Mini Review of the Apple iPhone 3G


The iPhone it seems has risen to a status above its true station in life. The iPhone is perceived by many as gift from god (which may be why it garnered the nickname The Jesus Phone). However, itís still just a phone, and so in this mini-review (which was performed over a period of 2 hours at Square One in Mississauga) I attempt to look solely at this modelís suitability as a phone. I will however comment on auxiliary aspects of the phone where applicable.
 

The iPhone 3G is available through Rogers and Fido.

Last Updated: 15-Aug-2008

Before reading this review, please read Some Thoughts on Phone Reviewing.


The phone was tested at the same time as a Nokia N95 (review pending), along with a few other assorted Nokia models that Howard Chu brought along with him to the meet, though the iPhone was not his.

RF Performance

Click on this link for a full description of RF Performance, and how to interpret it.

RF Sensitivity: Tests of this aspect of the phone were performed in the Hall of Shame at Square One, but penetration of the Rogers 3G service into that hall turned out to be so good that we couldnít even get the phone to show even the tiniest signs of weakness. We therefore took the phones to the washrooms near the old Hall of Shame (off of the center court). I knew those washrooms were deep inside the structure of the mall (on the lower level) and they proved to be a great way to reduce the 3G signals to almost nothing. In that location both the iPhone and the N95 performed exactly the same, as they both began to breakup at exactly the same place, and to exactly the same extent. Even when the iPhone was forced onto the standard 2G network, the RF sensitivity was still top-notch.

Both the iPhone (and the N95) exhibited performance that was above-and-beyond what Iíve found with almost any previously-test models. However, there have been many news stories from the US about people complaining of poor service with the iPhone in 3G areas. It isnít clear if this is just a matter of misreading the signal bars (which display very low on the iPhone) or a case of those phones being lemons. Either way, the iPhone I tested had no trouble with 3G at all and was (along with the N95) one of the best Iíve ever tested

Over-the-road Performance: I was unable to take the iPhone for a drive, and so I wasnít able to measure this aspect of its performance. In 3G mode of course, there are no audible handoffs like in 2G (see What is UMTS) and UMTS has proven to have a much more resilient CODEC than EVRC in CDMA networks. Just the same, Iím not really in a position to guess how the iPhone would have behaved.

Audio Performance

Click on this link for a full description of Audio Performance, and how to interpret it.

Tonal Balance: Iíd never had a chance to test the original non-3G iPhone, but Iíd heard plenty of horror stories about the sound quality. By the same token, Iíd also ready many reviews of the new iPhone 3G, which praised the audio quality as being much-improved from the original. The very first thing I did when I was handed the phone was to make calls to a few of my standard reference recordings to judge the audio quality. Iím happy to report that the iPhoneís sound is quite good. In fact, the tonal balance is almost perfect, with no detectable flaws. It has just the right amount of lows and highs to render a very pleasant and well-balanced sound.

Sound Reproduction: This aspect of the phone is also excellent, because I could hear no added distortion or excessive hiss from the earpiece. There was no sibilance on voices and coupled with the excellent tonal balance the iPhone 3G is one of the best-sounding models Iíve tested in a while. Itís certainly one of the best-sounding 3G model Iíve tested.

Earpiece Volume: Unfortunately the accolades concerting audio end here, because the earpiece volume on the phone, while hardly pathetic, is just too low to comfortably use the phone in noisy places (such as Square One when it gets crowded, or out on the street). Apple would be well advised to either increase the maximum volume of the earpiece, or at least add a volume-boost feature such as we find on virtually every Nokia model out there. If you donít use your iPhone in noisy places all that often however, the audio level is quite acceptable.

Outgoing Audio: Outgoing tonal balance is very nice and your voice will sound clean and natural to your callers. It doesnít do a particularly great job of blanking out background noise, but it your voice will always be clear and distinct no matter where you use the phone. I wasnít able to test the phone in a noisy car however, and so I canít comment on how well it would perform under such circumstances.

Speakerphone: This aspect of the phone is just average. While the sound quality of the built-in speaker is good, the volume is too low for use outside of a quite environment. I didnít really get much of a chance to play with this feature, but it seemed to work well enough to allow for comfortable speakerphone conversations to take place in office or home environments.

Support Features

Ringer Volume: Since ringers on most phones these days rely on the same speaker (or speakers) as those used to play other audio content, the loudness of the ringer is often directly proportional to the volume of the speakerphone. The iPhone is no different in this respect, though the volume generated should adequate for most situations.

Keypad Design: This is the first phone Iíve ever tested that had no keypad whatsoever. Iíd tested other phones that used virtual keypads for most functionality, though not all. Other phones usually had dedicated TALK and END buttons on them at the very least. The iPhone still uses physical side-mounted buttons for earpiece volume, but everything else you do with the phone is done on the touch-sensitive screen.

Throughout most of my testing I found the touch screen was a fairly good substitute for a physical keypad, except of course that there was zero tactile feedback. It is therefore important that you watch the display to ensure that each key you press is accepted. Occasional key-presses were not accepted during my experiments with the phone, but overall the accuracy and reliability was very good. I even found that my hands were large enough to hold the phone and operated it (for making calls at least) with just the one hand.

Display: What can I say? This is by far the best screen to ever grace a mobile device. It sports an eye-popping resolution of 480 x 320 pixels on a screen that measures 3.5 inches diagonally. The backlight is super-bright and the overall clarity of the display is stunning. The display looks good even in direct sunlight. For multimedia on a small device, this is probably one of the best screens to watch stuff on, bar none.

Icing on the Cake

Camera: The camera in the iPhone is only 2 megapixels, and while it produces reasonably nice photographs, they just donít look much better than those produced by any other everyday 2 megapixel camera phone. In addition, and this is really surprising, Apple does not allow you to record videos with it. Iíve heard that this feature is in there and can be used on a jailbroken phone, but for the average iPhone user this is hardly of much consequence. For such a multimedia-centric device, the mediocre camera and lack of video is a huge oversight.

Operating System: Another big plus of the iPhone for most users is the remarkably well-conceived operating system and user interface. Even complete dummies can get the hang of most phone functions and the user experience is everything Apple hypes it to be. For the average Joe this phone is amazing, but for computer geeks (like me) however, the system leaves much to be desired.

One of the most surprising aspects is that you canít run applets as background tasks. You can only open one thing at a time and it must be CLOSED before you can run something else. The OS is a multitasking environment, but for some reason they don't allow users to take advantage of this fact. Don't under estimate how crippling this can be.

Another aspect thatís annoying to geeks is the way Apple is handling the installation of 3rd-party applets onto the phone (though thank god they actually have those things now, since the original iPhone didnít allow such applets at all). The only official way to install an applet onto the iPhone is through Appleís own store, and they only sell (or give away) applets that they approve. Experimental cutting-edge stuff will have to wait until Apple deems that appropriate.

You can of course jailbreak the phone and install whatever you like, but itís recently been admitted by Apple that the iPhone has a "kill switch" that will allow them to remotely disable any undesirable applet. How many computer geeks are going to tolerate a BIG BROTHER approach like that?

Also, the iPhone doesn't provide any form of cut-and-paste, making it necessary to retype everything. This is something that users complained bitterly about in the original iPhone, but nothing has been done to address this oversight in the 3G model.

Bluetooth: For a multimedia-centric phone the Bluetooth implementation on the iPhone is primitive. It exists almost solely to connect a standard Bluetooth headset and nothing more. It doesnít even support A2DP for high-quality stereo Bluetooth headsets. Apple got a lot of flack over that in the original iPhone, but it obviously just rolled off their backs.

Laptop Tethering: One would normally expect a 3G mobile device to have the ability to tether a computer to the phone so that it can use the 3G connection to access the internet. This is yet another feature that the phone is apparently capable of (with a bit of effort, this can be done on a jailbroken iPhone), but Apple has decided that regular folk donít need or want this.

Conclusions

For me at least, the Apple iPhone is both a desirable product and a letdown at the same time. However, Iím rather picky, and thus the negative aspects of the phone (such as low earpiece volume, mediocre camera, no video recording, closed application development environment, so-so speakerphone phone, lack of tethering, and poor Bluetooth support) just donít seem to outweigh the positives in my mind.

Perhaps part of the problem for me was the Nokia N95 I was testing at the same time. While certain aspects of the iPhone leave the N95 in the dust, such as its gorgeous user interface and big & bright high-resolution screen, the now-equally-priced N95 is a geek nirvana by comparison.

So before you run out and buy an iPhone 3G, make sure that you can live with the restrictions placed upon you. If you can, then the iPhone will certainly please you, because the positive aspects of the phone are quite amazing.

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