iPhone 3G: Great for New Buyers, but Upgraders Beware

Updated: 1:00 p.m. PDT with Web-page viewing performance test info.

Innovative design and seamless integration between software and hardware propelled the first-generation iPhone to instant stardom. Its successor, the iPhone 3G, at once expands upon that innovation--and delivers it at half the entry price of its predecessor. The result is a classy device whose abilities continue to make it a strong choice for smartphone shoppers who value form that supports function--but less of a must-have upgrade than you might think.

Up front, Apple largely delivers on its promises. iPhone 2.0 software supports, among other things, the newly launched and eagerly awaited iPhone App Store. (Owners of first-generation iPhone can download the software for free.) A faster wireless radio loads Web pages up to three times faster. An appealing lower price makes the iPhone more accessible to an audience beyond early adopters and gadget hounds ($299 for the 16GB version in either white or black or $199 for the 8GB version--that's one-third the price of the original 4GB iPhone that shipped a year ago).

But in some ways, the iPhone 3G feels like an incremental upgrade at best--one that does little to capitalize on Apple's already sizable jump on its competition. The list of details that remain overlooked or are not included is sizable--no removable media, no Java or Flash support in Safari, no cut-and-paste. Almost all of these are points that Apple could have easily fixed--which makes their omission all the more frustrating.

(You can read more of PC World's iPhone coverage here.)

iPhone: The Big News

The big news with the iPhone 3G is given away by its name: if you live within AT&T's 3G Mobile Broadband network (which uses HSDPA technology), the new phone can provide up to three times the throughput of AT&T's EDGE network. The original iPhone's lack of 3G support was widely criticized when that model first launched last summer--it used only AT&T's slower EDGE wireless data network.

AT&T says its third-generation mobile network is available in some 280 markets now; that number will grow to 350 by next year, according to the company.

Performance

How valuable 3G may be will depend entirely on AT&T's network coverage in your area. I tested the phone in suburban Long Island, New York--where AT&T shows 3G network support. At Inetworktest.com, the original iPhone's EDGE bandwidth was 174.8 kbps; the iPhone 3G's performance was just a little better, at 210.1 kbps.

In this corner of New York (at the Roosevelt Field shopping mall), Wi-Fi performance on the 3G iPhone blew all of those numbers out of the water: 1360.3 kbps.

When I visited a collection of six Web pages from my spot here in Westbury, Long Island, I discovered first-hand the variances that AT&T's 3G network can show. Supposedly, this area does have 3G coverage, however in my spot, I didn't find the performance up to par.

On the original iPhone, using AT&T's EDGE network: NBC.com took 65 seconds to load; an MP3 took 52 seconds to load; eBay's home page took 96 seconds; NationalGeographic.com took 45 seconds; Macworld.com took 117 seconds; PCWorld.com required 158 seconds.

The iPhone 3G, when set to use AT&T's 3G network took: 40 seconds to load NBC.com; 80 seconds to load an MP3; 23 seconds to load eBay's home page; 35 seconds to load NationalGeographic.com; 32 seconds to load Macworld.com; and 38 seconds to load PCworld.com. Those numbers don't support what I'd expect of 3G performance; I'll be interested to see how the phone performs in other regions when I travel about with it.

The iPhone 3G's Wi-Fi performance, predictably, came out on top. NBC.com took 26 seconds to load; the MP3 took 18 seconds to load; eBay's home page took 16 seconds; NationalGeographic.com took 22 seconds; Macworld.com took 18 seconds; PCWorld.com required 17 seconds.

GPS

Another big addition--a GPS receiver. The first-generation iPhone could triangulate your location based on cell-phone towers and Wi-Fi signals. The iPhone 3G's Assisted-GPS receiver should refine those results, both for mapping directions and for location-based applications (such as finding the nearest pizza place or hotel). We'll report back on the GPS's accuracy after we've had a chance to put it through its paces.

One pleasant surprise with this upgrade: Talk quality is vastly improved. The initial calls I made on the 3G network had excellent audio quality and clarity; and the volume button was very effective in adjusting the audio (I had issues with the first iPhone's loudness last year).

Similar Look, Different Feel

The new iPhone 3G has the same width and length as its predecessor, but it is .2-inch thicker. It has a curvier design on its underside, which makes the phone feel comfortable in your hand. The gorgeous multitouch 3.5-inch screen is back; pinch, squeeze, and glide gestures continue to make the iPhone one of the simplest--and certainly the most fun--cell phone to navigate.

Some of the iPhone 3G's design points have been switched up. Whereas before the back was metallic, now it's all molded plastic; and the buttons along the side--previously made of hard plastic--are now cast in solid metal (a subtle improvement). The plastic back helps account for the iPhone 3G's minutely lighter weight: 4.7 ounces to 4.8 ounces. But, it's very prone to fingerprints, and it both looks and feels a bit chintzy, like stepping down from a Lexus to a Camry.

Thankfully, Apple integrated one very necessary and welcome hardware change: The headphone jack is now flush with the upper edge of the phone, so you can use any headphones with a standard 3.5mm jack you wish. This marks a notable improvement over the previous version, which required a kludgy plug to connect a headphone.

The charger is significantly smaller and less obtrusive--that's important considering you may need to take it with you more often. You can't replace the battery yourself (Apple charges $86 to do it), and if you use the 3G radio, you'll drain the battery up to twice as fast as you would without the 3G radio. The phone no longer comes with a charging dock--Apple now charges an extra $30 for that (the dock is slightly smaller now). Instead, like iPods, the iPhone 3G now comes with just a USB charging cable.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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