iPhone 3G Review

By Mike on 10:55 am

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The iPhone 3G. Many consider it to be the ultimate cell phone. Perhaps that's stretching it a little bit. It wasn't too long ago that an Apple exec declared that cell phones usually sell for nothing because that's what they're worth. In 2007, rumours of an iPod Phone began appearing and in the summer of that year, Apple released the original iPhone to much fanfare, and chagrin. The phone was largely criticized for its high cost of $499 for the 4gb model. Originally, the iPhone was only available in the United States through an exclusive deal with AT&T. There wasn't a lot of love for the phone's provider either, with one man claiming a 300 page phone bill which he displayed in a viral video. The device did not come to Canada at all during its first year. In the summer of 2008, Rogers announced they would begin carrying the new iPhone 3G, which used the faster UMTS/HDSPA technology for its online connectivity. Apple priced the new phone far more competitively at $199 for the 8gb model. This represented a 66% price drop. This was still based on a subsidized price for a three year contract with your provider. The price drop makes the phone more tempting for consumers who might not otherwise consider a smart phone. That was my case when I decided I needed a new phone. I had originally wanted an iPod Touch to use as a PDA but the iPhone 3G represented better value. This hands on review looks at the $199 8gb model. This review only looks at the phone on its own, not Rogers/Fido service or plans.

Under the Hood
The iPhone comes in a candy bar form factor and at first glance doesn't look like a phone at all. We're used to seeing the Star Trek flip style with conventional buttons and a screen. The iPhone's surface is dominated by it's 3.5'' LCD touch screen in it's 3:2 aspect ratio. The screen has a resolution of 480x320, which is now standard for video capable iPod. Differing it from other portable electronics, the display cover is actually made of durable scratch proof glass instead of plastic. There are only four buttons on the phone's entire surface. The home button (which I'll get to later), the volume rocker, ringer/vibrate toggle switch, and sleep/wake button. Everything else is controlled by the touch screen. The phone has dimensions of 4.5'' x 2.4'' and is 0.48'' thick. It weighs 133 grams. Powering the Phone is an ARM 1176 processor running at 412mhz. A PowerVR MBX co-processor handles the graphics. The iPhone has 128mb of DRAM. The battery is a 1400mAh single cell LiPo pack that is non-user replaceable. Apple claims a battery life of up to 8 hours of talk, 6 hours of Internet use, 7 hours of video playback, 24 hours of audio playback, and 250 hours on standby. Other hardware features include Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR , 802.11b/g Wifi, 2.0 megapixel camera, and assisted GPS.

There are currently two models of the iPhone 3G available to purchase. The base model sells for $199 CAD/US and features 8gb of onboard flash storage. The $299 model increases storage to 16gb but adds no other features. Therefore the 8gb model is the best value given that an additional 4gb of internal flash would not cost anywhere near $100 to add. Only purchase the 16gb model if you intend to watch a lot of videos on your phone or have a large music collection in lossless format. The iPhone 3G comes in two colour options. The 8gb model only comes in black with chrome trim around the edges. The 16gb model comes with either a black or white backplate. The front bezel is black with chrome trim on both models. If getting the 16gb model, I would go with the white for the simple fact that it won't show finger prints. However, phone covers are available that eliminate that problem all together. Third party covers can make the iPhone any colour you'd like.

In box, you get the iPhone itself as well as the usual goodies. There's a USB charger, USB cable, and iPod earbuds with microphone. Apple's earbuds are just awful anyway so I never even took them out of the box. You also get your manuals, key for removing the SIM card, and the same Apple stickers they've thrown in with all their products for the last 25 years. Everything is neatly packed in the box in a two tier design, with the phone on top and accessories on the bottom. The packaging is compact, stylish, and durable so the box could be reused to store the phone in a pinch.

Touch Me Baby
The iPhone comes out of the box ready to use. The iPhone runs on what is known as the iPhone OS. It's essentially a cut down version of Apple's Mac OS X. The OS functions as a cross between the OS X dock and dashboard. Launching your apps is as simple as touching the icon of the one you want. As I noted earlier, most functions on the phone use the touch screen. The iPhone features a user friendly, simple gesture recognition system. Scrolling is accomplished by dragging your finger across the screen in the direction you want. To zoom in, you start with your fingers apart and pinch them. The opposite zooms out. Double tapping in Safari or Mail will zoom in on text columns or specific page elements. Tapping again will zoom out. Double tapping on an app icon will enter a move/delete mode that allows you to move your icons around on the menu or delete unwanted apps. The single physical button below the screen is your home button. Tapping it will exit the app you're in and send you back to the main menu. I though this system was quite innovative compared to the complex set of keys most other smart phones have.
Text entry is accomplished using virtual keyboards on the touch screen. If there is one problem with the iPhone's touch system, it's this. Without physical keys as a guideline, it's easy to hit the wrong letter and then have to go back and fix it. The virtual keyboards are no good for typing out long emails or notes. If you have fat fingers, I suggest using a stylus. Some third party companies do make styli for the iPhone but Nintendo DS ones should work too. They're cheap and available everywhere. The iPhone does use a standard QWERTY layout. The phone app is dialed using a virtual number pad but the buttons are much bigger so dialling shouldn't ever be a problem.
In addition to this control scheme, the iPhone features accelerometers. The phone knows which way it is oriented. Tilting the phone on its side in some apps will switch from a 2:3 aspect ratio to a 3:2 one. Additionally, iPhone games can be controlled using the accelerometers in the same way Sony's SIXAXIS controller works.

What's the Apps
Apologies to Jim Norton for stealing his joke. What is the apps? Well, there's lots to choose from that give the iPhone additional functionality. There are 19 apps preloaded: SMS, Calender, Photo, Camera, YouTube Player, Stock ticker, Google Maps, Yahoo Weather, Clock, Calculator, Notes, Settings, iTunes Store, App Store, Contacts, Phone, Mail, Safari, and iPod. Additional apps can be purchased from the Apps store, either directly from the phone over wifi only or through iTunes on your computer. For the sake of this review, we'll look at the Apps Store built into the iPhone. You must have an iTunes account to download apps. The apps themselves are arranged via category. They can either be freeware or payware. Free ones worth picking up include Facebook, Last.fm internet radio, and iTV which shows movie and TV scheduels in your area. Apps on the store are divided into a variety of categories such as productivity, business, games, and lifestyle. You can also select to see updates for apps you already have, hot apps divided between free and payware, and new apps. From there though, the apps are haphazardly arranged. Navigating the app store is not vary intuative and the search feature is only useful if you know what you're looking for. Apps are not listed in any logical manner such as by price or alphabetical order. I personally would have preferred a function where you could select to see only free apps or pay apps in all categories. Unlike the iTunes music store, there is no set pricing for apps either. Payware ones can range from as little as $0.99 to $30 or more. One of the expensive apps in question is the Oxford English Dictionary, which is built into Apple's computers at no charge but is extra on the phone. It costs $24.99. Fortunately, there is a free and decent dictionary app called Dictionare which works well in a pinch.

Surfing the Web on the Go
Apple includes Safari Mobile on both the iPhone and iPod Touch. I haven't used to many mobile browsers, but compared to the PSP one, Safari is pretty impressive. The iPhones large amount of memory means that it is fully capable of rendering web pages in their full resolution, rather than chopped down mobile version. Everything is displayed accurately with no shifting of items. You can tilt the iPhone on its side for a landscape view, which makes certain pages, such as web forums, easier to view. Portrait view is ideal for reading news columns. Just double tap on a text column and Safari will automatically zoom in on the text for you. There is also integrated Google Search. Unfortunately, the iPhone lacks copy and paste functionality. Despite this, it's one of the best mobile browsing experiences around. 802.11g Wifi functionality means pages load fast. However, I found 3G speeds to be less impressive. However, I believe this is due to a problem with my network, which I'll get to later. Like most mobile browsers, Safari lacks Adobe Flash support. Since a lot of web pages now use Flash, this can be a problem at times. Adobe has Flash for iPhone planned but Apple hasn't committed.
As for email, it's pretty standard for mobile mail. You can either use your own accounts or Apple's MobileMe, which costs extra in addition to your monthly phone and data bill. MobileMe is useless since the iPhone integrates seemlessly with GMail, Yahoo Mail, MSN Hotmail, and your ISP's email service. Using online mail services is great for mobile since some ISPs will only let you receive mail and not send out mail unless you're accessing it through their service. One problem with mobile Mail is that there are no junk filters integrated. Gmail and other online services have their own junk filters so you won't receive junk through them, as it is prefiltered before being downloaded to your phone.

Finding the Way
The iPhone features a GPS function integrated with Google Maps. This can be extremely helpful when your lost. However, the iPhone isn't meant for GPS so it may have trouble finding the satellite signal in doors or in the city. If that's the case, it uses your IP address location or proximity to cell phone towers to triangulate your location. Google Maps is full featured including satellite views. It can also give you directions and show your route progress through GPS.

What about just making a phone call
Well, the iPhone can do everything except make phone calls. I ran into some issues with dropped calls. For the first two weeks I owned the phone, I had no issues. All of a sudden, it inexplicably started dropping every single call (both incoming and outgoing) about five second in. Finding technical help from my provider, Fido, was eaiser said than done. I couldn't find technical support listed on their 1-888 line. I went to the place I bought it, no help. Then I went to the tech counter at a Fido store, they don't fix the iPhone there. The tech did give me a number to call and I finally did get the problem fixed. It turned out to be a network error solved by restarting the network connection settings in the phone's Settings/General menu. So I basically had to run around for a rather simple fix. Typical. By deafult, the original 2.0 firmware on the 3G did have issues with dropping calls though I was using the new FW2.1 that supposedly solves that problem. Other than that, the phone features are what you'd expect. Virtual keypad, organized contacts for speed dial, text voicemail that tells you what the message is about before listening to it, and call history. One thing the iPhone lacks is hands free dialling. However, this can be added via an app from the Apps Store.

The iPod Phone
MP3 functionality is still pretty basic, as with all other iPod players. Limited graphic equalizer which cannot be adjusted, no FM radio, no voice recording by default, though there's an app for that. You can organize songs and albums and play them by touching them. Turning to a landscape view goes into "Cover Flow" mode which displays albums and shows album art in a quasi-3D fashion. The iPhone like all iPods features MP3, AAC, AIFF, Apple Lossless support for audio. The iPod is one of the few mainstream players that supports lossless playback. However, the 8gb of storage limits how much lossless audio you can have. An entire lossless album is usually 250-300mb in size. Audio quality is identical to other iPods and is decent enough, though not top notch. For video, the iPhone supports MPEG formats, AVC, Quicktime, and Youtube through the built in Youtube app. Video quality looks decent though unlike the PSP, the iPhone lacks a true 16:9 display. Feature length movies and TV shows can be downloaded from the iTunes Store. Alternatively, you can rip DVDs and recorded TV shows and convert them to an iPod supported format.

Apple has come a long way since the iPod was first introduced back in 2001. While it wasn't the first MP3 player available, it revolutionized the way we listen to our music. When Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007, they hoped to do the same thing with the way we use our cell phones. Apple came rather late into what was already a vary saturated market. Since then, the iPhone has become the best selling phone in North America; a tough feat by anybody's standards. What users get is a light weight, durable handset with one of the best user experiences around. Everything just seems to function so smoothly, the way a phone ought to perform. That said, the iPhone can probably best be described as a jack of all trades, master of none. It doesn't really bring anything truly revolutionary to the table since touch screens and downloadable apps have been a PDA staple since Apple's ill fated Newton. It also lacks certain features that are considered basic on some smart phones such as voice activated dialling and cut & paste. I also think Apple's hopes of turning it into a game console (and PSP/Nintendo DS killer) too might be a bit of wishful thinking on their part. All that aside, Apple has come up with a really nice product, which is well worth the $199 entry fee.

What Works:
-Best mobile web browsing experience around
-Downloadable apps make the iPhone endlessly customizable
-Fast 3G support
-Built in Apps provide lots of functionality
-Accelerometer features interesting
-GPS with Google Maps is vary handy
-Download songs right through your phone from iTunes Store app
-Full featured iPod as well as phone

What Doesn't Work
-No built in spam filter in Mail
-No Adobe Flash support
-Virtual keyboard can be clunky if you have fat fingers
-No voice activated dialling by default (can be added through third party app)
-Dubious as a PSP/Nintendo DS replacement
-No copy & paste for email, web
-Still some bugs to be ironed out. Phone has a mind of its own at times
-App Store clunky to navigate

Score: 8.5 out of 10

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