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Thursday, July 31, 2008, 05:25 am PT (08:25 am ET)

Inside iPhone 2.0 review series: the new iPhone 3G hardware


External hardware disappointments: the bad news

Unchanged hardware details: Existing iPhone users may be disappointed to find that there aren't many massive improvements; the iPhone 3G uses essentially the same touchscreen (in both size and resolution), camera, buttons, accelerometer, built-in battery (although it is not soldered in anymore, making it easier to do a DIY replacement), and proximity detector (now enhanced to better recognize when the phone is in use against the face). These features were all detailed in our original iPhone review.

The flip side to not having so much change is that many current iPhone users may be happy continuing with their existing unit, and those who do upgrade will find that their previous model has a great resale potential. The limited differences between the original iPhone and new iPhone 3G also make it easier for developers to support both models. Other smartphone platforms, from Android to Blackberry to Java to Palm to Symbian to Windows Mobile, create complications for developers because they have to support a range of hardware specifications, often from a variety of different manufacturers. The iPhone, iPhone 3G, and iPod touch are all currently a very cohesive platform, a fact that is helping to establish Apple's iTunes Apps Store. Of course, at some point Apple will have to manage new changes in technology, from higher resolution screens to perhaps other form factors, and we'll be watching to see how well that expansion is performed.

With the iPhone 2.0 software, the old iPhone gains most of the new features of the new model, save its new physical design, new mobile speed, and new GPS (those latter two new internal features are detailed below). Of course, both the old and new 3G model are currently plagued with the rough version 2.0.0 software (a problem that will be detailed in the software review), as well as the initial problems in Apple's MobileMe Push messaging rollout, which will also be considered separately. 

iPhone 3G


iPhone 3G


Fewer Included Parts: The US 3G model ships with a much smaller power adapter about the size of a three prong "grounding plug safety defeater" (below, compared to a Firewire iPod power adapter and the original iPhone adapter). Just as the original iPhone, it presents a USB connector for charging the phone with the same included cable as you use to sync with a Mac or PC. 

iPhone 3G


There's no weighted plastic dock in the box this time however, so if you want one you'll have to buy the custom iPhone 3G dock separately ($30) or get an iPhone 3G plate for use with the Apple Universal dock, if you already have one of those. The new iPhone 3G doesn't fit into the previous iPhone dock due to its differing shape, but it does plug into any of the old iPod docks, even without a custom fit dock adapter (below, the iPhone 3G charging in a 3G iPod dock). The new iPhone 3G does not charge over Firewire anymore however; if you attempt to, it throws up a warning that Firewire charging is not supported. Charging over Firewire was a handy feature given that Firewire can recharge the battery significantly faster than the USB specification, as it supplies more voltage.

iPhone 3G


The box also ships with a cleaning cloth, a couple Apple stickers, a manual with some obvious advice ("avoid getting moisture in openings"), the same iPhone headphones with an integrated mic and skip/answer button, and a SIM card removal tool, apparently included for people who can't scrounge up a paperclip but can be tasked with carrying around a special purpose metal clip for the rare need to pop out their SIM card.

Camera: The iPhone's camera was begging for an upgrade in resolution and general usability. Apart from some firmware enhancements (detailed later in the software review), the iPhone 3G camera is the same, somewhat minimal portrait capturing device that is nearly worthless in low light, can rarely take a decent landscape photo, and similarly can't focus on anything even approaching a close up. 

There's not even any reasonable option for snapping on a macro lens, making it poorly suited for capturing documents or objects, and rendering it difficult to grab barcodes. Reading QC Codes, a popular smartphone feature in Japan, and other camera-scanned barcodes is a new iPhone feature unlocked by some third party apps, but it doesn't seem to work too well yet. Software enhancements may be able to work around some of the camera's weaknesses, but it's too bad Apple doesn't see the enabling potential of supplying a better camera.

iPhone 3G


Bluetooth: While the iPhone 3G has Bluetooth hardware, it does not expose any new functionality over the simple earpiece and hands free car integration presented by the original iPhone. The most notable missing profile is support for A2DP, which is required for stereo wireless headphones. However, A2DP is a big battery drain. Mac OS X Leopard gained support for the feature last year, indicating that Apple won't have too much trouble adding support in the iPhone once it can hammer out acceptable power consumption. It's not there yet however. In fact, many users have reported experiencing new problems with Bluetooth in the iPhone 2.0 software.

Battery replacement: Given the iPod's history, it's no surprise that the new iPhone 3G doesn't have a pop-out battery. Most other smartphones supply a battery bay and expect users to juggle extra batteries to keep their phones working as they use power-hogging features such as 3G, GPS, A2DP, and an LED flash. Anyone using the iPhone 3G away from a power source should consider investing in an external USB power pack, which delivers a much more flexible solution that doesn't require disassembly or rebooting to extend battery life in the way extra internal, replaceable mini-batteries do, while providing a much longer potential charge.

Most users will find that they'll need to plug in their iPhone 3G midday to recharge, making an extra power adapter for both work and home (and perhaps an auto charger) essential accessories. Subsequent software updates might help improve the iPhone 3G's battery consumption, but as noted below, it not only packs a series of heavy power consuming features but also is so handy you'll want to use it all the time. The irony is that the more you depend on it, the more likely it is that you'll use it up dead and be stuck without the Maps, contacts, music, web and phone access you may need to get you back home.

On page 3 of 5: Cheaper construction to sell by the dozens; Internal new hardware features: 3G mobile networking; To 3G or not to 3G, that is the question; and Works great when you can get it.