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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

As detailed in the previous segment introducing its hardware features, the second generation iPhone 3G catches up with two of the largest competitive features offered by other higher-end smartphones: faster 3G network access and GPS. Here's a look at how Apple's smartphone compares in other areas, as well as how it stacks up against the original iPhone. (Comparison chart on page 3).

Inside iPhone 2.0 series outline and publication dates:

Inside iPhone 2.0: the new iPhone 3G Hardware (Thursday)
Inside iPhone 2.0: iPhone 3G vs. other smartphones (Today)
Inside iPhone 2.0: the new iPhone 3G Software (Monday)
Inside iPhone 2.0: iPhone OS vs. other mobile platforms (Tuesday)
Inside iPhone 2.0: the new iPhone App Store (Wednesday)
Inside iPhone 2.0: MobileMe push messaging (Thursday)


Last year, Steve Jobs noted that the original iPhone lacked 3G and GPS due to battery life issues. Critics fumed that Jobs' explanation was just marketing speak, pointing out that tons of 3G phones were already on sale. However, the reality is that both features do have a huge impact on battery life, even after a year of advances in the underlying technologies. Another factor was the short reach of AT&T's 3G UMTS network a year ago versus the 3G EVDO service offered by Sprint and Verizon Wireless in the US, or the more established 3G service in Europe or Japan. Apple had to first launch the iPhone successfully in the US, and doing so with poor battery performance in cities where AT&T's 3G was available would have been a bigger black mark than the relatively slow EDGE. 

Battery performance is still an issue a year later, but Apple's new iPhone 3G delivers both new features with better battery life than competing smartphones, according to tests performed by independent sources. In other respects, the iPhone 3G still lags behind many phones in terms of raw hardware specifications.

The iPhone 3G's trailing hardware features

Camera: The iPhone 3G's weakest feature is probably its camera, which is nearly unchanged from the original model. Not only is it the same fixed focus, 2 megapixel camera (which was a bit behind the state of the art a year ago), but it also still uses the same very basic camera software. It still lacks video recording and still uses a touch screen button that make snapping a photo a bit difficult, particularly if you're attempting to take a shot that includes you in the photo. You can also forget video conferencing or even video capture. 

The camera's imaging firmware has been updated however, making the iPhone 3G's camera noticeably better at capturing usable pictures than the original iPhone, even those updated to the new 2.0 software. Photos appear to be better exposed with greater detail in dark areas and less color fringing and noise. It's still hard to take decent close-ups or useable landscape pics, a problem related to the simple fixed-focus lens. There's also still no convenient way to use an add on lens to work around that. The iPhone 3G's screen also appears slightly warmer in color temperature with a yellowish tint, a trait that some users have complained about.  

Apple notes that photos taken with the camera are already among the largest data files the iPhone handles; a typical 2 megapixel JPEG photo is 400 to 800 KB. Taking photos, or even remaining in the Camera app with the camera live, involves heavy processing that takes a big bite out of the battery. One of the easiest ways to inadvertently run the iPhone's battery down is to take a photo and then drop it into your pocket without exiting the Camera app; it appears that the phone continues to process data from the camera even when the screen is off. That elementary problem is still present in the iPhone 2.0 software, so it's no wonder that video support hasn't been added yet.

Camera features are clearly way at the bottom of Apple's priority list for the iPhone. Several competing smartphones offer a much higher resolution camera, an LED flash, video recording and video conferencing features, and some even have an auto focus lens. However, all of these features have drawbacks as well, from increased battery demands to additional bulk. Users contemplating the iPhone 3G will need to decide if its very simple camera outweighs its strong features. No smartphone takes photos in the league of most modern dedicated point and shoot cameras, even if they match up in most features. 

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 or speakers. However convenient wireless music may be, though, A2DP is at present 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. 

Other smartphones accommodate A2DP headphones by expecting the user to carry extra batteries around. Last year, Samsung had to release a fat replacement battery pack for its popular BlackJack because the original battery couldn't keep up with more than half day of 3G data and A2DP use. 

It'd be nice to see the iPhone working with Bluetooth keyboards, which would make the phone closer to a laptop replacement. That might also be why Apple hasn't released keyboard support for it yet. Bluetooth file transfer and data sync are also missing, although modern data sync has transcended the relatively slow Bluetooth for all but basic data; MobileMe now offers wireless mobile sync, and USB is far faster than Bluetooth is likely to ever be. It would be nice to be able to beam contacts or files to other iPhone users, however. 

Carrier Limitations: While the iPhone 3G sports global HSDPA and UMTS data access, it's only available in the US through AT&T's relatively limited 3G service area. Sprint and Verizon have older and more established 3G networks providing larger coverage. AT&T also does not allow the use of tethering, which uses a phone's mobile data connection to provide Internet access to a laptop over Bluetooth or USB. Conversely, most of the Sprint and Verizon phones attempting to compete directly with the iPhone 3G lack Wi-Fi, ensuring that they will have zero value when removed from mobile service. These external factors remind us that a device is limited as much by its service provider as it is the hardware itself. 

Software: While we're endeavoring to discuss hardware and software issues independently, software is still joined to hardware's hip and has a major impact on how well the device works and how usable its features are. The iPhone 3G's software is wimpiest around its weaker hardware features: camera software is extremely basic, as is its Bluetooth support. It also lacks voice recognition for handsfree dialing, a common feature on most phones. The lack of copy and paste, a unified email box, and a handful of other missing features all count as minor dings against the iPhone, but those are all software issues that are not impossible to fix. All the same, one can't retrofit the iPhone's current camera — though it's equally difficult to make competing smartphones any less clunky or add missing features like Wi-Fi.

The iPhone 3G's differing hardware features

While the iPhone 3G's camera and bluetooth support is clearly behind some leading higher-end smartphones, in other areas it's just different, leaving the end user to decide whether its different in a good way or not. 

On page 2 of 3: Battery replacement; Touchscreen keyboard; MMS vs Email; The iPhone 3G's leading hardware features; and Data storage.