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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


Computing Performance: The iPhone 3G appears to use roughly the same microprocessors as the original model. It's impressive that it didn't need a substantial upgrade to run the kind of apps now available in the Apps Store, including 3D games that look like console games rather than typical mobile phone fare. The iPhone's hardware platform, combined with its software architecture, simply places it in a class far beyond other phones on the market. High-end phones that cost significantly more than the iPhone and could potentially deliver better hardware features will still have a tough time matching its bundled software and the available applications from developers. The iPhone's tight integration is simply hard to compete against, and the momentum behind the App Store is not going to be easily matched. 

Even beyond the strength of iTunes to market software in a way that attracts serious developers, the iPhone's platform (shared by the rapid-selling iPod touch) provides a strong foundation for creating high performance apps that look great and work consistently. Rival platforms, such as RIM's BlackBerry SDK, Qualcomm's BREW, and Windows Mobile, all have to work around the inconsistent nature of wildly varying phone specifications, leaving most developers targeting lowest common denominator hardware. That results in poor software that doesn't take advantage of the hardware features on high end phones, such as GPS or touch input. 

Hardware usability: In general, competing smartphones often include superior hardware specifications but weaker usability via software. The iPhone 3G's strongest features come from its intuitive software interface, which is in most cases is strong enough to feel like a hardware feature of its own. Rather than having to learn how to navigate a set of nestled menu listings or pages of poorly conceived icons, the iPhone presents everything using natural, concrete analogies: controls flick up and down as if they were actual physical devices, lists bounce up and down like a scrolling paper tape, and settings are rarely deeper than a page or two.

Other phones are beginning to ape the iPhone's graphic style and touchscreen interface, but none are delivering the slick polish and usability that Apple currently leads the market by with a wide margin. That's not to say the iPhone 2.0 software is flawless or complete. The next segment looks closer at the iPhone's big 2.0 software upgrade to outline what's new, what's missing, and how it compares with the competition. In terms of hardware however, the iPhone 3G delivers competitive specifications at an almost brutally low price point.

iPhone 3G


Worth the upgrade?

What about existing iPhone users looking to upgrade? Most of the software-related features of the iPhone 3G are now available to existing iPhone users through the free iPhone 2.0 update. That makes the necessity of upgrading to the new model contingent upon whether faster data networking, GPS, improved reception, and better audio are compelling enough to throw down $199 or $299 for the new model, along with the slightly higher monthly plan required for 3G data service (an extra $10 per month from AT&T in the US). 

Faster: That's likely a no-brainer for anyone who regularly uses the mobile data network and who lives within 3G service; while HSDPA is "only" about twice as fast as EDGE, it's a night and day difference in usability. On the other hand, if you primarily use your iPhone within range of a Wi-Fi network, are outside of a major city, or have cracked it to work on T-Mobile's 2G-only network, the new iPhone 3G won't offer you nearly as much. Again, due to signaling differences, the iPhone 3G simply won't work on T-Mobile's 3G network regardless of how much hacking you perform, and AT&T's 3G service isn't going to fill out the rest of the country overnight. 

The 3G data network is still slower than Wi-Fi, and it costs slightly more than previous iPhone plans. Existing iPhone users who can't get good EDGE reception can already opt out of paying for an AT&T data plan all together and use the original iPhone exclusively on their own Wi-Fi networks at a very low monthly rate for voice-only mobile service. Even if you pay for EDGE service on the original iPhone plan, it's still a bit less than upgrading to the iPhone 3G. That makes a case for some users to simply hold off on an upgrade.

Cheaper: Upgrading to the iPhone 3G will also involve some feature loss. While most users probably won't notice, the iPhone 3G marks the end of FireWire charging. Recent iPods and the original iPhone can't sync data over FireWire as the original iPods did, but they could recharge via a FireWire cable; the latest iPhone 3G can't. FireWire may be rarer, but it's faster; the USB specification delivers less voltage, so devices can't draw as much power to recharge as they can when using FireWire. That largely invisible feature is now gone as part of Apple's aggressive effort to deliver the new iPhone at the lowest price possible. 

There's also nothing wrong with the battleship metal construction of the original iPhone, and some might prefer it over the sculpted plastic of the new model. If you treat the original iPhone reasonably well, it should last for years. However, the cheaper new construction of the new model also gives it a more comfortable feel, better mobile and Wi-Fi reception, and makes it slightly lighter. Those using 4GB or 8GB originals can also opt for 16GB of storage and gain a bit more breathing room, all for half as much as was paid for the original unit (albeit only if one qualifies for the upgrade).

Out of Control: Overall, the low price of the iPhone 3G model combined with the penalty-free contract offered to upgrading iPhone users should make it hard for many existing users to pass up. Also, the original iPhone is still very useful even without a service plan, particularly with the new programs from the App Store; it effectively becomes an enhanced iPod touch. The free Remote app for controlling iTunes is a particularly nice reason for hanging onto an extra old iPhone.

It can also be passed on to friends or family who live outside of AT&T's 3G service, or who have more basic needs in a mobile phone. Users are even selling their original iPhones for $200 to $500 online; its unique metal construction and strong usability should help it retain a high resale value into the future. In contrast, most smartphones (with notable exceptions like the BlackBerry Curve 8320) are entirely worthless after being unplugged from mobile service. 

With its new price point and hardware improvements, the iPhone 3G almost mocks the analysts who fretted that Apple wouldn't be able to reach its (admittedly lofty) goal of shipping ten million phones in 2008. The biggest barrier to upgrading might actually be finding a unit in stock. Whether you upgrade to the iPhone 3G or not, you'll definitely want to make the jump to iPhone 2.0 software, which adds a lot of new features, albeit not without some associated costs. The next segment will examine the features and many flaws of the latest iPhone software.