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mac.column.ted: iPhone 3G and MobileMe: New features add little value

The more time I spend with my new iPhone 3G and the new MobileMe software, the more I find that neither of these upgrades were worth the bother.

Ted Landau

July 2008

The more time I spend with my new iPhone 3G and the new MobileMe software, the more I find that neither of these upgrades were worth the bother. Now, before you start sending me hate mail, let me be clear:

I still consider the iPhone to be one of the greatest technology inventions of the decade. And the new iPhone 3G is even better than the original. The iPhone 2.0 software, especially the App Store, is a significant leap forward from iPhone 1.1.4. As for MobileMe, on balance (assuming the service can ever get past its initial hassles and actually work as intended), I believe it is marginally superior to the .Mac service it replaces.

So what's the problem? The problem is this: The new hardware features in the iPhone 3G and the new options in MobileMe are largely irrelevant to me (and I suspect to a lot of other people as well).

iPhone 3G

Let's start with the iPhone 3G. It has only two major new features: 3G network support and GPS tracking capability. Yes, it also has improved sound (I can now hear my iPhone ringing even in a noisy environment) and a standard-size headphone outlet. But these are small-change improvements. It's 3G and GPS that represent the major differences from the original iPhone. So let's look at these features.

If you had asked me before I bought an iPhone 3G, I would have told you that 3G support is a very big deal. Indeed, painfully slow Web browsing, when using an EDGE connection, was my single biggest complaint about the original iPhone. However, it turns out that the 3G capability makes far less difference for me than I had anticipated.

For one thing, the 3G network is not available in nearly as many places as the EDGE network. I often can't get on the 3G network. Even if I do make a 3G connection, it is often such a weak one (just one bar with occasional dropping off altogether) that the overall speed seems not much different than with an EDGE connection.

Making matters worse, keeping 3G enabled on my iPhone is a significant battery drain. Plus (although I have not yet had problems here), iPhone Atlas reports that 3G can interfere with other iPhone functions, such as using GPS in Maps or making calls through a Bluetooth car audio system.

The net result is that I have decided to disable 3G on my iPhone (via the option in Settings > General > Network). I turn it back on pretty much only if I intend to use Safari and find myself in an area that has a reasonably strong 3G connection but no Wi-Fi availability. This combination doesn't happen very often.

As for GPS, this too appeared at first to be a great addition to the iPhone. I was especially looking forward to using an iPhone as a turn-by-turn navigation aid -- eliminating the need for me to purchase and carry around a separate GPS device. However, as you have probably heard by now, this turn-by-turn feature is not yet available for the iPhone. Without this, GPS in an iPhone offers very little. Remember, even without GPS, your iPhone can still find your current location in Maps and can still use Location Services in other applications (such as for geotagging photos). The non-GPS location ability is not as accurate as GPS and doesn't offer "live tracking" but (at least for my use) it is usually good enough. Finally, there are locations (such as when surrounded by tall buildings) where GPS may not be available even though other networking options are. The end result, once again, is that I rarely take advantage of having GPS on my iPhone.

Eventually, I expect these features to offer more value than they do today (turn-by-turn GPS may even be in the next iPhone update, as reported by iPhone Atlas). But for right now, given my use of the iPhone, the advantages of upgrading from an original iPhone to an iPhone 3G have turned out to be close to zero.


Then there's MobileMe. I am sure you have heard about the troubled start of this new service (read this article if you haven't heard). But forget all of that. My disappointment with MobileMe would remain even if everything about the service worked exactly as promised.

Yes, there are some valid uses for MobileMe (just as there were for its .Mac predecessor). Assuming you are willing to spend $99 a year, rather than seek out cheaper or even free alternatives, you can use it to sync data across multiple Macs, backup your Mac's data to an online source or post photos to a Web gallery. However, I am focusing here on what's new in MobileMe, what you can now do that you couldn't do with .Mac. In this regard, there appear to be only two significant additions: The Web apps (for managing your email, contacts and calendars from a browser) and the ability to push these data to your iPhone. I rarely need to access my data from a browser. Thus, for me, the single biggest new draw of MobileMe is the push function: the ability to have changes made on my Mac (or email that I receive) instantly and wirelessly transfer to my iPhone.

The first splash of reality here is that (as Apple has acknowledged) "instant" can really mean "15 minutes or more" -- when going from your Mac to the MobileMe cloud and from there to your iPhone. But let's ignore this too.

The critical questions for me were: How important is it for my iPhone to receive updated data (almost) instantly? And is it worth the downsides? The answers turned out to be: Not very and no.

I don't often update my Address Book. And I rarely make calendar appointments on such short notice that I need to worry about getting them from my Mac to my iPhone within 15 minutes. Or vice versa. In any case, when I make such changes, I am typically at my desk using my Mac. If needed, I can sync my iPhone in iTunes after making the changes. As for email, I can set my iPhone to fetch new messages every 15 minutes from any email account, even without MobileMe. I have no need to find out about new messages more often than that.

Apple states: "Push is recommended because it helps reduce unnecessary network traffic, and updates data without you have to open an application." True enough. However, except for email, you don't get alerted to when new data arrives on your iPhone. For example, if your spouse enters information to your calendar in iCal, while you are away from home, you won't know about it on your iPhone until you open up the Calendar program and check. So you still wind up having to open the application.

Even so, I might welcome using these push features -- if it weren't for their downside. The biggest downside (as with the 3G network) is that the continual checking for new data uses up the iPhone's battery at a faster rate. Beyond that, putting MobileMe between your iPhone and your Mac adds another layer of complexity and thereby another opportunity for things to go wrong. For instance, a recently posted Apple article states: "When syncing contacts with MobileMe on an iPhone, if you have assigned a specific ringtone to a contact, the ringtone for that contact may revert back to the default ringtone." Oops. That's not what you want to happen.

I can imagine there are iPhone users who would benefit from a near instant wireless updating of their contact, calendar and bookmark data. However, most of these people are in the business world and are using Microsoft Exchange, and thus don't need MobileMe.

Bottom line

The bottom line with MobileMe is the same as for the iPhone 3G: For most users, the newly added features offer little or no value to the service/device it replaces. This means that, if you currently own an original iPhone, I wouldn't rush to replace it. And if you have happily lived without .Mac, I don't see much reason to subscribe to MobileMe.

To send comments regarding this column directly to Ted, click here. To get Ted's latest book, Take Control of Your iPhone, click the link.

  • GPS in Maps
  • Bluetooth car audio system
  • reported by iPhone Atlas
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