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: The only other major hardware addition to the iPhone 3G is a GPS chip and antenna set. Unlike the device’s many other features, which have been aggressively exploited by Apple-designed software, the iPhone 3G’s GPS is presently of marginal utility, and there are reasons to believe that it may never be capable of performing the one feature—turn-by-turn navigation—that customers would expect when making a purchase. Presently, it does nothing more than augment the original iPhone’s “location services,” telling you and the phone where you are at a given moment.
The letters GPS may stand for “global positioning system,” but to most people, the term has a very specific meaning: GPS devices are supposed to come equipped with maps, and help you navigate from place to place; virtually all of them offer automated turn-by-turn directions, and most have voice prompts of some sort, too. While Apple didn’t build GPS hardware, automated turn-by-turn directions, or voice prompting into the original iPhone, it did include access to one of the world’s most impressive databases of maps and points of interest: Google Maps. At first, Maps didn’t know where you were, but it could dynamically check a massive database for addresses, phone numbers, and point-of-interest information, then pinpoint those details on a global map. Apple later added a feature that enabled the first iPhone to vaguely figure out where you were on those maps at a given moment—only within a several block or street radius, and slowly, without any realtime updating.
Simply put, the proper addition of true GPS hardware to an iPhone has the potential to be a completely killer application: you could walk anywhere with the GPS phone, get instant directions, and then dock the phone in your car to display its maps on a larger screen. In one fell swoop, an iPhone could eliminate the need for clumsy in-car navigation systems, with Google providing a global database of real-time traffic and location information.
Unfortunately, that’s not how the iPhone 3G’s GPS works. Apple has added true GPS hardware into the iPhone 3G—actually, Assisted GPS that can more quickly get a fix on your position than some older GPS devices—but hasn’t backed the feature up with software to really take advantage of it. The new version of Maps does nothing more than superimpose a glowing blue dot on its static maps to show you approximately where you are, but doesn’t automatically provide turn-by-turn directions or voice prompts; you still need to page through directions yourself with on-screen arrows whenever you’re past a given turn. Worse yet, Apple has expressly prohibited developers from creating turn-by-turn navigation software for the iPhone, and confusingly has claimed that the iPhone 3G’s antenna isn’t powerful enough to be used for navigation. Instead, Apple says the GPS hardware is there to tell you generally where you are, let other people locate you, and tag pictures taken with the iPhone’s camera with geographic coordinates. Some people may find this stripped-down feature set compelling; it strikes us as either an understatement of iPhone 3G’s actual potential, or a feature that was tossed in for marketing purposes. Only time will prove which is correct.
Our tests of the iPhone 3G’s GPS produced mixed results. Initially, we gave the device a near best-case situation: we tested it in a convertible with its canvas top up. Here, it didn’t have a problem quickly acquiring a GPS signal to determine our starting location, and did a decent job of tracking us as we drove on straight and curvy roads. Yet we discovered that Apple’s software doesn’t use typical GPS device conventions, such as dynamically rotating, zooming, or switching map views; it also makes iffy guesses on where you’re driving. Instead of assuming that your little blue dot needs to travel on the white lines on Google’s maps as you drive, the dot sometimes inaccurately ducks off to the left and right, so if you’re rounding a corner, the dot sometimes goes off the street onto what would be a yard, driveway, or parking lot. On curvy roads, the iPhone 3G often missed turns at normal driving speeds, and made odd straight or curved estimates of how we had gotten from one point to another. On the other hand, it was comparatively accurate on straight roads, properly pinpointing our positions relative to various intersections as we drove through them. Overall, it wasn’t a replacement for a real car GPS system, and Apple doesn’t claim that it is.
We later tested the GPS in a more common car: a sedan with a metal roof. In this vehicle, the antenna struggled for minutes to acquire our initial location, and then proved more or less incapable of following along with where we were driving. On a related note, the iPhone’s lack of built-in map data—and corresponding need to query the Internet for current map graphics—is both a blessing and a curse. At any given moment, you could conceivably have the most up-to-date map information possible, with new roads, restaurants, and addresses added in realtime rather than waiting for a “Navigation System DVD Update.” However, during our test drives, the iPhone 3G sometimes lost its connections with the 3G network towers and the map suddenly went blank, needing to reconnect to acquire map data again. When it did re-acquire the map, though, it quickly knew our precise location better than the original, semi-location-aware iPhone. Results, of course, will vary from car to car and location to location.
There are still some bugs left to be worked out in Apple’s GPS software—a reader in Reno, Nevada e-mailed us to show how his GPS pinpointed his location as being within the Tai Po or Sha Tin Districts of China, switching to Reno only when he zoomed in or out. Scattered reports have suggested that confused coordinates aren’t just an issue for Reno. And it’s obvious that if Apple wants to be taken seriously as a GPS hardware company, it needs to release or authorize an in-car docking and mounting solution, an external GPS receiver-slash-antenna, and better software. Unfortunately, Apple has announced no plans for any of these things, and they may never come out. Consequently, if you’re thinking of buying the iPhone 3G for GPS, you should definitely wait for a while until software and/or accessories catch up with the hardware.