Review: iPhone 3G

Hype, hype, hype. Now that the iPhone 3G launch has blown over and I’ve been able to integrate the phone into my daily routine, I think we’re ready for an official CrunchGear review. Our advice? Wait. With 60% certainty I predict a minor hardware or, more likely, software update in the next month or to improve the 3G’s thus far abysmal battery life.

The iPhone 3G is incrementally better than the 1st generation iPhone, which means that only die-hards and non iPhone users should upgrade. Everything good about the iPhone is still here – the UI, the size and shape, the music player. To paraphrase Churchill: It has been said that iPhone is the worst mobile phone except for all the others that have been tried.

3G is nominally faster in the right areas – my Brooklyn haunt is not one of them – so if you were expecting improvements over EDGE think again. While most folks in urban areas will see a bump, the iPhone 3G has yet to show marked improvements over the standard EDGE/Wi-Fi combo that worked so well in the first model. I think 3G is a red herring, something Apple threw in at AT&T’s request to showcase their network. 3G burns up battery life and does not automatically shut off when out of range.

I think GPS on the iPhone was aimed at the international market where the tendency to buy all-in-one devices rather than a small group of specialized devices is more prevalent. Europe and Asia don’t want to spend $500 on an in-car GPS device when their phone can do it for them. Adding GPS to the iPhone is a nod to their desires, not our own. Without turn-by-turn the iPhone’s GPS is useless in the car unless you have a navigator. A Garmin or Tom Tom device is more cost-effective in this case.

Then there is “push” email and Exchange support. IT shops have gotten away with saying “We don’t support the iPhone” for over a year now and now they have no choice but to support it. This is an enterprise play by Apple who sees that Windows Mobile is offensive to the soul and RIM’s BlackBerry is an email machine and little else. Could they have added something simple like cut and paste rather than Exchange support in this iteration? Sure, but cut and paste doesn’t bring IT shops around. Exchange support does.

In this new firmware we also find MobileMe support, Apple’s answer to a personal Exchange server. As someone who uses all of the applications that MobileMe supports – Mail, iCal, Address Book in OS X – I’m happy with the functionality. If I were coming from the Windows world I’d probably be hard-pressed to pay $99 a year for something that seems redundant. All of the sharing systems built into MobileMe already exist in some form elsewhere and everything else can be recreated simply by plugging the iPhone in and syncing to desktop applications like Outlook. So far the push calendar and contacts have been great but they are not particularly noticeable nor was I desperate for their addition.

Then we have the App Store. This is where the 2.0 firmware shines and, in a way, stinks. A jailbroken first generation iPhone was a utopia. Nerds helped nerds break the Apple shackles and programmers made amazing programs for the iPhone without Apple’s tacit approval. Some of the apps were stupid and some were great. It was like a little Linux box in your hand. That’s all gone now. The App Store is a collection of applications you have to pay for and many well-known programming shops have brought out some amazing stuff. Roll through the app store and you’ll find the silly and the sublime. While most of the games showcase the iPhone’s amazing graphical capabilities, others look like they were written by a kid with a programming book and a dream. But the 3G doesn’t have a monopoly on apps, because the 2.0 firmware works on the first generation and the Touch. The App Store is a must have, but everyone can have it.

Finally, there’s the battery life. I know multiple sites have waved their hands over the numbers and found that the 3G is in fact quite long-lasting. In my experience I’ve found that I can get a full 18 hours of normal usage given I don’t do much browsing. I also know that my use case is fairly uncommon – I have 12,246 unread messages right now and I get about ten or twenty every half-hour. However, I don’t think it’s that uncommon. I’ve set the auto-fetch to every hour and I’ve seen some improvement in speed but the battery will be a major issue soon enough – these things get worse, not better, over time and as I recall another device with a similar problem, the Sidekick, eventually petered out to eight hours on a good day and four hours on a horrible one.

I worry that once the push notifier system described at WWDC – the thing that will enable background processes – launches in September the battery life will fall even more. Push is expensive in terms of battery life

I won’t deny the 3G is a compelling piece of hardware. You know I love it and want to marry it, but the battery issue must be dealt with and the only thing I can imagine Apple will do is release a new bit of firmware. My biggest fear, however, is that this is a design flaw that will require a full recall. If that happens, watch out. If you thought lines at the Apple store were long for the launch wait until the Geniuses have to deal with a million irate customers.

So, should you buy it? If you’re looking to upgrade your phone and are out of contract, wait until next month. By the ides of August the hype should have died down, the back orders should have shipped (there’s apparently a 21-day wait time now) and most of the bugs should be addressed. It’s a great phone — there’s no doubting that — and the 3G is a better phone than the first generation, at least in terms of the network improvements.

Currently own an iPhone? Hang onto it for a while. There is some part of me that wishes I hadn’t given mine away last month. It’s a good phone and we can only hope that the next update will be less incremental and more revolutionary.

Bottom line: It’s great, but wait.