Inside iPhone 2.0 review series: the new iPhone 3G hardware
Apple has significantly improved upon last year's original iPhone while extending many of the benefits of its newest model to existing users in the form of the iPhone 2.0 software update. AppleInsider's week-long "Inside iPhone 2.0" series will present a detailed analysis and review of the iPhone 3G, the 2.0 software, the App Store, and push messaging. This first segment looks at the iPhone 3G hardware itself, what's new and different, what's bad, and what's missing. A followup segment on hardware will look how the new iPhone 3G compares to other smartphones, and whether it's worth the upgrade for existing iPhone users.
Inside iPhone 2.0: the new iPhone 3G Hardware (Today)
Inside iPhone 2.0: iPhone 3G vs. other smartphones (Friday)
Inside iPhone 2.0: the new iPhone 3G Software (Monday)
Inside iPhone 2.0:Â 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)
External new hardware features: the good news
Audio: In response to complaints that the original iPhone was too quiet and had only fair sound quality, Apple has improved the iPhone 3G's mic and speaker. The new model is considerably louder compared to the original iPhone; at half volume, it sounds about as loud as the previous design. Turned up all the way, the speaker plays back clear, crisp sound that's loud enough for listening to music while sitting at a desk without using earphones. The previous model was barely audible unless held close to your face.Â
The new speaker and mic now sit behind two small and recessed openings next to the dock connector (below, blown up in highly unflattering, close-up detail). Both are still mono, and still highly directional. If you inadvertently cover the tiny speaker opening on the bottom left corner with your finger (which is easy to do when holding it), you can block the sound almost entirely.
The new iPhone 3G also uses a standard, flush-mounted headphone port that is more broadly compatible with replacement headphones that use a right angled jack. The included headphones with built-in mic are the same as the original iPhone's.
Appearance: From the front, the new iPhone 3G looks nearly identical to the existing model. No new buttons, no smaller screen or dual cameras as predicted by rumors, just the same 3.5" 480x320 multitouch screen framed by a slightly more minimalist beveled edge that creates the illusion that the new iPhone 3G is wider. Like the iPod touch, the iPhone 3G now has a wider black margin around the screen. It still has the chrome edging of the original iPhone, but the shiny ring is subtly dialed back on the new model. It also now has a chrome finish on the previously black volume control, silent switch, and the top-mounted power button.
Size, Shape, & Feel: The new unit is two hundredths of an inch thicker in the middle, but thanks to its rounded back (now in plastic rather than aluminum) the device feels significantly thinner and more comfortable to hold. Plastic also conducts less heat than aluminum, so it feels warmer; the original iPhone's metal back wicked heat from your fingers, making it feel sterile and frigid. The round back also rocks slightly when set on a flat surface and poked at, but not to the extent of making it impossible to use as a desktop calculator.
While the original iPhone looked like a box with rounded edges and corners, the back of the new model is curvaceously rounded everywhere apart from its flat front. The original model's tight chrome framing and squared shape gave it the feel of a solid, narrow box. The new 3G's smooth, rounded back and looser chrome frame creates the illusion that it is wider and flatter, despite being essentially the same size.Â
Color: The polished plastic back, available in shiny black (for either the 8 GB or 16GB version) or in a polished white (with the 16GB version only), attracts smudges and fingerprints like the face of the existing iPhone, and looks like it will collect scratches like the mirrored aluminum back of original iPods, although so far it seems to be fairly resistant to scratching. The highly reflective, emo black is particularly bad at showing smudges and fingerprints, while the hipster creamy white version is quite good at hiding marks and subsequently looks a lot cleaner.Â
Weight: The new unit is two grams (.07 oz) lighter than the old one, in part because of the plastic rather than aluminum shell. Two grams isn't much (that's how much two dollar bills weigh), but along with the slightly more aerodynamic shape and its new materials, the shape and weight of the new iPhone makes it feel significantly lighter and more comfortable to hold, but also a bit less substantial.Â
Radio reception: The warmth and dropped weight from the plastic back isn't its only advantage; the iPhone 3G also gets slightly better mobile (and significantly better WiFi) reception. In areas where AT&T's service dropped off into a black hole of silence for the original iPhone (a common phenomenon around San Francisco), the new iPhone 3G reports maintaining a usable signal of a couple bars, although there are still dead zones to discover.Â
Using WiFi, the 3G unit not only had a wider usable range, but also was able to hit consistently higher throughput numbers at the same distance from the base station as an original iPhone, sending test files two to four times faster to web-based testing services. From outside the house, our iPhone 3G received 5 Mbit connectivity from an AirPort Express base station located one floor up and about 80 feet deep into the house through two partition walls, while an original iPhone in the same location could only manage a barely usable 1.3 Mbit.
On page 2 of 5: External hardware disappointments: the bad news; Unchanged hardware details; Fewer Included Parts; Camera; Bluetooth; and Battery replacement.
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).Â 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.Â
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.Â
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.
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.Â
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.
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.Â 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.
All together, the new iPhone 3G feels newer but slightly cheaper, like a sturdy wooden desk replaced by one from Ikea. The reason behind the changes is of course related to the new unit's cost: the original 8GB model was originally designed to sell for $599, while the new 8GB model starts at $199. The classy, durable brushed aluminum back of the original unit, its bundled dock, and Firewire charging are now gone in a cost cutting bid to sell iPhones to a wider audience.Â
Long-time Mac users might see the cheaper new iPhone 3G as the latest version of Apple's early 90s move away from motorized floppy disks to the cheap manual eject drives used by PCs, or its mid 90s move from SCSI to IDE drives to match lower priced computers, or the more recent move from Firewire to USB for lower-end data interfaces on the iPod.Â
The necessity for all the cost cutting was an aggressive new price point. Along with a broader international rollout, that lower price tag has enabled Apple to nearly quadruple the number of units sold in its debut weekend, completely blowing past any fears that last year's iPhone launch was a flash in the pan whipped up with some clever smoke and mirrors marketing. The iPhone is here to stay, and the second generation iPhone 3G is a strong update to Apple's initial foray into the smartphone market, although it is not without flaws.
Internal new hardware features: 3G mobile networking
Despite being far more affordable and feeling a bit cheaper, the new iPhone 3G delivers strong advancements inside. The most obvious one is packed into its name: support for "third generation" UMTS mobile networks, which deliver ubiquitous data connectivity at speeds approaching WiFi wireless networking. Last year's iPhone was limited to "2G" GSM, GPRS, and the EDGE data service sometimes referred to as a "2.75 G" network.Â
Third generation UMTS voice and data service offers a number of significant improvements over the original iPhone's GSM/EDGE. The first is of course data speed, which is readily noticeable when using Maps, browsing the web, or using other network-enabled applications. Apple calls the new phone "twice as fast," and that's not an understatement.Â
It's several times faster to get things done and look up information with 3G rather than EDGE. The new iPhone 3G is fast enough to enable a whole new suite of applications, from streaming radio to VNC remote screen sharing and other new features being unlocked by third party developers.Â
To 3G or not to 3G, that is the question
In the US, many existing "3G" smartphones exclusively use the Qualcomm CDMA EVDO networks built out by Sprint and Verizon Wireless. Worldwide however, "3G" typically refers to UMTS, a standard adopted by GSM providers (Qualcomm's CDMA and the GSM standard are long standing, incompatible competitors). The iPhone 3G works exclusively with UMTS networks, supporting both the UMTS networks in Europe and Asia and AT&T's US version of the standard, which uses unique radio frequencies.Â
T-Mobile's American UMTS network uses a third radio variant (because the US was running short on available radio frequencies) that the iPhone 3G can't use, and the 3G CDMA EVDO networks operated by Verizon and Sprint are also incompatible. So despite the general use of "3G" as a buzzword, the iPhone 3G can only work on AT&T's 3G network in the US.Â
For Americans in urban centers and most of Europe and Japan, UMTS support makes the iPhone 3G significantly more practical for mobile browsing and other data functions such as Maps, Mail, and the new lineup of network-savvy mobile applications in the iPhone Apps Store. Users in the rural US might find it difficult to receive UMTS coverage, given the relatively limited rollout AT&T has completed. In fact, even within the colored areas on AT&T's maps indicating where 3G service should be available, there are plenty of places where 3G service can not be received.Â
Works great when you can get it
Apple can't do much about AT&T's mobile service, so even if the iPhone 3G was perfect, it would still be constrained by AT&T's 3G coverage. Things are slowly improving, but as AT&T's 3G service coverage maps indicate, UMTS reception is limited to big cities and a few other areas, such as Lake Tahoe. The blue areas on AT&T's map (below, and browsable at AT&T Coverage Viewer) are sometimes overly optimistic in claiming 3G reception.
While almost completely blue, hilly San Francisco has plenty of 3G black holes, even in densely populated areas where you'd least expect a problematic signal. Our neighborhood in the center of the city is also confidently blue in AT&T's map, but there's zero 3G service for many blocks in each direction. It almost seems as if AT&T's 3G service is more broadly available in gritty neighborhoods such as the southern Outer Mission / Excelsior District than in some of the more affluent neighborhoods along Market Street.
Exploring around in the forested parks that dot San Francisco's hills, we found that 3G service can rapidly fall off under the cover of tall trees. Interestingly, if you bring up GPS-powered Maps (more details below) in an area where you can't get data service, you can end up with a dot confidently showing your satellite-derived location on a blank map, which isn't very useful.Â
Service may also fall off inside buildings. If you visit Stonestown Galleria near San Francisco State University, you'll lose 3G service after entering the mall.Â Over the last year, Apple has installed 3G/WiFi network antennas in most of its retail stores in anticipation of the new iPhone 3G. However, not all stores have been upgraded yet.Â At Stonestown, you won't be able to try out 3G service within Apple's retail store, where customers were waiting in hours-long lines to buy the new phone. Even worse, Apple doesn't even have its in-store WiFi working correctly there either; only computers (but not iPhones) can connect to it, leaving iPhones stuck on the bleeding EDGE.Â
UMTS 3G coverage in other markets outside of the US seems to be far better established, as carriers worldwide have been migrating to the same standard well in advance of the US. Here at home, 3G service has been splintered by the CDMA vs GSM split between Verizon/Sprint and AT&T/TMobile, as well as problems related to allocating the same radio frequencies that are used in other markets. AT&T's UMTS service is still getting rolled out, so things should continue to improve, particularly as the iPhone continues to support AT&T's growth. Unfortunately, while WiFi can serve as a data substitute in areas lacking 3G service, the iPhone 3G can't use WiFi to place calls, access Visual Voicemail, or send and receive SMS text messages.
While many observers have ballyhooed the consolidation of mobile providers in the US market, and particularly the growth of Cingular after its rebranding as AT&T reminded them of the single old phone company from the distant past, AT&T's emerging preeminence is also making it possible for the company to accelerate the upgrade of its network to the global UMTS standard. If mobile service were only offered by local, regional companies, we'd likely be stuck with another decade of fractured standards, incompatibility, and even slower progress.
On page 4 of 5: Faster, and four other benefits to 3G; and Internal new hardware features: GPS.
AT&T's 3G mobile network feels nearly as fast as WiFi, thanks in part to the iPhone's highly optimized Mobile Safari browser, Maps, and other apps that were designed to be quite usable even with a slower connection. In fact, the original iPhone could handily beat some other 3G phones in web page rendering speeds while only using EDGE. Having used the iPhone's web and Maps extensively with EDGE, and even falling back to the even slower GPRS data service in areas where EDGE isn't available, 3G is a very welcome upgrade.
Beyond data speeds, the second benefit to 3G reception is call quality, as 3G phone conversations are significantly clearer. That fact is bolstered by the iPhone 3G's improved mic and speaker, which even enable GSM conversations to sound better than the original iPhone.Â
The third benefit to 3G is that it supports simultaneous voice and data; the original iPhone couldn't do a voice call while downloading data, but the iPhone 3G can (when it's in 3G coverage, of course). AT&T's competitors using Qualcom's 3G EVDO, including Spring and Verizon Wireless, are still constrained by that problem. Phones on their networks still can't browse the web while making a phone call, and won't be able to in the future either. The iPhone 3G's ability to handle voice and data at once is also supported by its smart interface, which makes it easy to look up information or do other things while on a phone call. Â
A fourth benefit to 3G UMTS is that it has been adopted by international providers; AT&T's iPhone 3G users will be able to bring their phones to Europe or Japan and use them on roaming partner networks (although this can be expensive, particularly without an international data plan). Sprint and Verizon's 3G phones can only roam into Canada and Mexico; there is little or no CDMA EVDO service overseas.Â
One last perk: the 3G UMTS protocol uses an entirely different signaling system than the current GSM, which prevents the signature "snapping" radio interference that plagues most audio equipment when GSM phones are in use nearby.
While 3G isn't the only new feature of the refreshed iPhone, living outside UMTS coverage might make it far less attractive to upgrade to the new phone. That reality has also created healthy resale demand for the original GSM iPhone, so if you're on the fence about the new features, you might consider the possibility of upgrading, reselling your existing iPhone for around $300, and making a profit on the deal overall.
Internal new hardware features: GPS
Outside of the new support for 3G UMTS mobile networks, the cheaper new iPhone 3G delivers an option for more Flash RAM storage (up to 16 GB) as well as GPS (Global Positioning System) location services, which can very accurately determine the user's latitude, longitude, and elevation using signals received from orbiting satellites.Â
Existing iPhones use mobile towers and WiFi hotspots to determine their location, typically pin pointing the user within a roughly one block radius. In some areas, a lack of known WiFi base stations and limited mobile service might leave the Maps app drawing a huge (and rather worthless) city-sized radius around the user's given location. GPS enables the iPhone's Maps and any other location-aware applications to find a very accurate position from anywhere its satellite signals can be received.
GPS location acquisition on the iPhone 3G is very fast, in part because the unit performs a lookup using mobile and WiFi networks in parallel to predetermine the location. The iPhone 3G's ability to consult multiple sources of location information means it can determine a location faster than most standalone GPS units, which can require a minute of good signal reception to obtain enough information from satellites to determine their location. So called "Assisted GPS" is particularly suited to quickly determining your location in an environment that might obscure satellite signals, such as when in or around tall buildings. Â
When location tracking is activated in Maps, a pulsating blue dot is drawn on your location, and you can watch the dot move down the block as you walk. Traveling in a vehicle, the accuracy is a bit more skittish; the dot might temporarily jump to side streets as you travel in a straight line. It seems that the faster you're traveling, the harder it is for the device to figure out exactly where you are. The iPhone 2.0 software calculates an accuracy margin and represents that as a blue area around the dot. While rapidly traveling north up Mission Street, we always remained in the blue area, but the dot jumped as far west as San Jose Avenue and then later a block east before bouncing back to Mission.
It's important to note that the 3G's GPS is included for location awareness; it is not a full replacement for dedicated, standalone GPS devices, and can't currently provide automated, turn-by-turn directions that most people associate with GPS. The upcoming iPhone 2.1 update appears to solve that problem, and both TeleNav and TomTom have announced plans to address the demand for advanced GPS features. On the other hand, its current integration with the Google-based Maps app also means you don't have to download and pay for maps for each location you visit, as is typically the case with GPS devices or other mobile phones that pack GPS features. Of course, the iPhone needs data service in order to download those free maps, as noted earlier.
GPS location data is also used by the iPhone 3G to "geo-tag" photos taken with the camera (but currently not screenshots), so that other applications (but not the iPhone itself!) can determine where the picture was taken by consulting its longitude and latitude metadata tags. Third party applications can also look up the iPhone's current location for various purposes; due to privacy concerns, the iPhone prompts the user to approve the use of location services before allowing new applications to track their location.Â
On page 5 of 5: Internal new hardware feature drawbacks: battery life; When push comes to shove; and Unlimited apps.
Both 3G mobile networking and GPS tracking place major new demands on the battery. However, the iPhone 3G employs a number of power efficiency tricks intended to help the new phone last nearly as long on a charge as the previous model. Apple has also imposed a number of limiting guidelines upon iPhone app developers to keep battery consumption low. For example, programmers are advised to avoid constant polling of data networks or excessively frequent location lookups.Â
All together, the new model delivers the same performance in playing back music or video (24 hours of audio or 7 hours of video, even despite the speaker improvements and louder volume), about the same in browsing the web (6 hours over WiFi, 5 hours using 3G mobile service; the original iPhone wasn't rated any better using EDGE, but independent tests indicate the original iPhone could browse twice as long on the same charge, of course that's also downloading less than half as much content!), but significantly less talk time when using 3G networks (due to the advanced signal processing required by UMTS; it's rated for 10 hours of talk time on GSM versus 5 hours of talk using 3G). The power consuming 3G service can be turned off to maximize talk time if you're in a location where you know you're not needing it, but it doesn't automatically downgrade for you when it thinks you can do without it.
A variety of independent reviewers found Apple's claim of five hours of 3G talk time to be fairly reasonable, with half reporting closer to six hours of 3G talk time. When mixing in 3G web browsing and other data access, the same five hour claim was more widely disputed, with several reviewers claiming they could use 3G data for only about 3.5 hours. The exact mix of tasks performed has a lot to do with how fast the battery runs down.
A compilation of iPhone 3G battery tests | Image credit: Gizmodo
And of course, 3G browsing and GPS accuracy make using the iPhone's existing features far more attractive, so typical users will likely find themselves operating their phones longer and more frequently, resulting in a shorter battery life than they might have seen when limited by the slower EDGE network and the less accurate location positioning of the original model. The number one complaint echoed by upgrading iPhone users is that they are seeing less battery life. Upcoming software updates might help a bit, but being ready with an add on battery pack (either using an iPod dock connector or generic packs that supply power over USB) makes a lot of sense. Apple also offers some suggestions on how to maximize battery life on the iPhone.
When push comes to shove
There's other factors that also make a significant drag upon the iPhone 3G's battery life. One is the new push messaging features enabled by the iPhone 2.0 software update (which will be detailed in a followup segment). Push messaging is intended to save mobile battery power, as it spares devices from needing to regularly connect to an email server to ask for new messages. Instead, the server pushes new email and other events as needed, so the mobile device only transmits when prompted by the server, similar to receiving an SMS text message.
However, because the iPhone 2.0 software adds contacts, calendar, and bookmark syncing as part of its push services, the end result is that the typical iPhone likely now has more to do; rather than just checking email on a regular basis, it's receiving updates from a variety of message types, with a frequency related to how often the user's mailbox, contacts, calendar items, and web bookmarks change.Â
That means iPhone 2.0's push services, whether delivered from a company's Microsoft Exchange Server or from Apple's own MobileMe service, represent a significant new drain on battery life. This will be particularly noticeable for users who were only checking for new email manually or on a schedule of every half hour or less.Â
In addition to push messaging, another potential battery consuming feature in the iPhone 2.0 software are its new third party applications. Just like push services, 3G, and GPS, the added benefits of the new selection of apps from iTunes (also downloadable directly from the iPhone's new Apps Store icon if you really want to tax your battery) come at a cost.Â
The more you use the iPhone, the less battery life you can expect. Graphically intensive games and apps that rely upon network connectivity both represent a significant new impact on battery life.
A followup segment will take a closer look at how the iPhone 2.0 software and the new third party applications, as well as Apple's own included apps, offer a variety of strong new advantages while demanding more from the battery. This impacts both the new iPhone 3G and existing iPhones upgraded to the iPhone 2.0 software. But first, we'll present a look at how the iPhone 3G's hardware stacks up with other smartphones on the market, along with a comparison of how it compares to the existing iPhone, and whether it's worth it to upgrade.
Submit your own observations and bug reports related to the iPhone 3G hardware and iPhone 2.0 software in comments or emailing us directly.