The iPhone 3G
You’ve heard the hype but does it deliver?
By Bill Camarda
Apple’s good at plenty of things. Here’s one thing it’s amazingly good at: attracting buzz. From the Mac to the iPod, Apple’s products get attention. And few have ever gotten more attention than Apple’s iPhone. Just how good a smartphone is the iPhone? Should you get one? To help you decide, here’s a close inspection of Apple’s latest model: the iPhone 3G.
“3G”? What’s that about?
First of all, why “3G”? That means it runs on a “3rd Generation” wireless data network – AT&T’s, as it happens. Which means it can deliver a much faster Internet and data connection than the older iPhone could. Surfing the web, your iPhone 3G won’t be as fast as it is at home on your cable or fiber connection. But it will be fast enough.
What about the device itself? Well, when it comes to usability, elegance, and fun, the iPhone 3G pretty well lives up to the hype. Its gorgeous full-color touch screen is matched by an interface that’s simplicity itself: if you can press big, colorful buttons -- or drag your finger across the screen -- you can get at pretty much anything the iPhone 3G can do.
And it can do a lot. Apple’s goal is to replace all those other devices you’ve been carrying around, and they might just have succeeded.
A full-featured smartphone -- and much more
Obviously, the iPhone 3G starts out as a full-featured smartphone – and, as you’ve probably seen in Apple’s commercials, it switches seamlessly back and forth between operating as a phone and doing whatever else you want to do with it. One wonderful touch (pardon the pun): “visual voicemail.” With this feature, it’s child’s play to choose whose messages you want to hear, and skip to just the parts of those messages you care about.
Next, the iPhone is a full-featured iPod that works and syncs just like any other iPod, and will play anything a modern iPod can play: MP3 music you rip; podcasts you download; audiobooks, movies, TV shows, and anything else you can buy through Apple’s iTunes store. It’s most widely compared to the iPod Touch 2G, which actually costs more to buy. (The iPhone 3G is priced at a surprisingly low $199. Though, unlike your iPod, it requires a pricey service contract. We’ll get to that shortly.)
Finally, excellent Web browsing from a cellphone
After you sell your old iPod on eBay, you might be able to leave your laptop behind, too. The iPhone 3G – as we’ve already mentioned – provides a familiar, comfortable and surprisingly full-featured web browser: Apple’s Safari. If you’ve used Safari browser on either the Mac or Windows, you’ll find the iPhone’s browser even more familiar. The iPhone’s browser will easily import your Internet Explorer or Safari browser bookmarks/favorites (Firefox is a little trickier.)
Since the iPhone 3G uses a “real” browser, pages actually look like they’re supposed to look. (If you’ve used older cellphone web browsers, you know that wasn’t always the case.) Of course, you’ll have to do a lot more scrolling and zooming than you might be accustomed to, but hey, that’s the price you pay for a screen that’ll fit in your pocket!
The iPhone has solid email capabilities as well. You can set it up to receive all your email – Google Gmail, Yahoo!, AOL, or mail from pretty much any other provider. If you’re using the iPhone in your business, the newest iPhone 3G can also receive email sent by the Microsoft Exchange servers many companies use nowadays. One big gap in the iPhone 3G’s email software: no anti-Spam protection. Your email provider might already be filtering out junk emails at their end; if so, no sweat. But, if not, you could find yourself receiving an awful lot of invitations to purchase pharmaceuticals from Nigeria, and so forth.
Text messaging, with a catch (or two)
Along with email, the iPhone provides built-in text messaging capabilities, but there’s a catch: no text messaging is included in the standard iPhone AT&T data usage plans. You can pay $5.00 per month for 200 text messages, or get unlimited text messaging for $20 per month. But, either way, that’s an additional unwelcome expense you need to know about upfront.
It’s also worth mentioning that while iPhone 3G’s email and text messaging applications are quite solid, and fun to work with, the iPhone 3G only provides an on-screen “virtual” keyboard. Most folks find this keyboard somewhat slower to work with than, say, a Blackberry with physical keys – though Apple does compensate with “autocomplete” and some other handy shortcuts.
Lots of new ways to spend your money
As you’d expect from a smartphone, the iPhone 3G can manage your contacts and your calendar, too. In fact, a new Apple service called MobileMe is designed to automatically and continually sync your home PCs and Macs with your iPhones -- keeping all of your contacts, calendars, emails, photos, and files up-to-date on all your devices, with no muss or fuss. MobileMe isn’t the only way to sync your personal content onto your iPhone, and if money’s an issue, you might prefer one of the free alternatives: after a two-month free trial, MobileMe costs $99 per year.
OK, we’ve been beating around the bush: what do the iPhone 3G’s service plans cost? Well, they’re not cheap. The cheapest plan – 450 voice minutes plus unlimited Web surfing and email – costs $69.99/month. With 900 voice minutes, you’ll pay $89.99/month; with 1,350 voice minutes, $109.99/month. And, again, that’s without any text messaging.
If you’ve still got any money left over, browse over to Apple’s innovative new AppStore, where you can buy inexpensive add-on applications to make your iPhone even more fun and useful. There’s an especially large collection of games here. But you won’t just find games here. For example, download Loopt, and you can keep track of where your friends are located and what they’re doing, via detailed, interactive maps. Or get Quickoffice, which lets you view email attachments, something your iPhone 3G (surprisingly) can’t do on its own.
Oh, and yes: it does work
Before we finish: a word about the iPhone 3G’s reliability. When it was first introduced, users reported all kinds of problems: everything from dropped calls to poor battery life to slow iTunes backups. Many of these issues were traced to the iPhone 3G’s software, which was rushed to market without adequate testing. Since then, Apple’s updated its software to version 2.1, which works a whole lot more reliably. So, for most folks, software problems should no longer be an issue.
Service coverage might be a different matter. In the U.S., as we’ve mentioned, the iPhone relies on the AT&T network, which is less than ubiquitous. Some users just can’t get reception; others get weak or sporadic reception and slower data rates. Check with someone who’s using AT&T’s service in your area. Make sure the service is OK in your neck of the woods before you buy your iPhone, not afterwards!
Bill Camarda has been writing about technology for families, kids, and others for 25 years, starting as an editor for Scholastic's Family Computing Magazine. His 18 computer books include Upgrading & Fixing Networks For Dummies and The Cheapskate's Guide to Bargain Computing. He lives in Ramsey, NJ with his wife and 14-year old son.