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: On a positive note, the iPhone 3G now has the same flush-mounted headphone port design found on iPods, removing the need to use extension accessories to connect typical headphone plugs. Unfortunately, Apple has once again stopped certain old accessories from working with the iPhone 3G. A subtle change to the hardware prevents the iPhone 3G from being recharged by a number of popular car and home accessories, generating a new nag screen in the process, but not disabling their non-charging functionality.
By now, everybody knows the drill: whenever Apple releases a new iPod or iPhone, it makes some upbeat statement about accessory compatibility, but when people get the devices home, they discover that something—or many things—they previously purchased don’t work properly, or at all. “Isn’t this a ‘Made For iPod’ accessory?” “Why yes,” Apple responds, “it was made for the last iPod. Not this one. Go buy a replacement.”
The iPhone 3G went through the exact same process. To cheers from the audience at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, Steve Jobs announced that the device had been redesigned to include the same flush-mounted headphone port design found on iPods, rather than the recessed iPhone headphone port that had annoyingly required the purchase of special adapter cables. Consequently, old headphones worked again, which was great news for people who had purchased and loved premium replacements. But what Jobs didn’t mention was that Apple had also taken something away.
While people intuitively understand that a $20 iPod case won’t necessarily fit the iPhone 3G, they aren’t quite so happy when their $200 speakers or $2,000 premium car kits stop working just because Apple decided to make some minor, undisclosed hardware change. Last year, Apple broke video accessory compatibility with the iPhone, iPod classic, nano, and touch, so virtually every previously released third-party video dock, cable, and portable display accessory just stopped working properly. In so doing, Apple left developers with huge stocks of products they couldn’t sell, and consumers were forced to go out and buy replacements. Or, at least, they tried: some of the best third-party video accessories never received sequels because their developers got stuck with hundreds of thousands of dollars of unmarketable inventory.
With iPhone 3G, Apple has cut off a different and somewhat more obscure type of accessory: the FireWire charger. By “somewhat more obscure,” we mean to say that you most certainly have no idea which accessories you have purchased with one of these inside, but if you have one, you’ll find that your iPhone 3G—unlike every past iPod and the original iPhone—won’t charge when connected to it. Devices with FireWire charging include the original Bose SoundDock, but not the SoundDock Portable, Belkin’s classic Auto Kit for iPod, but not its more recent car chargers, and XtremeMac’s RoadShow, but not its InCharge Auto or InCharge FM. Another device, surprisingly, is Apple’s discontinued iPod Hi-Fi speaker system. You’ll know if you have one of these accessories because one of two screens will come up on iPhone 3G: “Charging is not supported by this accessory,” or “This accessory is not made to work with iPhone - Charging is not supported.”
This news isn’t all bad. While there are perhaps hundreds of iPod accessories out there with FireWire charging built in, the only part of them that fails to work because of this change is the charging: you can generally still play the iPhone’s music through their speakers or audio ports, unless they have run afoul of some other Apple-imposed incompatibility, as RoadShow has with its video-out functionality. So Bose’s SoundDock and Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi both work, sort of; you’ll just have to charge your iPhone somewhere else with a USB charger. Additionally, unlike video accessories, FireWire chargers have been on Apple’s to-be-discontinued list for at least a couple of years now, so most developers have had a long time to phase out FireWire charging in favor of USB charging. As a consequence, you’re much less likely to be affected if you’ve made a recent purchase, though that probably won’t make purchasers of the expensive SoundDock and iPod Hi-Fi feel any better.
Cases for the iPhone may or may not work with the iPhone 3G - as a general rule, the harder the case, the less likely it is to fit, and most soft cases won’t look quite right with the new model, either. As always, a huge number of companies have already been working on iPhone 3G-specific cases, which you can find in the Cases - iPhone 3G section here. We continue to like film protectors as a protective option, too.
On a final accessory note, reports have suggested that Apple and Nike will be adding Nike + iPod Sport Kit compatibility to the iPhone, and that other iPod-ready add-ons might become compatible as well. Thus far, iPhone 3G does not recognize the Sport Kit, the iPod Radio Remote, or other previously unsupported accessories; an iPhone software update will most likely be necessary before they begin to work, and there’s always the possibility that Apple will require these products to be redesigned, instead.
Defects and Warranty Coverage
Executive Summary: Original iPhones were subject to numerous types of hardware failures that resulted in unusually high return and replacement rates amongst iLounge’s editors and readers. The iPhone 3Gs we have purchased have shown fewer of these issues, but there are still concerns.
Over the course of the last year, iLounge’s editors and contacts have gone through many replacement iPhones, and not because we’re clumsy—the iPhones have had a wide variety of problems. Only days after the iPhone’s release last year, our review noted that we had already seen units with a dead touchscreen and a caved-in side shell with damaged volume buttons; since then, we have seen units die or stop working in a wide variety of ways. To its credit, Apple has generally become much better at replacing defective units since the iPhone’s launch, quickly producing replacements without hassling customers, though we have seen some disturbing examples to the contrary. No one wants to use a defective phone, or to be stuck for days without a working one; the correct solution is for Apple to make the units more reliable and not force customers to struggle with replacements.
The first round of iPhone 3Gs we have tested and seen appears to be better than last year’s models; thus far, we have experienced no screen or complete unit failures. But we were surprised to discover during testing of one of our units that phone calls would spontaneously end when the headphone plug was pulled out of the port. We were able to reproduce the issue over and over again with that unit, our white 16GB iPhone 3G, but found that our black 8GB unit had no such problem. Just for the sake of testing, we also tried the same test with the same headphones on an original iPhone, which didn’t have the issue; we also queried our readers and found that the issue did not appear to be widespread.
Another iPhone 3G unit we’ve seen had an extremely unusual scratch on its screen within the first day of ownership—a series of tiny dots that appeared to be tears in a new, hitherto unknown screen coating. The owner told us that another mark had developed at some point during the second day of use, and that he planned to return it. As with the headphone port issue on our 16GB iPhone 3G, it’s unclear whether this issue will affect other users, but given existing concerns over the new device’s back shell, we must reluctantly continue to recommend use of a case or protective film immediately after purchase.
As mentioned in the earlier section, “What’s Changed: Battery Life, Audio, Interference, and Video,” we are concerned about the iPhone 3G’s battery longevity, particularly as the new model requires more frequent recharging than its predecessor. Since the device only comes with a one-year warranty, consider Apple’s $69 AppleCare Protection Plan a necessary expense if you plan to keep the iPhone 3G for the full two year contract term, or be prepared to pay Apple $88 for out-of-warranty battery replacement. These costs should be factored into your calculations of the lifetime operating expense of this device.