Pros: Lots of terrific applications available now, 3G is really nice, improved call quality.
Cons: Expensive, Inconsistent 3G service, no voice dialing.
Is there a wireless phone that’s been discussed more than the new Apple iPhone 3G? I’m guessing not. At any rate, I gave into the hype and got a 16GB iPhone 3G on July 12th from the local Apple store. Late last December, I had purchased an 8gb iPhone for my wife, replacing her Razr V3 (with Alltel service), and she couldn’t have been happier with it. I was surprised at how often she used it, as a communications device (phone and text messaging), as a PDA/scheduler, the always available internet connection (even on EDGE), and the other limited, but userul applications which came with the phone. My 2 year contract had also ran out last Decemeber, but I had put off upgrading, torn between sticking with my Razr and Alltel (whose service we had found excellent for several years), or upgrading to a new smartphone from Alltel or someone else.
I’ve been using the iPhone 3G for the past five weeks, and I can report that its an impressive upgrade from any phone or PDA that I’ve used in the past. Being a phone seems more a secondary feature, as the iPhone is an excellent MP3/video player, a mediocre but capable GPS, a 2mp camera, a handheld game machine and a PDA. The iPhone lacks only one key feature that I really miss, it doesn’t support voice dialing. Although you can use a Bluetooth headset with the iPhone, starting a call requires picking up and looking at the phone and touching the screen several times, severely hampering my ability to make calls while driving. A few other reviewers have complained about the camera (its ok, for a phone), and have mentioned a few flaws in the web browser (lacks support for streaming windows media audio and JAVA). Others don’t like the virtual keyboard or a few other weaknesses, but overall the iPhone makes the almost all the right tradeoffs in design, and takes advantage of the internet extremely well. I expect the “always available” internet in my pocket will change the way I use the internet, just like getting a broadband connection in my home did a decade ago.
There are other concerns that relate more to the phone and data service that comes with the iPhone, the total “cost of use” is seriously expensive, and the service is only available from AT&T in the US, at best a mediocre provider with uneven 3G coverage in my city (Baton Rouge).
Is it Expensive? (Yes)
When you buy an iPhone, you’re actually buying the phone itself, and two years of phone and data service from AT&T. The original 8GB iPhone I bought my wife at the end of last year was $400 plus tax. The new 8GB 3G iPhone runs half that, and the 16GB version costs $299, $200 less than 1st generation 16GB version, before you consider the AT&T service. What you save in lower up front costs, you lose in fees. It was possible to buy the 1st gen iPhone and never sign up with AT&T for service, but you were expected to sign up for a 2 year service contract through your computer at home to use it. (A few users found workarounds and used other providers) Adding in the service fees over 2 years, the 8GB iPhone that I bought last December will cost just over $2000. If you buy the 8GB iPhone today, the total cost will be about $2180 over two years for the same service package. A detailed cost summary is shown below:
Original 8GB iPhone (Dec 2007): $399 ($434 including sales tax)
Activation fee $36
Cellular service: $39.99 (959.76 over 2 years for 450 anytime minutes/month, 5000 nights and weekends and 200 text messages/month)
Unlimited Data service $20.00 ($480 over 2 years)
Misc taxes and fees on the cell service were $5.48/month, adding another $131 over 2 years.
The total total cost for and iPhone and 2 years service will be at least $2000, depending on the taxes and fees in your area, and which service plan you end up choosing.
$399 (the phone)
$959.76 (cellular service 200 text msg/mnth, the lowest priced option)
$480 (unlimited data service, doesn't count against cell time)
$131 (taxes and govt fees on the monthly cell service)
If you buy a new 8GB iPhone today, you must sign up in the store for 2 years of service at the same time you buy the phone. The activation fee is now $40. The 200 text messages that were included free with the first iPhone’s service is not included with service for the 3G phones. 200 messages adds $5 more per month (other plans available). The data fee has been increased by $10, to $30 per month, to cover the faster 3G service.
$199 (the phone)
$959.76 (cellular service, the lowest priced option)
$720 (unlimited data service, doesn't count against cell time)
$120 (200 text messages per month, an optional service)
$144 (approx. taxes and govt fees for 2 years)
TOTAL: $2182 for the same service as described above for the 1st generation iPhone.
Since I got a 16GB iPhone, my total cost in use over 2 years will be about $100 more, close to $2300. The price increase for the new iPhone 3G is less than 10%, but it is an increase over the original model. Fortunately, you’re getting something for your money, the faster 3G service, (if its available and has enough bandwidth in your area), a real GPS, and a few other improvements.
You might ask if I considered AT&T’s family plan. The family plan for 2 iPhone’s saves you $10 per month if you have two 3G iPhones. You get less total minutes than you would with 2 separate plans. In our case, we would have also lost the 200 free text messages my wife gets now, and since the Edge data plan was already $10 month less than the 3G data plan, I would have actually ended up paying more if I chose the family plan, and purchased the text messaging for my wife’s phone separately.
In the box with my 3G iPhone was the iPhone itself, a USB charging/data transfer cable, the earbuds/headset, and a 110V charging block. No docking stand comes with the 3G iPhones, an accessory that was included with the older version. The microphone on the earbud headset is really small, basically a wide spot in the wires running to the earbuds, but people I call tell me there’s no loss in audio quality when I use it to make calls. The microphone also includes a switch, when you squeeze it, it starts and/or stops the iPod audio player.
At first glance, the iPhone 3G looks just like the original. It is 4.5” X 2.5” X 0.5” thick, and weighs 4.7 ounces, and feels a little heavy in a shirtpocket. Closer inspection shows the back of the iPhone 3G is curved rather than flat like the original, and is thickest in the middle. That means some tight fitting cases designed for the original iPhone won’t work with the iPhone 3G. Another change is the back of the 3G iPhone is now plastic (black or white) rather than metal, and you can see two tiny screws on the bottom edge (I've never seen screws on a iPod before). Apple says the plastic back allows all of the antennas (wifi, EDGE, 3G, Bluetooth, GPS, etc) in the iPhone to work better. The earphone jack is also no longer recessed, and will work with any 1/8” plug.
The external controls are minimal, mostly you control the iPhone using virtual controls (keyboard, number bad, etc) on touch screen. There’s the headphone jack on the top edge, and volume rocker switch on the right side. Above the volume rocker is a switch to silence the phone’s ringer. The 2” X 3” display takes up almost all of the phones front face. The speaker/earpiece is above the screen, and the home/wake button is below the screen. The microphone and iPod connecter are along the bottom edge, and there’s a sleep/reset button on the top edge. The only real drawback I find with the virtual controls is you can’t do anything by “feel”, which makes it really hard to make a call or access the iPod controls while driving or working out.
Using the 3G iPhone
3G Web Browsing
Apple calls its new iPhone the iPhone 3G, indicating Apple believes the bandwidth increase (2-3X) and multimedia capabilities of the 3G wireless standard is the iPhone’s most significant upgrade. Like a lot of users, 3G was certainly the feature that hooked me. Using web site www.inetworktest.com , I’ve tested my iPhone’s data download speed several times over the last few weeks over different connections.
Using the wifi connection in my home (my ISP is cox cable, and I have a Dlink 655 wireless router), the iPhone downloads data around 800-1200 kbps. Web pages load up quickly, and browsing speeds seem only a little slower than my Ethernet connected desktop.
If I go into the settings and turn off the wifi, or am away from home, and test 3G speeds, I typically see speeds of 100-400 kpbs. If I turn off 3G and set the iPhone to EDGE only (which does enhance battery life), I only see speeds of 50-140 kpbs. I’m disappointed in how inconsistent the 3G service is in my city (Baton Rouge, LA). At some times of the day and in some places, the 3G service isn’t much faster than EDGE. Early mornings, evenings, weekends and in many parts of the city it seems to work well and meets expectations. With EDGE, you can browse web pages at speeds that are about twice as fast as a dialup connection, and a decent 3G connection seems like a (slow) DSL connection, 5-10 times faster than dialup, pretty good for portable phone in your pocket. For me, the Epinions home page usually loads in about 15 seconds over a 3G connection, and takes 40-60 seconds using an EDGE connection. I find myself getting a decent 3G connection about 50-60% of the time even though I’m in areas where AT&T claims the provide 3G coverage. I suspect the inconsistent "3G" service that many users are reporting will eventually impact Apple's reputation, especially with iPhone buyers new to Apple.
If you have a 3G connection, you can browse the internet while making a call, an option not possible on a slower EDGE connection. While browsing the internet on the new iPhone isn’t quite as comfortable as browsing the internet on a desktop with mouse and a broadband connection, its fast enough and easy enough that you won’t hesitate to pull out your iPhone when you want to check the news, sports, email, google, or just about anything else. The Safari browser is implemented well. Scrolling and zooming in with the touch screen is completely intuitive (a double tap zooms in perfectly on the area you tap on), and being able to switch the browser window from portrait to landscape mode just be turning the phone is big plus for web browsing. Using the virtual keyboard and its small, tight qwerty keyboard layout to enter web addresses can sometimes be frustrating, but it works pretty well with practice.
The drawbacks to 3G web browsing on the iPhone are notable. I can watch close to 8 hours of video on a full battery charge, but web browsing over a 3G connection will drain my battery in less than 3 hours. The Safari browser doesn’t support some of the most popular streaming video and audio formats most popular on the internet, notably anything that streams windows media audio or video doesn’t work. Java and Flash don’t work either, eliminating a few more of the websites that make the internet productive and fun. Streaming mp3 files work, and I enjoy listening to streaming archived mp3 streams from several websites. Youtube works well enough, reportedly because the video’s are converted to quicktime for the iPhone’s Youtube application. And, there are several free (and very good) iPhone applications that allow listening to streaming music, news and talk internet “radio” on the iPhone, including Pandora Radio, last.FM and AOL Radio. AOL radio carries several big name CBS radio stations from all over the country.
The iPhone also has a dedicated email application that I use to read mail from my Gmail and Cox Cable POP3 account. It also supports Yahoo mail, AOL, Apple’s MobileMe, and Microsoft Exchange accounts, though I’ve not tried those. Other included internet connected applications track your stocks, weather, and there’s one to view YouTube video’s. There are also buttons to access the iTunes store and Apple’s iPhone application store.
The iPhone as iPod
One of the iPhone’s strengths is that it is a terrific portable digital media player, particularly if you watch videos. The 3” X 2” 480 X 320 color screen is as impressive screen as you’ll find. Colors are bright and accurate and video playback is smooth. The video’s are detailed and look impressive on the iPhone’s screen. The iPhone’s battery will support a good 7 hours of video playback, in my experience, matching Apple’s predictions. Tapping on the screen intuitively brings up the controls, though you can also adjust the volume with the rocker switch n the side of the iPhone. Turning the screen sideways prompts the iPhone to pivot whatever you’re watching to landscape mode so you can take full advantage of the screen.
You can buy or rent movie downloads from Apple’s website, but the prices seem a little high to me (typically movies cost $15 to buy, $4 to “rent”). Episodes of TV shows are $2 each to buy. A 1 hour TV show (actually about 43 minutes) will use 500 mb of space. I can store a handful of movies or a dozen TV shows on my 16gb iPhone and still have plenty of space for other stuff. I’ve downloaded a couple of video’s and vido podcasts from the iTunes store, but mostly I use Nero to recode movies and TV shows I’ve recorded with a TV tuner card in my PC (or ripped from DVD’s) to the video format required by the iPhone.
While the iPhone is larger than the ideal portable digital audio player, it does offer terrific audio quality and the ability to play up to 24 hours worth of tunes and podcasts on a full
charge. Some reviewers have complained about the sound quality of the included earbuds/headset, I think they’re pretty good, good balance and even handles bass frequencies respectably. You can use an equalizer setting to enhance bass if thats important. The earbuds headset are important, since most users will probably want to keep the included earbuds with the iPhone most of the time, and use the headset’s built in microphone when making phone calls.
The iPhone has a few drawbacks that will keep me from using it as my only mp3 player……
- it will be very expensive to replace if I break it, so I’ll use a cheaper mp3 player when mowing the yard or doing other stuff where’s there’s a significant risk of mechanical damage
- the only external listening control is the volume rocker switch, making the iPhone poor choice to use while working out. If I want to pause or skip a tune, I have to pull out the player, push the home button, tap the virtual slider on the screen to unlock it, and only then am able to access the iPod controls on the touch screen. Similarly, since the screen goes black after a few seconds to save battery life, you’ll need to go through the same sequence to see what track is playing.
The iPhone as a Phone
Audio quality of phone calls is quite good, both with the headset or when I’m holding my phone up to my ear. People I’m calling also tell me the quality is good on their end, also. Battery life isn’t great, I and find that I drain the battery at least half way almost every day, and thus need to charge the phone every day. A contributing factor is that I use the iPhone to do much more than making phone calls . Apple says you can get 5 hours of talk time on 3G, and about twice that on the slower Edge service. I don’t have problems with getting phone service anywhere in my city, and dropped calls are rare, I remember only one in the past month.
Text messaging works well, and I find typing short messages with the virtual keyboard fairly easy (I don’t text much, though). Checking phone messages is intuitive and easy, probably the best phone mail I’ve ever used. Tapping the phone mail button on the iPhone’s screen brings up a list of saved phone messages by caller and date. Tapping on one from the list plays it back.
Clarity from the built in speaker is excellent. While its louder and better than the speaker on the first iPhone, the speaker is still only loud enough to use in quiet environments. I find its not quite loud enough to allow the iPhone to be used as a speakerphone while driving in traffic.
There’s a real GPS chip in the iPhone 3G, along with a mapping application that shows where you are. The mapping application uses Google maps, and can display a street view or a satellite view. The application will calculate trips and provide turn by turn directions in list view on the screen, as well as the route hilited on the map, but doesn’t provide voice guided instructions like a dedicated GPS from Garmin or Magellan would. The GPS antenna is weak. It works well in my car, outdoors, or in my home, and finds my location in under a minute. It doesn’t work in most office buildings or big stores or restaurants where I’ve tried it.
The iPhone’s 2MP camera is competent, and takes decent pictures in good lighting. The quality is no where near what you’ll get from a $150 digital camera, but the pictures look very good on the iPhone’s screen and make decent 3X5 prints.
Apple introduced the iPhone 2.0 software and the iPhone application store on iTunes with the iPhone 3G. The applications store is the only legitimate way to add applications to your iPhone or iPod Touch. You can shop the application store on your PC or via the iPhone itself, and download and install applications while your phone is connected to a computer or via a wireless Edge, Wifi, or 3G connection. (2.0 Software upgrades have been also made available for owners of the original iPhone (free) and the iPod touch.)
As I write this 5 weeks after the launch, there are about 2000 iPhone applications on iTunes, a number which grows every day. Most applications cost $10 or less, and there are many very good free applications. Apple provides some quality control over applications before they are placed in the application store, but there still some programs that seem rushed. Fortunately, user reviews and ratings make it fairly clear which ones those are. The application store is a major upgrade to the iPhone, and this new feature alone will keep users talking about the iPhone for the next year, at least. I expect the number and quality of applications to grow exponentially as developers see how popular it is. Only 1 month after launch Apple claims to be selling one million dollars worth of applications per day.
The best applications take advantage of the iPhone’s hardware, applications like….
….Internet radio applications, like Pandora and AOL Radio (both free), which play streaming music and radio from the internet
….Games which make use of the iPhone’s accelerometer. There are games where you roll balls through mazes and drive cars, or fly space ships by tilting your iPhone while watching the screen to navigate through fields of play. There are a lot of great casual games available now. I feel the iPhone will be quickly recognized as one of the best portable gaming machines available, comparable to the Nintendo DS.
…..Databases like Yelp and Showtimes which use the GPS chip to locate restaurants, movies and other points of interest near your current location, and provides information about those movies and restaurants. Other free applications like Sportstap provide one touch access to a day’s sports scores.
My iPhone Wishlist
Buying an iPhone is a $2000 investment. It is a very useful, fun, and competent device, and if you want a cell phone with PDA and data capabilities, this model must be considered. To me, the iPhone 3G is the first and only device that really brings phone service, computing, gaming, digital media, and the internet together in an acceptable form. But that’s not to say Apple and AT&T haven't dropped the ball in a few places. The major weaknesses include:
- No voice dialing. You can use Bluetooth to talk, but not to start calls. This is a huge problem if you want to use the phone while driving.
- AT&T’s 3G coverage is inconsistent in my city, and based on reviews I’ve read, in most places.
- The iPhone needs a mapping application that provides voice instructions
- 3G drains the battery too fast.
- The Safari web browser doesn’t support Flash or many of the most popular streaming video and audio technologies
- The extended iPhone warranty ($70) doesn’t cover accidental damage or theft.