iPhone 3G review: Great But Not Perfect

iPhone 3G review: Great But Not Perfect

For the past few weeks, PC World has spent some serious quality time with the new iPhone 3G. Does it warrant the midnight queues at Apple stores around the globe?

Well, yes, mostly. If ever there was a geeky gadget that deserved to have the word "sexy" applied to it, certainly it's the iPhone 3G. And if we can separate the angst around the relatively high costs of owning and operating this device for a moment and look at the iPhone itself, we find an incredibly capable, highly desirable, yet far from perfect device.

Bottom Line

I find myself torn at this stage of my relationship with the iPhone. It's a beautifully constructed device that rolls nearly all my portable electronic devices into one. The screen rocks, the fancy navigation system works perfectly, and, even better, makes me feel like I'm part of a sci-fi movie.

Yet it's missing some basic mobile phone features and has a few stubbornly Apple-centric limitations (I'm looking at you--external hard drive support...) and costs a small fortune. No wonder the iPhone has stirred such mixed and vehement emotions around the world.

Let's get into more detail.

Finally Available Worldwide

For most of this year, Apple's coveted iPhone was available in but a few select countries, and even then it was much maligned for being a 2.5G device in a 3G world, as well as for locking customers in to heavy-handed and exclusive service contracts.

Nevertheless, that didn't stop the iPhone from being sought after and adored by all who came near. Indeed, for previously iPhone-less countries like New Zealand, hacked, but fully functional, versions of Apple's baby were soon available from parallel importers across the nation; simply drop in your SIM card and you're good to go.

This didn't go unnoticed at Apple, and the company subsequently stepped things up for the iPhone 3G launch by making it available in 70 countries worldwide over the coming months. By virtue of our close proximity to the international date line, New Zealand will be first in line to see it, even if only by a few hours.

iPhone 101

For the uninitiated, the iPhone combines iPod, phone, Internet and more into a single device. If you're an iPod lover, finding a toy such as this is kind of like discovering the Holy Grail--you get Apple's genre-defining audio and video player sandwiched into a shiny, touchscreen-equipped, 3G mobile phone.

What's the big deal you ask? Plenty of mobile phones will, after all, play MP3s just fine. Problem is, in my experience people don't want their phone to play MP3s, they want their iPod to make phone calls. And since that's exactly what Apple are offering with the iPhone, that makes this product a big deal.

GPS Inside--Only With iPhone 3G

While some of the changes found in the iPhone 3G will be available to owners of the original iPhone following the release of version 2.0 of the phone's OS, GPS (Global Positioning System) tracking isn't one of them.

In conjunction with Google Maps, the iPhone can use GPS to pinpoint your exact location, provide step-by-step directions and offer real time tracking of your movements. The iPhone uses something called Assisted GPS, which uses triangulation of cellphone transmitter sites to assist the actual GPS receiver in finding your location in areas where GPS can sometimes struggle, like cities where tall buildings can hinder the lines of sight to the GPS satellites.

f you have no GPS signal whatsoever, it can still provide you with a rough location using triangulation alone. Actual GPS sensitivity gets a thumbs up from me, and it was able to find my location in just a few seconds while outside. Sitting in the office next to a window it took a bit longer but still managed to locate me.

Broadband To Go Plus Wi-Fi

The addition of fast 3G internet means the iPhone is suddenly much more viable than its predecessor for tasks such as e-mail and Web surfing (thanks in no small part to the ease of use the superb touchscreen and navigation system provides).

Apple has even given business users some love this time round with the addition of Microsoft Exchange compatibility and VPN capability.

But let's face it, while being a perfectly capable business tool, the iPhone is a consumer-targeted device built with leisure in mind. As such, YouTube integration is tight, you can buy songs and videos (well, not if you live in New Zealand, our iTunes store doesn't stock any video yet) direct from iTunes (but oddly only if you're connected to a Wi-Fi network...the store won't work over 3G).

It works well, also, although your experiences, like all Internet-related tasks, are subject to choppy performance if signal strength is low.

For instance, using the iPhone on the bus journey home each day is a tad flaky as I travel from one cell site to the next. But if I'm stationary, 3G performance is top-notch. Once I get home the phone automatically switches to Wi-FI (important if your monthly plan includes a finite amount of data...which of course it does in New Zealand).

Making voice calls and texting is, well, no different from any other phone you've ever used really. One nice trick though--during a call the touchscreen automatically detects when it is near your face and turns itself off until you take it away again.

Surprise! It's Not Perfect

While my inner gadget-lover is drawn to the iPhone 3G like a magpie to a golf ball, I'm not so enamored that I can't see the many omissions and imperfections.

Call me old-fashioned but I miss a built-in FM tuner with my MP3 player. Pretty much every other MP3 player ever made has one, why not my iPod?

I also can't record movies using the built in 2-megapixel camera, nor can I send picture messages or make video calls. I can't record voice clips and, worse, I can't even use the iPhone as an external hard drive when it is connected to my computer.

And why can't I use any MP3 I have stored on my iPhone as a ringtone or message alert--what's so hard about that? Bluetooth is supported, but why can't I use a wireless stereo headset with the iPhone? And why on earth isn't Flash supported on the built-in copy of Safari Web browser?

On the Other Hand: Touchscreen Is a Delight

Aside from a volume control and ringer off/on button on the side, a "lock" button on top, and the central "Home" button on the front, all control of the iPhone is carried out via the touchscreen display.

At 3.5 inches, it's bright and crisp and, as far as touchscreens go, easily the best I've come across. The iPhone's interface is fast and intuitive, offering users an immediacy of response that provides a reassuring sense of accuracy to your inputs. It's all deliciously animated too, scroll through your music, video or photo collections with the swipe of a finger and things keep moving before gradually slowing to a halt, as if by friction.

The screen is multi-touch, which means you can press different parts of the screen at the same time to perform different functions--a rarity among touch-enabled devices and a feature that opens up a number of opportunities for application developers to get creative in their programming.

Accelerometers inside the iPhone mean that if you turn it on its side, the screen will automatically rotate to display in widescreen. Which is kinda neat. Although my review unit came with no third-party applications installed, Apple PR folk demonstrated a 3D racing game that used the accelerometer to steer. Also neat.

Even though Apple promises the screen is scratch resistant and hard wearing, I couldn't stop myself from cradling the iPhone as if it were a baby bird. It just feels so precious, so utterly dependent on me to care for it, nurture it, love it. Which is a worry, as my mobile phones typically take quite a hammering. Owning an iPhone would require a concerted effort to change my carefree mobile-owning ways.

Here is a complete rundown on the iPhone's tech specs.

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