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Friday, August 01, 2008, 06:00 am PT (09:00 am ET)

Inside iPhone 2.0: iPhone 3G vs. other smartphones


Battery replacement: It's no surprise that the new iPhone 3G doesn't have a pop-out battery. Most other smartphones supply an accessible battery bay but use it as a crutch to support power-hungry features. That said, anyone using the iPhone away from a power source should consider investing in an external USB power pack, which solves the battery problem but also delivers a much more flexible solution that doesn't require disassembly or rebooting to extend battery life in the way extra removable packs do. External add-ons also provide a much longer potential charge.

As one Blackberry user sarcastically noted in an online comment about the iPhone, "I love the fact that I can remove my Blackberry's battery. In fact, it's absolutely necessary, when I get my daily BREW error and I need to pull the battery to revive the phone. The subsequent 5 minutes of churning hourglass gives me time to reflect on how lucky I am not to have a crappy iPhone." For many, that may well be the second reason for a removable battery: it forces a hard reboot in the same way the Control-Alt-Del shortcut worked for an old DOS PC. The iPhone can be reset by simply holding two buttons and thus has one less problem to contend with. All the same, the release of iPhone 2.0 has been somewhat crash-prone, and until Apple's first bug fix comes down through the Software Update trough, users might wish they had a quicker way to reset their iPhone just like their counterparts with BlackBerries or Palm Treos.

Touchscreen keyboard: Suffice it to say that the touchscreen keyboard makes the iPhone unique. While pundits have squawked non-stop about how consumers wanted tiny "real" keypads, the reality is that most iPhone users quickly adapt to the new input system and are able to type just as fast within a matter of days of regular use. There are some clear advantages to using virtual keys: they can be repositioned to landscape views and replaced with other character sets, making it easier to enter text in other languages. There's still room for enhancements (rumors suggest that rumble feedback might help some users type on the flat surface), but the iPhone's virtual keyboard is certainly not the inherent flaw that some have said it would be.

Most competing mini keypads, such as those on many BlackBerries or Palm phones (particularly the Centro) are simply too small to touch type on and too big to allow a large screen. Slide out keyboards are sometimes mechanically problematic and still can't offer anything approaching the usability of a real keyboard, often being too small to touch type and too big to work with your thumbs. 

Other smartphone makers are now jumping on the touchscreen bandwagon, although few offer the same accuracy, usability, and smart correction tricks of the iPhone. The LG Dare and Samsung Instinct fleeting appear to look like an iPhone, but don't use a similar capacitance-sensitive screen. Both use a clumsy pressure sensitive screen instead, which not only lacks multi touch features, but also requires a concentrated effort to use. They're unwieldy to type on, and clumsy to even drag icons around on. One wonders why some reviewers have glossed over this potentially huge difference to suggest that both technologies are similar just because they both involve some form of touch. 

MMS vs Email: The iPhone 3G and 2.0 software still does not support MMS picture messaging. That's a problem for people who want to send and receive pictures in MMS with other phone users who depend on it; it may be a blessing in the US, however, where e-mail costs nothing extra and MMS is relatively expensive through AT&T. While the iPhone can't MMS, many other phones can't easily send or receive photos via email. And computers also can — so the iPhone's ability to send free photos to anyone, including to Facebook and other services, helps makes up for Apple's unwillingness to fall in line. It's nonetheless quite ridiculous that AT&T can't figure out how to at least relay incoming MMS to iPhone users via the web. Currently, it sends an SMS with a username and password that must be typed in manually. An automated URL hyperlink would enable iPhone users to see the MMS in their browser without a hitch. 

The iPhone 3G's leading hardware features

While some features are a matter of subjective taste, in other areas the iPhone 3G's hardware clearly stands out as superior to other smartphones (and feature phones clearly aiming at leaching on to the iPhone's movement).

Data storage: The iPhone 3G, thanks to its iPod ancestry, supplies 8GB or 16GB of Flash RAM storage. At the original iPhone's release, few smartphones offered more than a scant 512MB of storage. While phones such as Nokia's N95 8GB have followed suit (and will soon be matched by the 16GB N96 and Samsung's Omnia), the iPhone still leads in its inherent ability to store a significant amount of media internally. 

The iPhone 3G can haul around several full length movies, a number of music and photo albums, load up on lots of applications, and still have plenty of room left. Other smartphones typically require the user to juggle 2GB cards in and out of microSD card slots — an added flexibility but a hassle and a potential security risk if the phone is left alone. Not all current phones can use larger 4GB+ microSDHC (high capacity) cards, either. Leaving $40 to $80 of memory out of your phone is not a "feature," particularly when selling the phone for the same price as a 16GB iPhone 3G.

In addition to just offering a significant chunk of storage, the iPhone's integration with iTunes makes loading content (or keeping it in sync) very easy. Additionally, the wireless App Store, the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store, and MobileMe push messaging features in the new iPhone 2.0 software make that extra storage even more useful.  

On page 3 of 3: Computing Performance; Hardware usability; Worth the upgrade?; Faster; Cheaper; and Out of Control.