Apple iPhone 3G Review

When I set out to write my review of the original iPhone last year, I found myself in the uncomfortable role of spoiler. The unjustifiedly positive early reviews from Apple fanatics at the New York Ti...

Paul Thurrott

October 6, 2010

24 Min Read
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When I set out to write my review of the original iPhone last year, I found myself in the uncomfortable role of spoiler. The unjustifiedly positive early reviews from Apple fanatics at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today were so out of touch with reality that I was determined to set things right: The iPhone was not the perfect device trumpeted by these guys, who appeared more interested in protecting their close relationships with Apple than with providing readers with accurate reviews they could trust. The iPhone experience on Windows, circa mid-2007, was a disaster, and no amount of whitewash could cover it up. My review reflected that, and provided Windows users--i.e. the majority of iPhone customers--with what I feel is still the most thorough and accurate coverage of the device available anywhere. I'm not blinded by the reality distortion field, and you shouldn't be either.

Obviously, the message was received. When the second generation iPhone, the iPhone 3G, shipped last month, the same three tech reporters from the same three mainstream news publications published their reviews, first, as usual. But for once, their reviews of an Apple product weren't overly positive. If anything, they were largely reserved. Sure, all three of them love the thing. They are, after all, Apple geeks. But they didn't go over the top for once, and all of them pointed out some actual flaws. And yes, since you're asking, I'd like to think I played a role in that, implicitly or explicitly.

OK, enough patting myself on the back. It's time to examine the Apple 3G and my goal here, as always, is to simply tell it like it is. I'll ruin the surprise up front by stating that the iPhone 3G, like its predecessor, is excellent and innovative, but flawed. Not deeply flawed. But flawed. For those few million people who did purchase an original iPhone, the upgrade picture is a bit hazy. Despite some high profile improvements, most of the new features in the iPhone 3G are oddly hobbled in different ways, and the overall expense is higher, making the upgrade economics fuzzy. For those who do not yet own an iPhone, the iPhone 3G is approaching no-brainer status. No, it's not perfect. But it's so much nicer than any other phone currently on the market, flaws and all. But then that was true of the original iPhone, at least after a year's worth of free software updates. The iPhone 3G is like the iPhone ... that goes to 11.

Before jumping in, I'd like to mention a bit about Apple's naming conventions. The company has historically used the "G" naming convention with its iPods to denote generations of devices. So the original iPod is the iPod 1G while the next revision is the iPod 2G, and so on; the current iPod classic is the iPod 6G because it is the sixth generation version of the product.

Confusingly, the iPhone 3G appears to use this same naming convention. But that's not what the G stands for in the iPhone 3G's name. That is, the iPhone 3G is not the "third generation" iPhone.

In fact, it's arguably not even a second generation device though two key hardware additions--3G network support and very basic GPS functionality--arguably put it over the top in that sense. From a hardware standpoint, the iPhone 3G is really a 1.5 generation device: The underlying hardware is identical to the previous version but for the addition of a few different chips only. The G in iPhone 3G, as it turns out, refers to the device's compatibility with 3G wireless networks, a feature we'll discuss later in this review.

A new pricing model

Here's the iPhone 3G's ugly little secret. It's expensive. As in really expensive. As in, you-thought-the-original-iPhone-was-expensive-but-Apple-was-apparently-just-getting-started expensive. In my original iPhone review, I decried the cost of that device, which included an enormous upfront cost ($500 to $600, depending on model) plus egregious monthly fees thanks to its non-optional data plan (a minimum of $71 a month in the US).

Apple, unbelievably, advertises the iPhone 3G as being less expensive than its predecessor. This is untrue. Yes, the iPhone 3G does come with a more reasonable up-front cost ($200 to $300 in the US), a fee that is more in line with other similar devices. But the monthly fees are unbelievably expensive, and even more expensive than were those of the original device (a minimum of $86 a month on the US after taxes and fees if you choose the cheapest possible SMS package, which was previously free).

Do the math, and you'll see that the total minimum cost of the lowest-priced iPhone from early 2008 over two years is about $2100 (this included SMS). But the total minimum cost of the lowest-priced iPhone 3G with the smallest SMS plan (now a separate option) is about $2265 over two years. So the lower upfront cost of the new device is actually mortgaged out over the two year service agreement, making the overall costs more expensive than ever. It's more expensive. (Even if you drop SMS it's more expensive at $2205.)

That said, I'm mostly OK with the pricing. Potential iPhone customers are making an explicit decision about mobile computing and it's very clear that these people end up using the mobile Internet functionality on the iPhone much more than do other smart phone users. That the costs are spread out over a longer time period will appeal to a lot of people. After all, this is how most Americans pay for cars, homes, and other big ticket items.

Put another way, the iPhone 3G is expensive but is arguably worth the price. My complaint here has more to do with the way Apple is marketing the new pricing model. It's not really cheaper than before. It's more expensive than ever.

A new purchasing model

In addition to the new pricing model, Apple has changed the way that customers acquire the iPhone 3G. This was done, ostensibly, to please its wireless carrier partners and to prevent people from unlocking the iPhone 3G to use them internationally. From a purchasing standpoint, the big change is that phone activation now occurs in-store. This means you won't walk out of an AT&T or Apple retail location with a useless hunk of metal and plastic, which was certainly the case with the first generation iPhone. (You couldn't even make a non-911 phone call on the thing until you activated it at home.)

"We want people to leave the store with their phones up and running, and leave them with a buying experience similar to what they're used to with other phones," an AT&T spokesperson said, explaining the change. Sure enough, there were huge activation problems on the day that the iPhone 3G launched, causing enormous waits and unsatisfied customers. But that issue has long since subsided. When I finally did get an iPhone 3G earlier this month, I was in and out of the AT&T store within minutes.

Barely updated iPhone form factor

From a physical perspective, the iPhone 3G is largely unchanged from its predecessor, despite some change in the materials. (In fact, I almost can't tell them apart when placed side by side on the desk.) The overall form factor is identical to that of the first iPhone, with the same height, width, and button layout. It weighs slightly less, but that's barely noticeable. The device is slightly thicker in the middle of the back, but slightly thinner at the edges, thanks to a curved plastic back that replaces the previous model's metal back. Apple says the change to plastic was made to improve wireless radio reception, but it has a nice additional benefit of minimizing the "slippery bar of soap" effect that plagued the original iPhone. That said, it's still easy to drop the 3G and of course its symmetrical design makes it as hard as ever to figure out which end is up without first looking at it. I can't tell you how many times I've picked the thing only to see its upside down.

Regarding the buttons, the home button hasn't changed, but the sleep button, ringer switch, and volume buttons are now metal (they were previously plastic). You can choose between black and white versions of the iPhone 3G; the white version is more obviously different and new and actually seems to smudge less.

The display is completely unchanged, which is fine given its quality, but the camera is unchanged, which is not fine, given its absolute lack of quality. And while I don't want to applaud this too much given how screwed up it was in the original iPod, the headphone jack is finally flush and no longer recessed, so it actually works with all headphones, removing the need for an added-cost (and easy to lose) adapter.

In the accessories department, Apple continues its long-standing policy of taking away accessories in later versions of its portable products. So whereas the original iPhone included a dock, the iPhone 3G does not. But it does include the same headphones and USB charger cable as did it predecessor. New to the 3G is an even smaller AC adapter (at least in the US), which should prove incredibly easy to lose. I actually preferred the previous version: It was a hair larger but it was possible to fold in the metal adapter prongs so they don't get bent. The iPhone 3G also includes a new SIM ejection tool, also tiny, though my understanding is that this tool first appeared with non-US versions of the original iPhone.

Unique iPhone 3G functionality

What's interesting is that while the original iPhone was arguably the most revolutionary mobile device ever released (despite the numerous flaws), the new iPhone 3G is a far more evolutionary update that aims, frankly, to catch up with some crucial features that many competing smart phones have had for years. That said, the iPhone 3G still lacks crucial features that many competing smart phones have had for years as well. See the section "What's (still) missing" for the surprisingly healthy list of ways in which the iPhone 3G continues to fall short.

Perhaps more amazingly, the list of unique new features in the iPhone 3G is also surprisingly short. And the most important of these new features is hobbled in some terrible way.

Support for 3G networks

While people are rarely ambivalent about the iPhone, instead falling neatly into very partisan groups, there's one thing that everyone can agree on: AT&T's woeful EDGE wireless network was the Achilles Heel of that device. This can't be overstated: EDGE is an embarrassment and while we may someday look back on the early days of horrific iPhone wireless access and laugh, I can assure you that the pain runs deep and is still very much an issue. Every single person who has spent an appreciable amount of time with me has a joke about me trying to look up something on the iPhone, only to be thwarted by EDGE, which was either completely unavailable or so slow as to be useless. This is the universal truth of the iPhone. You will never find a sane person who seriously tries to defend EDGE. Never.

It's not surprising then that Job One with the iPhone 3G was to fix this huge and obvious problem. The solution, support for so-called "3G" wireless networks, like AT&T 3G, was considered so important that Apple even put the moniker in the new device's name, as noted previously.

Too bad they completely screwed it up, eh? While AT&T's 3G wireless network is indeed the fastest 3G network available in the US--what should be a stunning turnaround for iPhone users used to the world's slowest data network, EDGE--iPhone 3G users are currently unable to utilize this performance due to what is believed to be a flaw in a custom chip on the device. Apple is, as I write this, racing to fix the problem via a software update, but its first attempt, in iPhone Software Update 2.0.2, issued in late August 2008, has apparently not fixed it completely. The end result is that iPhone 3G users are typically pushed back to the slower EDGE network, especially in high data traffic areas. More problematically, the chipset problems are resulting in endemic dropped phone calls, though that's obviously a different issue.

Apple says that 3G is twice as fast as EDGE. I haven't tested the speeds per se, but I have noticed some big improvements in some of the areas that have typically bedeviled me. For example, I'll often find myself standing in the local Best Buy staring at some Xbox 360 game I'm considering purchasing but am unsure of. So I'd pull out my iPhone, slowly load a review or two of the game and then make my decision. This process was achingly slow on the original iPhone over EDGE. On the iPhone 3G over AT&T's 3G network, however, it's relatively snappy and more akin to the experience I've always expected and wanted. I have a half-dozen examples like that, but suffice to say, if you can connect to a 3G network, you'll be happy with the results.

But not as happy as you should be, as it turns out. Apple is actually capping the speeds at which the iPhone 3G can connect, so even if the chipset issues are fixed, you're still not going to get the full benefits of AT&T's 3G network. I'm told that the iPhone tops out at 1.4 Mbps, about half what's possible with Wi-Fi, and a far cry from the 7.2 Mbps possible with other 3G phones. My understanding is that they did this for battery life reasons: Regular 3G access--like so many other new iPhone 3G capabilities--appears to drain the battery in real time.

Alas, once you get beyond connectivity issues in the iPhone that may or may not be fixed, 3G access is still problematic. In the US, AT&T 3G network has somewhat limited availability compare to EDGE and to other 3G networks. It's available mostly in and around big cities, but some states have massive areas with absolutely no 3G coverage at all. According to AT&T's wireless coverage maps, I should have 3G coverage in my neighborhood, but I don't. (Granted, I use a wireless network at home, so this isn't serious.) To see this map, visit, then zoom in and turn on "View 3G/Mobile Broadband Coverage." Coverage is much better internationally, of course. Like I needed another reason to despise AT&T.

In the end, 3G is a mixed bag. It's better than EDGE by a wide margin, but it's use is limited on the iPhone 3G via endemic bugs, deliberate performance caps, the spotty availability of AT&T 3G in the US, and other factors. Frankly, Apple would have been better off shipping this functionality a year earlier and not making a big deal about it. Instead, all they're really doing is drawing attention to how bad the wireless performance is for many people most of the time.

The 3G icon in the title bar denotes you're connected to a
3G network ... the draining battery is a good indicator as well.


When the original iPhone debuted a year ago, many critics called attention to a weird omission: The device lacked any form of GPS despite other high-end features and a beautiful Google Maps functionality. In late 2007, Apple offset this problem somewhat with the release of iPhone Software Update 1.1.3, a free update that added, among other things, a GPS-like capability that uses cell phone tower triangulation (or the Wi-Fi access point) to locate you. The results are decent, if sometimes humorous, not as good as GPS of course, but better than nothing.

The iPhone 3G, finally, comes with a real GPS chipset, bringing Apple's device up to speed in this category with other smartphones that were released two years ago. So we can applaud that. Or we could, at least, if Apple hadn't completely screwed it up. The iPhone 3G's GPS functionality is, in short, the weakest I've ever seen.

Yes, it generally offers better location data than the triangulation feature from previous iPhone software. But it only provides live tracking, and then slowly. There is no navigation functionality at all, let alone the turn-by-turn directions that many devices now offer. The GPS is easily blocked if you're in a city with big buildings, and even out in the wide open it returns varying results, as denoted by the size of the location circle you see in Maps: The bigger the circle, the less sure it is of your location. If you see a blue pearl, it's found you.

The stupidest GPS issue, however, is something that pops up throughout the iPhone interface, repeatedly, and without any way of turning it off. Every time you use an iPhone feature that that utilizes the new location services, the device throws up a prompt asking you if that's OK. It even happens when you specifically click the Locate button in Maps. Obviously, I want to allow that; I just clicked the Locate button. This has to be the most annoying UI feature since the bouncing Dock applications in Mac OS X. So much for the company that makes interfaces that "get out of your way."

One nice GPS-related feature is the ability to geo-tag pictures taken with built-in camera. No, Apple's not the first to offer this, and of course the functionality is hobbled by the quality of the camera and the aforementioned need to constantly prompt you to access your location, but at least it's there. All cameras will someday do this automatically, I'm sure.

The GPS can be pretty accurate: Here, I'm at the train station in Philadelphia.

Better audio quality

While EDGE was clearly the original iPhone's Achilles Heel, my second most common complaint about the device after a years-worth of day-to-day use was phone call audio quality. Actually, those two issues might be related, and oftentimes my signal was so bad that I couldn't hear or be heard well. And as odd as it sounds, iPhone-to-iPhone calls were almost routinely terrible on the first device. Audio quality has been significantly improved with the iPhone 3G, and the external speakers are much better as well, though I wonder if it's the speakers themselves or just the new, more open speaker grills. Regardless, it's a positive change.

Somewhat offsetting the audio quality improvement, of course, is the fact that the iPhone 3G is currently suffering from an endemic, worldwide problem with dropped phone calls. I can't say that I've had any egregious issues along these lines so far, but I tend to keep calls on the short side. Certainly, the reports are widespread enough to be a concern and Apple has admitted that it's working on a fix.

The real iPhone advantage is software

While I'll be reviewing the iPhone Software 2.0 separately, it's worth mentioning here because this software update, which comes standard on all iPhone 3G, is arguably the device's biggest advantage over competing smart phone platforms. This theory raises some issues for potential upgraders: Because the iPhone Software 2.0 is available as a free update to original iPhone owners, you may want to hold off on an iPhone 3G given the scarcity of any truly compelling new features.

While iPhone Software 2.0 is accurately described as an evolution of the iPhone software, it is still a big deal. It adds native support for push technologies, which allows the device to automatically receive updates to compatible email, contacts, and calendar services. It also adds support for Microsoft's Exchange Server solution, making the iPhone an almost ideal companion for business workers. These are both very important, worthwhile updates.

Beyond that, iPhone Software 2.0, like previous iPhone updates, adds a ton of smaller changes. You can now save photos from Web pages to the device, or send them via email. (And if you feel like throwing $100 in the toilet every year, you could also send them to your MobileMe photo gallery -- see my MobileMe review.) The calculator application switches to a scientific calculator when the device is held in landscape mode. There are new parental controls. The address book supports search. You can instantly switch the keyboard between a long list of international languages, a feature that would be impossible with a hardware keyboard. You can multi-select and multi-delete email, and open (but not edit) Microsoft PowerPoint presentations sent via email.

The iPhone Software 2.0 also provides access to Apple's incredible iPhone Application Store, where you can find thousands of free and paid applications for your device. The selection is vast, but a bit game heavy at this point. (Many games take advantage of the iPhone's accelerometer.) The App Store is accessible both on the device itself (when you're on 3G or Wi-Fi, not EDGE) and via the iTunes PC software. And if you have multiple iPhones and iPod touch devices, any app you buy will work on all of them. You don't need to buy multiple copies.

I'll be discussing the App Store further in my upcoming iPhone Software 2.0 review. Suffice to say, it's one of many huge advantages for Apple's device when you compare it to other mobile platforms.

Watch that battery

One of the biggest issues facing iPhone users is battery life and, sure enough, my experience has been disturbing. I never really had an issue with the battery life of the original iPhone, but heavy users of the iPhone 3G will find themselves running on empty long before the day is out. This means that not only do you need to charge the device every night at minimum, you're also going to want to keep it charging when you're not using it. So depending on your schedule, you're going to want at least a second charger for the car or work.

Apple says that you can expect five hours of talk time on a 3G network, 10 hours on Edge, and up to 300 hours of standby. This suggests that turning off 3G support will improve battery life, and that's definitely been my experience. Heavy 3G, GPS, or Wi-Fi-based Internet access almost seem to deplete the battery in real time, and it seems that push services, like MobileMe and Exchange, are particularly bad. But negating one of the iPhone 3Gs main new features to save battery life is a poor choice to force users to make.

The iPhone 3G's sad battery life also makes its lack of a user-removable battery even more of an issue than was the case with the first generation device, and it renders some of the devices most exciting features less relevant. I wish Apple would simply offer a removable battery, even if that means the device must be a hair bigger. I suspect many iPhone 3G owners agree with that assessment.

What's (still) missing

As is always the case with Apple products, the initial gee-whiz open box experience is tempered over time as the realities of the device's compromises become more obvious. The list of missing features and functionality on the iPhone is deep, though again this should be weighed against its own trendsetting, innovative and unique features. Some of the more obvious include:

Camera. The built-in camera was limited a year ago and is unchanged in the iPhone 3G. It's still 2.0 megapixels with no zoom of any kind, no video support, and no flash.

Bluetooth. The iPhone's Bluetooth functionality is still somewhat lacking. It doesn't support stereo headphones, device tethering, or file transfer.

Voice dialog. The iPhone 3G still lacks voice dialing, which seems odd given its multimedia prowess.

Keyboard. I've learned to adapt to the balky virtual keyboard, but the lack of a physical keyboard option will turn off a huge segment of the potential audience. Too, the virtual keyboard, like the screen rotation feature, doesn't work consistently across applications. For example, you can access the virtual keyboard while the phone is held horizontally in Safari, but not in Mail or Notes, two applications where a larger keyboard would be ideal.

Battery. The lack of a removable battery is inexcusable on a device this expensive and power hungry. And if the battery dies, you have to pay Apple for a replacement. The battery life is borderline criminal. It's pathetic.

Yet another dock connector. Despite being virtually identical to the previous iPhone, the bottom of the iPhone 3G is slightly different from its predecessor and thus requires yet another dock connector. That means it's incompatible with existing iPod connector-based hardware (including popular items like the Bose SoundDock). Fear not, as Apple will sell you a new adapter. Yet another thing to buy.

Weak Web browser. When the iPhone debuted, Apple promoted its Safari browser as a way to browse the Web as it's seen from PC desktops. No one in their right mind regularly browses the Web that way, though. What we've seen instead are a new generation of mobile versions of Web sites and applications custom tailored to the unique dimensions of the iPhone screen. But Safari is still brain dead: It doesn't support popular Web technologies like Flash, Java, Silverlight, or Windows Media. Still.

Storage. Apple's portable devices come with copious amounts of storage. But there's no way to expand the storage, which is too bad: An 8 GB SD card can be had for less than $25 right now. Come on, Apple.

No copy and paste. Still.

MMS. This is another curious omission given the iPhone's multimedia functionality: It doesn't support MMS phone-to-phone photo sending.

Instant messaging. Apple doesn't include a version of its iChat instant messaging application (or any IM for that matter).

Speaker placement. The iPhone 3G's speakers are louder and sound better than those of its predecessor. But they're still located in the same poor location on the bottom of the device, where it's as easy as ever to inadvertently "mute" the speaker with your hand just by holding the device normally.

High-speed modem. Amazingly, you still can't tether an iPhone to your laptop and use it like a high-speed modem, as you can with many other smart phones. I miss this functionality a lot, and as I finish up this review on the train between Boston and Washington D.C., I wish I could get online in this way on the laptop, as I did years ago with a tethered Windows Mobile phone. (Yes, using 3G, this time from Verizon.)

Final thoughts

At the end of the day, the iPhone 3G continues the innovative and trend-setting ways of its predecessor but doesn't advance the state of the art as obviously as did that first iPhone. The big ticket features this time around--3G wireless network support and GPS, specifically--are fraught with problems and limitations. And the best part of the iPhone 3G--the App Store and iPhone Software 2.0 features--are available for free to previous iPhone users. When you combine all that with the current connectivity and reliability issues, the iPhone 3G seems like kind of a tough sell.

And it is, I guess, especially for potential upgraders. If you already own an iPhone 3G, upgrading is not obvious. It will set you back $200-$300 upfront and then another $15 or more a month, all while extending your wireless contract back out to 24 months. You may or may not gain access to AT&T's superior 3G network, depending on where you'll typically be using the phone. This is not a decision to made lightly, and it's not something I'm comfortable recommending across the board. You either want it or you don't.

For those who have not yet tried Apple's smart phone, the iPhone 3G is the best iPhone yet and arguably the best smart phone on earth. It has an amazing and useful user interface, is extensible through a terrific online store, and benefits from all of the goodness of the iPod/iPhone ecosystem: This is a device that is, and will be, supported by a wide range of third parties, with compatible hardware, software, and content. And yes, it comes with all the pluses and minuses inherent to any Apple product. It's shiny and pretty but curiously limited in baffling ways. It's not particularly Windows friendly.

Here's the thing. I use and enjoy the iPhone and, if you can afford it, I recommend checking it out. Sure, you can get a lesser smart phone for less money. But sometimes you really do get what you pay for, and I do fully expect Apple to address at least some of the issues I've raised via free software updates over the coming year. I can't recommend the iPhone 3G without some caveats, but I do recommend it. The iPhone 3G is, in my opinion, the most innovative and interesting mobile technology on earth, flaws and all.

About the Author(s)

Paul Thurrott

Paul Thurrott is senior technical analyst for Windows IT Pro. He writes the SuperSite for Windows, a weekly editorial for Windows IT Pro UPDATE, and a daily Windows news and information newsletter called WinInfo Daily UPDATE.

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