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: Apple has left the iPhone’s 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.0, and 2.0-Megapixel camera all but untouched in iPhone 3G. Users may note small differences between the devices, some positive, some negative.
Apple could conceivably have updated the other wireless and camera hardware from the iPhone to the iPhone 3G, but it hasn’t. iPhone 3G still works on 802.11b and 802.11g Wi-Fi data networks, but not newer 802.11n ones, a limitation which doesn’t matter today but will impact more and more people as 802.11n continues to replace old networks. Some users may see Wi-Fi signal strength improvements versus the original iPhone; we noticed that Wi-Fi web page downloading speeds were several seconds faster with iPhone 3G than before.
Similarly, iPhone 3G still uses Bluetooth 2.0 rather than the newer Bluetooth 2.1 wireless audio standard, another limitation that most users won’t care at all about; as with Wi-Fi, you may experience better range when using certain Bluetooth accessories. More important in our view is the fact that Apple continues to prevent users from using Bluetooth 2.0 for stereo headphones or wireless iPhone-to-iPhone or iPhone-to-computer synchronization of any sort. This limitation, never explained by the company, means that the only thing you can do with Bluetooth is use monaural telephone accessories, a real shame given the power, versatility, and increased quality of the Bluetooth accessory universe.
Another carry-over from the iPhone to iPhone 3G is the 2.0-Megapixel rear camera, which lacks a zoom lens and autofocus, creating 1600x1200-pixel images that are stored on the phone for synchronization with iPhoto or other programs. Prior to the iPhone 3G’s release, Apple claimed that though the hardware had stayed the same, software tweaks would improve the new unit’s performance. To see whether the same software tweaks might have benefitted the original iPhone when updated to version 2.0 of its system software, we did comparison tests between iPhone 1.1.4 and iPhone 2.0 cameras, and found no difference between the pictures they took; the only evident change is that e-mailed photos taken with the camera are now sent at 800x600 resolution rather than 640x480, and are tagged with approximate geographic data, both features also found in the iPhone 3G.
Our comparison test shots from the 2.0 software updated iPhone and iPhone 3G cameras revealed very small differences, which can be seen here. It should be noted up front that our test iPhone’s camera has been subjected to plenty of potential lens abuse thanks to the lack of really excellent lens protectors out there, and we’ve noticed over times that images are slightly less sharp than they were when the iPhone was fresh out of the box. Consequently, we don’t think that any tiny sharpness differences evident here are truly the result of the iPhone 3G being better; it’s just that the iPhone’s lens is older.
We held both devices next to each other when taking these images, attempting to keep the shots as close to one another as possible in exposure and shakiness. Most of the shots appeared more or less identical, however, the iPhone 3G’s camera appeared to produce outdoor photos with more of a blue tint, versus the more naturally colored iPhone’s, as shown in the plant shots here. Both sensor resolution and actually captured detail appeared to be the same between them, as did the graininess users always experience when trying to take photographs in dimly lit rooms.
Neither camera seemed more responsive in previewing or taking pictures, and neither seemed better than the other at reducing shake or motion blur; note that we did shake a little because it was hard to grip and shoot pictures with both cameras at once. Our impression is that, contrary to Apple’s claim, there’s no tangible improvement to the iPhone 3G’s camera, and in some conditions, you may find its color rendition a bit worse. As noted above, both iPhones now geotag their results with current latitude and longitude coordinates; the iPhone 3G’s tag is more likely to be a little more precise thanks to its integrated GPS hardware, a generally unimportant difference.