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Review: iPhone 3G lives up to the hype

  • Story Highlights
  • With access to a faster wireless network, this is the iPhone we've been waiting for
  • Apple offers a staggering array of third-party software from its iPhone App Store
  • Downsides include weak battery life and the AT&T-related costs of owning the phone
  • But if you haven't bought an iPhone yet, now is the time
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By Kent German and Donald Bell
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(CNET) -- Just over a year after Apple birthed the first iPhone, the long-awaited, next-generation iPhone 3G has arrived bearing a mildly tweaked design and a load of new features.

With access to a faster 3G wireless network, Microsoft Exchange server e-mail, and support for a staggering array of third-party software from the iPhone App Store, the new handset is the iPhone we've been waiting for.

It still lacks some basic features but when compared with what the original model was year ago, this device sets a new benchmark for the cell phone world.

With the iPhone 3G, Apple appears to have fixed some call-quality performance issues we had with the previous model--in our initial tests, the volume is louder with less background buzz than before. Music and video quality were largely unchanged, but we didn't have many complaints in that department to begin with.

We're worried about battery life--some early reviews indicate that the iPhone 3G lasts only a day--but we'll run full tests over the next couple of days and report our results on this page.

Price may well remain our largest concern. New AT&T customers and most current AT&T customers can buy the iPhone 3G for $199 for the 8GB model and $299 for the 16GB model. If you don't qualify for that price--check your AT&T account to find out--you'll pay $399 and $499 respectively.

Either way, you'll pay $15 more per month ($74.99 total) for a plan comparable with the original iPhone ($59 per month). So, while you'll pay less outright to buy the handset, you'll make it up over the course of a standard two-year AT&T contract.

So should you buy an iPhone 3G? If you haven't bought an iPhone yet, and have been holding out for a new model, now is the time. If you're a current iPhone owner and you're yearning for a faster cellular network, then you should take the plunge.

But if you're an iPhone owner who won't use 3G (or can't; check your coverage at AT&T), then you should stick with your current model. The iPhone 2.0 software update provides Exchange server support, third-party apps support, and many new features without the added cost.


You'd be hard-pressed to notice any design differences on the front of the iPhone 3G. The minor changes -- the silver rim is thinner and the silver mesh behind the speaker -- are so minimal we didn't notice them for a few hours after picking up the device.

Turn the phone on its side, however, and you'll see more changes. Apple has replaced the aluminum silver back with a plastic face in either white or black. The black version (our review model) is attractive, but we admit that we miss the original silver, which shows fewer fingerprints and smudges than the shiny black version. The white model is not our cup of tea.

The iPhone 3G's edges are slightly tapered to accommodate the curved back, making the device thinner around its perimeter than its predecessor, but a hair thicker (0.48 inch versus 0.46 inch) in the gut. Unfortunately, the curved back makes the iPhone 3G wobble slightly if you use it while resting on a table--which quickly becomes annoying.

The phone's height and width measurements (5.5 inches by 2.4 inches) remain the same, though it weighs just a tiny bit less (4.7 ounces versus 4.8 ounces).

At 3.5 inches and 480x320 pixels, the display is the same size as its predecessor, but displays slightly more dots per inch (163 vs.160), and still cranks out brilliant colors, sharp graphics, and fluid movements.

The layout of the home screen is identical to that on the first version, though you'll see two new icons from the outset: A Contacts icon takes you directly to your phone book, and the App Store icon opens the iTunes App Store. The display's glass surface, accelerometer feature, touch interface, and secondary menus remain the same.

The iPhone's 3G controls reveal a few changes, but none will surprise a current iPhone user. The Home button sits below the display, while the volume rocker and ringer mute switch rest on the left spine. The Power/sleep button rests on top of the phone in its normal position.

All controls are now silver instead of black. The SIM card slot hasn't moved either, and Apple now includes a SIM removal tool in the box. The bottom of the iPhone houses the speaker, the microphone, and the charger port, but you'll also notice two tiny screws on either side of the charger jack.

Think maybe you'll be able to replace your own battery now? Bummer: The battery is still not user-replaceable, so we don't recommend trying it (although we hear the battery is no longer soldered down).

We're very pleased that the iPhone 3G's 3.5mm headset jack now sits flush with the surface of the phone allowing you to use any 3.5mm headset you like; you're no longer restricted to a headset that can fit in the previous phone's inane recessed jack.

In the box you'll find the syncing cable, a display cleaning cloth, a headset, user documentation, the aforementioned SIM removal tool, and an electrical outlet plug. The plug is pleasantly smaller than on the original iPhone's, but it's compatible with a standard USB cable.

On the downside, you don't get a syncing dock. If you want one, you have to shell out $30 for it (boo!), and Apple made sure the iPhone 3G won't fit in the first iPhone's dock.


The iPhone 3G hangs on to all the original iPhone features and throws in a few more, so we'll concentrate on what's new. Lucky for first-gen iPhone owners, most of the impressive array of additions -- save 3G support and enhanced GPS -- come along with the free 2.0 software update. (For more on the organizer features, stocks and weather widgets, YouTube app, notepad, threaded texting, and visual voicemail, see our original iPhone review.)

Exchange server support: Worker bees worldwide have awaited the iPhone 3G's full support for Microsoft Exchange server. In our tests, adding an Exchange account was ridiculously easy once we had the correct settings from our IT department--simply choose to add a new e-mail account in the main Settings menu, and you'll be taken to the standard list of available e-mail systems.

"Microsoft Exchange" and "MobileMe" (we'll try that later) will appear at the top of the list just above the choice for Gmail. You'll then be prompted to enter the applicable e-mail address, domain/username, server, and password. The authentication process took just a couple of minutes. Installing CNET's security certificate posed a bit of a challenge, but we eventually succeeded by mailing the certificate to ourselves through Yahoo Mail.

Once you're ready to go, the iPhone will sync your Outlook e-mail, contacts, and calendar. Be advised that while the iPhone can support multiple POP3 accounts at once (two Yahoo accounts, for instance), it syncs with only one Exchange server and, worse, with only with one calendar or contacts list at a time. If you have a separate personal calendar, your work calendar will replace it once you start the sync. (You'll be notified before it happens.)

As an alternative, though, you can sync e-mail without syncing your contacts and calendar. Also, you can keep work and personal e-mail accounts open at the same time, although you'll have to switch between the two (unlike on a BlackBerry). MobileMe is another way to work around this restriction, but we'll talk about the later.

When using Wi-Fi, e-mail syncing went quickly. As new messages came in, the iPhone registered them almost immediately. It seemed to bog down when we received a large clump of messages at one time, however. In those cases, we had to update the phone manually. In one instance, an update took a couple of minutes--long enough that we thought the phone had frozen.

We also noticed that if the iPhone loses its Wi-Fi connection, the syncing is interrupted even if the phone has 3G service. Even with these caveats, however, the experience was satisfactory. The Syncing via 3G was just as quick; if there was a difference, we didn't notice it.

When we deleted a message on our phone, the same e-mail vanished on our PC just a couple of seconds later. Messages deleted on the PC took longer to disappear from the phone; typically, we had to do a manual update to see them gone. Messages deleted on the phone will show up in your PC's Recycle Bin and vice versa.

You can access all folders in your in-box and move messages from your in-box to a specific folder. You can't search for messages, but you can call a contact if they include their phone number in their e-mail. Opening attachments worked as promised, and we like how you now can save attached images directly to your photo gallery simply by tapping the image.

To e-mail photos, you will need to do so in the traditional manner by opening the photo, selecting the e-mail option, and choosing which account you'd like to send from.

Though according to AT&T, using Exchange server support on the iPhone 3G will require the business data plan (the one that costs $45 per month), we're not sure how AT&T will enforce this rule. The iPhone does not prompt you of this restriction in any way.

MobileMe: The iPhone 3G supports Apple's new MobileMe service, which synchronizes from Mac's Mail, Address Book, and iCal applications: contacts, calendar appointments, e-mail messages, photos, and browser bookmarks. One advantage of MobileMe is that it allows you to sync personal and work calendars, and contacts. We'll test MobileMe on the phone once we get it up and running.

App Store: When you select the iTunes Store, you're taken to the App Store main menu, which somewhat resembles the mobile iTunes store in design. You search applications by name and category and you can browse through the lists of Featured applications or the Top 25. There also is a feature for seeing if your purchased applications have any updates.

We purchased a few apps for the iPhone. Downloads over Wi-Fi were pretty quick; most apps took just a few seconds, but keep in mind it will vary by the size of the app. Though you can purchase iTunes songs wirelessly only through a Wi-Fi connection, you can download applications of 10Mb or less over a 3G network and even over EDGE (if 3G isn't available).

Downloads over 3G took about the same time as they did over Wi-Fi, give or take a few seconds, but apps over EDGE are quite pokey. We also purchased applications through the online iTunes (7.7) store. We downloaded Super Monkey Ball and then synced it to our phone--a new applications tab appears under the iPhone menu. The process was quick and painless. What's more, navigation through the online apps store is easy. After loading apps, the icons will appear on the Home screen.

What's most remarkable about the online applications store is the sheer breadth of titles available, many of which take full advantage of the accelerometer. As of this writing, there are 27 pages available in a extensive range of categories. If there is one thing about the iPhone that's to love, it's the App Store -- even if not all the applications are keepers and Apple is maintaining strict control over who gets in.

Sure, Apple is not the first company to build a phone that takes third-party applications, but like the iPhone itself, the App Store is unique not for what it does, but for how it does it. The process is so easy that we can't imagine having the same experience on a Windows Mobile device. Of course, before you get carried away, remember that some apps are free but others will cost you.

The iPhone 3G's support for AT&T's wireless UMTS/HSDPA wireless broadband network comes too late for original iPhone buyers who grew frustrated with the slow Web-surfing speeds over the 2.5G EDGE network, but it makes for a much more satisfying second-generation device.

Safari consistently delivered speeds of about 300Kbps to 500Kbps and even faster at times in our tests. That's a huge jump over the typical EDGE speeds of less than 100Kbps. Web pages that used to take minutes took only seconds to load via 3G.

In preliminary testing, the iPhone 3G blew away its predecessor. When using the 3G network, (a very bandwidth-heavy Web site) loaded as quickly as 38 seconds and as slowly as 47 seconds. In contrast, the same site loaded anywhere from 2 minutes to 2 minutes and 45 seconds on the original iPhone using EDGE.

We also tried accessing on the iPhone 3G using EDGE. Its fastest speed also was 2 minutes but the slowest speed was a painful 3 minutes 30 seconds. The mobile site of loaded in just 12 seconds on the 3G network but up to 23 seconds using EDGE. For more on Internet speeds, check out this Prizefight.

Of course, the 3G experience is all relative. Your experience will depend on many factors including 3G coverage in your area, the number of people on the network at a given time, and the kind of pages you're trying to access--as a rule, busier pages will load more slowly.

Also, it's absolutely essential that you test 3G coverage in your area using another AT&T 3G handset before buying the new iPhone. AT&T can give you guidance, but there's no substitute for real-world experience.

Outside of the United States, the iPhone's tri-band (850/1900/2100) UMTS/HSDPA support will deliver 3G coverage around the world. One final point is that 3G will suck juice from your phone, so you should consider switching it off (there's an options in the Settings menu) when you're not using it. At that point, the handset will default to EDGE.

GPS: While the current iPhone location services find your position by triangulating among nearby cell phone towers and satellites, the iPhone 3G uses Assisted GPS supplemented by satellites, which better pinpoints your location. It also offers live tracking so that you can monitor your progress as you drive (or walk) along.

We tested the GPS feature both in a car and on foot. When on foot, the tracking service from satellites was quite accurate. It pinpointed our location almost exactly and the small blue dot that represented our location followed us as we moved along. What's more, we didn't lose the connection as we walked between tall buildings or under an overpass.

Naturally, the satellite connection dropped out as we entered buildings but it switched automatically to find the closest cellular phone tower or hot spot. That method isn't quite as accurate--at times it could only show a circle spanning several city blocks--but you get the general idea of where you are.

There were times where we had to ask the iPhone to pinpoint our location again, particularly as we left buildings and switched back to a satellite connection. When riding in a car, the GPS wasn't quite as specific. The blue dot tended to jump block by block or as we came to stoplights.

Even with these additions, however, the iPhone's GPS features can't compete with standalone GPS devices. Google Maps provide point-to-point directions on the iPhone 3G, but the phone doesn't support turn-by-turn directions in real time, and it's unclear whether that capability will come later from third-party applications. Apple's SDK prohibits location-based services "designed or marketed for real-time route guidance," but that doesn't mean we'll never see them.

The iPhone's iPod: We can't blame Apple for leaving the iPhone's iPod functions unchanged. In the year since the original iPhone, no competitor has been able to match the iPhone's aptitude as a music and video player. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Apple's online iTunes store continues to reign as a top destination for music, video, and podcast downloads.

As with the first-generation iPhone, the iPod icon on the iPhone 3G's main menu reveals a submenu of any content transferred from your computer's iTunes media library, including music, videos, and podcasts. The iPhone's remarkably responsive touch screen and its intuitive navigation allow you to swiftly scroll through lengthy song lists or leisurely browse your music collection in an attractive Cover Flow view.

By default, the iPod menu includes shortcut icons for Playlists, Artists, Songs, and Video; however, these shortcuts can be easily swapped for other options that may be more useful to you, such as Podcasts, Albums, Audiobooks, Compilations, Composers, or Genres.

If you hunger for new music but lack the patience to download songs at home, the iPhone's iTunes Wi-Fi Store lets you browse new music and download purchases directly to your phone. As the name implies, the iTunes Wi-Fi Store unfortunately works only over your iPhone's Wi-Fi Internet connection, which is surprising, considering that downloads over 3G would strengthen the iPhone's appeal as on-demand music player.

The arrival of third-party applications to the iPhone has ushered in several new music-related capabilities, including a few free music applications we consider essential. For instance, radio fans can take advantage of AOL Radio and Pandora to stream music directly to the iPhone over both Wi-Fi and 3G connections. An in-house Apple application, Remote, transforms your iPhone into a full-featured remote control for your computer's iTunes music library or a separate Apple TV system.

The iPhone 3G does an admirable job supporting MP3, AAC, Audible, Apple Lossless, WAV, and AIFF audio files, as well as MPEG-4 or H.264 video files. Predictably, the iPhone does not support Windows Media file types such as WMA audio or WMV video, or more boutique formats like DIVX, FLAC, or Ogg Vorbis.

With the exception of songs downloaded directly to the phone using the iTunes Wi-Fi music store, loading audio and video content onto the iPhone 3G requires Apple's iTunes software. Unlike the initial release of the first-generation iPhone, you can now manually sync music files to your iPhone if you prefer not to have content automatically load from your iTunes library.

The iPhone 3G's sound quality and EQ enhancement features are indistinguishable from the first-generation version's and certainly good enough to make your existing MP3 player redundant. The iPhone 3G's built-in speakers crank out noticeably louder -- but still musically unacceptable -- sound. To squeeze the most from the iPhone's sound quality, we recommend investing in a pair of higher quality headphones or earbuds than those that come with the device.

The iPhone 3G's near-perfect storm of video features includes iTunes movie rental compatibility, excellent video podcast support, a dedicated YouTube player, autobookmarking, full-screen resizing, and support for embedded closed captions and chapter bookmarks.

The iPhone's critical shortcoming as a Web-enabled portable video player is its lack of support for the Internet's ubiquitous Flash video content. Smaller video gripes include our dislike of the iPhone's reflective screen and the lack of a flip-out kickstand. The iPhone 3G's video quality offers no surprises, displaying crisp and colorful 480x320 video on its 3.5-inch screen.

The phone tends toward negative blacks and low contrast when viewing the iPhone 3G at off angles, but the overall video experience is one of the best you'll find on a mobile phone.

With all of the iPhone 3G's cool new audio and radio applications, it's disappointing that Apple couldn't find a way to roll wireless A2DP stereo Bluetooth audio streaming into the device. In time, we hope third-party manufacturers will find a way to help users stream music from their iPhones to their Bluetooth-enabled speakers, headphones, and car stereos.

Camera: We were hoping that the iPhone 3G would throw in an improved camera, but we got the same 2-megapixel shooter as in the original model, although with a slight improvement in the photo quality. Colors looked natural, there was little image noise, and interior shots had enough light.

The camera's white balance can't handle bright sunlight, but that's not unusual for a camera phone. Camera features remain equally minimal and the blatant lack of multimedia messaging and video recording continue to rub us the wrong way.

Contacts search: A search bar now appears above your contacts list. Typing in any portion of the name will take you immediately to that person.

iWork documents and PowerPoint: We haven't tried iWork documents, but we were able to view PowerPoint e-mail attachments. The attachment was rather large (1.3MB), but it didn't take very long to download. Keep in mind that as with other Office documents, the iPhone does not allow you to edit attachments.

Bulk delete and move: This works in your e-mail boxes only. In your in-box you'll see a small "edit" button at the top right-hand corner. When you press the button, a small circle will appear next to each e-mail. Touch the circle to highlight as many messages as you like and then select the "delete" or "move" options.

Scientific calculator: As Steve Jobs said in his WWDC keynote, you'll now get a scientific calculator when you turn the phone on its side. You'll see a lot more buttons that will set a mathematician's heart aflutter.

Parental controls: You now will find a "Restrictions" selection under the General tab of the main Settings menu. There you can restrict access to the Safari browser, explicit songs, YouTube, and the iTunes and iTunes App Stores. You can select as many restrictions as you like.

Language support: The iPhone 3G also brings language support and typing keyboards in French, Canadian French, U.K. English, German, Japanese (QWERTY and Kana), Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Brazilian Portuguese, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, Korean, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Russian, and Polish.

You can select as many languages you want by opening the "International" selection under the General tab of the main Settings menu. For Chinese, you choose from Pinyin or a graffiti-style application for writing characters. As you enter characters, suggestions will appear to the right. To change between menus, choose from the small globe icon next to the space bar.

What else is new? The IPhone 3G offers a host of additional new features, from the noteworthy to the trivial. For the enterprise, there's remote wipe (to erase data in case of a stolen or lost phone) and integration with Cisco IPSec VPN for remote network access.

You'll also find calendar colors and a new interface for entering passwords. (Now the screen temporarily displays the last character you entered so you can verify that you haven't mistyped.) We found the new ability to take screen captures (by holding the Home button and pressing the power/sleep key) especially useful. Screenshots end up in the camera's photo gallery.

What's missing? We've mentioned already that Apple has stubbornly left out multimedia messaging, stereo Bluetooth, and video recording. But we also wish we'd gotten a landscape keyboard for messaging, cut and paste, voice dialing, Flash support for the Web browser, tactile feedback for the touch screen and a memory card (or at least a 32GB model).

Perhaps those additions will come in time. We'd also like the capability to send calendar appointments to contacts and an easier way to transfer files to the iPhone. Because there's no way to transfer them via iTunes, you'll have to e-mail files to yourself to access them on the iPhone. And even then, there's no accessible mass file storage.

Call quality: When we reviewed the original iPhone, we withheld our Editors' Choice Award largely over middling call quality because of low volume and a slight background hum. The iPhone 3G corrects these problems--our tests revealed louder volume and clearer audio.

We also noticed that we could hear better at a variety of angles, whereas the first iPhone had a sensitive sweet spot. Also, while it was difficult to hear the original iPhone in noisy environments, we had better luck with this model. Reception didn't vary between GSM and HSDPA calls.

iPhone 3G also improves speakerphone calls. The phone's external speaker creates louder output, and callers said they can hear us better. Voices don't sound quite as natural, but that's typical on a speakerphone. Automated calling systems could understand us via regular or speakerphone calls. The iPhone's signal remained strong. According to FCC radiation tests, the iPhone 3G's highest digital SAR is 1.38 watts per kilogram.

Battery life: Apple rates the iPhone 3G's battery at 5 hours of talk time over 3G and 10 hours over AT&T's standard cellular network; 6 hours of Internet time on Wi-Fi, or 5 hours over 3G; 7 hours of video playback; 24 hours of music playback; and a standby time of 12.5 days. In our first round of testing we 4.95 hours of 3G talk time and 8.75 hours talk time over EDGE. We'll continue to run further tests over the next few days.

Though our official lab tests aren't bad so far, real-world use will be a better judge of the iPhone 3G's endurance. And on that front, we've noticed that the iPhone 3G's battery life does seem to drop faster than on the original model, particularly while using the 3G network or GPS.

That's to be expected, but we noticed that after a couple hours of use, the battery life dropped by about 30 percent. Large color displays like the iPhone's tend to be battery drainers as well, so you should expect to use more juice when you're constantly switching between applications.

Activation: Unlike the original iPhone, you cannot activate the iPhone 3G via iTunes. Instead, you will have to activate the phone and sign your new contract in either an AT&T store or an Apple store. Though we understand the motivation behind this move -- AT&T is trying to ensure every iPhone sold is activated on its own network -- the experience isn't as nice as sitting in the comfort of your home.

Once you have your phone out of the store, you will need to sync it with your iTunes account after first downloading the latest iTunes 7.7 update (download for Windows or Mac) first. That took us a long time on the iPhone 3G's first day on sale but hopefully those glitches will subside.

If you're replacing an original iPhone, make sure you back up your data from the old iPhone first; you'll then be able to transfer it to your new handset. As before, you can sync multiple iPhones to a single iTunes account.

© 2009 CBS Interactive Inc. All rights reserved. CNET, and the CNET logo are registered trademarks of CBS Interactive Inc. Used by permission.

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