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A Macintosh in Your Pocket: iPhone 3G Review

I always used to dream of a do-it-all device that fit in my pocket and allowed me to communicate with the whole world. One of those Star Wars-like devices that transmited your hologram instantly across the galaxy. One of those devices that can do anything—from giving me a 3D map of my location, to ordering a meat lover’s pizza with extra cheese, and having it delivered to my current GPS coordinates. Well, I have one of those—and it’s in my pocket right now.

The iPhone 3G. It’s been the talk of Twitter for the past two weeks. And while it may not be the futuristic gadget of my dreams, it’s the most innovative do-it-all device I’ve ever used.

06.29.07

I remember exactly where I was when the iPhone was announced: writing an exam. Not exactly the most exciting place to be. But I remember coming home, loading up Apple.com, and having my jaw hit the floor. All the rumors, all the mockups, had not prepared me for the iPhone that I saw that day. And from that day on, all other cell phones paled in comparison—I wanted an iPhone.

I was there on iDay. I was there on June 29th, along with all the other geeks. I watched, as thousands of people blogged, twittered, and purchased their shiny new iPhones. All I could do was watch from afar. There was no official word on a date for the iPhone to be released in Canada. But the rumor sites said “soon”—and we all know how accurate rumor sites are—so I waited.

It wasn’t easy. I waited a year. And when the iPhone was finally announced for Canada, it was paired with unfair and expensive data plans from Rogers. Canadians fought Rogers with a petition signed by 60 000 people, and forced Rogers to cave into the pressure and offer a decent data plan. And after an entire day of activation woes, I finally walked out of the store on July 11th with a Black 16GB iPhone of my own.

And so herein lies my review of the iPhone 3G after two weeks of usage:

Buying the iPhone

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Photo by Dan Taylor. Thanks to Rogers for the lack of iPhone unboxing pictures of my own.

When you purchase a $300 phone, and sign 3 years of your life away to a carrier like Rogers, I think it’s only reasonable that you get to unbox your own phone. My family and friends think I’m crazy—who cares about the stupid box?

Apple has traditionally got this right. While other technology vendors have you digging through the kitchen cabinet Christmas morning for a sharp utensil—any sharp utensil—in order to tear open the impossibly tough plastic that encapsulates the phone that you spent your hard-earned money on, Apple takes the opposite approach.

Unboxing the iPhone involves carefully opening the gorgeous packaging to reveal iPhone, in it’s full simplistic glory. All of a sudden, you forget the $300 (plus 13% tax) that you paid for the phone. You forget the 3 years that you will be enslaved to the worst cell carrier in the world. You forget all that.

It’s called the Reality Distortion Field.

Unfortunately, my experience was much the opposite. Arriving at the Rogers store early, I saw a line—a whole 3 persons long. Perfect. Then I heard the not-so-good news: this Rogers store only had 6 iPhones. Whew, just made it. “Wait a minute, how many 16GB models do they have?”

Two.

“And how many of you are getting a 16 Gig?” Two of the three people raised their hands. Great. Then began my frantic search across Toronto for a Rogers store with 16GB iPhones.

After finally finding a 16GB iPhone, waiting 5 and a half hours for the Rogers activation servers to come online, convincing the Rogers employees that they needed to download the iTunes 7.7 update, and watching as my iPhone was handled by the grubby hands of multiple Rogers employees, I was finally handed my activated phone. Smudges and all.

Apple had the opportunity to introduce hundreds of thousands of new users into the seamless Apple experience, and unfortunately, both Apple and Rogers dropped the ball. There is a certain awe and joy that people experience when unboxing an Apple product for the first time. And instead of unboxing the iPhone like an Apple product, it was handed to me after hours of waiting, unboxed, like any other phone1.

Hardware Design

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After two weeks of use, it’s clear that the iPhone 3G is the best designed device I have ever owned. Fitting perfectly in my hand and pocket, and visually stunning—bravo Johnny Ive and your design team.

I’ll admit, upon first glance of the iPhone 3G on Apple.com, I was a bit disappointed. While the front of the iPhone 3G remains largely the same as the original iPhone save for being slightly wider, the back is completely different. Now in two solid colours: glossy black or white. It’s not often that Apple transitions one of it’s high-end products from aluminum to glossy plastic.

After handling the iPhone 3G for a few minutes however, it is clear that Apple focused on the feel of this device. Apple brilliantly tapered the edges of the iPhone, making the thicker device actually feel better in your hand. The volume/sleep buttons are now pure metal, and the slightly wider front helps with two-handed typing. One of my favourite aesthetic features is the chrome bezel wrapping around the front of the device. I don’t find it the least bit distracting, but instead find it adds to the class of the phone.

Surprisingly, the original iPhone’s design now looks clunky and out-of-date. Kyle Baxter, a first-gen iPhone user that upgraded found the same thing in his first impressions of the device:

The iPhone 3G, with its all-black rear case and front, is beautiful. The original’s aluminum and plastic back looks outdated and, oddly, ugly, in comparison.

Interesting that a device I’d admired less than a month early appeared outdated next to the new iPhone.

The major downside to the new iPhone is fingerprints and smudges—now on the front and back. While the entire phone feels glossy and very slick, it may not look very slick at the end of the day. Fingerprints and smudges cloak the whole device, but can be easily removed with a quick wipe of your shirt.

This is nothing new for Apple. It’s gotten to the point that whenever I walk out of an Apple store with a new purchase, I remind myself that fingerprints and dust are my new best friends. Problem solved.

Headphones, Speaker, and Camera

I’m often surprised by how the little things can make using a device so much more enjoyable. After my fourth pair of V-Moda VIBE earbuds dying on me in Africa, I’ve decided to go with the standard Apple earbuds. That is, until I can get my hands on a pair of Dr. Dre’s Beats, and see if they live up to the hype.

The Apple earbuds that come with the iPhone are phenomenal. The first noticeable change is that the wires are made out of a different material that prevents the cords from tangling in your pockets. And surprisingly, it works quite well.

And of course, there is the mic/remote that dangles from the earbuds. Playing and pausing music is only a click away, and answering an incoming call is just as easy. Skipping songs is a double click, and the volume controls can be felt on the side of the iPhone in my pocket. This alone makes the iPhone the best iPod I’ve ever used. It’s a shame Apple doesn’t include these earbuds with the iPod Touch, as having to take the device out of your pocket to simply skip a song can get tedious.

Having a speaker on the iPhone is a huge convenience. I always find myself wanting to show someone a quick video when I bump into them in the hall. Headphones are usually a pain to get out, and I don’t always have them on me. Having that speaker has made sharing videos and games a lot easier.

Another one of those conveniences is the camera. Some criticize the 2MP camera, saying it’s not that good. And I agree. I have a DSLR—I really don’t want to pay a lot for a phone, and have it sit like a brick in my pocket because it has to have that new 5MP sensor and flash. Having a camera anywhere you go is amazing (taking pictures of the section number in a parking lot, anyone?), and I even find myself bringing my DSLR around less because I know that if I really need to take a picture, I can use the iPhone.

That said, I’ve talked to some developers that have fantastic ideas for iPhone apps, but the lack of clarity in the camera prevents them from being developed. We don’t need a full-fledged camera, but the one in the iPhone 3G is getting a little long in the tooth.

Oh, and where’s video recording?

Keyboard

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Photo by Michell Zappa.

The iPhone’s keyboard has been the topic of much debate over the last year. Some love it. Some hate it. But it is by far the most innovative mobile keyboard there is.

Working on the iPhone’s full screen, and only having the keyboard come up when necessary is fantastic. Plus, Apple uses the benefits of having a virtual keyboard—changing the display and organization of keys depending on the application. Safari’s URL bar, for example, does not have a space bar, but instead a period, backslash, and (interchangable) .com button.

I’m no developer, but if Apple gives access to customize the keyboard in individual third-party apps, it could provoke a huge spur of development in apps that would typically be frustrating to use on a phone. Think Coda for iPhone, with essential HTML characters within easy reach.

After two weeks of using the iPhone, the keyboard has quickly become my favourite text input medium on any mobile device. Period. Nothing can match the intelligence of the keyboard, and I find that I can type faster than on any other QWERTY keyboard smartphones due to the larger buttons and the visual and audible feedback when clicking a character.

Of course there is a ton of room for Apple to innovate on this front as well. The iPhone keyboard already ‘learns’ all the names of Contacts in your Address Book. I would love the iPhone to learn my primary email address, and recognize when I begin typing it and offer to auto-correct to my full email. The possibilities for improvement and innovation are limitless.

3G + GPS

Of course the major new feature of the iPhone 3G is—drumroll—3G. To be honest, I wasn’t as excited about 3G as actually getting my hands on an iPhone (previously the only way to get an iPhone in Canada was to hack it). However, 3G does indeed live up to the hype.

It’s fast. Really fast. Like Wifi fast.

Most times I don’t even bother searching for a Wifi hotspot anymore if I’m anywhere other than my home. I’m fortunate to live in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area, not Grand Theft Auto), where 3G access happens to be very fast. Your mileage may vary depending on where you live. Also exciting news is that Rogers and Fido—the only two GSM cell carriers in Canada—plan to double their 3G speeds by early 2009.

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Having 3G everywhere you go is quite incredible, especially on a phone like the iPhone. It’s the closest thing to having universal Wifi, and I love it. After heading north for a couple hours, you drop into Edge territory, where the Internet is still usable, but painfully slow.

One of my major concerns with 3G is just how much data I would use a month. I opted for Rogers’ limited-edition, virtually unlimited data plan for the iPhone. $30 a month for 6GB of data—more than AT&T’s soft-cap of 5GB on their so-called ‘unlimited’ data plan in the US.

After 2 weeks of power usage: watching Youtube videos, downloading apps, browsing Flickr, reading RSS feeds, and tweeting over 3G, I have only used 85MB of data. To be fair, I was home most of the week sick, so these are very conservative numbers. But to hit my 6GB limit, I would need to use 200MB of data a day. The only way that would be remotely possible to reach is if a tethering app, allowing you to use 3G on your laptop via the iPhone, was released.

Then, of course, there’s GPS. Surprisingly, it’s come in handy much more than I would have thought. Whether it be driving along the highway wondering if we missed a certain exit, or on the bus wondering if I have enough time for another Tap Tap Revenge game before I get off.

When you are outdoors—walking or in a car or bus—the GPS locates you within 10 seconds, and tracks your movement very accurately. While testing it on a bus, it followed the bus perfectly down the street, and stopped the moment we stopped. On a very cloudy day, GPS takes longer to locate, and positioning isn’t as precise. Indoors, it’s rare that GPS will actually find you, and if it does, it won’t track your movements very accurately. Of course, that is to be expected with any GPS device.

Skyhook’s Wifi positioning, as well as triangulation appear to do the trick when GPS isn’t available though, and get surprisingly accurate results. The potential of having a location-aware phone is limitless. While I was at Chris Thomson’s house the other day ordering a pizza for lunch, I found myself simply wanting to beam my GPS coordinates and phone number to the lady over the phone. Hopefully, the SDK opens up the door for third-party apps like this to be made. Location-based food ordering = killer app.

iPhone 2.0 Software

This being my first iPhone—or Apple touch device for that matter—I found myself in awe with “old” iPhone features. We get so used to these features that we forget how revolutionary they are to the mainstream phone audience. The Safari browser is a marvel, and the iPod features are incredible. I won’t go into the specifics of these apps, as relatively little has changed from the previous version2.

The key to the whole iPhone software experience is the interface. And that is something that Apple continues to get right. The original Macintosh’s UI looks outdated and bland, but to this day, we still use most of the same input devices on our computers. We use a mouse and a keyboard. We use Cmd-C to copy, and use Cmd-V to paste.

Apple is inventing a new interface for mobile devices—from scratch. I wouldn’t be surprised if in 10 years time, we are still pinching and flicking and scrolling on our phones. Gruber points this out when writing about Apple implementing copy and paste on the iPhone:

“Whatever the UI for copy-and-paste for the iPhone OS eventually is, it’s very likely to remain as the UI for copy-and-paste on the iPhone for decades to come.”

Apple’s only been in the phone game for a year now, and look at how far they’ve come. Sure, I may really want filters or rules in Mobile Mail, and I would love the ability to record video and upload it to Youtube. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of features missing from the iPhone. But Apple will push out updates that continue to add functionality and features that further evolve the device.

What continues to amaze me is how the original iPhone can have 95% of the features of the iPhone 3G through a simple software update. Sure 3G makes a phone faster, but the iPhone 2.0 software made it faster for existing iPhones as well—with more enhancements to come with SquirrelFish.

The problem with the iPhone 2.0 OS is that it needed a tad bit more time in the oven before it shipped. It is rich with bugs ranging from interface lag to crashes to poor battery life. Rumors have it that 2.0.1 is on it’s way from Apple, and will solve most of the known bugs. But once again, with 1 million iPhone 3Gs sold in the first weekend, is this the experience that Apple wants to give its new customers? Just saying…

The iPhone Platform

The biggest news from Apple on the software side was the iPhone SDK and the AppStore. The AppStore finally turns the iPhone into a platform that anyone can develop for. The design and flexible user interface of the device allow for unlimited possibilities in applications that tap into the hardware features of the phone (camera, GPS, and multitouch gestures).

Shawn Blanc wrote this after the iPhone SDK was unveiled on March 6th:

After watching the apps get demonstrated I had this “my iPhone is a sleeper agent” sort of feeling. Realizing there is way more under the hood which I, as a user, haven’t fully had the chance to experience yet.

The phone industry doesn’t understand this concept. Why give the users new features without making them pay for a new phone. That is what sets the iPhone aside from other cell phones, and makes it into computing platform. The third party apps in combination with the iPhone hardware and AppStore, make the iPhone into a computer.

It’s the first computer that is not being sold on the amount of megahertz or the RAM or the kind of graphics card. It’s not even being sold because of the features—cause there are phones on the market that can outsell an iPhone when looking at the spec sheet. No, the iPhone is the first computer sold purely on the experience—the integration of between hardware and software.

Think about it, the iPhone + the AppStore could be a major paradigm shift in how people look at “computers”. For many people, the iPhone can be the only computer they need. Why do I need a big beige box, or a laptop anymore?

I’m not talking about the geeks. I’m talking about normal people: my mom, a teenager, the cashier at Wal-Mart. How do these people use their computers now? Email. Web browsing. Facebook. A bit of IM. Maybe some Youtube. Music. And a couple games. What if I device the size of a deck of cards could do all of that? It fits in your pocket, gets Internet anywhere, and costs $200.

The one downside to this argument is the lack of a proper word processor and an Office suite. If the iPhone eventually is able to pair with a bluetooth keyboard, I could see some people using it to take notes and type up short documents, but practically speaking, people want a bigger screens for that. Video editing, graphic design, and high-end photo editing will obviously be reserved for desktops.

I by no means believe that the computer will go away any time soon, but the iPhone replaces many people’s need for computers on a day-to-day basis. It’ll be interesting to see how Apple continues to position it’s products as we move further into this post-PC era.

AppStore

Apple did a very good job making the AppStore easy to use from the iPhone/iPod Touch. You can sort through apps by category, look at the 25 top free or pay-for apps, or browse the ones Apple’s chosen to feature. It gets a bit repetitive having to enter in your password to simply download a free app or an update. Can we please have an option in the Settings to remember our password for any ‘purchase’ that’s not going to charge our credit card?

And while the AppStore may be a great way for consumers to buy iPhone apps directly from their iPhone or iPod Touch, it’s evident that Apple forgot to think about one minor part of the equation—the developers.

No beta testing, no crash logs, no way to demo apps, and no way to distribute NFR review licenses. Updates that developers submit to Apple must be approved, and the approval process can take more than a week. I’m sure that Apple will address most of these issues over time, as they have already begun to show by allowing developers to use the Ad-Hoc system to distribute apps to up to 100 beta-testers.

Another complaint that many people have is the number of garbage apps in the AppStore. People lament that Apple shouldn’t have allowed these apps into the store. If Apple had turned down apps because their interfaces weren’t up to par, or they were “useless”, those same people would be complaining about Apple’s unwarranted control system. There are ugly and stupid apps for the Mac as well. And over time, the good apps will rise to the top, and the junky ones will be left in the dark corners of the AppStore.

Here are some of the apps I find myself using on a daily basis:

Battery Life

Steve Job’s reason for not including 3G in the original iPhone was battery life. And after using the iPhone 3G, it’s safe to say that that was the right choice. 3G drains battery life, and with the 3G chips around a year ago, battery life on the iPhone would have been pathetic.

My only requirement for the iPhone’s battery is that it lasts me throughout the day. If you use your iPhone like it’s meant to be used, there’s no getting around it—you’ll have to charge your iPhone every night.

I’ve found that after cycling the iPhone’s battery a couple times, I can consistently get a full day’s use out of it. A typical day will consist of an hour of listening to music and reading RSS feeds on the bus, reading and responding emails as they come in over MobileMe push, and browsing the web on 3G for a few hours. If I have time, I’ll play some casual games and watch some video podcasts. Even then, I have room for some mild GPS usage, 30 minutes of talk time, and twittering throughout the entire day. At the end of the day, the iPhone’s Usage monitor is telling me that I’ve used the phone for 6 and a half hours with just under 6 hours of standby. Oh, and all this is without turning 3G off.

By 6PM though, the iPhone’s giving me the 20% battery warning, which still has enough juice for a couple hours of music or phone calls, and a bit of browsing. While the battery life isn’t great, it’s enough to get me through a typical day of usage. I’m sure that if need be, the battery can easily be stretched to last for two or more days if used simply for calls/music.

I did find a couple things that helped to extend battery life:

  • Turn Wifi off: Simple as that. When you leave the house, turn it off. There is really no need for Wifi with the 3G in the iPhone, and turning it off will buy you another hour of battery or so.
  • Set the screen brightness to halfway. Well, unless you really need to use those flashlight apps.
  • Face it, 3G’s a killer. Even if you are in an Edge area, the 3G chip remains active and continues to drain battery. Be sure to navigate to Settings > General > Network and choose to Disable 3G.
  • Turn off Location Services when you don’t need them. When leaving Twitterrific open with GPS enabled, I found the battery life drained very rapidly. I’m not sure whether third-party apps that use the GPS only use it in certain parts of the app, or whether the GPS is active across the whole app.

After reading this list, you may be wondering why you purchased the iPhone 3G if you were simply going to turn 3G and GPS off. The obvious solution to this is for Apple to automate these settings.

Imagine something like Auto 3G. It switches to Edge when you are listening to music, watching videos, playing games, connected to Wifi, or doing anything else that doesn’t require high-speed Internet access over data. The iPhone will automatically switch to 3G when browsing the web, downloading apps or mail attachments, and loading Google Maps.

Even make it a preference that developers can code into their third-party apps that will make the iPhone switch to 3G or remain on 2.5G depending on how online-intensive their app is.

And it doesn’t have to stop at 3G. Apple can also automatically turn Wifi off 30 seconds after leaving a known network. By automating the majority of the battery saving features, users won’t have to constantly dig through the Settings to change features that will extend their battery life.

Trojan Horse

When it really comes down to it, all the tech specs and numbers don’t matter. It’s all about the experience. I’m able to pull out my iPhone, and browse the ‘To Read’ folder in my Safari bookmarks for all the articles I bookmarked on my Mac that have been synced to my iPhone via MobileMe.

It’s in those moments that the iPhone goes from merely being a phone, to a computer in my pocket. Directions, entertainment, surfing, news feeds, and games all wrapped into one little device with unlimited potential.

Apple has positioned the iPhone 3G to sell like hotcakes. And sell them they will. With almost worldwide availability a $199 price point, they will be moving millions of units into households and businesses everywhere.

I watch this video and can’t help but laugh. Steve Ballmer doesn’t get it. Apple isn’t merely selling iPhones with the same mindset as they’ve sold iPods in the past. The iPhone isn’t merely an attempt to take over the phone industry. The iPhone is a Macintosh wrapped in the case of a phone. When Apple sells a million iPhones in a weekend, they are not just selling phones—they are selling the mini-Macintoshes with Mac OS X. They are putting an Apple logo in Windows users pockets. And while Microsoft is busy fixing Vista, they will position themselves to be king of the post-PC era—selling more copies of Mobile OS X than Windows Mobile, or any other mobile platform.

The iPhone 3G is more than a phone. It’s a trojan horse.

  1. People need to stop comparing the iPhone to “any other phone”, and excusing a less-than-ideal experience as “better than any other phone”. The iPhone is more of a computing platform than a phone—and we should stop comparing it to one
  2. Although the iPhone 3G may not seem like a giant leap in technology from the original iPhone, it’s because the original iPhone was that good. The exciting thing about the iPhone 3G is that the low price-point opens it up to a whole new audience of users. Those users—like myself—will still be amazed by all the features we’ve already known about for a year.