Technology

Apple's iPhone 3G: Great, But Needs Work


0717_iphone
Editor's Rating: star rating

The new iPhone is a definite improvement over the old one, but be prepared to spend a lot of time reading the manual

After testing Apple's (AAPL) original iPhone last year, I didn't regret having to ship it back. The phone was slow, so browsing the Web was a pain. And it wouldn't let me to take a call while continuing to browse the Web—a feature that many other phones offered at that point. With the new iPhone 3G, though, I'm torn. There are lots of wonderful things about the gadget that I'll miss. At the same time, the latest version still needs work.

On the plus side, while the iPhone 3G is expensive, its price is comparable with that of similar devices from other manufacturers. Research In Motion's (RIMM) BlackBerry Curve, which offers Global Positioning System (GPS), a Qwerty keyboard, and a full browser, costs $150 with a two-year contract at AT&T (T) vs. $199 for Apple's least expensive iPhone 3G model. Unlimited BlackBerry and iPhone data plans at AT&T cost the same: $30 a month. At Sprint Nextel (S), the Samsung Instinct costs $130 with a two-year contract, and an unlimited data and voice plan will set you back by $100 a month—the typical bill an iPhone 3G owner will run up.

The iPhone 3G design is amazing—and different from the original iPhone in subtle but important ways. The 3G version is more rounded in the back, so it fits in the palm of your hand better and feels more substantial. The new model contains 10 wireless radios vs. just six in the original model, so the phone can access more carriers' networks worldwide and offer GPS capabilities. With the new device you can multitask, surfing the Web while taking a call at the same time.

Snazzy Software

But the best part is the software. I loved being able to easily associate photos and map locations with people on my contacts list, to save photos received via e-mail directly into my photo albums, and to see who left me voice mails (a capability called visual voice mail that was a hit with the prior iPhone as well). I could also get keyboards in 20 languages, including my native tongue, Russian.

The Safari browser lets you keep open as many as eight Web pages at the same time—a capability I've not seen on other smartphones. You can also save your favorite sites as icons on your home page for quicker access. And there is the big one: access to Apple's App Store, offering access to hundreds of cool third-party applications, such as news and games and related reviews.

Ironically, it's also the software area where I felt let down. Applications that come preloaded onto the device are a mixed bag. You can use the phone's iTunes application to purchase songs, but not podcasts. You have to download the latter onto your iTunes account first, then sync up the phone. The Stocks application had a 20-minute delay (many online services already offer real-time quotes).

GPS, which is one of the main selling points of the new iPhone, isn't fully integrated with the preloaded software. Instead of using the GPS capability to automatically link me with weather forecasts for my current location, I had to manually set up my city to get local weather. The included Maps application could use GPS to track my movements on a map, but didn't provide turn-by-turn navigation instructions in a convenient way. A slide may say, "Turn right onto Burnside Rd." long after you've made that turn (and the accompanying map shows that you've made it). I had to flip to the next direction manually—clearly, not something I am going to do while driving. I would have expected Apple to start offering turn-by-turn, voice-enabled directions by now.

152-Page Manual

Interestingly, Apple isn't too worried about these shortcomings, figuring that third-party developers will soon fill in the gaps. But that hasn't happened yet. Mobile News Network, a free third-party application that should have automatically retrieved my local headlines based on my current location, has failed to find my location either via the device's Wi-Fi or AT&T's network. Indeed, many of the 800 or so applications currently available through Apple's App Store still have glitches (BusinessWeek.com, 7/14/08).

Many other features and applications were delightful, but I had to read a 152-page manual to figure out how to use them. I spent way more time learning to use the iPhone 3G than I'd spent mastering any other phone. Part of it is that the phone is jam-packed with cool features. Plus, Apple decided to get creative with the programs: To delete an application from the device, for example, you need to put your finger on the icon on the screen and hold it there until the icon starts to "wiggle"—a shaking motion that's funny and cute. Then, you need to press a little cross that magically appears on the corner of the icon to delete the application. There is no way you can figure this out without instructions.

Some applications are simply not that intuitive. Only by flipping through the manual did I learn how to get the Yahoo weather application to report on conditions of my particular city. Turns out, you need to press a tiny "i" icon at the bottom right of the screen, then a "+" sign to enter your city. There was also some inconsistency in the controls used in major applications: You can use a click button on your headset to pause a podcast but not a YouTube video, for instance.

Free iPhone Classes

Since most of us aren't predisposed to read instructions before using a phone, my bet is that many consumers will not take the time needed to peruse the manual—and will end up being frustrated by the device as a result. (One good solution: Apple offers free iPhone classes in its stores.)

You may have trouble connecting your iPhone 3G to corporate Microsoft (MSFT) Exchange servers. My IT department told me it does not support the iPhone, only the BlackBerry, so I couldn't check my work e-mail.

Finally, there are a couple of personal considerations that may keep me from buying the iPhone a while longer: Verizon Wireless has fewer dead spots in my area than exclusive U.S. iPhone reseller AT&T. Plus, I still can't get used to typing on the iPhone's touch-screen keyboard. It's fairly narrow, and though I don't have stubs for fingers, I keep hitting "p" instead of "o." Strangely, you can type only in landscape mode in the Safari browser, calculator, photo and video apps—but not in e-mail applications, which I use the most.

On the other hand, I do love many of the new features. What can I say? I am torn.


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