Anyone that's used the original iPhone knows what a delight the device can be to use -- except when using the old mail app -- but the hardware is only one part of that. An accurate capacitive touchscreen and well optimized mobile processors form the basis of that experience, but the iPhone continues to derives its real power in usability. The iPhone 3G and the second release of mobile OS X have given the device numerous useful new features while keeping in line with expectations that they not slow down the experience, nor overwhelm new or experienced users. So far, so good.
Easily the most significant addition to the iPhone 3G (as well as the original iPhone and iPod touch) is the App Store, which finally enables users to trick out their phone with whatever programs make it through Apple's rigorous developer screening and software testing process. We've got as many mixed feelings about that closed-but-open model as we do about many of the programs that launched with the device -- especially the AIM client, which we were most excited about, but that kind of flopped. (Disclosure: Engadget is owned by AOL / TimeWarner. Sorry gang!)
Although the App Store isn't open to any developer, it's worth noting that Apple's implementation wrests all control from its carrier partners, which typically expect 3rd party applications to be either side-loaded (i.e. more for the power user set), or simply want complete control of sales through their own walled garden. It's easy to argue that the App Store just trades one walled garden for another, but what the hell, we'll happily take Apple's over AT&T's.
The applications themselves vary in price, and are purchased after you've logged in with your iTunes account. (Yeah, you'll need one even if you're only downloading free programs.) Apps under 10MB download over the air, and are immediately deposited in your first available slot, where they can be moved (or removed) as you see fit. As new versions of the apps become available, the App Store notifies you of updates and manages the downloads. Yes, it's a new kind of walled garden, but the App Store is also a category-redefining experience. We've already heard a radically open version will be making its way to Android
, and we hope it will eventually find its way to platforms like Windows Mobile and Symbian as well.
Another new addition is character recognition support for logographic-based languages, such as Traditional Chinese, as well as localized keyboards for nearly two dozen languages and markets worldwide. But the touchscreen keyboard can still be a major sticking point for some -- ourselves enthusiastically included -- and Apple hasn't given any more of its default programs (like SMS) the increased ease of typing that comes with using the keyboard in landscape mode. There's simply no question that in terms of efficiency, on an iPhone we're nowhere close to where we can get on a spacious (or even not so spacious) QWERTY keypad. To their credit, though, Apple's made a few tweaks over the last year that have made typing a little faster and easier (like letting you pre-type the next letter before your first finger has lifted). But the fact is this defining feature of the iPhone remains one of its biggest drawbacks.
After nearly a week of testing MobileMe, we still haven't really had a positive experience with it among our editorial team. One editor, who had fewer issues than anyone else, still had difficulty syncing his 1,300+ contacts. MobileMe would choke on sync and require disabling / re-enabling to keep that sync moving. Another problem we saw was that email deletes weren't synced to other devices, requiring the same message be deleted in multiple locations. In some cases, a deleted email that wasn't properly synced would actually repropagate to back out other devices. Nothing better than zombie email.
Another thing we (and a lot of people noticed) is that MobileMe on the desktop is faux-push -- it only gets updates every 15 minutes because it's actually pulling them, unlike the iPhone's proper push. (We're, like, totally sure someone's going to sue.) You can edit a certain .pref file (details here
) to make it fetch every minute -- but fetching every minute isn't push, now is it? Apple has since acknowledged this issue (among others)
. We also noticed on the phone that if you have synced MobileMe calendars, your calendar subscriptions (like, say, shared iCal or Gcal or what have you) are disabled.
All in all, as of the time of this writing, our feeling is that MobileMe still feels like it's in beta -- when it's up -- and is generally falling way short of what was promised by Apple. We believe they're earnest when they say they're trying to get it all up and running to fulfill their commitments, but for the time being we think it's best to steer clear until they work out the kinks.
On the other hand, we found the Exchange support to be simple enough to set up and use that you may not have to bug your IT dude. Some hardcore enterprise users will miss the full Exchange suite, including synced notes and tasks, but the core functionality (email, calendar, contacts) work very well, and if you need to take your iPhone into the locked-down office, we tested and confirmed that it will play fine with your company's WPA Enterprise / 802.1x with PEAP network. But our biggest gripe with Exchange isn't small: the system is unable to let enterprise contacts and calendars coexist on the same device with personal contacts and calendars. (Personal and corp email get along just fine, though.)
When you turn on Exchange-synced contacts and calendars, you're notified that it's a one or the other kind of a situation, and your personal data will be removed from the phone. Though that data isn't purged from your host machine, of course, you do immediately lose the ability to change contact or calendar sync settings
. This effectively means that your device can only serve as an enterprise device OR a personal device, but not both at once. Kind of defeats the purpose of convincing your boss to get you an iPhone in the first place, you know? Can't all our calendars and contact lists just play together on the same device? We think they can (and should).
Some other new and noteworthy features:
- As mentioned, Google Maps now shows a pinging blue locator that can track your movement. As of right now there's no way to convert this to KML or anything usable for geocaching.
- The camera will also now ask you permission to use GPS to geotag photos with your current location. Once you grant that permission, it will add the necessary standard EXIF data to your photos. Trés useful, but you can't refer back to those geotags to bring up a location in Google Maps.
- Side note: there's now an option to reset location notifications, if you accidentally granted permission to an app you don't want knowing where you are.
- The iPhone can now read PowerPoint, Pages, Numbers, and Keynote documents. It's still incapable of editing or creating new documents, however, and outside of sending yourself these files via email, there's no accessible file storage.
- You can now save images from the web to your camera roll by tapping and holding.
- The calculator goes into scientific mode when the device is tilted sideways.
- Entering passwords is a little easier -- the last character you entered is temporarily shown at the end of the string. Keeps things safe but makes sure you know if you mistyped.
- One of the very first things we ever requested the iPhone see fixed is finally fixed: calendar colors are now supported, meaning you can finally visually tell your appointments apart based on calendar.
- You can now control email, contact, and calendar fetching from system settings, giving you granular control over push and pull data on your various accounts.
- You can also enable parental controls if you got the device for your kids. Or you just want to curb temptation to constantly watch Charlie the Unicorn on YouTube or buy Lil Wayne tracks on the WiFi Store, weirdo.
- Screen captures can be taken by holding home, then pressing sleep. They're dropped in the camera roll.
- Doing a hard reset now fully purges the device's memory, thereby making it much more difficult to recover the kind of data you don't want someone else recovering. (More on that here.)
We'd also be remiss if we didn't namecheck a few of the things missing from the device, some likely to be inconveniences, others outright dealbreakers:
- Easily-replaceable battery -- especially being that 3G is much more demanding on battery power than EDGE data. We haven't popped the back off, but even if replacing the battery were as simple as unscrewing the two screws at the bottom (and it's not), that's still not what we'd call easily replaceable.
- Copy / paste. As if we even needed to mention this.
- MMS. Ditto.
- Expandable memory still isn't in the cards (har). 8 and 16GB capacities are very decent, but the ability to go further with microSDHC would be welcomed by many. As would be a 32GB model.
- A2DP (stereo Bluetooth). If this was an unlikely addition before, it's all but written off now. A2DP is a notorious battery hog on devices like cellphones, and the iPhone is already pushing the limits on power conservation and efficiency. It pains us to say it, but we just don't see A2DP happening any time soon.
- Push Gmail. Hey, if Helio can have it on the Ocean, and Samsung on the Instinct, why is Apple stuck with only push Yahoo mail?
- Service-independent device to machine wireless syncing. Exchange and MobileMe are nice, but even nicer would be a way to easily sync data directly to your machine without having to pay or have some kind of service.
- Tethered data. Hey, you're paying $30 a month for data (likely more if you're using it outside the US), your laptop should be able to use some of it too.
- No way to open a link in a new tab in mobile Safari. We also wish the browser was still a bit better about caching data, too -- it'd be nice not to have to do so many reloads when switching between tabs or moving back and forward through history.
And for the enterprise users in the audience, the shortlist of ActiveSync / Exchange bits that didn't make the cut:
- Folder management
- Opening links in email to documents stored on Sharepoint
- Task sync
- Setting an out of office autoreply
- Creating meeting invitations
- Flagging messages for followup
If you're an avid Symbian, BlackBerry, or Windows Mobile / Exchange user, chances are you might think the iPhone 3G is Apple playing catch-up -- and you're not wrong. 3G, GPS, third party apps, enterprise messaging, these are all old hat. But even the would-be iPhone killers being churned out weekly haven't yet found a way to counter the iPhone's usability and seamless integration of service and software, desktop and mobile, and media and internet.
There are always things that could be improved, features to be added, fixes that should be applied -- but from first to second gen, from year one to year two, Apple has proven itself a relentless upstart in the mobile space, and is showing no signs of slowing down. All those new features give the iPhone even more appeal than ever, but the price is what really seals the deal.
For our money, you're going to have a hard time finding a better device for two hundred bucks -- or maybe even for any price. But that doesn't mean you ought to toss your original iPhone, either. With the release of iPhone 2.0, Apple's given early adopters every possible new feature for free, meaning the iPhone 3G's biggest roadblock to adoption in the US may be its still very worthy predecessor. But as Steve says, "If anybody is going to cannibalize us, I want it to be us." As for the rest of the world? Things are about to get interesting.More iPhone 3GiPhone 3G questions answeredThe iPhone 3G international launch lineblog!
Note: the original iPhone continued loading the page for another two minutes or so.