The iPhone 3G Upgrade Question

The new iPhone 3G is a surefire winner for anyone who doesn’t have an iPhone yet. It’s not such a sure thing for people with existing iPhones. Most iPhone owners wouldn’t have jumped at this year’s model no matter how much improved it was, because most iPhone owners have the common sense not to buy a new phone less than a year after spending $400 (or more) on their present one.

For the rest of us who lack such common sense and are considering upgrading — yours truly included — it’s not a sure thing. The only significant differences between the iPhone 3G and the original iPhone are the 3G networking and GPS. That’s it. Apple doesn’t publicize things like the specific CPU and GPU inside the iPhone, but several knowledgeable sources told me this week that the CPU and most other internal components are unchanged. The camera is the same. The screen, if not exactly the same,1 is pretty much the same.

Don’t get me wrong, this makes sense. The old iPhone is still, by far, the most powerful handheld computing device in the world. But the fact remains that if you upgrade, you’re upgrading for 3G and GPS and the new case design (which, from the front face, looks almost exactly like the old one). On any performance benchmark other than 3G vs. EDGE, the numbers are going to be very close.

Plus, even those who hold on to their original iPhones are going to get a nice upgrade, free of charge, when the 2.0 release of the OS ships. There are performance and battery-life tweaks in the OS that apply just as much to the original iPhone as to the iPhone 3G. It’s entirely possible, in fact, that the battery life improvements in the iPhone 3G are entirely software-based, and that, for example, an original iPhone upgraded to the new OS will get about 10 hours of (2G, of course) talk time.

With 3G turned on, an iPhone 3G will have significantly shorter talk-time battery life than an original iPhone. But an iPhone 3G with 3G turned off is now just an iPhone with GPS. And 3G is a global preference; you can’t set it to use 3G for data but 2G for voice. This is, I believe, a technical limitation that Apple can’t work around. It’s also the case that with 3G, unlike EDGE, data continues to work while you’re on a call. The good news, though, is that the battery life difference between 3G and 2G isn’t nearly as pronounced for data (5 vs. 6 hours) as for voice (5 vs. 10 hours) — presumably because with faster networking, the network is actually used for shorter durations, whereas with voice calls 3G doesn’t make your conversation go faster.

So what it boils down to is whether you think it’s worth $1992 up front — plus $15 extra per month for the new data plan with SMS — for faster cell network data.

  1. The new iPhones might be using the screens from the iPod Touch. The tech specs for the original iPhone specified a density of 160 pixels per inch; the iPod Touch, 163. The new iPhone’s specs page says 163. ↩︎

  2. And let’s face it that most people considering upgrading from an original iPhone to a new iPhone 3G are the sort of people who are probably going to opt for the $299 16 GB model, not the $199 8 GB one. ↩︎