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: Due to its power-hungry 3G network antennas, iPhone 3G’s cellular battery life will be worse for 3G users than the original iPhone’s, requiring mid-day charging in addition to end-of-day charging. Turning off the 3G feature will result in improved battery life, but cripple the phone’s speeds, a compromise 3G subscribers should not have to suffer. Other features, such as music and video playback, have changed little from the original iPhone.
For better and for worse, Apple is obsessed with thinness: year after year, it works to shave millimeters off of its earlier designs rather than enlarging their batteries, and only delivers major battery life improvements when its other components become more power-efficient. Sometimes, however, it adds a component that isn’t power-efficient, and unless it radically improves the battery or lessens the drain of other components, the device actually runs for shorter periods of time than its predecessor. Such is regrettably the case with the iPhone 3G, which like the 2003 iPod 3G actually loses run time—so much so that users will definitely notice and probably mind the difference.
While the original iPhone promised 8 hours of talk time and 7 hours of Internet use, iPhone 3G promises only 5 hours of talk time or 5 hours of Internet use when connected to a 3G network. Apple has tried to downplay these numbers by noting that you can squeeze 10 hours of talk time from the phone if you’re on a 2G EDGE network, and 6 hours of Internet use if you run the iPhone 3G on Wi-Fi; standby time has also gone up from 250 to 300 hours. In other words, if you’re willing to just avoid using the 3G phone and data services you’re forced to pay extra for, the iPhone 3G will work better than its predecessor; use 3G, and you’ll fall well short of last year’s numbers. From our perspective, this drop in call performance is unacceptable by phone standards, as it means that active 3G users will need to recharge the device twice a day.
The rest of the iPhone 3G’s battery life is roughly the same as its predecessor’s, perhaps a bit better. Apple again promises 7 hours of video playback time and 24 hours of audio playback time when the device is at half brightness and volume, if its Wi-Fi and cellular antennas were turned on. We tested both the video and audio playback under these conditions, and iPhone 3G surpassed both of Apple’s numbers, achieving 7 hours and 11 minutes of video playback or 28 hours and 44 minutes of audio playback. Updated: We also ran the same video and audio tests with the wireless antennas off, and iPhone 3G’s run time was even longer—7 hours and 48 minutes for video, and slightly over 29 hours for audio. Putting aside its deficient call time, the iPhone 3G is at least a little stronger than any iPod save the iPod classic on audio and video run time, despite the fact that its screen is larger and brighter than most models. Those who only rarely use its phone and data features will find it to be a strong multifunction device.
Unfortunately, that last statement starts with a fiction: the iPhone 3G is sold as a phone first and foremost, with an extended service contract that lasts roughly twice as long as its warranty. Unlike the iPod touch, customers are buying this as a communications device, and for that purpose, it runs much shorter than its predecessor between charges. More charging means more of a need to replace the battery, and less convenience for the user. Under the circumstances, and especially given that it already expanded the iPhone in every physical dimension, Apple should have done the right thing and further increased the battery’s capacity, or offered an extended battery with a user-replaceable back plate. As it hasn’t, potential buyers should pass on iPhone 3G in favor of a more power-efficient sequel, or be prepared to do lots of charging, then request a replacement battery before the end of the warranty period.
Audio Quality, Interference, and Video Quality
Executive Summary: Thanks to a new audio chip and bottom speaker, iPhone 3G benefits from improved sound when heard through premium headphones, as well as somewhat louder audio when played without headphones. However, a different screen and color balance give iPhone 3G a yellowish tint relative to the original iPhone and iPod touch, as well as a more limited viewing angle.
Despite fairly substantial under-the-hood changes that have been made over the years, Apple rarely discusses the audio quality of iPods or iPhones: it presents all of them as “great,” and because most users use low-quality earphones or speakers, they hardly seem to notice the differences. However, Apple has worked to eliminate high-pitched component interference squeals and static-like noises from its pocket devices, as well as attempting—in a far more limited way—to address concerns over limited bass performance. Last year, it succeeded in eliminating squeal-like interference from the headphone ports of all of the 2007 iPods, and basically eliminated static from the headphone port of the iPod classic; this year, it has applied some of the same lessons to the iPhone 3G.
Other sections of this review note that Apple has remedied the first iPhone’s incompatibility with common 3.5mm headphone plugs, enabling iPhone 3G to work with virtually any pair of headphones you may own, as well as the fact that Apple has slightly improved the volume and fullness of iPhone 3G’s bottom speaker. But you probably didn’t know that the iPhone 3G has a new audio chip, one that sounds extremely similar to the Cirrus Logic part that made it into the iPod classic. Consequently, direct music playback comparisons between the iPhone 3G and original iPhone showed that the new model is virtually static-free with an almost completely clean noise floor, just like the iPod classic, rather than the comparatively noisier iPhone, which used a similar Wolfson Audio sound chip to the iPod 5G, nano, and touch. Plug in even a pair of $1,100 earphones, as we did, and you’ll find that iPhone 3G’s renditions of music are very clear; this is the closest Apple has come to an audiophile-quality flash audio player yet.
On the flip side, iPhone 3G has made no improvement in the bass or EQ departments from its predecessors; there is still no way to dynamically adjust individual EQ bands from within the iPhone, and because of heavy distortion that appears when the Bass Booster preset is turned on, fans of exaggerated bass will need to look to special headphones, speakers, or other methods to bring up the low-end.
Tests of the Dock Connector output from the iPhone, iPhone 3G, and iPod classic suggest that the iPhone 3G and iPod classic’s line-level output is extremely similar, with the iPhone sounding more or less the same. There is one fairly major exception: a form of radio interference known as TDMA noise, which has created beeping and buzzing noises in unshielded speakers, has changed from the iPhone to the iPhone 3G. When the iPhone 3G is in EDGE mode, it’s just as annoying as the iPhone when you’re near unshielded speakers, but if it’s on a 3G network, the interference changes; it becomes much quieter, and sounds like a low laser buzz instead of a chirp. In fact, the 3G interference is low enough in volume and pitch that some people won’t even notice it when using older, unshielded speakers.
Whereas the iPhone 3G bests the original iPhone in audio performance, its video output will be more controversial: contrary to Apple’s initial claims, the iPhone and iPhone 3G screens are not exactly the same. Their resolution and physical size are the same, at 480x320 pixels and 3.5” on the diagonal, respectively, but in our testing, both color balance and viewing angles differed from unit to unit.
Apple has shifted the iPhone 3G’s fixed color warmth from a slightly blue tint to a slightly yellow tint, a change that is instantly apparent to the naked eye when both devices are set side by side on a substantially white screen such as the Settings menu or a blank Safari web page. Neither device is as color-neutral as our most recent iPod touch—our fourth replacement unit—which on white screens appears comparatively light gray, and on more colorful screens skews light blue. After the color change was discovered, Apple claimed that the change was intentional, and designed to present images more warmly than the colder original iPhone screen. Side-by-side, we generally prefer the color balance of the iPhone 3G to the original iPhone, but neither one is ideal; we prefer the more neutral coloration of the iPod touch to both devices. As people are noticing the yellowness and not liking the change, it’s obvious that Apple went a little too far here.
A less positive change can be seen in the iPhone 3G’s viewing angle. When the iPod touch was released, we noted that its screen—again, despite Apple’s claims—was not really the same as the iPhone’s. When held off-center, or even straight on, the screens of the iPod touch units we’ve tested have exhibited a “negative black” effect, whereby black and dark colors initially appear to be deeper, but also appear to invert and shimmer, washing out color and detail as the device is tilted. The iPhone’s screen was far less prone to this issue, making it a superior choice for video viewing and game playing, but the iPhone 3G’s screen has now moved in the iPod touch’s direction, with a little more shimmer and tendency to wash out details than the original iPhone. Given how impressed we were with the original iPhone’s screen, it’s disappointing that Apple would go backwards from a great starting point.
It’s worth noting that these comparison results may not reflect the experiences of all users. Apple has been switching screen suppliers without informing customers, so both original iPhones and iPod touches have varied from one another in screen quality; a similar change took place years ago when third-generation iPods shifted from bright white to slightly tinted displays mid-cycle in the name of cost reduction. Assuming the issue here is really just a software tweak as opposed to a cheaper screen, user-adjustable color balance settings would go a long way towards satisfying different user preferences.
On a final screen-related note, Apple has made a small change to the locations of the hidden ambient light and proximity sensors, shifting them from locations above the iPhone’s ear speaker to three positions off to the speaker’s left: two proximity sensors on bottom, and an ambient light sensor above them. We have heard that this change was designed to make the proximity sensors better at detecting the presence of a nearby face, but we never had an issue with the prior design.