, relatively resilient, and completely intuitive. Matte metal and plastic rear and side casings were offset by small touches of chrome and a glass screen cover that all proved scratch-resistant, though not completely scratch-proof—like the MacBook Pro, it was a major step up from the company’s easily marred iPods and MacBooks. Its crowning feature was a 3.5-inch, 480x320-pixel display that was considerably better in every way than the ones in then-current iPods, perfectly sized for watching movies, viewing album art, and even playing games. Though some had hoped that Apple would release a smaller flip phone, the broad consensus was that the original device was perfectly sized and shaped for a smartphone, particularly given its ability to browse full-sized web pages.
With the iPhone 3G, Apple has kept most of the elements in the same general places as last time, but otherwise has regressed aesthetically from the original case design. We will glide right through the dimensions, which buck recent Apple trends by measuring larger in every dimension than the original iPhone, if only slightly: the original iPhone measured 4.5” (115mm) tall by 2.4” (61mm) wide by 0.46” (11.6mm) deep, and weighed 4.8 ounces (135 grams). iPhone 3G measures 0.5mm taller, 1.1mm wider, and 0.7mm thicker, and weighs an also imperceptibly different 4.7 ounces (133 grams). To offset these changes, Apple has used a more tapered casing, which is thicker at the center than at the edges; the result is that iPhone 3G no longer lays flat on a table, instead rocking back and forth on its arched back.
None of these changes, which result in the iPhone 3G’s still black, still glass face having a little more of each on the left and right than before, really matter; it’s the rear casing that provokes negative reactions. Gone is the just-right matte silver and black casing, replaced by decidedly cheaper-looking glossy black or white plastic. As suggested before, Apple wouldn’t have discarded the original iPhone’s classy casing design in favor of this one without a reason, and you can decide for yourself whether that reason is “cost reduction” or “because there are so many wireless antennas inside that there’s no way to use a partially metal shell any more.” We lean heavily towards the first theory.
The black and white iPhone 3G models both attract fingerprints to an unprecedented degree, but the black version is much worse, despite the fact that we otherwise prefer the color. We would normally be reluctant to use the word “nauseating” in a discussion of Apple products, but the way that our iPhone 3G looked when it arrived at our office—covered in the fingerprints and smudges of the AT&T employee who opened the box and activated it—was just that disgusting. These photos show how the iPhone 3G looked straight out of the box when we began our photography session; it’s obvious why Apple was so afraid to let people photograph it after its WWDC unveiling.
There is some good news. The included cleaning cloth can bring the black iPhone 3G closer to cleanliness—assuming you carry it around—and if you don’t mind seeing your phone constantly looking dirty, the black version is fine. Unfortunately, our chrome Apple logo was already permanently scratched by the time we opened the package ourselves; expect the same thing to happen if your phone, like ours, is left on a hard surface during an in-store activation process.
A better option is to buy either a protective case or the white iPhone 3G. Everybody thought that Apple was moving away from white plastics when it discontinued the first-generation iPod nano and fifth-generation iPod, but the iPhone 3G’s white version has rejuvenated the color. Though it still picks up fingerprints, they’re nowhere near as obvious as on the black version, so you won’t notice blemishes unless they’re from something other than finger oils.
To offset the cheapening of the iPhone 3G’s shell, Apple has swapped the original iPhone’s black side and top buttons with polished metal ones, preserved the chrome front bezel, rear Apple logo and metal-ringed rear camera, and added a chrome ring to the top headphone port. It has also added all but invisible metal mesh inside the ear speaker, bottom speaker, and bottom microphone ports, most likely for the protection of these elements rather than for visual reasons. Though the changes don’t make up for the rear casing, they’re all welcome improvements. Two screws are now found on the unit’s bottom alongside the Dock Connector port, the first fasteners to be visible on literally any of Apple’s iPod or iPhone devices; only obsessive industrial designers would mind.
Less conspicuous are are other hardware changes: Apple has shifted the device’s proximity and ambient light sensors from above the ear speaker to its left, as well as adding new wireless antennas, a GPS chip, and a redesigned headphone port that sits flush with the rest of the unit. We discuss each of these changes in the sections below.