iPhone 3G review

We'll be bringing your our iPhone 3G review in two parts.  Part one (the part you're reading now) is where we'll give you a full, in-depth review of the new iPhone 3G Hardware.  Here you'll find details on GPS, 3G speeds, the feel of the actual physical device, etc. If you're on the fence as to whether or not you should upgrade to the iPhone 3G, we're here to help and here's where we are, uh, helping.

Part two will focus on iPhone 2.0 software, where a lot of the real magic this week is happening and it's available on both versions of the iPhone.  That review is coming soon, for now, let's take a look at the iPhone 3G hardware with (much) more depth than we gave you in our iPhone 3G unboxing video and picture gallery

Look and Feel

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The 3G's most significant change from the 2G is that the back of the phone has been switched from a flat piece of aluminum combined with a plastic bottom to an all-plastic bottom. It comes in white and black. All of this is nothing new to you, likely. What you might not know is that the plastic is, for lack of a better term, high-grade. It's very hard, it almost feels more scratch-resistant than the original's aluminum back (though this surely isn't the case).

While I was initially worried that the plastic back would feel cheaper than the aluminum, that fear turned out to be unfounded. The plastic back may look a little less professional, perhaps, but I view it as a lateral move instead of a downward one. The added benefit of improved reception and GPS (more below) more than makes up for it.

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Otherwise, the basic shape of the iPhone 3G is, well, darn near identical to the original iPhone (henceforth "the iPhone 2G" or just "original."). You're looking at a thin slab whose front is dominated by a large, 320x480 screen with a home button on the bottom and a speaker on the top. Compared to the original, the 3G's only major difference on the front is that it's slightly wider and therefore has a black 'edge' on the left and right sides of the screen. I'm not a fan, but what can ya do?

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The iPhone 3G is also ever-so-slightly taller and thicker than the 2G. The net effect ought to be that the iPhone 3G feels much larger than the 2G, but actually that's not the case at all. The reason is that the back of the iPhone is curved -- it's actually thinner at the edges than the original. The iPhone 3G feels as good in the hand as the original, if not better. There's a warmth to the plastic that's not there in the aluminum.

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Rounding out the look and feel, what few buttons the iPhone 3G has are now metal and look and feel pretty darn good to me. More subtly, the grille on the earpiece speaker (and also on the speakers on the the bottom) is now also metal and looks good. Those speakerholes on the bottom are now just two holes (one for Mic, one for speaker) flanking two screws.

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Overall the iPhone 3G makes up for that plastic backing and increased size through, you guessed it, sheer design. Larger footprint? Sure, but the curved back helps. Plastic? Sure, but it's tough as nails. You get the picture. After a couple days with it, I prefer the look and feel iPhone 3G to the original.

Reception and Data

Call reception for me is heads and shoulders above the original iPhone. Calls are much clearer on 3G than they were on Edge, due to 3G's improved infrastructure, but I'm also getting more signal even in Edge-only areas. I'd say that my signal is usually about 20% better (seriously!) with the iPhone 3G compared to the original iPhone.

I live in an Edge-only area (boo!), but the improved reception does make a difference for me, just a bit. I was also able to check 3G when I first got the iPhone. I myself had mixed results, averaging around 400kbps. It appears from reports I'm reading that my experience might be on the low end of people's 3G experiences.

Sound and Call Quality

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You've probably heard that the speaker on the bottom of the iPhone has improved sound. You heard correctly -- it's louder and has less distortion My only gripe is that it's easier to muffle the sound when you're holding the iPhone 3G sideways to watch a movie. The single speaker-hole is much easier to cover up than the original's. This happens especially when I'm 'cupping' the phone to try to get some extra sound bouncing off my palm (admit it, you've tried it too). Still, a tiny quibble against the vast advantage of having a louder, better speaker.

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In the category of sound -- the headphone jack is now flush instead of recessed. Joy. There's a small metal ring around the rim to bolster the strength of the jack, the idea probably being that when your headphone jack puts pressure by being tugged in this direction or that the stress gets transferred to the stronger casing instead of the weaker soldier points. The bottom line is that not only do we get to use our own favorite headphones, we can feel relatively comfortable that we won't be busting up the headphone jack by doing that.


The GPS on the iPhone 3G picks up satellites like nobody's business. Inside, where other smartphones I have don't have a prayer of catching the signal from the skies, the iPhone has nary a problem. I also like how Google Maps bounces the location indicator until it's finished trying to figure out where you are. It's a subtle indication that nevertheless gets the job done very intuitively without pestering you with how many satellites you're picking up (though, honestly, it would be nice to know.

I'll admit, though, that I'm getting tired to telling applications that it's ok to know where I am. ;)

The only thing I could wish for is that Google Maps would also indicate direction once it's able to guess. That and turn-by-turn directions, of course, which we're still hoping for.

Screen (that 'Yellow' Issue)

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Yes, my iPhone 3G is 'yellower' than my iPhone 2G, though it also looks slightly brighter, too. I don't mind the change too much, but there it is, it's there. As Rene noted over the weekend, I might be able to mediate that a bit by upgrading firmware. The bottom line is that Apple made a decision to make the screen look a bit warmer. It might not look that great on the blue-gray parts of the interface, but my whites sure do look whiter and contrast overall 'feels' better between white and black now too.

I'll take that, improved readability is always welcome on these aging eyes.

Speed and Responsiveness

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Alright, I can't exactly blame this on the iPhone 3G because it also appears to be the case on the 2.0 update on the 2G, but I have to bring it up. The iPhone 3G feels like it's a little slow in the interface, more so than the original. It's not enough to make me chuck the thing against the wall, but it is noticable -- especially in the contacts app.

The contacts app (and the phone generally) should be holy ground. It must never crash, ever ever (it hasn't on the official ROM on me) and it must be speedy. People generally go into the contacts app because, well, they want to contact somebody, and so speed is key. I can see why Apple didn't include contact search on the original iPhone ROM -- because it's sinfully slow.

There's another, separate and larger issue here of our overall experience of the iPhone being degraded somewhat by buggy 3rd party apps. It's happening to me just a bit, but we're still very early in this brave new iPhone 2.0 world so I'll give those apps a pass ...for now.

On the other hand, when I open the contacts app, it should not take nearly 3 seconds for my 877 contacts. There shouldn't be a delay between my pressing a key on the keyboard and the visual indicator popping up of nearly a second. Unacceptable. Bad Bad Bad. Apple - there's still not an insanely great way to quickly search my contacts like I can on every other QWERTY smartphone: just start typing. The closest I've come is the Google 3rd party app, but it's unnecessarily slow because it's also searching the web.

Ok, rant off.

Battery Life

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Er.. Rant back on. It's still very early, of course, but over the weekend my iPhone 3G did not handle itself very well whilst in 3G range. I got a movie, a half hour of talking, probably a half hour of games, and maybe a half hour of web surfing. Yes -- add all that up and you're looking at just over 4 hours plus standby, so perhaps I was within range. Still, it felt like a far cry from the nigh-invincible battery on the iPhone 2G.

Add on the fact that Apple changed their dock connector to cease supporting power adapters that previous worked (the ones that charged via the firewire pin), and I ended up having a dead phone for my drive home from the airport Saturday night.

Things may get better as the battery gets 'broken in' a bit -- or as I use the iPhone under normal circumstances and not "ZOMG NEW IPHONE" circumstances. In the meantime, I'm watching my battery life closely and that extra attention pains me a bit.

Conclusion: Should you Upgrade?

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Well, should you upgrade? The best features of the iPhone 3G are also available on the iPhone 2G, namely, the iPhone 2.0 software upgrade. A full review of that is coming up.

Meanwhile -- it comes down to two questions:

  1. How important is GPS to you? If it's above, say 40% important, I'd say upgrade.
  2. How important is 3G to you? I'd say that there's a much higher threshold for this. Yes, 3G is 2 to 3 times faster than Edge in my testing, but the tradeoff appears to be battery life. You really have to want it, call it a desire above 75%.

If your number is higher than either of the above, get thee to an Apple store. Actually, I don't know why exactly I'm quoting percentages here, I guess it's because the answer to "should you upgrade" isn't a clear "yes" based on the hardware improvements. Stylistically, it's a lateral move from one look-and-feel to another. Not better or worse, just different. Spec-wise, if you can get by without GPS and 3G, there's no need to upgrade.

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For me, my GPS need percentage hovers around 90%, so the upgrade was a necessity. In the end, that's the best review I can give the hardware: for me, it's better, despite my battery fears.

Dieter Bohn
  • Oh and of course, it also blends.
  • I am getting tired of people saying the speaker is better. I read this so many times I went into a ATT store with cash in had ready to upgrade. I took my wife with me. I dont have 3G in my area, I have to drive 200 miles to get 3G service. I have a Garmin in all my cars. I do basketball tournaments for kids and anywhere near the place I cannot hear my phone. Yeah, I know put it on vibrate. But my wife's phone the pearl has no problem with sound. I know Apple loves to see everyone with those white headphones but I would have thought a mistake the first time would have been corrected on a phone that is such a good media player. Anyway, I took my wife with me into the store and ringtone for ringtone we played one 2G and then the 3G phone and they sound the same. Exactly the same. So could someone please how the speaker is so much better. Apple could have put the mic else where and make the right side a second speaker.
  • As always, excellent review. I love my iPhone 3G thus far. But, I'd kill for my YMail to be instant, ALL the time. Even my Mobile ME mail is not ALWAYS instant, as it should be, weird, nonetheless...
  • @Darrin -- Don't know what to say, the speaker seems nearly twice as loud to me. :-/
  • I believe some of my battery issues stem from my son playing the new free games on it. They seem to drain the battery very fast. Has anyone else seen this or seen where it has been tested?
  • I'm really curious whether there will be any way at all to get one without the AT&T bullshit. I refuse to give that company any money after all the warrantless wiretapping crap, not to mention the fact I don't think a deal like this between them and Apple should even be legal. I don't care so much about the 3G stuff (I hear it won't work with T-Mobile even if you do unlock the phone), but I do care about better reception and speaker/microphone quality and the GPS could be useful.
  • C-r-a-p is censored here? You gotta be kidding me!
  • Hello,
    I read above that the speaker volume is supposed to be better. But my 3g phone speaker is so weak. I can't hear!!! Do I have a defective phone?
  • I have to say that I love my new iphone. The battery issue is somewhat of a problem but will become less so after I get over the initial phase of playing with my new toy all day. Also I found the sound to be very good. I would have liked there to be 2 speakers for sound instead of the one, because it's easy to cover up the single speaker and completely block the sound. But overall I'm very satisfied with the new Iphone 3G.
  • Sean Robertson:
    As of right now, I don't see a way around signing a contract with AT&T. At the Apple Stores:
    They change your service to AT&T first.
    Then they sell you the phone.
    Then they activate the phone using iTunes in-store.
    Seems difficult to get around currently. Plus, is AT&T really any more evil than Verizon, T-Mobile, etc.? All of the cell phone companies in the U.S., at least, are inordinantly large in scale and (not that I care) all participated in allowing the government in 2001 to use their services.
  • I'm overall very happy with my 3G - I've only one gripe so far; what is being sold as a 'black' iPhone 3G is in fact dark blue - albeit very dark blue...
  • Where i'm from (Belgium) you can only buy seperate iPhones. It's illegal to sell the phone and a contract together here. But on the downside we do pay 525€ for the 8GB model :s
  • my contacts are super slow too
  • I think a question many of us are having - is it worth switching from another carrier for the iPhone?
  • I have also noticed the battery life issue. It makes me feel like I will have to keep it pluged in every chance I get. I have also experianced unexpected quitting in safari and maps. Has anyone else had this issue? Other than that I love the phone, I'm using I for this post and it is working great. But I do have I pluged into the wall.
  • I haven't had any issues with my iPhone 3G. I don't really know the difference between the first because I didn't own one before.
    I absolutely love the GPS and in San Jose, California, the reception is amazing and VERY clear. My other phone, AT&T 8525, voice calls were a bit muffled. The new iPhone looks better than the first, one of the reasons I didn't buy the original because the back looked, ugly. LOL.
    I bought Monkey Ball through the iPhone and I'm not sure what happened - but it's not working after the sync.
    I noticed that the Contacts lags a bit. Also, when texting, I notice a lag when a new text is about to arrive. That, is... a bit annoying. Other than that, the keyboard works wonders - I have to say bye to my texting because I'm not sure where the buttons are. LOL.
  • ^ Texting while driving. LOL.
    And the battery life drains somewhat quickly. I need to get a car charger fast.
  • My old auto cig-lighter charger does not work with the 3G what gives? I have to buy a new one now?
  • RE: Darrin Pruitt Said: " ringtone for ringtone we played one 2G and then the 3G phone and they sound the same. "
    The ringtone volume may be the same as the old model but the speaker
    phone volume is now considerably louder.
    Music and movies still play at the basic same level - which was acceptable before, though small sounding and not in stereo.
    If you want louder ringtones on an iphone you can try 3rd party ringtones which may be louder.
  • Has anyone noticed that the supposed 3G speeds are totally offset by lag? I've been using my 3G for days now and it seems like web access is WAY slower than when I used EDGE. (San Jose, CA). Over the weekend I went to Santa Cruz where it's EDGE only, and ALL the websites and apps that accessed the web were much faster. Now I have switched off my 3G and use only EDGE.
    This makes me very sad as 3G was a MAJOR reason I was so anxious to get this phone. Is anyone else seeing this?
  • do u know how much iPhone 3G is?
  • I think Cliff at question 14 brings up a great topic. Is it really worth switching from one carrier to AT&T just for the new Iphone? what do ya think?
  • Good and balance review.
  • I have the LG Vu right now and im trading for i phone 3g. is it realy worth it?
  • The iPhone 3G has 2 major software problems right now. First, there is no flash. Adobe and Apple are apparently bickering about “rights” and we the end use suffer. Since Hulu.com and all the major free and paid online TV and Movie websites use a flash player, we can not access them. Given the large screen, and small amount of hard drive space, such sites are critical to media lovers like myself. Instead of being able to access a massive amount of free TV shows and Movies online I am limited to what I can fit on my 8 gigs (or 16 gigs is you’re a big spender) worth of hard drive space. Likewise, many of my favorite websites (including 2 of my own online stores) use a lot of flash. So they display funny, or are completely inaccessible to iPhone users. Flash won the web video war along time ago, beating out Apple’s QuickTime web player in the process. Perhaps this is why Steve Jobs is not anxious to see a flash player released for the iPhone? Regardless, as more and more people realize they can not access flash websites while other phones can…he is going to see the popularity of his phone diminish. Second, Google Maps is a rather pitiful GPS Navigation system when compared to the likes of TomTom or Garmin. Google Maps gives you page by page directions. You have to click the next button manually to see the next turn. TomTom and Garmin not only plot your course but follow you as you go and have an automated voice that gives you step-by-step instructions as you go. There are rumors that TomTom and others are developing software for the iPhone, but there are just as many rumors that the developers license agreement is preventing them from releasing their software to the public. Again, it would appear that Steve Jobs is standing in the way of making his own product truly great. Perhaps Apple signed some sort of agreement with Google locking them into Google Maps? If so that was pretty foolish. Especially since the Instinct has voice activated GPS that exceeds anything we’ve seen from the big boys in GPS software. Long story short, the iPhone 3G is a disappointment. It only kinda does the stuff they say it does. But not really. Push comes to shove, the Instinct is the best phone at the moment…not the iPhone 3G.
  • Apples biggest movement with the iPhones is having "the Internet in your pocket", but about half of the sites I view on mine direct me to a different page designed specifically for the iPhone which is EXACTLY what I DIDN'T want when I got it. Sometimes there's not even a way to access the regular site. They claim not to offer "a watered down version of the Internet", but that's exactly what it is.
  • other than that it's amazing.
  • Totally agreed Ben. That is one of my biggest annoyances, especially when the iphone site is poorly designed. There are some sites, such as CNN's where I prefer the iphone site, but there needs to be a clear way to choose which site you want to access.
  • I agree with the website issues too. Combine that with the lack of multi-media texting (Can't send/recieve pictures via text) and Apple has some explainin' to do. I like mine but certainly keeping an eye on the competition because others are getting better and better. Either Iphone is going to fix these media issues or somebody else is going to take over as King of the Hill.
  • I would love to have one of these as a side phone.
  • The iPhone is an interesting device... I'm not totally sold on it though. The app store has almost nazi-like restrictions on what can be put on there, and I don't know if I would be able to adapt to a flat screen for texting and such...
  • The thing that really disappoints me about the iphone is that the developers have not really taken advantage of multi-touch. I mean, the iphone/ipod_touch are really the only devices out there with multiple touch interfaces, I want to see some absolutely killer apps taking advantage of this.
  • If I already have a tilt and a ipod there is no reason to get the iphone. It is a waste of money. I do not need my music and phone combined into one the battery will get toasted.
  • Im not happy with my iphone sound it sounds low
  • Hey this phone is amazing
  • who wants to talk
  • haha I totally love Justin
  • Hey Justin, liked your collaboration with ludacris. sounds hot. please keep up gOOd work. was at your concert in chicago - THAT WAS THE BEST!!!!!
  • ai dori sa iil vinz mar interesa cat costa :P
  • You want to sell it? I would be interested in how much
  • You want to sell it? I would be interested in how much
  • Obama appointed Geithner, Summers and Bernanke. He's just as culpable for this situation as they are. Clearly, we don't have two parties in this nation; only the one corporate party. Unfortunat-ely, still too many people oblivious to this fact. Nothing will change until they wake up; which is what the aristocrac-y fears and why they do all they can to distract the masses with racism, entertainm-ent, and so on. health insurance plans
  • Carl, you're right, the system in your Mustang GT works differently and pairs well with iPhones and the functionality of the overall system does less than the Explorer's. The Explorer's issue revolves around the APIM. This is the accessory protocol interface manager. Imagine your home computer allowing you to listen to music, handle the fan and temperature control of your house, give you directions, let you change from eight different sources not only with buttons, but buttons and controls from two different places, plus touch screen, plus voice control. And, handle a few different languages... Still, on top of this, Apple's protocol for messaging and Bluetooth can and will conflict with the Sync system... this is why Ford and Microsoft are rewriting the entire graphic user interface with its next upgrade. You will get a new system. And by all accounts, the new system will work with more stability. The MyFord Touch system is starting to resemble Windows Vista in the way it was received and used by the public a few years back. And, by the way, Ford tells me that plugging your iPhone in with a USB cord will allow playing the music, albeit in a more clunky way, but it will play. Also, have you got the wi-fi function turned off on your iPhone?
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