Daniel Eran Dilger
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Inside iPhone 2.0: iPhone 3G vs. other smartphones

 Iphone3G-Review2-2

As detailed in the previous segment introducing its hardware features, the second generation iPhone 3G catches up with two of the largest competitive features offered by other higher-end smartphones: faster 3G network access and GPS. Here’s a look at how Apple’s smartphone compares in other areas, as well as how it stacks up against the original iPhone.

Inside iPhone 2.0: the new iPhone 3G Hardware
Inside iPhone 2.0: iPhone 3G vs. other smartphones
Inside iPhone 2.0: the new iPhone 3G Software
Inside iPhone 2.0: iPhone OS vs. other mobile platforms
Inside iPhone 2.0: the new iPhone App Store
Inside iPhone 2.0: MobileMe Push Messaging

Inside iPhone 2.0: iPhone 3G vs. other smartphones
Last year, Steve Jobs noted that the original iPhone lacked 3G and GPS due to battery life issues. Critics fumed that Jobs’ explanation was just marketing speak, pointing out that tons of 3G phones were already on sale. However, the reality is that both features do have a huge impact on battery life, even after a year of advances in the underlying technologies. Another factor was the short reach of AT&T’s 3G UMTS network a year ago versus the 3G EVDO service offered by Sprint and Verizon Wireless in the US, or the more established 3G service in Europe or Japan. Apple had to first launch the iPhone successfully in the US, and doing so with poor battery performance in cities where AT&T’s 3G was available would have been a bigger black mark than the relatively slow EDGE.

Battery performance is still an issue a year later, but Apple’s new iPhone 3G delivers both new features with better battery life than competing smartphones, according to tests performed by independent sources. In other respects, the iPhone 3G still lags behind many phones in terms of raw hardware specifications.

The iPhone 3G’s trailing hardware features

Camera: The iPhone 3G’s weakest feature is probably its camera, which is nearly unchanged from the original model. Not only is it the same fixed focus, 2 megapixel camera (which was a bit behind the state of the art a year ago), but it also still uses the same very basic camera software. It still lacks video recording and still uses a touch screen button that make snapping a photo a bit difficult, particularly if you’re attempting to take a shot that includes you in the photo. You can also forget video conferencing or even video capture.

The camera’s imaging firmware has been updated however, making the iPhone 3G’s camera noticeably better at capturing usable pictures than the original iPhone, even those updated to the new 2.0 software. Photos appear to be better exposed with greater detail in dark areas and less color fringing and noise. It’s still hard to take decent close-ups or useable landscape pics, a problem related to the simple fixed-focus lens. There’s also still no convenient way to use an add on lens to work around that. The iPhone 3G’s screen also appears slightly warmer in color temperature with a yellowish tint, a trait that some users have complained about.

Apple notes that photos taken with the camera are already among the largest data files the iPhone handles; a typical 2 megapixel JPEG photo is 400 to 800 KB. Taking photos, or even remaining in the Camera app with the camera live, involves heavy processing that takes a big bite out of the battery. One of the easiest ways to inadvertently run the iPhone’s battery down is to take a photo and then drop it into your pocket without exiting the Camera app; it appears that the phone continues to process data from the camera even when the screen is off. That elementary problem is still present in the iPhone 2.0 software, so it’s no wonder that video support hasn’t been added yet.

Camera features are clearly way at the bottom of Apple’s priority list for the iPhone. Several competing smartphones offer a much higher resolution camera, an LED flash, video recording and video conferencing features, and some even have an auto focus lens. However, all of these features have drawbacks as well, from increased battery demands to additional bulk. Users contemplating the iPhone 3G will need to decide if its very simple camera outweighs its strong features. No smartphone takes photos in the league of most modern dedicated point and shoot cameras, even if they match up in most features.

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 or speakers. However convenient wireless music may be, though, A2DP is at present 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.

Other smartphones accommodate A2DP headphones by expecting the user to carry extra batteries around. Last year, Samsung had to release a fat replacement battery pack for its popular BlackJack because the original battery couldn’t keep up with more than half day of 3G data and A2DP use.

It’d be nice to see the iPhone working with Bluetooth keyboards, which would make the phone closer to a laptop replacement. That might also be why Apple hasn’t released keyboard support for it yet. Bluetooth file transfer and data sync are also missing, although modern data sync has transcended the relatively slow Bluetooth for all but basic data; MobileMe now offers wireless mobile sync, and USB is far faster than Bluetooth is likely to ever be. It would be nice to be able to beam contacts or files to other iPhone users, however.

Carrier Limitations: While the iPhone 3G sports global HSDPA and UMTS data access, it’s only available in the US through AT&T’s relatively limited 3G service area. Sprint and Verizon have older and more established 3G networks providing larger coverage. AT&T also does not allow the use of tethering, which uses a phone’s mobile data connection to provide Internet access to a laptop over Bluetooth or USB. Conversely, most of the Sprint and Verizon phones attempting to compete directly with the iPhone 3G lack Wi-Fi, ensuring that they will have zero value when removed from mobile service. These external factors remind us that a device is limited as much by its service provider as it is the hardware itself.

Software: While we’re endeavoring to discuss hardware and software issues independently, software is still joined to hardware’s hip and has a major impact on how well the device works and how usable its features are. The iPhone 3G’s software is wimpiest around its weaker hardware features: camera software is extremely basic, as is its Bluetooth support. It also lacks voice recognition for handsfree dialing, a common feature on most phones. The lack of copy and paste, a unified email box, and a handful of other missing features all count as minor dings against the iPhone, but those are all software issues that are not impossible to fix. All the same, one can’t retrofit the iPhone’s current camera — though it’s equally difficult to make competing smartphones any less clunky or add missing features like Wi-Fi.

The iPhone 3G’s differing hardware features

While the iPhone 3G’s camera and bluetooth support is clearly behind some leading higher-end smartphones, in other areas it’s just different, leaving the end user to decide whether its different in a good way or not.

Battery replacement: It’s no surprise that the new iPhone 3G doesn’t have a pop-out battery. Most other smartphones supply an accessible battery bay but use it as a crutch to support power-hungry features. That said, anyone using the iPhone away from a power source should consider investing in an external USB power pack, which solves the battery problem but also delivers a much more flexible solution that doesn’t require disassembly or rebooting to extend battery life in the way extra removable packs do. External add-ons also provide a much longer potential charge.

As one Blackberry user sarcastically noted in an online comment about the iPhone, “I love the fact that I can remove my Blackberry’s battery. In fact, it’s absolutely necessary, when I get my daily BREW error and I need to pull the battery to revive the phone. The subsequent 5 minutes of churning hourglass gives me time to reflect on how lucky I am not to have a crappy iPhone.” For many, that may well be the second reason for a removable battery: it forces a hard reboot in the same way the Control-Alt-Del shortcut worked for an old DOS PC. The iPhone can be reset by simply holding two buttons and thus has one less problem to contend with. All the same, the release of iPhone 2.0 has been somewhat crash-prone, and until Apple’s first bug fix comes down through the Software Update trough, users might wish they had a quicker way to reset their iPhone just like their counterparts with BlackBerries or Palm Treos.

Touchscreen keyboard: Suffice it to say that the touchscreen keyboard makes the iPhone unique. While pundits have squawked non-stop about how consumers wanted tiny “real” keypads, the reality is that most iPhone users quickly adapt to the new input system and are able to type just as fast within a matter of days of regular use. There are some clear advantages to using virtual keys: they can be repositioned to landscape views and replaced with other character sets, making it easier to enter text in other languages. There’s still room for enhancements (rumors suggest that rumble feedback might help some users type on the flat surface), but the iPhone’s virtual keyboard is certainly not the inherent flaw that some have said it would be.

Most competing mini keypads, such as those on many BlackBerries or Palm phones (particularly the Centro) are simply too small to touch type on and too big to allow a large screen. Slide out keyboards are sometimes mechanically problematic and still can’t offer anything approaching the usability of a real keyboard, often being too small to touch type and too big to work with your thumbs.

Other smartphone makers are now jumping on the touchscreen bandwagon, although few offer the same accuracy, usability, and smart correction tricks of the iPhone. The LG Dare and Samsung Instinct fleeting appear to look like an iPhone, but don’t use a similar capacitance-sensitive screen. Both use a clumsy pressure sensitive screen instead, which not only lacks multi touch features, but also requires a concentrated effort to use. They’re unwieldy to type on, and clumsy to even drag icons around on. One wonders why some reviewers have glossed over this potentially huge difference to suggest that both technologies are similar just because they both involve some form of touch.

MMS vs Email: The iPhone 3G and 2.0 software still does not support MMS picture messaging. That’s a problem for people who want to send and receive pictures in MMS with other phone users who depend on it; it may be a blessing in the US, however, where e-mail costs nothing extra and MMS is relatively expensive through AT&T. While the iPhone can’t MMS, many other phones can’t easily send or receive photos via email. And computers also can — so the iPhone’s ability to send free photos to anyone, including to Facebook and other services, helps makes up for Apple’s unwillingness to fall in line. It’s nonetheless quite ridiculous that AT&T can’t figure out how to at least relay incoming MMS to iPhone users via the web. Currently, it sends an SMS with a username and password that must be typed in manually. An automated URL hyperlink would enable iPhone users to see the MMS in their browser without a hitch.

The iPhone 3G’s leading hardware features

While some features are a matter of subjective taste, in other areas the iPhone 3G’s hardware clearly stands out as superior to other smartphones (and feature phones clearly aiming at leaching on to the iPhone’s movement).

Data storage: The iPhone 3G, thanks to its iPod ancestry, supplies 8GB or 16GB of Flash RAM storage. At the original iPhone’s release, few smartphones offered more than a scant 512MB of storage. While phones such as Nokia’s N95 8GB have followed suit (and will soon be matched by the 16GB N96 and Samsung’s Omnia), the iPhone still leads in its inherent ability to store a significant amount of media internally.

The iPhone 3G can haul around several full length movies, a number of music and photo albums, load up on lots of applications, and still have plenty of room left. Other smartphones typically require the user to juggle 2GB cards in and out of microSD card slots — an added flexibility but a hassle and a potential security risk if the phone is left alone. Not all current phones can use larger 4GB+ microSDHC (high capacity) cards, either. Leaving $40 to $80 of memory out of your phone is not a “feature,” particularly when selling the phone for the same price as a 16GB iPhone 3G.

In addition to just offering a significant chunk of storage, the iPhone’s integration with iTunes makes loading content (or keeping it in sync) very easy. Additionally, the wireless App Store, the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store, and MobileMe push messaging features in the new iPhone 2.0 software make that extra storage even more useful.

Computing Performance: The iPhone 3G appears to use roughly the same microprocessors as the original model. It’s impressive that it didn’t need a substantial upgrade to run the kind of apps now available in the Apps Store, including 3D games that look like console games rather than typical mobile phone fare. The iPhone’s hardware platform, combined with its software architecture, simply places it in a class far beyond other phones on the market. High-end phones that cost significantly more than the iPhone and could potentially deliver better hardware features will still have a tough time matching its bundled software and the available applications from developers. The iPhone’s tight integration is simply hard to compete against, and the momentum behind the App Store is not going to be easily matched.

Even beyond the strength of iTunes to market software in a way that attracts serious developers, the iPhone’s platform (shared by the rapid-selling iPod touch) provides a strong foundation for creating high performance apps that look great and work consistently. Rival platforms, such as RIM’s BlackBerry SDK, Qualcomm’s BREW, and Windows Mobile, all have to work around the inconsistent nature of wildly varying phone specifications, leaving most developers targeting lowest common denominator hardware. That results in poor software that doesn’t take advantage of the hardware features on high end phones, such as GPS or touch input.

Hardware usability: In general, competing smartphones often include superior hardware specifications but weaker usability via software. The iPhone 3G’s strongest features come from its intuitive software interface, which is in most cases is strong enough to feel like a hardware feature of its own. Rather than having to learn how to navigate a set of nestled menu listings or pages of poorly conceived icons, the iPhone presents everything using natural, concrete analogies: controls flick up and down as if they were actual physical devices, lists bounce up and down like a scrolling paper tape, and settings are rarely deeper than a page or two.

Other phones are beginning to ape the iPhone’s graphic style and touchscreen interface, but none are delivering the slick polish and usability that Apple currently leads the market by with a wide margin. That’s not to say the iPhone 2.0 software is flawless or complete. The next segment looks closer at the iPhone’s big 2.0 software upgrade to outline what’s new, what’s missing, and how it compares with the competition. In terms of hardware however, the iPhone 3G delivers competitive specifications at an almost brutally low price point.

iPhone 3G

Worth the upgrade?

What about existing iPhone users looking to upgrade? Most of the software-related features of the iPhone 3G are now available to existing iPhone users through the free iPhone 2.0 update. That makes the necessity of upgrading to the new model contingent upon whether faster data networking, GPS, improved reception, and better audio are compelling enough to throw down $199 or $299 for the new model, along with the slightly higher monthly plan required for 3G data service (an extra $10 per month from AT&T in the US).

Faster: That’s likely a no-brainer for anyone who regularly uses the mobile data network and who lives within 3G service; while HSDPA is “only” about twice as fast as EDGE, it’s a night and day difference in usability. On the other hand, if you primarily use your iPhone within range of a Wi-Fi network, are outside of a major city, or have cracked it to work on T-Mobile’s 2G-only network, the new iPhone 3G won’t offer you nearly as much. Again, due to signaling differences, the iPhone 3G simply won’t work on T-Mobile’s 3G network regardless of how much hacking you perform, and AT&T’s 3G service isn’t going to fill out the rest of the country overnight.

The 3G data network is still slower than Wi-Fi, and it costs slightly more than previous iPhone plans. Existing iPhone users who can’t get good EDGE reception can already opt out of paying for an AT&T data plan all together and use the original iPhone exclusively on their own Wi-Fi networks at a very low monthly rate for voice-only mobile service. Even if you pay for EDGE service on the original iPhone plan, it’s still a bit less than upgrading to the iPhone 3G. That makes a case for some users to simply hold off on an upgrade.

Cheaper: Upgrading to the iPhone 3G will also involve some feature loss. While most users probably won’t notice, the iPhone 3G marks the end of FireWire charging. Recent iPods and the original iPhone can’t sync data over FireWire as the original iPods did, but they could recharge via a FireWire cable; the latest iPhone 3G can’t. FireWire may be rarer, but it’s faster; the USB specification delivers less voltage, so devices can’t draw as much power to recharge as they can when using FireWire. That largely invisible feature is now gone as part of Apple’s aggressive effort to deliver the new iPhone at the lowest price possible.

There’s also nothing wrong with the battleship metal construction of the original iPhone, and some might prefer it over the sculpted plastic of the new model. If you treat the original iPhone reasonably well, it should last for years. However, the cheaper new construction of the new model also gives it a more comfortable feel, better mobile and Wi-Fi reception, and makes it slightly lighter. Those using 4GB or 8GB originals can also opt for 16GB of storage and gain a bit more breathing room, all for half as much as was paid for the original unit (albeit only if one qualifies for the upgrade).

Out of Control: Overall, the low price of the iPhone 3G model combined with the penalty-free contract offered to upgrading iPhone users should make it hard for many existing users to pass up. Also, the original iPhone is still very useful even without a service plan, particularly with the new programs from the App Store; it effectively becomes an enhanced iPod touch. The free Remote app for controlling iTunes is a particularly nice reason for hanging onto an extra old iPhone.

It can also be passed on to friends or family who live outside of AT&T’s 3G service, or who have more basic needs in a mobile phone. Users are even selling their original iPhones for $200 to $500 online; its unique metal construction and strong usability should help it retain a high resale value into the future. In contrast, most smartphones (with notable exceptions like the BlackBerry Curve 8320) are entirely worthless after being unplugged from mobile service.

With its new price point and hardware improvements, the iPhone 3G almost mocks the analysts who fretted that Apple wouldn’t be able to reach its (admittedly lofty) goal of shipping ten million phones in 2008. The biggest barrier to upgrading might actually be finding a unit in stock. Whether you upgrade to the iPhone 3G or not, you’ll definitely want to make the jump to iPhone 2.0 software, which adds a lot of new features, albeit not without some associated costs. The next segment will examine the features and many flaws of the latest iPhone software.