Apple iPhone 3G review: Apple iPhone 3G

The iPhone 3G's support for AT&T's wireless UMTS wireless broadband network comes too late for original iPhone buyers who grew frustrated with the slow Web-surfing speeds over the 2.5G EDGE network, but it makes for a much more satisfying second-generation device. Safari consistently delivered speeds of about 300Kbps to 500Kbps and even faster at times in our tests. That's a huge jump over the typical EDGE speeds of less than 100Kbps. Web pages that used to take minutes took only seconds to load via 3G.

In preliminary testing, the iPhone 3G blew away its predecessor. When using the 3G network, (a very bandwidth-heavy Web site) loaded as quickly as 38 seconds and as slowly as 47 seconds. In contrast, the same site loaded anywhere from 2 minutes to 2 minutes and 45 seconds on the original iPhone using EDGE. We also tried accessing on the iPhone 3G using EDGE. Its fastest speed also was 2 minutes but the slowest speed was a painful 3 minutes 30 seconds. The mobile site of loaded in just 12 seconds on the 3G network but up to 23 seconds using EDGE. For more on Internet speeds, check out this Prizefight.

The iPhone 3G's Safari browser.

Of course, the 3G experience is all relative. Your experience will depend on many factors including 3G coverage in your area, the number of people on the network at a given time, and the kind of pages you're trying to access--as a rule, busier pages will load more slowly. Also, it's absolutely essential that you test 3G coverage in your area using another AT&T 3G handset before buying the new iPhone. AT&T can give you guidance, but there's no substitute for real-world experience. Outside of the United States, the iPhone's tri-band (850/1900/2100) UMTS/HSDPA support will deliver 3G coverage around the world. One final point is that 3G will suck juice from your phone, so you should consider switching it off (there's an options in the Settings menu) when you're not using it. At that point, the handset will default to EDGE.

Find your way with the iPhone 3G's Assisted GPS.

While the current iPhone location services find your position by triangulating among nearby cell phone towers and satellites, the iPhone 3G uses Assisted GPS supplemented by satellites, which better pinpoints your location. It also offers live tracking so that you can monitor your progress as you drive (or walk) along. We tested the GPS feature both in a car and on foot. When on foot, the tracking service from satellites was quite accurate. It pinpointed our location almost exactly, and the small blue dot that represented our location followed us as we moved along. What's more, we didn't lose the connection as we walked between tall buildings or under an overpass. Naturally, the satellite connection dropped out as we entered buildings, but it switched automatically to find the closest cellular phone tower or hot spot. That method isn't quite as accurate--at times it could only show a circle spanning several city blocks--but you get the general idea of where you are. There were times where we had to ask the iPhone to pinpoint our location again, particularly as we left buildings and switched back to a satellite connection. When riding in a car, the GPS wasn't quite as specific. The blue dot tended to jump block by block or as we came to stoplights.

Even with these additions, however, the iPhone's GPS features can't compete with standalone GPS devices. Google Maps provides point-to-point directions on the iPhone 3G, but the phone doesn't support turn-by-turn directions in real time, and it's unclear whether that capability will come later from third-party applications. Apple's SDK prohibits location-based services "designed or marketed for real-time route guidance," but that doesn't mean we'll never see them.

The iPhone's iPod
We can't blame Apple for leaving the iPhone's iPod functions unchanged. In the year since the original iPhone, no competitor has been able to match the iPhone's aptitude as a music and video player. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Apple's online iTunes store continues to reign as a top destination for music, video, and podcast downloads.

The iPhone 3G's music player.

As with the first-generation iPhone, the iPod icon on the iPhone 3G's main menu reveals a submenu of any content transferred from your computer's iTunes media library, including music, videos, and podcasts. The iPhone's remarkably responsive touch screen and its intuitive navigation allow you to swiftly scroll through lengthy song lists or leisurely browse your music collection in an attractive Cover Flow view. By default, the iPod menu includes shortcut icons for Playlists, Artists, Songs, and Video; however, these shortcuts can be easily swapped for other options that may be more useful to you, such as Podcasts, Albums, Audiobooks, Compilations, Composers, or Genres.

If you hunger for new music but lack the patience to download songs at home, the iPhone's iTunes Wi-Fi Store lets you browse new music and download purchases directly to your phone. As the name implies, the iTunes Wi-Fi Store unfortunately works only over your iPhone's Wi-Fi Internet connection, which is surprising, considering that downloads over 3G would strengthen the iPhone's appeal as on-demand music player.

The arrival of third-party applications to the iPhone has ushered in several new music-related capabilities, including a few free music applications we consider essential. For instance, radio fans can take advantage of AOL Radio and Pandora to stream music directly to the iPhone over both Wi-Fi and 3G connections. An in-house Apple application, , transforms your iPhone into a full-featured remote control for your computer's iTunes music library or a separate Apple TV system.

The iPhone 3G does an admirable job supporting MP3, AAC, Audible, Apple Lossless, WAV, and AIFF audio files, as well as MPEG-4 or H.264 video files. Predictably, the iPhone does not support Windows Media file types such as WMA audio or WMV video, or more boutique formats like DIVX, FLAC, or Ogg Vorbis.

With the exception of songs downloaded directly to the phone using the iTunes Wi-Fi music store, loading audio and video content onto the iPhone 3G requires Apple's iTunes software. Unlike the initial release of the first-generation iPhone, you can now manually sync music files to your iPhone if you prefer not to have content automatically load from your iTunes library. The iPhone 3G's sound quality and EQ enhancement features are indistinguishable from the first-generation version's and certainly good enough to make your existing MP3 player redundant. The iPhone 3G's built-in speakers crank out noticeably louder--but still musically unacceptable--sound. To squeeze the most from the iPhone's sound quality, we recommend investing in a pair of higher quality headphones or earbuds than those that come with the device.

The iPhone 3G's video player.

The iPhone 3G's near-perfect storm of video features includes iTunes movie rental compatibility, excellent video podcast support, a dedicated YouTube player, autobookmarking, full-screen resizing, and support for embedded closed captions and chapter bookmarks. The iPhone's critical shortcoming as a Web-enabled portable video player is its lack of support for the Internet's ubiquitous Flash video content. Smaller video gripes include our dislike of the iPhone's reflective screen and the lack of a flip-out kickstand. The iPhone 3G's video quality offers no surprises, displaying crisp and colorful 480x320 video on its 3.5-inch screen. The phone tends toward negative blacks and low contrast when viewing the iPhone 3G at off angles, but the overall video experience is one of the best you'll find on a mobile phone.

With all of the iPhone 3G's cool new audio and radio applications, it's disappointing that Apple couldn't find a way to roll wireless A2DP stereo Bluetooth audio streaming into the device. In time, we hope third-party manufacturers will find a way to help users stream music from their iPhones to their Bluetooth-enabled speakers, headphones, and car stereos.

The camera lens sits in its usual location. There's still no flash or self-portrait mirror.

We were hoping that the iPhone 3G would throw in an improved camera, but we got the same 2-megapixel shooter as in the original model, although with a slight improvement in the photo quality. Colors looked natural, there was little image noise, and interior shots had enough light. The camera's white balance can't handle bright sunlight, but that's not unusual for a camera phone. See our iPhone 3G camera slide show for a full gallery of shots. Camera features remain equally minimal, and the blatant lack of multimedia messaging and video recording continue to rub us the wrong way.

The iPhone 3G has improved photo quality .

Contacts search
A search bar now appears above your contacts list. Typing in any portion of the name will take you immediately to that person.

iWork documents and PowerPoint
We haven't tried iWork documents, but we were able to view PowerPoint e-mail attachments. The attachment was rather large (1.3MB), but it didn't take very long to download. Keep in mind that as with other Office documents, the iPhone does not allow you to edit attachments.

Bulk delete and move
This works in your e-mail boxes only. In your in-box you'll see a small "edit" button at the top right-hand corner. When you press the button, a small circle will appear next to each e-mail. Touch the circle to highlight as many messages as you like and then select the "delete" or "move" options.

Scientific calculator
As Steve Jobs said in his WWDC keynote, you'll now get a scientific calculator when you turn the phone on its side. You'll see a lot more buttons that will set a mathematician's heart aflutter.

Parental controls
You now will find a "Restrictions" selection under the General tab of the main Settings menu. There you can restrict access to the Safari browser, explicit songs, YouTube, and the iTunes and iTunes App Stores. You can select as many restrictions as you like.

Choose a language.

Language support
The iPhone 3G also brings language support and typing keyboards in French, Canadian French, U.K. English, German, Japanese (QWERTY and Kana), Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Brazilian Portuguese, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, Korean, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Russian, and Polish. You can select as many languages you want by opening the "International" selection under the General tab of the main Settings menu. For Chinese, you choose from Pinyin or a graffiti-style application for writing characters. As you enter characters, suggestions will appear to the right. To change between menus, choose from the small globe icon next to the space bar.

What else is new?
The IPhone 3G offers a host of additional new features, from the noteworthy to the trivial. For the enterprise, there's remote wipe (to erase data in case of a stolen or lost phone) and integration with Cisco IPSec VPN for remote network access. You'll also find calendar colors and a new interface for entering passwords. (Now the screen temporarily displays the last character you entered so you can verify that you haven't mistyped.) We found the new ability to take screen captures (by holding the Home button and pressing the power/sleep key) especially useful. Screenshots end up in the camera's photo gallery.

What's missing?
We've mentioned already that Apple has stubbornly left out multimedia messaging, stereo Bluetooth, and video recording. But we also wish we'd gotten a landscape keyboard for messaging, cut and paste, voice dialing, Flash support for the Web browser, tactile feedback for the touch screen and a memory card (or at least a 32GB model). Hopefully, Apple will add these features in time. True, they might also come as third-party applications, but Apple should really be the source for them. We'd also like the capability to send calendar appointments to contacts and an easier way to transfer files to the iPhone. Because there's no way to transfer them via iTunes, you'll have to e-mail files to yourself to access them on the iPhone. And even then, there's no accessible mass file storage.

Call quality
When we reviewed the original iPhone, we withheld our Editors' Choice Award largely over middling call quality because of low volume and a slight background hum. The iPhone 3G corrects most of these problems--our tests revealed louder volume and clearer audio. We also noticed that we could hear better at a variety of angles, whereas the first iPhone had a sensitive sweet spot. Also, while it was difficult to hear the original iPhone in noisy environments, we had better luck with this model. Reception didn't vary between GSM and 3G calls. We've heard a lot of reports that iPhone 3G users are experiencing a lot of dropped calls. Though we haven't experienced any issues on our review phone thus far, we have been on the receiving end of dropped calls while talking on a landline to an iPhone 3G

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