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: Also released for the original iPhone and iPod touch, Apple’s iPhone Software 2.0 preserves all of the features of the earlier mobile operating system, but adds the ability to download third-party applications, as well as dramatically enhanced support for enterprise customers, including Push e-mail, calendars, scheduling, and contacts. Minor usability improvements have also been included, but many user-requested features still remain unaddressed.
We are not going to go into exhaustive detail on version 2.0 of the iPhone operating system, now known as OS X iPhone, both because its numerous changes have been exhaustively catalogued during the months of its development, and because it’s virtually identical to the software just released for the original iPhone and iPod touch. Except for what was mentioned above, all three of these devices share the same integrated applications and features; the only differences in the iPhones are their integrated Camera, Phone, and Bluetooth hardware and software, and their lack of the separate Music and Video icons found on iPod touch, which we’d still like to see on the iPhone.
This isn’t to say that OS X iPhone 2.0 is a trivial update; it’s actually extremely important. Apple’s addition of the App Store, a mechanism for browsing and downloading new applications directly to the iPhone, is far better than we had imagined; it utterly simplifies the process of finding and adding new features to the device, whether in free or paid form. Especially noteworthy is Apple’s Updates section, which lets you automatically get revised versions of previously downloaded software—a major omission from previous iPod Games, rendered painless. Like the iPhone version of iTunes, there are limitations on what you can download—here, 10MB or smaller apps on the 3G network, larger apps only when using Wi-Fi or iTunes on your computer—but these, like the store’s pricing scheme, are totally reasonable. The jury is out on iPhone gaming from our perspective, as we’re not fans of accelerometer-based controls, but the iPhone’s raw graphics and audio horsepower are only a couple of steps below Sony’s PlayStation Portable, and it’s obvious that game developers have a great new canvas to work with here.
The other huge change to OS X iPhone 2.0 is the addition of “enterprise support,” a code phrase for “features that could entice large businesses to buy the iPhone rather than shunning it.” As with the App Store, these features have been extensively documented, but for most users, they’ll reside in the device’s background, waiting for a company’s IT personnel to unlock them. The new software offers greater security, including the ability to completely erase a lost or stolen device from afar. It also enables either version of the iPhone to instantly receive e-mail, contacts, calendar and meeting data that have been “pushed” from a company’s central Microsoft Exchange server to the device, rather than waiting 15 minutes between e-mail checks; an $45 per month AT&T enterprise data plan is needed for business use of this feature. OS X iPhone 2.0 also supports consumer-grade “push” services that are offered by Apple’s MobileMe, a rebranded and redesigned version of the $99 .Mac service that never seemed to take off outside of the Mac world. Both iPhones can also be used to create or edit data to push back to the servers, enabling dynamic updating of shared calendars and contact lists. MobileMe was experiencing significant problems during our iPhone 3G testing; we may revisit its performance in a future follow-up to this review.
Other changes to OS X iPhone are also generally welcome. The on-screen keyboard, long a source of problems for those of us with larger fingers, seems to have become easier to use, and takes up a little less space on the screen; it has also been radically expanded with foreign language support, including Chinese character recognition. Calculator has been expanded into a full scientific calculator, mail has received mass-delete and mass-move tools, and parental controls have been added to restrict access to certain applications and content. Screenshots, as well as pictures from web pages and e-mails can now be saved in the Photos library. There are other changes, mostly minor, as well.
As an offset to everything that has improved, the OS has become more sluggish than its predecessors, sometimes lagging in opening applications, transitioning between screens, and even crashing in echoes of the version 1.0 iPhone release. Maddeningly, Apple has ignored user requests for features such as cut and paste, iChat-style instant messaging, a more robust e-mail manager with collected folders, and automatic synchronization of Notes and To-Do Lists. It has also denied developers opportunities to integrate their own applications with electronic accessories, precluding the release of game-friendly joypads, mail-ready keyboards, and other, more novel attachments. While OS X iPhone 2.0 is impressive, there’s still a lot left to do, and after a year of waiting, we certainly hope it’s accomplished sooner than whenever version 3.0 is released.