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Technology Review: iPhone 3G

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Some people call me an “early adopter” — a term that does not universally apply. Unlike my father and brother, I’ve never gone after new stuff for the sake of new stuff. I still don’t have a Blu-ray player or an HDTV. (My older models still work.) But when it comes to a gadget of desire, I’m right there. Maybe not at the front of the line on opening day, but I'm there early enough.

So it was with the iPhone. I saw the ads for the first-gen model and knew it was the mobile phone for me — never mind that I’d have to pay to cancel my non-AT&T contract, or that it had the slower Edge network, or that you couldn’t change the battery yourself. It had term-searchable maps and an iPod and a real Web browser and a YouTube widget and just lots of other cool stuff. I had planned to wait until they got the glitches out, but a high-tech friend who bought one on opening day said it didn’t really have serious glitches. So I snatched one up the second weekend and never looked back. I even got the “early adopter” rebate a couple months later — and used it to buy an 80GB iPod Classic!

I loved my first-gen iPhone, and it served me well. Now, a year later, I’m two-and-a-half days into my second-gen iPhone — the iPhone 3G. (And yes, it really did take three weeks to get one into my hands!)

2.0 Software

The first thing that became apparent with the new phone was that it works seamlessly with the 2.0 software. This software was built for this hardware. I used 2.0 for three weeks before my 3G arrived, and the first-gen phone ran awkwardly on 2.0. The original functions were fine, but the apps I downloaded ran slower and seemed buggier on the first-gen phone. This could be due to the fact that they were almost out of headroom (the phone had only 8GB of space; the new phone has 16GB). But whatever the cause, the apps don’t just chug along on the 3G. They zoom. Battery life is comparable between first-gen and second-gen iPhones (i.e., not incredible), and some apps are real battery drains. But overall, the new phone and the new software go nicely together.

3G Network

It took a little longer for me to get an opportunity to test out the 3G network because my house is virtually in a dead zone. (I'm at the bottom of a steep hill.) The iPhone will use the fastest network it can find, which means that in my house, it will usually default to Edge because it can't locate 3G. (I do turn on WiFi for surfing). When I’m away from the house, though, the phone finds the 3G network easily. The 3G can load a slow-loading page like the iPhone version of “I Can Has Cheeseburger” (a.k.a. Lolcats) in about the same time it takes my WiFi — and substantially faster than the Edge.

The maps function also works much better with 3G than with Edge. The maps widget has always been a source of frustration on my first-gen iPhone because the only time I really use it is when I’m out of the house, where I don't have ready WiFi access. Now with 3G, the maps work in real-time away from home, without needing to take minutes to redraw the map every time I scroll.

GPS Functionality

In addition, the maps now have GPS functionality, thanks to a GPS chip in the iPhone 3G. I tested it this morning while out driving. The GPS quickly located my precise location, and I could follow the dot as my car moved along. Unlike a dedicated GPS, though, the map doesn’t change its orientation to follow the direction you’re driving. That is, no matter which direction you are going, south is still downward on the map; east is still rightward; north is still upward; and west is still leftward. You also don't really get a street-level view, just a bird's-eye view of streets. (Check out the demo). The GPS functionality is rather primitive, and definitely no replacement for my Garmin. But if I’m ever lost in the Maryland woods, it could still come in handy.

Redesigned Plastic Back

One matter of concern was the new plastic back to the phone. The first-gen iPhone had a classy metal back. Before the new phone's release, iPhone users debated whether or not the plastic would devolve the phone to kitsch. The short answer is: No. The new plastic back definitely does smudge (I got the black version). But smudging an iPhone is a way of life. I got over the smudge factor a year ago.

The tradeoff is that the new phone just feels great in your hand. The first-gen iPhone felt awkward — less like a phone, and more like a handheld computer. The iPhone 3G feels like a handheld phone that just happens to include a handheld computer. Thanks to some slight adjustments to the curvature, it's much more comfortable in the hand for phone use, as well as for playing games and running other apps. I was dubious about the plastic back when I first heard of it, but thanks to the brilliant design it has become one of my favorite features of the new phone. This is a phone I can hold to my ear with ease.

Apps and the App Store

As anybody who’s interested in the iPhone knows, sanctioned third party desktop apps arrived with the 2.0 software. Before 2.0, apps written for an iPhone had to be displayed in a Safari browser window (or you had to jailbreak your phone). Now, apps can be downloaded from the iTunes Apps Store and run as widgets on the desktop. Many developers (including those for Facebook, MySpace, WordPress, New York Times, eBay and the Yellow Pages) are providing apps for free. There are even a few free games, as well as a great little BoxOffice app (very helpful for us film folks!).

On the computer desktop, the Apps Store is integrated into iTunes. You can browse, purchase and/or download apps from iTunes, then synch them to your iPhone. On the iPhone, the Apps Store is a separate widget. But like the iTunes widget, you can buy/download apps directly to your iPhone, then synch them up to your computer.

One of the most astonishing paid apps I’ve seen is Intua's BeatMaker — a sample-based beatbox with pattern and song sequencing that works like something straight out of Native Instruments' Reaktor. It comes with native kits as well as kits provided by artists of Richard Devine's calibre. Presumably, you can also download samples and kits you create to your iPhone and upload .wav files of projects from BeatMaker to your computer. But so far, I have not been able to get the Beta computer desktop server to talk to the iPhone. Regardless of what may be plaguing the Beta server, the app itself works just fine in its native iPhone environment. The fact that iPhone can support this level of programming sophistication demonstrates the robustness of the iPhone API. BeatMaker is not a full-featured DAW (digital audio workstation). But add a piano roll and a few synthesizers and it soon will be.

Given that this is the starting point for third party iPhone application programming, I look forward to seeing the iPhone apps of the future.

All in all, the iPhone 3G is an improvement over an already great gadget. I can’t say that first-gen users need to upgrade. But the better application performance alone definitely makes it worth an upgrade.

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  • Sam

    So far, the best iphone from Apple is the iPhone 4! I dont even like iPhone 4S…