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.
Billed as offering twice the original iPhone’s speed at half the price, Apple’s iPhone 3G ($199/8GB, $299/16GB) will actually be a more expensive device to operate in the United States than its predecessor, thanks to a 50% or greater increase in monthly data service charges. Sold initially in three versions — a glossy black $199 model with 8GB of memory, an identical $299 version with 16GB of memory, and a glossy white 16GB model — iPhone 3G is now made from plastic rather than metal, returning to the scratch and smear-ready clear-coated materials that used to typify full-sized iPods.
Last year, Apple did everything imaginable to generate hype for its first mobile phone, the iPhone (iLounge rating: B+). It spent months teasing people with crumbs of information, transforming its favorite journalists into spokesmen for the product, and encouraging customers to form long lines at its stores. The result was a tidal wave of free publicity that instantly established the iPhone as another amazing icon of Apple design, but once the dust cleared, it was obvious that the hype hadn’t translated into iPod-like sales: high prices and slow data speeds had kept mainstream customers away. Price drops in the United States and overseas spurred additional demand, but it was quickly apparent that something more was needed.
Apple’s release of the new iPhone 3G ($99/8GB)* is proof positive that the company—despite what some of its most ardent apologists or detractors might claim—is capable both of making big mistakes and learning from them. It is a rapid second attempt to get closer to the product that customers actually wanted, namely a device with the same interface, only cheaper, faster, and more widely available, and though it makes some significant stumbles of its own, it mostly achieves these goals. Inside are new cellular chips and antennas, while the outside has a sleeker but less expensive-looking body, and the box is familiar, yet marked with a lower initial price tag. It is, perhaps intentionally, what the iPod 3G was to the original iPod: mostly the same thing, but cheaper to make, cheaper to sell, and capable of much more than its pre-installed software would suggest.
Unfortunately, the iPhone 3G’s improvements are offset by regressions that make it less of a joy to use than its now-discontinued predecessor. Just like the iPod 3G before it, battery life has fallen behind to a startling level, and the screen quality has taken a step backwards; there are other surprises that Apple, in a continuation of a disturbing trend that began last year, tried to keep quiet until as late as possible. All of these issues, and much more, are discussed in our comprehensive 10-page review of the iPhone 3G, which includes extensive testing results from four of our editors located inside and outside of the United States. To ease reading, we’ve included both links to individual pages and convenient executive summaries of their contents. Enjoy.
[* Editor’s Note: The iPhone 3G was originally introduced on June 9, 2009 for $199/8GB or $299/16GB, the prices at which we reviewed both models below. On June 8, 2009, Apple announced that the 8GB iPhone 3G would be dropped to $99 effective immediately, and that the 16GB model would be discontinued, making room for the iPhone 3GS in 16GB and 32GB versions. Remaining stocks of the 16GB 3G were sold by Apple and AT&T for $149. Our review is unchanged except for this pricing note; our rating remains a B, reflecting the B+ rated 3G S’s superior value.]
The Phone, Package, and Pack-Ins
Executive Summary: While Apple has preserved the core features of the original iPhone and its packaging, and added new internal hardware, the iPhone 3G has stepped downwards in both casing and pack-ins from the original iPhone.
“Don’t mess with a good thing” is about as perennially wise as maxims get, and Apple generally knows as much: for years, it has kept its MacBook and MacBook Pro designs generally the same as their iBook and PowerBook predecessors, the Mac Pro hardly changed from the Power Mac G5 that inspired it, and the Mac mini looks the same as it did three years ago. Sure, Apple makes tweaks here and there, and certainly has new enclosures in the works, but the company no longer discards its best designs after only a year on the market—unless there’s a reason.
With the exception of the phone itself, the rest of Apple’s iPhone 3G package looks incredibly familiar: a small, attractive cardboard box opens to reveal the plastic-wrapped iPhone 3G on top of a tray, on top of a small collection of manuals, on top of a handful of accessories. Most of the iPhone 3Gs manufactured are black 8-Gigabyte models, with 7.1GB of usable storage capacity; the rest are either black or white 16-Gigabyte models with 14.6GB of empty space. The black ones come in black boxes, and the white ones in white ones, each with the identical front of the iPhone 3G on its face. Silver is used to represent the device’s front bezel, as well as the iPhone 3G and Apple logos on its other sides. Capacities are indicated only on the back of the box; they have not doubled since last year.
There is little remarkable about the contents of each package. As with the prior iPhone and all of its iPods, you get a USB cable and stereo headphones, brief instructions, and a couple of Apple stickers. There’s also a black screen cleaning cloth, a metal SIM card removal tool, and in the United States, a redesigned version of the 2006 USB Power Adapter.
This one is smaller and easier to carry than the last, but usable only in countries with identical wall blades, a potential inconvenience for foreign travelers. International versions of the phone include the old Adapter, with blades specific to their countries. Gone from all of the packages are the original iPhone’s Dock, which has been redesigned to fit the iPhone 3G and is now sold separately for $29.
That brings us to the iPhone 3G itself. Praise for the original iPhone’s physical design was unanimous last year: without question, Apple had found a way to make a touchscreen-based phone classy, relatively resilient, and completely intuitive. Matte metal and plastic rear and side casings were offset by small touches of chrome and a glass screen cover that all proved scratch-resistant, though not completely scratch-proof—like the MacBook Pro, it was a major step up from the company’s easily marred iPods and MacBooks. Its crowning feature was a 3.5-inch, 480×320-pixel display that was considerably better in every way than the ones in then-current iPods, perfectly sized for watching movies, viewing album art, and even playing games. Though some had hoped that Apple would release a smaller flip phone, the broad consensus was that the original device was perfectly sized and shaped for a smartphone, particularly given its ability to browse full-sized web pages.
With the iPhone 3G, Apple has kept most of the elements in the same general places as last time, but otherwise has regressed aesthetically from the original case design. We will glide right through the dimensions, which buck recent Apple trends by measuring larger in every dimension than the original iPhone, if only slightly: the original iPhone measured 4.5” (115mm) tall by 2.4” (61mm) wide by 0.46” (11.6mm) deep, and weighed 4.8 ounces (135 grams). iPhone 3G measures 0.5mm taller, 1.1mm wider, and 0.7mm thicker, and weighs an also imperceptibly different 4.7 ounces (133 grams). To offset these changes, Apple has used a more tapered casing, which is thicker at the center than at the edges; the result is that iPhone 3G no longer lays flat on a table, instead rocking back and forth on its arched back.
None of these changes, which result in the iPhone 3G’s still black, still glass face having a little more of each on the left and right than before, really matter; it’s the rear casing that provokes negative reactions. Gone is the just-right matte silver and black casing, replaced by decidedly cheaper-looking glossy black or white plastic. As suggested before, Apple wouldn’t have discarded the original iPhone’s classy casing design in favor of this one without a reason, and you can decide for yourself whether that reason is “cost reduction” or “because there are so many wireless antennas inside that there’s no way to use a partially metal shell any more.” We lean heavily towards the first theory.
The black and white iPhone 3G models both attract fingerprints to an unprecedented degree, but the black version is much worse, despite the fact that we otherwise prefer the color. We would normally be reluctant to use the word “nauseating” in a discussion of Apple products, but the way that our iPhone 3G looked when it arrived at our office—covered in the fingerprints and smudges of the AT&T employee who opened the box and activated it—was just that disgusting. These photos show how the iPhone 3G looked straight out of the box when we began our photography session; it’s obvious why Apple was so afraid to let people photograph it after its WWDC unveiling.
There is some good news. The included cleaning cloth can bring the black iPhone 3G closer to cleanliness—assuming you carry it around—and if you don’t mind seeing your phone constantly looking dirty, the black version is fine. Unfortunately, our chrome Apple logo was already permanently scratched by the time we opened the package ourselves; expect the same thing to happen if your phone, like ours, is left on a hard surface during an in-store activation process.
A better option is to buy either a protective case or the white iPhone 3G. Everybody thought that Apple was moving away from white plastics when it discontinued the first-generation iPod nano and fifth-generation iPod, but the iPhone 3G’s white version has rejuvenated the color. Though it still picks up fingerprints, they’re nowhere near as obvious as on the black version, so you won’t notice blemishes unless they’re from something other than finger oils.
To offset the cheapening of the iPhone 3G’s shell, Apple has swapped the original iPhone’s black side and top buttons with polished metal ones, preserved the chrome front bezel, rear Apple logo and metal-ringed rear camera, and added a chrome ring to the top headphone port. It has also added all but invisible metal mesh inside the ear speaker, bottom speaker, and bottom microphone ports, most likely for the protection of these elements rather than for visual reasons. Though the changes don’t make up for the rear casing, they’re all welcome improvements. Two screws are now found on the unit’s bottom alongside the Dock Connector port, the first fasteners to be visible on literally any of Apple’s iPod or iPhone devices; only obsessive industrial designers would mind.
Less conspicuous are are other hardware changes: Apple has shifted the device’s proximity and ambient light sensors from above the ear speaker to its left, as well as adding new wireless antennas, a GPS chip, and a redesigned headphone port that sits flush with the rest of the unit. We discuss each of these changes in the sections below.
The Process: Pricing, Buying and Activating the iPhone 3G
Executive Summary: In an attempt to control gray market resale and unlocking of iPhone hardware, Apple has adopted new pricing, purchasing, and activation policies for the iPhone 3G that are more confusing, restrictive, and time-consuming than before. While some customers will qualify for up-front iPhone 3G pricing that appears to be more aggressive than the iPhone’s, everyone will pay more for the new model and data services than they did for its predecessor. This is offset by the potential of higher data speeds, discussed in a subsequent section of this review.
Apple’s release of the original iPhone in 2007 started with a noble idea: buying a cell phone and signing up for service should be as easy as buying an iPod and downloading music from iTunes. Want an iPhone? Pick it up at a store and activate it yourself at home. Though AT&T glitches clouded the first iPhone’s American launch weekend, at-home activation proved to be a great idea, quickly catching on in dozens of countries. Unfortunately for Apple, users in most of these countries were hacking iPhones to use them on networks that weren’t sharing service revenues with the company. It was great for consumers and the global Apple brand, but cut Apple out of a potential cash flow.
Thus, in what may well be remembered as the single worst change made from the iPhone to the iPhone 3G, Apple unexpectedly did away with streamlined pricing, purchasing, and iTunes activation processes in favor of a confusing variable pricing scheme, as well as more strict purchasing and activation rules. These changes, combined with unspecified failures in Apple’s and its partners’ activation computer systems, managed to simultaneously anger hundreds of thousands of potential buyers on the iPhone 3G’s first weekend in stores; it remains to be seen whether and how these policies will be changed.
Pricing. Apple initially tried to sell the first 8GB iPhone for $599, but had to quickly drop the price to $399 when the first wave of wealthy customers started to dry up. Introduced at the lower price overseas, more price drops were ultimately necessary; Germany’s T-Mobile, for instance, eventually dropped the 8GB model to 99 Euros ($155) to move inventory. Though there were some people who remained willing to buy iPhones at high prices for gray market export, it was obvious that Apple wanted to win over mainstream customers in its countries of choice, and needed more aggressive prices to achieve that goal.
However, rather than actually dropping the iPhone 3G’s price, Apple used a marketing trick to obscure it, promising a 50% price cut that has actually turned out to be subsidized by higher service revenues. The iPhone 3G’s contract-free price in the United States is $599 for the 8GB model or $699 for the 16GB model; prices elsewhere are slightly higher. Customers qualify for certain discounts off these prices only if they meet certain conditions imposed by cell phone providers, then sign up for extended service agreements. Country-by-country iPhone 3G service details are available from this link.
In the U.S., the $599/$699 prices are slashed under one of three conditions: if you are a current AT&T customer who recently purchased another phone from the company, AT&T will sell you the iPhone 3G for $399 or $499 if you sign a new two-year contract. If you’re a new AT&T customer, or a prior customer who hasn’t recently purchased another phone from the company, AT&T will sell you the iPhone 3G for the advertised $199 or $299 price if you’re willing to sign a new two-year contract. Deals in other countries vary dramatically, with some cellular providers basically giving away the phones if you sign up for certain plans, while others sell the phones at higher-than-U.S. prices and require three-year commitments to even more expensive plans.
This all leads to a simple conclusion: you’re going to have to pay more for the iPhone 3G than people did for the original iPhone. In the United States, the minimum service plan is more expensive than before, such that you now need to spend a minimum of $70 per month, up from $60, and must pay separately for text messages—$5 for 200 or 20 cents each. If you go without text messages, you’re committing to giving AT&T at least $1,680 over the life of the contract, or $1,800 with text messages, versus $1,440 with the prior iPhone.
In sum, you may pay $200 less up front than the past iPhone, but you’ll then pay at least $240 more over the life of the contract. You’ll pay $360 more if you want the same number of minutes, text messages, and data use as before.
While we view the new pricing as objectionably high, particularly given how overpriced text messaging is, the counter-argument is that users will get better data service now than they did with the original iPhone, so paying more isn’t unreasonable. However, given that users in many parts of the United States and elsewhere do not have access to the 3G networks that are being used to justify the higher monthly service prices, and other users will see marginal or inconsistent performance gains given these networks’ spotty coverage, the first iPhone’s data plan should continue to be offered as an option. Forcing 3G plans on users without meaningful 3G coverage is just plain wrong; we discuss this issue in more detail on the next page of this review.
Buying. As of the date of this review, iPhone 3G can’t be ordered from Apple online or purchased as a gift: you must show up at a store in person to buy and activate one. To be more specific, according to a recently announced AT&T policy, if you’re adding an iPhone 3G to an existing AT&T account, the primary account holder—not the secondary user, or a family member—must physically show up to make the purchase. Most likely, you will stand in a line, and once you get to the counter, you may have to fight with someone about the price and/or the status of your current contract. Thanks to AT&T and Rogers policies and computer problems, iLounge’s editors have all had unpleasant purchasing experiences with their iPhone 3Gs, and as of the date of this review, one editor has been unable to resolve the issues after more than eight hours of waiting in line.
Activating. Instead of allowing you to activate your iPhone 3G at home, the activation process now requires an Apple or cell phone employee to open the iPhone’s box and physically “unbrick” it before you can use it. As noted above, if the employee isn’t careful, your iPhone’s back will be dirty or scratched before you even get to touch it; you may want to insist on handling the phone yourself, or at least protecting its back, throughout the process. At most, the phone will require connection to a computer with a USB cable, or popping of its SIM card tray with the included tool shown here.
Synchronizing. Once you have completed the in-store activation process, you can return home to synchronize your iPhone 3G with iTunes—the USB cable-assisted process that brings contacts, bookmarks, e-mail accounts, calendar data, and media content from your computer to the iPhone’s flash memory. Apart from the rigors of readying all of these types of files to send to the device, synchronization now seems to take much longer than before, as iTunes seems to be constantly backing the device up, managing files, and dealing with things you may have downloaded wirelessly to the device. We have not timed this process, but it suffices to say that it is more time-consuming than before.
What’s Changed: 3G Data Services
Executive Summary: In an effort to appeal to customers overseas, Apple has added “third-generation” cellular network antennas and chips to iPhone 3G, enabling the device to achieve higher Internet browsing speeds in certain locations, as well as enabling simultaneous telephone calling and use of cellular data services. Due to substantial city, state, and national differences in 3G coverage, some users will see data speeds 2-4 times faster than the prior iPhone’s EDGE, others will achieve only fractional speed increases over EDGE, and still others will have no gains at all. Consequently, the mandate of a more expensive 3G data plan for all customers, regardless of whether they actually achieve benefits over EDGE, will make iPhone 3G less attractive than its predecessor for users in some markets; others will reap the benefits of superior speeds.
The single most notable change to the iPhone 3G is the one that earned it a new name: in addition to the quad-band (850/900/1800/1900 MHz) GSM/EDGE antennas in last year’s model, iPhone 3G now also works on higher-speed “3G” UMTS and HSDPA networks running at 850, 1900, or 2100 MHz. Technical jargon aside, this means that the iPhone 3G is now even more of a “world phone” than before, conceivably capable of working anywhere, and in certain places sending and receiving data faster. How much faster? The answer is complex; despite the fact that the 3G networks can deliver more than 10 times the speed of sluggish EDGE networks, Apple promises only twice the speed of the original iPhone, noting that in some cases, users will see better performance.
How do you know what sort of speeds you’ll get from iPhone 3G? Unfortunately, the answer is this: you’ll have to check a map, and then, you’ll actually have to test the phone in your neighborhood. Unlike older GSM towers, which were deployed almost everywhere in the world, faster 3G towers vary in availability from country to country, and within them, from city to city. As a result, any given country may have strong, weak, or no coverage in any given city or neighborhood. In the United States, where AT&T is the exclusive provider of iPhones, 10 states have no 3G coverage, and 16 others have 3G coverage in three or fewer cities. According to AT&T, California, Florida, and Texas are very substantially covered, while other states have spotty coverage. Readers elsewhere in the world report similar local limitations with the same general theme: there is more 3G coverage where there are more people. Drive out of a major metropolitan area and you may well lose your 3G signal.
To see how the iPhone 3G actually performed in various locations, we tested a total of five iPhone 3Gs running on 3G networks in four separate locations: three in the United States, and one in Canada. Our tests used four sample web pages that varied in size and complexity, some short and image-heavy, others bigger and with lots of embedded code. We also tested the speed of the original iPhone on an EDGE network to see how it compared, as well as testing the iPhone 3Gs on 802.11g Wi-Fi networks. Our results are summarized in the tables below.
The first table shows the raw number of seconds required to completely load each of the web pages, and the second table shows the scale of the improvements: 1.39x means that there was only a 39% improvement in speed, while 3.92x means that the page loaded nearly four times faster on 3G than on EDGE. As you’ll notice, there were significant variations between our test cities. iPhone 3G’s performance was significantly better in Toronto, Canada than it was in either Orange County, California or Las Vegas, Nevada, and all three of these cities saw much bigger gains than our test location in East Amherst, New York. While the iPhone 3G almost never achieves equivalent 3G speeds to an 802.11g Wi-Fi network, it can get a lot closer than the original iPhone’s EDGE.
The key word here is “can.” In Toronto, we saw an average improvement of 3.65x when using 3G, with 2.7x and 3x gains in Las Vegas and Irvine. However, in suburban East Amherst, NY, we saw an average improvement of only 26% in speed during our initial testing. Across three U.S. cities, a page that took 124 seconds to load on EDGE took roughly 40 seconds on 3G and 25 seconds on Wi-Fi; the 3G network was on average 2.66 times faster than EDGE, versus Wi-Fi’s 5.35x speed versus EDGE. Because of the unusually slow speed in suburban Amherst, we tried to run the same test again two days later from a different floor of the same house and saw improvements—we weren’t getting the same speeds as in Las Vegas, but we were much closer. However, moving back to the prior location saw the speed drop right back again. We also ran tests within the same neighborhood, and noted that there were differences on a street-by-street level.
From our perspective, the correct way to describe iPhone 3G’s data performance is that it’s a nice step up from the first iPhone’s, but not as consistent or impressive as it could be. Many users will see tangible improvements, but many users will not, so forcing everyone onto the same 3G data services plan puts some users into a comparatively poor economic situation without giving them any performance benefit. You’ll find our buying advice in the Conclusions section of this review.
What’s Changed: GPS
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.
What’s Changed: Battery Life, Audio, Interference, and Video
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 480×320 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.
What’s Changed: The Phone
Executive Summary: Depending on where you are and what you’re doing, you may sound better or worse when making calls with iPhone 3G than on the original iPhone. There is no simple reductionist statement that properly sums up the differences, which appear to vary based on both usage and your network connection.
Having spent a full year using original iPhones in a number of different cities, we can say with some certainty that Apple did a great job with the first model’s calling functionality. From its smart use of contact data and images as a unified system for handling telephone calls and emails, to its simplified two-way calling and Visual Voicemail features, there wasn’t much that needed fixing in an iPhone sequel. The only obvious changes Apple has made in the iPhone 3G are also found in the original iPhone’s version 2.0 software: contact searching via an on-screen keyboard, which is useful for those with huge lists of friends, family, or business associates, and the ability to send and receive updated contacts that have been synchronized from an Exchange server or MobileMe account. Both are available at an additional charge, and discussed in the next section of this review.
But there are also some non-obvious changes, one of which is particularly nice: when you’re using the 3G network, you can make a call at the same time as you’re using 3G data services, a form of multitasking that the original iPhone can only pull off when connected to a Wi-Fi network. We tested this feature without any issues; it works just as expected, and just like the original iPhone on Wi-Fi, except here you’ll experience slower data speeds, but also gain the ability to operate in new situations—you can talk with friends as you’re using Maps to find their houses, use AIM for instant messaging while you’re also on the phone, or send someone a picture from the road while you’re describing what you’re seeing.
Other changes relate to the iPhone 3G’s telephone sound quality. We tested for audio differences using an original iPhone and the iPhone 3G that were held at identical distances, and used to simultaneously make phone calls to the same call waiting-equipped telephone number. On the other end of these calls were discerning callers who switched immediately back and forth from one line to the other, telling us how we sounded on each, while we listened to how the callers sounded through our sides. We tested the iPhones this way in handset, speakerphone, and Bluetooth modes. Our callers said that the overall sound signatures of the two phones were the same; neither one possessed heavier bass, treble, or midrange emphasis.
Before listing our test results, it is worth noting that Apple has added metal mesh to the original iPhone’s ear speaker, bottom speaker and microphone. While the mesh doesn’t change audio performance, it can limit the amount of dirt and lint that gets inside these seldom-covered parts. After testing the iPhone 3G against our original iPhones, we are relatively convinced that those who have heard “major” differences between the old and new models are actually comparing their dirty old microphones and speakers to the clean new ones. That said, the iPhone 3G’s bottom speaker is a little more powerful than the original iPhone’s, which makes music or the audio portion of videos a little easier to hear over ambient noise. Audio sounds slightly more full-bodied coming from the iPhone 3G’s bottom speaker than on the iPhone’s, as well.
Contrary to comments made by Apple’s handpicked reviewers, we did not find the difference between old and new iPhone speaker levels in calling mode to be profound. Beyond the issue of dirty or damaged speakers, it is possible that Apple changed the original iPhone’s speaker at some point during production, diminishing its performance, as we have read scattered reports from readers that their iPhone speakerphone levels were too low, and we saw no improvement when Apple released a firmware update claiming to improve speaker performance. A production change might explain this difference.
In handset mode: With the iPhone being used as a handset, without earphones, speakerphone, or Bluetooth engaged, our callers described us as sounding virtually identical between the two phones. On both sides, at similar volume levels, the iPhone 3G calls appeared to have a slight, unimportant edge on clarity; the difference was in no way dramatic. Notably, we have kept our original iPhone in relatively good shape since it first went into service, so neither the ear speaker nor the microphone perform differently now than they did when we started using it.
In speakerphone mode: Callers sounded somewhat louder to us at the iPhone 3G’s maximum speaker volume than on the iPhone, but we didn’t always sound as good to them. Our first caller told us that we sounded noticeably better on the iPhone than on the iPhone 3G, and on multiple attempted calls, our second caller noted that he heard volume warbling in the iPhone 3G—the sound of us fading in and out between words. We could not reproduce this issue in our own testing, and contacted our first caller to see if he heard a warbling noise; he did not. We tried again with third and fourth callers, who reported mixed results; some felt that the iPhone and iPhone 3G sounded equivalent, while others did not.
In Bluetooth mode: We paired the exact same Bluetooth headset, BlueAnt’s multi-point, Bluetooth 2.0-capable Z9i, simultaneously with both the iPhone and iPhone 3G. This headset has the ability to switch between multiple Bluetooth devices on the fly, so we used it to compare wireless sound quality between both phones on the same phone calls. Our callers told us that, unlike the iPhone in handset and speakerphone modes, the iPhone 3G sounded “noticeably” better than the original iPhone in Bluetooth mode, with superior clarity. Based on another early reviewer comment that the iPhone 3G’s Bluetooth exhibited an unusual in-car echoing effect not present in the original iPhone, we did a number of further tests with the Z9i and Bluetrek’s SurfaceSound Compact, and neither we nor our callers ever heard an echo. We are guessing that this may have been caused by an unfamiliar or problematic accessory, rather than a fault in the iPhone 3G itself.
As a final note on iPhone 3G’s calling performance, we were pleased to find that the device did not drop calls when driving from an area with 3G service into an area without it; calls continued uninterrupted with the same level of apparent quality. When we moved back into an area with 3G network coverage, iPhone 3G did not find the 3G network until the call ended.
What’s Changed: iPhone Software 2.0
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.