The iPhone 3G

Pt. 1: Macro

Let’s just say it up front: the iPhone is the greatest piece of consumer electronics that has ever been made.

If I could travel back 20 years and show my then 15-year-old self just one thing from the future of today, it would be the iPhone. It is our flying cars. Star Trek-style wireless long-distance voice communicator. The content of every major newspaper and magazine in the world. An encyclopedia. Video games. TV. Etc.

None of these features is quite what an imagination of the ’80s would have predicted. The TV, for example, is far from the imaginary “pocket TV” of my youth, which was rooted in the concept of broadcast TV channels. But it is a TV. In some ways it is worse; you cannot use an iPhone to, say, watch a live broadcast of a sporting event. In many ways, though, it is better; it stores content, including full-length major motion pictures, which you can watch whenever you want. A pocket full of movies was simply unimaginable 20 years ago. And it’s all in one easily pocketed gizmo.

Each of these features is of course available in devices other than the iPhone. A checklist of the iPhone’s features is not, in and of itself, impressive. Some competing devices, in fact, offer all the same fundamental features of the iPhone. The difference is in the overall experience. (Even a $10 Nokia dumbphone, combined with today’s worldwide cellular and satellite phone network, can do the Star Trek-wireless voice communicator trick. That alone would be impressive compared to the brick-sized fabulously expensive cellular phones of the ’80s.)

Everything Apple as a company has ever stood for, good and bad, was to get to the point where they could make this. It’s a computer you can take with you everywhere, so small you wouldn’t really even want it much smaller, even if it were possible.

In software, Apple went back and rethought certain priorities with the iPhone compared to Mac OS X. On Mac OS X, scrolling prioritizes visual fidelity but can be painfully slow. Not so much with today’s Mac hardware, but in the early days of Mac OS X, scrolling or resizing windows could be molasses slow. iPhone scrolling, on the other hand, is almost always fluid and perfectly responsive, but the content often doesn’t keep up. The checkerboard background in MobileSafari is the most obvious example of this. The illusion that your thumb or finger is actually moving the screen contents is astoundingly effective. Mac OS X values the visual over the feel; iPhone OS is vice versa, and I prefer it.

In hardware, the radical reduction of physical buttons has proven to be genius. The iPhone not only eschews a keypad and keyboard, but also those green/red place-call/end-call buttons that you see on nearly every other phone in the world. The iPhone has just four buttons: power, volume up, volume down, and home. That seems just right. I’ve gotten satisfyingly proficient typing with the on-screen touch keyboard. My single biggest gripe is that my right thumb often hits the Return key when I’m trying to hit the space bar.

In another five years, one of today’s iPhones will be no more than a sentimental curiosity, painfully slow both in terms of networking and computation. The iPhone has significant and obvious shortcomings. But it is an order of magnitude better than anything that came before it.

Pt. 2: Micro

I bought my original iPhone on day one. When the iPhone 3G arrived, I figured I could wait. In early August, one month after they went on sale, I upgraded. In a nut, the iPhone 3G is aptly named, in that it isn’t much more than the iPhone plus 3G. If they’d called it “iPhone 3G (and GPS)” the name alone would have completely described what was new, technically at least. The iPhone 3G uses the same CPU and has the same amount of RAM (128 MB) as the original. It is an iteration.

If you’ve got an original EDGE iPhone, the only factor that really matters with regard to whether you’d be happy after upgrading is the quality of the 3G service where you live. I, apparently, am lucky. 3G service in center city Philadelphia, the surrounding suburbs, and at the New Jersey shore has been terrific. Even before the 2.1 OS update, I had few complaints about dropped calls, and network speed has far exceeded my expectations. Browsing with 3G on the iPhone generally feels just about as fast as browsing with Wi-Fi — the CPU often seems to be the limiting factor in MobileSafari’s rendering speed, not the network.

In addition to the faster data speeds and higher-quality audio, 3G offers one additional advantage over EDGE: 3G can take an incoming phone call while simultaneously using the data network. I missed a surprising number of calls on my old iPhone while dicking around waiting for pages to load in Safari.

The main problem I initially ran into with 3G networking was that it would occasionally get stuck. I’d try to load a web page, and the inside-the-location-field progress bar in MobileSafari would simply never get past the “h” in “http:”. In most cases, turning the iPhone completely off and back on would fix this. Even better: I have not seen this problem once since upgrading to the 2.1 OS.

Tethering my 3G connection with NetShare — sadly, no longer available from the App Store — my MacBook Pro achieves download speeds of 700-900 kb/s, and upload speeds of 200-400 kb/s. Tethering with EDGE, I see download speeds of about 200 kb/s. Thus, for me, networking far exceeds Apple’s marketing claim of “double the speed”, and for that alone the upgrade price and slightly higher monthly plan are well worth it.1

(NetShare is simply remarkable, and deserves a full digression. After just one month of owning an iPhone 3G, the $10 I spent on NetShare is some of the best money I’ve ever spent. The multi-step process required to get it working, which you can only partially automate, is a hassle. If Apple can build a feature like this into the iPhone itself, it will be a smash hit feature, and, if it were something that only worked with Mac OS X, yet another impetus for iPhone/iPod users to switch from Windows. (My use of “can” is a reference to the challenge of getting phone carriers on board with it, not any technical hurdle.) The biggest limitation using NetShare is that because it’s a SOCKS proxy, it mostly only supports HTTP/HTTPS networking traffic. iChat can be configured to use a SOCKS proxy, but I’m aware of no way to get Apple Mail to use a SOCKS proxy for IMAP or SMTP, which means Mail doesn’t work using NetShare. But for web surfing, NetShare is a spectacular success. Yes, I’m aware that you can buy external Mac-compatible EVDO dinguses from Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint, but those are separate services that cost like $60 per month. With NetShare, I paid $10 one time and I can use it with my existing iPhone data plan without paying one additional cent. Performance is way better than the Wi-Fi service in most hotels.)

The 3G’s ringer is louder. (I sometimes missed calls with my original iPhone because I didn’t hear or feel the phone ringing in my pocket.) The speakerphone sounds much better.

As noted shortly after the 3G shipped, the color temperature of the display is different — warmer if you like it, yellower if you don’t. I prefer the original (cooler) temperature, but it’s only noticeable to me when compared side-by-side. Temperature aside, the screen seems identical to that of the original.

Looking at the front face, the form factor is practically unchanged. The 3G is slightly wider overall, but since the display is the same size, there is now a small black border between the screen and the chrome, where previously the screen ran nearly chrome-to-chrome. The back is completely different, plastic instead of metal, and differently shaped. (I chose black, of course.) Aesthetically, I prefer the original iPhone case on all counts: shape, appearance, touch. The original iPhone is, to put it bluntly, sexier. I even liked the black plastic panel at the bottom of the original iPhone — it made it easy to tell which way the phone was oriented without looking at it, such as when pulling it from a pocket. From a practical standpoint, however, the all-shiny-plastic 3G has one significant and perhaps very valuable advantage: it is not slippery. There’s a tackiness to the iPhone 3G in hand.

There is something to be said for the fact that the phone with the strongest brand in the world has no visible branding whatsoever on its front face.

The home button on the 3G seems to require a more forceful push. The clickiness of my original iPhone’s home button is better. On the other hand, the clickiness of the 3G’s volume and sleep buttons is better. Apple sometimes seems to be the lone consumer electronics company that pays any attention at all to the tactile response of buttons.

Battery life is the single biggest shortcoming. The simple truth is that the iPhone pushes the limits of what a device this size can do. Power consumption is perhaps Apple’s single-biggest engineering concern with the iPhone — both in software and hardware. Last year, when criticism of the original iPhone centered on the lack of 3G, Steve Jobs said it was about power. He was right. The iPhone 3G consumes power faster. However, the 2.1 OS update improved battery life dramatically. In particular, after upgrading to OS 2.1, the iPhone 3G does not seem to lose much power while idle.

Part of it, too, is that because 3G is faster, you can do more in the same amount of time. So if you measure by time, yes, one hour of web browsing on EDGE will leave you with more battery life than one hour of browsing on 3G. But if you measure by the page, I think loading and reading, say, 15 web pages on 3G stands up just fine against loading the same 15 pages on EDGE. It just happens faster.

Pt. 3: Coda

What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.” — Andy Warhol

So too with the iPhone. A billionaire can buy homes, cars, clothes that the rest of us cannot afford. But he cannot buy a better phone, at any price, than the iPhone that you can have in your pocket today.

  1. Once you get used to 3G performance, you’ll agree with this tweet from Adam Lisagor: “They should change the symbol for EDGE to stink lines.” ↩︎