Review: iPhone 3G - is it worth the hype?

By Matt Greenop

Vodafone is set to start selling Apple's new iPhone 3G from one minute past midnight tonight. nzherald.co.nz's technology editor Matt Greenop is one of the first people in the world to review the gadget.

With about as much hype as any gadget maker could ever hope for, you'd swear that imminent arrival of the iPhone 3G was the second coming. But is it worth the hefty ticket price?

It depends on which way you look at it - but the short answer is yes. When the ground-breaking device was first released in the US last year it was a typical 1.0 device - undeniably cool, but lacking in the functionality provided by its competition.

The major chink in the so-called Jesus Phone's armour was its lack of high speed internet access, rather than 3G technologies that were available on other mobile internet devices like Research in Motion's BlackBerry.

This has been rectified now, with 3G capabilities one of two major additions to the iPhone 3G. Aside from a smoother form factor, with a curved plastic back for a more comfortable in-pocket ride, it is also now GPS-capable. Its other big trick is that it now talks nicely with Microsoft Exchange, common in corporate email systems.

Pricing for the phone in New Zealand has raised the ire of a marketplace excited by Apple boss Steve Job's keynote address at the computer giant's Worldwide Developer Conference. When he said that the price would be kept as close to the US$199 price point as possible in all markets, many envisaged themselves picking up what is basically an iPod Touch and a smartphone in one for the price of a low-end, on-contract mobile phone.

This was never going to happen, and the outright buy price of the 3G version (16GB) of $1129, puts it remarkably close to the price paid by those who thousands who spent the thick end of $1200 on the original version from parallel importers.

Slammed for pitiful internet access speeds, the new iPhone puts paid to that massive problem - but only in the right areas.

There are ten different receivers built into the phone's sleek profile, which is an impressive feat of engineering in anyone's book. To make this compatibility overload functional, the surrounds of both the headphone jack (which is now conveniently flush-mounted so you can use any headphones rather than Apple's earbuds) and the camera lens are metal aerials to improve reception.

In New Zealand terms, the phone is designed to work on an 850MHz 3G network, and the bulk of Vodafone's network is 900MHz. It does work in Vodafone's 2100 MHz areas, but that is now only at 63% coverage of the country - which means if you're in the city, you'll get reasonable pace online. It uses the HSPA protocol, providing a theoretical speed just over 3.5Mbps. This isn't lightning fast, but when used over a WiFi network, the iPhone is extremely quick.

For travellers, the iPhone is universally useful, with 3G support on the 850, 1900 and 2100 MHz bands, as well as connecting to the '2.5G' 850, 900, 1800 and 1900 MHz GSM bands.

Those unwilling to pay the high data costs that come bundled with the iPhone plans would be best served to buy one outright - the 8GB version costs $979 - tie it to an existing account, add a data plan and try to do the most surfing in WiFi zones.

There's a volume control and a ringer mute mounted on the side and power button on the top, plus the familiar home button below the large touchscreen on the front. The standard iPod-style 30-pin plug sits on the bottom edge of the phone between dual speaker grilles which give improved audio performance - especially on handsfree calls.

Almost every function is carried out using the touchscreen with various gestures employed to zoom in and out, flick through pages and input text. Again the touchscreen technology employed by Apple is incredibly effective, with gestures resulting is impressively quick responses from the highly-designed and animated GUI (graphical user interface). It's also multi-touch, meaning users aren't limited to single prod, single function - making for faster use with minimal fuss.

Adding GPS to the iPhone is enough to freak out the conspiracy theorists - with the Google Maps app, the phone will quickly pinpoint your location, which can be rendered either in typical map fashion, or with satellite images that can be zoomed in with a few brushes of the screen. Pick a destination and let the software map your route, and it's a fair approximation of a useful sat nav system, albeit without the bells and whistles. It also allows geotagging of images, and will later work in with Apple's (and its developers') location-based service plans.

Now that the phone talks nicely with Microsoft's Exchange via ActiveSync, it is simple to set up and use an account on a work server. Apple PR say this was one of the major requirements for the second generation, bringing the phone into corporate line with devices like BlackBerry and HTC's Windows Mobile-toting handsets. It also allows better admin control in a multi-handset corporate environment - if a staffer was stupid enough to lose their phone it can now be wiped remotely, removing all data and any security risks.

Configuring accounts for other email - like Google's Gmail - is also fast and easy, with settings for all common web-based email systems loaded automatically. Push email makes getting messages in a timely fashion more realistic, and turns keeping track of email and organising it within the iPhone into a far more useful proposition.

The phone has built-in accelerometers as before - which means tilting the phone on its side will automatically switch to a landscape view when viewing images, web pages and iPod content.

A quick game of CroMagnon Rally with visiting Apple staffers was an interesting demonstration of how the accelerometers can be built in to applications - tilting the phone controlled the car's cornering.

Thousands of applications are expected from third-party developers - there have been quarter of a million downloads of the iPhone SDK (software developers' kit) from Apple's servers - which will take advantage of the unique interface of the device.

A new AppStore has been created by Apple for users to buy, demo and occasionally freely download software directly to their phones, but the service will not be live until later today. It works on similar principles to the iTunes store.

On board software is the same as the 2.0 package that was available to iPhone and iPod Touch users, including the web browser Safari (which runs smoothly although zoomed page renders can be a bit slow). There's a nicely animated live stock monitoring application, live weather information and a direct link to YouTube (which can be a bit jerky on 3G, but is almost flawlessly smooth over WiFi).

What's missing from the new iPhone? Those who use phone cameras will be disappointed at the lack of video recording which is common on most high-end phones and smartphones to varying degrees of success. Video playback of saved files, though, is flawless.

It also does not yet support Adobe's widely-used Flash protocol, although Adobe says it's on the development fast-track. Voice dialling still isn't available and neither is MMS messaging. And you can't replace the battery.

Is Apple's second-generation iPhone worth the ticket price? In my opinion, yes, but I'm an Apple freak. Sure, it's expensive, but when you consider that it has the same functionality as an iPod Touch combined with that of a mobile internet device and a smartphone, I don't think $1129 is too much to pay for the 16GB version. Buying one for $199 and locking into a two-year, 250-per-month data plan though? No thanks.

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