iPhone 3G Review
By Sandy Berger on August 5, 2008
It’s a cell phone, GPS locator, camera, and video iPod, all in one. It connects to the Internet via cell network or Wi-Fi. It is a complete personal digital assistant that can access email, calendar, and other pertinent information. While it’s not the first cell phone to perform these tasks, it’s large, clear touch screen, an accelerometer that tracks the position of the device, and a myriad of add-on applications make it unique. Recent price reductions and the faster speed of this new 3G model make it more appealing. So we set out to thoroughly assess the usability and likability of this new device.
Apple’s sense of good design is apparent from the time your first gaze on the packaging. As shown in Figure 1, the simplistic white box has an embossed picture of the iPod screen with silver trim. The side of the box simply says, “iPhone 3G” in matching silver letters. While the iPod itself, like most other such devices, contains some toxic chemicals, Apple has at least done a little for the environment. The iPhone’s box is made of biodegradable potato-starch-based shipping material.
As shown in Figure 2, the iPhone comes with a small array of useful components. The included stereo headset has a built-in microphone that can be used for phone calls. If you are listening to music, you just click the microphone button on the cord to interrupt the music and to answer or end a call. Unfortunately, the headphones still have Apple’s traditional hard, round ear buds that we disliked in our iPod review.
The box also includes a dock connector to USB cable for synching and charging the iPhone. An included USB power adapter connects to the USB cable and can be used to charge the iPhone from a standard power outlet. There is also a small black polishing cloth and a small plastic tool that can be used to eject the telephone’s SIM card.
Like, the packaging, the iPhone itself, as shown in Figures 3 & 4, is beautiful to look at. The 8-gigabyte model comes in black, while the 16-gigabyte model that we reviewed, can be purchased in either black or white.
The iPhone is a joy to use. The 3.5” (diagonal) screen has a crisp and clear 480-x-320-pixel resolution. The touch screen functionality is well-designed and easy to use. You simply slide your finger across the screen to unlock it. Then touch any icon or control on the screen to choose it. On many screens, like when working with the Web browser, pulling 2 fingers apart while holding them against the screen will act as a zoom function to make the chosen part of the screen larger. You can simply pinch 2 fingers together on the screen to make the screen smaller. You can then use your finger to drag any area of the screen into view.
The front of the iPhone has only one button. Use this button to access the Home screen, which is shown in Figure 5. The home screen has 5 rows of icons corresponding to the included functions of the iPhone. The first 4 rows, include weather, calendar, photos, camera, settings, clock, calculator, maps, notes, app store, iTunes, stocks, YouTube, and SMS text messages.
The bottom row contains what Apple assumes will be the most used icons. They include phone, email, Safari web browser, and iPod. The entire home page is customizable. You can move the icon to any location. As you add more applications, the home page expands to 2 or more pages. Each page can be accessed by dragging your finger across the screen to move the current page to the left or right showing the next or previous page. The 4 icons on the bottom are shown on each page of the Home Screen making it easy to always access them.
The iPhone has a lot of neat little shortcuts that you can learn from others or by experimenting. One of those shortcuts is to click the home button twice to access your list of Favorite contacts.
Pressing icons to make choices on the iPhone is intuitive and easy. Using the pop-up touch keyboard or keypad takes a little more work. If you are used to a Blackberry or other “thumb-typing” type of keyboard, you will be frustrated with the touch screen when typing. However, we found that, like most other different types of keyboarding, you can get used to the iPhone keyboard with a little practice.
The bottom of the iPhone, as shown in Figure 6, has from left to right, a built-in speaker, a standard 30-pin dock connector, and a microphone.
The top of the iPhone, as shown in Figure 7, has an on-off button, the SIM card tray, and a standard 3.5mm microphone jack. The previous version of the iPhone had a non-standard microphone jack that required a special adapter. This has been corrected in this new 3G version.
The left side of the iPhone, shown in Figure 8, has a small, but very useful slider that can be used to change the ringer from silent to ring and vice-versa. When you move the slider to the silent position, the phone vibrates quickly to show that you have set it in that mode. Next to the ring/silent button is a volume up and down control. Although the volume can also be controlled by the touch screen, it is often more convenient to use this control.
The beauty of the iPhone is in its simplicity. There are minimal buttons, but the iPhone’s functionality is always at your fingertips. Instead of the nested menus needed to control most cell phones, the iPhone relies on visual menus and cues making it easier to use than any other cell phone we’ve seen.
AT&T is the only carrier in the US that currently handles the iPhone. Apple has made arrangements in other countries with wireless carriers in those countries to handle the cellular connections. At $199 for the 8 gigabyte version and $299 for the 16 gigabyte version, the price of the iPhone has plummeted. Unfortunately, at the same time, AT&T has upped the minimum monthly data charge for the iPhone from the $20 a month that was required on the previous version of the iPhone to $30 a month for the new 3G iPhone.
However, while the older iPhone used the slow AT&T Edge network, the new iPhone can connect via the much faster AT&T network, called 3G. This is why the new iPhone is called 3G. This confuses some who ask why a 2nd generation iPhone is called 3G. In any case, AT&T’s 3G network is faster, but it is not available everywhere. If that network is not available, the iPhone will fall back to using the slower Edge network.
If you have a 3G network, you will like the speed of the iPhone. However, the iPhone also hooks up to any available Wi-Fi network. So if you have a wireless network at home, the office, and the corner coffee shop that you frequent, not having the faster 3G network may not be much of an inconvenience.
With all of the functionality of this new iPhone, it is not surprising that we longed for better battery life. In our tests, we left the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi on all day, talked for up to 2 hours, played music for hours and played with games and applications throughout the day. Although on most days, the battery lasted throughout the day, there was 1 day when it petered out before the sun went down. We feel the average user will be recharging the iPhone every day. Heavy talkers and 3G users may want to carry their charging cable with them. Unfortunately, like iPods, the iPhone’s battery is not user-replaceable. Only time will tell how long it will last before we have to send it in to Apple for replacement.
If you consider the cell phone functionality of the iPhone of greatest importance, you will not be disappointed. Just press the phone icon to get to the Phone area. As shown in Figure 9, the bottom row has the following choices: Favorites, Recents, Contacts, Keyboard, and Voicemail. All are self-explanatory and the landing page for each area is well-designed and easy-to-navigate. Some perks include the ability to listen to each voice mail in any order rather than having to listen to them all to get to the most important call.
The Keypad Screen, shown in Figure 10, has large buttons and an obvious Call button. As with all other input screens, there is a thick arrow with an X on it on the right side of the screen. You can use this arrow to erase an errant screen press that you might have made.
Although the iPhone is a bit larger than many other phones, it is comfortable to hold up to your ear. The edges of this new 3G model have been slanted just slightly and that minor adjustment gives the phone a better feel in your hand.
The sound quality is excellent. As a matter of fact, it is clearer than most other cell phones we’ve tried. The speaker phone is also excellent. The Bluetooth functionality is very good and also easier to set up than with most cell phones. If you have the phone attached by Bluetooth to headphones or another device, when you pick up the phone to answer a call, you get an onscreen list allowing you to quickly choose to answer the call by the cell phone rather than by the Bluetooth device. This is a wonderful feature that is not as easily accessible on many other phones.
One of the biggest shortcomings of the iPhone is that it has no built-in voice dialing. Many cell phone users have become dependent on voice dialing and with many states outlawing hands-on calling in moving vehicles, this is a huge oversight. Perhaps an application will become available to handle this, but it really should be built-into the phone.
The iPhone is also capable of SMS texting, but it may cost extra. The $30 minimum data plan does not include texting. If you use texting without adding it to your monthly plan, you will pay on a per message basis. Adding it to your monthly plan will add an additional $5 or more.
The iPhone is the best iPod yet. It hooks up to iTunes and essentially works just like any other iPod, but the built-in speakers make it more useful than all those iPods that must be used with earphones or ported to an external speaker. The iPhone’s speaker is good enough to be used at your desk or to provide a little music that you can share with a friend while sitting in the yard or on the front porch. Although not stereo quality, the speaker will provides enough power for listening in a hotel room or when you simply don’t want to put the ear buds in your ears. We also found the speakers useful for listening to audio books.
As shown in Figure 11, the main iPod screen has icons for the major functions on the bottom. They are: Playlists, Artists, Songs, Videos, and More. The More button takes you to listings by Albums, Audiobooks, Compilations, Composers, Genres, and Podcasts.
At any time when in the iPod mode, you can turn the iPhone into the horizontal mode to choose the music by “Cover Flow.” As shown in Figure 12, the Cover Flow shows the album covers. You simply slide your finger across the screen to move through the album covers.
When listening to any music that has an album cover in iTunes, as shown in Figure 13, that cover is shown while the music is playing. There is also a large play/pause button, an easy-to-control volume slider, and a large forward and back button to change tracks.
At first we missed the indicator that shows exactly how far along you are in the song or podcast that is playing, but we quickly found that we could see this by simply tapping on the screen while the song or podcast is playing.
Although the screen is small, videos were still a pleasure to watch on the iPhone. The picture quality is very good, and you are able to watch in either vertical or horizontal mode. The video takes up the entire screen. Again, you simply tap anywhere on the screen to get a play/pause button, volume control, and fast-forward and reverse.
The iPhone has many additional features. The built-in camera is only 2 megapixels, but it takes adequate photos. It is easy to download your photos to the computer because when you hook up the iPhone with the included USB cable, the iPhone shows up in My Computer as an icon that says iPhone Camera. Just click on that icon to see your photos. You can see your photos in the iPhone by touching the Photo icon on the Home screen. This will take you to a Photo Album page, where you will see any photo you have taken with the iPhone in an area called Camera Roll. Pictures that you are synching with iTunes will show up in a separate area on the same screen.
The built-in GPS on this new 3G iPhone will geo-tag your photos with your exact location, if you like. The GPS can also pinpoint your location to be used by Google Maps and other applications that give you directions or find sights, restaurants, and other points-of-interest in your current vicinity. Unfortunately, turn-by-turn directions are not yet available. You can get a map of where you are and where you want to go, but you have to look at the map for the directions.
Apple has added Microsoft Exchange and enterprise support for email with the iPhone 3G. This makes it a viable competitor to the Blackberry for business use. As shown in Figure 14, email on the iPhone is clear and easy-to-read. Just tap to open any email. Click Edit at the top of the screen to delete the email or move it to a folder. Even if you don’t have an Exchange server, the iPhone can easily synch with Outlook. It will also synch with a new Apple consumer service, MobileMe, which offers synchronized email, calendars, photos and contacts for $100 a year.
The iPhone uses Apple’s Safari Web browser. This is great for surfing on the small screen. Most Web pages are perfectly readable. The iPhone Safari browser doesn’t support Adobe Flash, Windows Media Video or Java, and this is a loss that we would like to see rectified in the future. Still, even with that lack of support for Web standards, the overall browsing experience is a good one, especially for such a small device. The finger-touch zooming that we mentioned before helps the browsing process. The iPhone also has a built-in accelerometer so that when you turn the iPhone from portrait (vertical), as shown in Figure 15, to landscape (horizontal), as shown in Figure 16, the display automatically adjusts. This is very handy for the Internet and we wish it were also available in email.
The iPhone comes with icons on the main screen for Weather, Stocks, and YouTube. All of these can be easily adjusted for your location and choices. The YouTube area lets you see the most viewed videos and top rated videos and also lets you bookmark and search for videos. There is also a useful Calculator and a Note area. The four-function calculator turns into a scientific calculator when you rotate the phone to the horizontal position. The iPhone also supports instant language switching so when the on-screen keyboard appears, the keys change to reflect the language you’ve selected in the iPhone settings.
The applications that Apple added to the iPhone may well be the most innovative and useful addition ever made to a cell phone. These applications can easily turn the iPhone into just about any tool.
Apple has developed an excellent way to develop and distribute these add-on applications or tools. They allow outside developers to create the applications. Then they are reviewed by Apple and added to the iTunes App Store. As an iPhone user, you can download the applications directly to your iPhone or you can download them on your computer through iTunes and then synch the iPhone to get the applications to your phone.
There are hundreds of applications available. Many are free. Some charge, but the fees are reasonable….between $1 and $20 with most under $5. The applications are amazingly diverse. You can download a grocery list keeper, an Etch-a-Sketch (shown in Figure 18), a currency converter, and e-book reader, and just about anything else you can think of. Some of the applications are simple time-wasters, like Bubbles, shown in Figure 17, which simply allows you to create and pop bubbles on the screen. Yet some will increase your productivity. Many of the applications, especially the games, take advantage of the touch screen and accelerometer to be quite dazzling and addictive.
iPhone 3G main specifications are:
We feel the iPhone 3G has some groundbreaking features that others will struggle to imitate. We are especially impressed with its ease of use. The large screen and the touch-screen capabilities eliminates the nested menus that have been standard in other phones. This makes the iPhone very visual and tactile making it much easier to use. Techies will be attracted to it as a great new gadget, but others will follow for its ease of use.