Apple iPhone 3G: winner!

With the iPhone Apple has sought to achieve the same market dominance as it has with the sublime iPod MP3 player. And if the queues that span multiple blocks each time a new iPhone is released is any indication – a reception usually reserved for rock stars not mobile phones – then the Cupertino-based company is well on its way to achieving that goal.

Once you sort past all the hype that seems to come part and parcel with any new Apple product is the iPhone 3G – the second version of the product and the first that’s been legally available in Australia – really everything it’s cracked up to be? After using both the original iPhone and the iPhone 3G extensively we can wholeheartedly answer that in the affirmative. It’s not without its warts – which we’ll get to later – but in one fell sweep Apple has re-written the playbook on many traditional mobile phone paradigms.

The iPhone 3G is about as full-featured as smartphones get with quad-band GSM and tri-band 3G/HSDPA coverage 802.11b/g Wi-Fi assisted GPS a choice of 8GB and 16GB storage capacities and a large 3.5in touchscreen. Considering everything it’s packing the iPhone 3G is remarkably sleek and compact and the tapered rear – available in glossy black or white – makes it easy to grip in your hand.

As most of the functions are accessed using the touchscreen there aren’t many physical buttons on the unit: a home button below the screen power button on the top edge and a volume rocker and mute switch on the left. Mainly input takes place using your fingers; unlike most smartphones that have touchscreens the iPhone 3G doesn’t use a stylus. Indeed it won’t respond to the pressure of a stylus as Apple’s patented Multi-Touch technology is designed to only recognise input from your fingers.

And we’re not talking simple taps on the screen either – Multi-Touch lets you flick through music albums or photos by sweeping your finger across the screen enlarge a column of text on a web site by double tapping on it and rapidly scroll through a long list of items by dragging a finger down the screen. Contrary to the tortured sequence of taps on tiny on-screen icons that characterise conventional touchscreen input with a stylus Apple has managed to make the iPhone 3G easier to use than a mobile with a physical keypad.

This excellent user experience extends to text input also. The iPhone 3G uses a virtual on-screen QWERTY keyboard designed to be used with both thumbs and while it’s no substitute for a physical keyboard it’s really not that far off.

On the software side the iPhone 3G is light years ahead of anything we’ve seen from other mobile phone manufacturers. Its operating system is based on the same Mac OS X system used on Apple’s desktops and laptops and it’s simply genius. Built-in apps include the fabulous Safari web browser (which renders web pages just as they look on a desktop) YouTube Google Maps Weather Calendar iTunes (for buying albums over Wi-Fi) and iPod.

A new addition to iPhone 2.0 is the App Store – the same as the iTunes application only for third party software instead of music. This is yet another paradigm shift with regards to smartphones as adding new software to a mobile has traditionally been a convoluted process. Already there are over 800 free and commercial applications that include chat clients eBook readers and numerous social networking tools like MySpace Twitterific and Facebook.

There are of course some things that the iPhone isn’t so good at or misses out on entirely. The rear-mounted digital camera is an unremarkable two megapixels with no flash auto-focus adjustable white balance video recording or any of the other standard frills. MMS isn’t supported nor is Bluetooth stereo or file transfer and while support for Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync was added in the latest version of the operating system you can’t have both personal and work contacts and calendars on the phone simultaneously.

And then there’s battery life. The main reason Apple held off on adding 3G to the original iPhone was battery concerns yet the iPhone 3G is still lacking when it comes to run-time. For medium use you can expect to charge it every day versus every three days on the original iPhone. Worse you can’t carry a spare as the battery isn’t user-replaceable. If longevity is more important to you than 3G and GPS you’d be better off buying a first-gen iPhone through eBay and upgrading it to the latest operating system (although you’ll need to wait until a jailbreak tool is available for iPhone 2.0 so you can use it with an Australian carrier).