First Reviews: iPhone 3G Improved, but Still Flawed

Reviewers fault battery life, 3G coverage, and service-plan costs. But the sound quality and download speeds are much improved.

Is the iPhone 3G worth waiting in line for? Early reviewers of Apple's new smart phone are mostly positive, but they share some common gripes about battery life and two aspects of dealing with AT&T: the service-plan costs and the skimpy 3G coverage areas.

<i>The New York Times</i>' David Pogue, the <i>Wall Street Journal</i>'s Walt Mossberg, and <i>USA Today</i>'s Ed Baig, the Holy Trinity of Apple's marketing department, all received the phone about two weeks ago. (Most other reviewers, including ours, will have to wait with everyone else to buy one Friday morning.) All three reviewers liked the first-generation iPhone, and they all like the second generation even better.

(The folks at our sister publication PC World New Zealand lived with a new iPhone 3G for a short time; they also have slightly mixed impressions, but generally liked the phone.)

Pogue's bottom line: "So the iPhone 3G is a nice upgrade. It more than keeps pace with advancing technology, and new buyers will generally be delighted."

Mossberg concludes: "If you've been waiting to buy an iPhone until it dropped in price, or ran on faster cell networks, you might want to take the plunge, if you can live with the higher service costs and the weaker battery life."

Baig is more effusive: "... this handheld marvel has no equal among consumer-oriented smartphones."

Mixed in with the raves are a fair number of complaints, however.

The 3G network: Mossberg says downloads were three to five times faster on the 3G iPhone than on the standard iPhone. Baig accepts Apple's claims that the new phone is twice as fast as the old version; loading popular Web sites took 10 to 30 seconds, he says. But all three reviewers complain about holes in AT&T's 3G coverage, despite the fact that they're all based in and around New York. Imagine what the coverage will be like in rural Iowa.

Actually, David Pogue did more than imagine. He points out that, according to AT&T's 3G coverage map, "in 16 states, only three cities or fewer are covered; 10 states have no coverage at all." And you guessed it, Iowa is one of them.

Mossberg says he found problems even in Manhattan: "In New York City, riding in a taxi along the Hudson, one important call was dropped three times on the new iPhone. Finally, I borrowed a cheap Verizon phone and got perfect reception."

Battery life: Mossberg's tests found that the iPhone 3G delivered 4 hours, 27 minutes of talk time. "More important," he says, "in daily use, I found the battery indicator on the new 3G model slipping below 20% by early afternoon or midafternoon on some days, and it entirely ran out of juice on one day."

As with the first iPhone, you can't replace the battery in the iPhone 3G, meaning you have to charge early and often--or use workarounds. Mossberg says he used Wi-Fi instead of 3G for data transactions, turned down the screen brightness, and at times turned 3G off entirely to save juice.

Cost: All three reviewers point out that despite a drop in the cost of the iPhone itself, having one will end up costing you more than owning a first-gen iPhone. That's a result of increases in the cost of AT&T's phone and data plans. Though you save $200 on the phone, you'll pay $240 more for the service over the life of the two-year contract you must purchase, Mossberg writes.

GPS: The bottom line on the iPhone's new GPS capabilities is that they're nice but limited. Pogue points out that they can't provide turn-by-turn directions, merely showing you as a blue spot moving along a map--and sometimes they can't even do that. "The metal of a car or the buildings of Manhattan are often enough to block the iPhone's view of the sky, leaving it just as confused as you are," he writes.

Business support: Apple has boasted that the new iPhone will work much better with corporate e-mail servers. Baig reports on connecting the iPhone 3G to his company's e-mail network, and he comes away impressed. "Messages and calendar entries are 'pushed' to the device, so they show up right away, just as they do on other computers. With your employer's blessing, set-up is a relative cinch."

Mossberg points out a potentially serious problem, though: "While you can have both personal and Exchange email accounts on the new iPhone, if you synchronize with Exchange calendars and contacts, your personal calendar and contacts are erased."

Third-party apps: Mossberg and Baig tried a few early iPhone apps and liked what they found. Baig says Cro-Mag, a caveman racing game that uses the phone's accelerometer to steer, is "difficult but fun." Mossberg believes "the iPhone has a chance to become a true computing platform with wide versatility."

Audio quality: All the reviewers comment on the new iPhone's improved audio quality. "You sound crystal clear to your callers, and they sound crystal clear to you. In fact, few cellphones sound this good," Pogue raves. Mossberg concurs, but complains that "the new phone produced an echo when used with the built-in Bluetooth system in my car."

What's still missing: The consensus is that the iPhone still has some significant deficiencies.

  • No voice dialing
  • No video recording
  • A limited camera
  • No memory-card slot
  • No copy-and-paste function
  • No MMS for sending photos to other phones
  • No Bluetooth stereo audio
  • No support for Adobe Flash, Windows Media Video, or Java

None of those complaints, though, seriously dim the reviewers' admiration of the new iPhone. "While not everything on my wish list made it onto the new device," Baig says, "Apple has raised the bar with iPhone 3G. To which I offer an enthusiastic thumbs up."

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Edward N. Albro

PC World (US online)
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