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.
Executive Summary: In an effort to appeal to customers overseas, Apple has added “third-generation” cellular network antennas and chips to iPhone 3G, enabling the device to achieve higher Internet browsing speeds in certain locations, as well as enabling simultaneous telephone calling and use of cellular data services. Due to substantial city, state, and national differences in 3G coverage, some users will see data speeds 2-4 times faster than the prior iPhone’s EDGE, others will achieve only fractional speed increases over EDGE, and still others will have no gains at all. Consequently, the mandate of a more expensive 3G data plan for all customers, regardless of whether they actually achieve benefits over EDGE, will make iPhone 3G less attractive than its predecessor for users in some markets; others will reap the benefits of superior speeds.
The single most notable change to the iPhone 3G is the one that earned it a new name: in addition to the quad-band (850/900/1800/1900 MHz) GSM/EDGE antennas in last year’s model, iPhone 3G now also works on higher-speed “3G” UMTS and HSDPA networks running at 850, 1900, or 2100 MHz. Technical jargon aside, this means that the iPhone 3G is now even more of a “world phone” than before, conceivably capable of working anywhere, and in certain places sending and receiving data faster. How much faster? The answer is complex; despite the fact that the 3G networks can deliver more than 10 times the speed of sluggish EDGE networks, Apple promises only twice the speed of the original iPhone, noting that in some cases, users will see better performance.
How do you know what sort of speeds you’ll get from iPhone 3G? Unfortunately, the answer is this: you’ll have to check a map, and then, you’ll actually have to test the phone in your neighborhood. Unlike older GSM towers, which were deployed almost everywhere in the world, faster 3G towers vary in availability from country to country, and within them, from city to city. As a result, any given country may have strong, weak, or no coverage in any given city or neighborhood. In the United States, where AT&T is the exclusive provider of iPhones, 10 states have no 3G coverage, and 16 others have 3G coverage in three or fewer cities. According to AT&T, California, Florida, and Texas are very substantially covered, while other states have spotty coverage. Readers elsewhere in the world report similar local limitations with the same general theme: there is more 3G coverage where there are more people. Drive out of a major metropolitan area and you may well lose your 3G signal.
To see how the iPhone 3G actually performed in various locations, we tested a total of five iPhone 3Gs running on 3G networks in four separate locations: three in the United States, and one in Canada. Our tests used four sample web pages that varied in size and complexity, some short and image-heavy, others bigger and with lots of embedded code. We also tested the speed of the original iPhone on an EDGE network to see how it compared, as well as testing the iPhone 3Gs on 802.11g Wi-Fi networks. Our results are summarized in the tables below.
The first table shows the raw number of seconds required to completely load each of the web pages, and the second table shows the scale of the improvements: 1.39x means that there was only a 39% improvement in speed, while 3.92x means that the page loaded nearly four times faster on 3G than on EDGE. As you’ll notice, there were significant variations between our test cities. iPhone 3G’s performance was significantly better in Toronto, Canada than it was in either Orange County, California or Las Vegas, Nevada, and all three of these cities saw much bigger gains than our test location in East Amherst, New York. While the iPhone 3G almost never achieves equivalent 3G speeds to an 802.11g Wi-Fi network, it can get a lot closer than the original iPhone’s EDGE.
The key word here is “can.” In Toronto, we saw an average improvement of 3.65x when using 3G, with 2.7x and 3x gains in Las Vegas and Irvine. However, in suburban East Amherst, NY, we saw an average improvement of only 26% in speed during our initial testing. Across three U.S. cities, a page that took 124 seconds to load on EDGE took roughly 40 seconds on 3G and 25 seconds on Wi-Fi; the 3G network was on average 2.66 times faster than EDGE, versus Wi-Fi’s 5.35x speed versus EDGE. Because of the unusually slow speed in suburban Amherst, we tried to run the same test again two days later from a different floor of the same house and saw improvements—we weren’t getting the same speeds as in Las Vegas, but we were much closer. However, moving back to the prior location saw the speed drop right back again. We also ran tests within the same neighborhood, and noted that there were differences on a street-by-street level.
From our perspective, the correct way to describe iPhone 3G’s data performance is that it’s a nice step up from the first iPhone’s, but not as consistent or impressive as it could be. Many users will see tangible improvements, but many users will not, so forcing everyone onto the same 3G data services plan puts some users into a comparatively poor economic situation without giving them any performance benefit. You’ll find our buying advice in the Conclusions section of this review.