UNAUTHORISED: First Australian review of iPhone 3G!

Apple Australia’s strategy for the iPhone 3G has been to give out only a few review phones to journalists hand-picked by Apple public relations. Other journos who asked for review phones were met with dead silence. Journalists who got the phones were invited to a meeting with Apple Vodafone and Optus and made to sign non-disclosure agreements banning them from publishing their reviews until 12.01am tomorrow – the day before the iPhone goes on sale.

If there’s one thing Apple hates more than anything else it’s bad publicity or even vaguely balanced reviews of their stuff. By holding reviews back until – effectively – the day a product goes on sale Apple can make sure it rides the hype wave all the way to the cash register.

Of course that’s Apple’s prerogative – it created the Jesusphone from the ground up and all that. But then it’s APC’s prerogative to source an iPhone 3G without Apple’s authorisation.

So we have great pleasure in presenting to you: the first Australian review of the iPhone 3G – unauthorised and unedited – and without the gentle touch of the iron fist of Apple PR. (And note to Rob Fiona and John at Apple – don’t even bother asking how we got the iPhone 3G.)

Note: we didn’t photograph the phone or take screenshots lest it give away to Apple where we got the phone. However we can say that these photos over at Gizmodo are real because they show exactly what our iPhone 3G looked like and what came in the box.

What you get in the box

First up you have to install iTunes 7.7 in order to use the iPhone 3G. Upon plugging in the iPhone you’ll be asked to register the iPhone with Apple – but you will not be funnelled through the carrier activation process as you were with the original iPhone. This is a clear sign that no matter where you buy your iPhone 3G (telco store or Apple Store Sydney) you will not be able to walk away from the cash register without signing up to a carrier contract.

In fact the only way to buy an iPhone outright now really is to buy it on a pre-paid plan from a carrier and then pay to have it unlocked by the carrier. Optus will be doing that for $80 a pop.

The contents of the box are very similar to what came with the original iPhone – a small getting started booklet a polishing cloth a charger and a pair of headphones. However in the iPhone 3G you no longer get a dock – just a USB iPod cable (cheapskates) – and an official Apple version of the humble paperclip otherwise known as a SIM ejection tool. This flimsy piece of metal is inserted into the hole to the left of the SIM card holder at the top of the phone to get the SIM card in and out.

The most important thing: the speed!

The iPhone 3G is definitely snappier than the original iPhone though in speed tests we couldn’t get it to go any faster than 1.4Mbit/s which does suggest Apple is capping the speed of the HSDPA chip in an effort to conserve power. On WiFi running the same speed test the phone got 2.8Mbit/s – a clear indicator of CPU limitation given the WiFi access point was connected to a 23Mbit/s ADSL2+ connection that wasn’t being used for anything else.

Despite these relatively low speeds compared to other 3.6 and 7.2Mbit/s handsets on the market it’s not really an issue. On a mobile phone it doesn’t make much difference if the connection speed can go a lot faster – if the CPU speed isn’t fast enough to render web pages as fast as the phone can receive them then any extra connection speed doesn’t help.

Pages rendered reasonably quickly – certainly way faster than the first-generation iPhone but not as quickly as I’d hoped. Again this is no doubt a CPU speed limitation rather than a connection speed one.

Speaker loudness

Apple has remedied one of the big criticisms of the first-generation iPhone – the puny speaker in the base of the phone. The new model is definitely louder and yet frustratingly nowhere near as loud as other phones like a Blackberry 8800.

Thankfully speakerphone is usable in the iPhone 3G whereas it wasn’t at all in the original iPhone – the audio volume was audible only in a totally quiet room. However don’t get too excited about using the iPhone 3G handsfree in an older model car with a bit of engine noise for example. You can’t really hear it well enough.

Also the design of the speaker in the iPhone and iPhone 3G is such that if you cover the base of the phone (e.g. you’re holding it upright in your hand with the base of the phone up against the ball of your palm) it’s very easy to completely muffle the speaker.

Mapping and navigation

What was really impressive about the iPhone 3G was how quickly it got a location indoors presumably using A-GPS. It took just a couple of seconds to locate us in a (pretty accurate) general vicinity. It was also pretty quick to lock on via GPS once we were outdoors too. Many competing handsets (even dedicated navigators) can take minutes to get a GPS lock making them very frustrating for ad-hoc navigation.

On the downside the iPhone 3G doesn’t have particularly sophisticated navigation – there’s no voiced turn-by-turn navigation for example so it’s not ideal in its shipping state for use in a car. But we expect there will be at least a few third-party apps from major navigation companies that will add this functionality. Then it will just be up to some other third party to come up with an iPhone car mount that allows the phone to be suckered on to the windscreen held securely in landscape mode and charged through its dock connector (hint hint Belkin.)

Compatibility with Bluetooth handsfree units

Our first-gen iPhone had trouble pairing with in-car Bluetooth handsfree (though some people around the world report it does work OK with theirs.) The iPhone 3G paired with no trouble with our car Bluetooth handsfree (a Pioneer DEHP-8950BT Bluetooth car stereo.)

We were able to make and receive calls over handsfree. It also paired OK with a BlueAnt Supertooth III unit too and with the ST3’s text-to-speech capability it even read out the name of the person calling before ringing.

Software stability problems

The iPhone software 2.0 is not exactly rock-solid stable. I came across several problems in Safari particularly – for example viewing a 3MB image on a speed test website reproducably caused the phone to hard reboot. The phone would get part way through drawing the JPEG on the screen and then just grind to a halt and reboot. Admittedly displaying 3MB JPEG in Mobile Safari is not a task that everyday web usage would include.

Looking at APCMag.com on Mobile Safari rendered the first ‘screen’ of the site OK but refused to scroll any further – it just scrolled to ‘unrendered’ grey area of the page. This is also a problem on iPhone gen 1 and iPod Touch so it isn’t a new bug in iPhone 3G but then again it hasn’t been fixed either.

Can the iPhone be used as a modem?

As widely suspected the iPhone can be paired with a Mac or PC using Bluetooth but it publishes no Bluetooth services to the PC so it can’t be used as a modem.

This suggests there’s no technical impairment to the iPhone being used as a modem for the PC but Apple hasn’t built support for that presumably on AT&T’s request in the US where plans have unlimited data. Perhaps this functionality will be opened up for customers on data-metered plans (such as the plans in Australia) in the future with the agreement of carriers. After all if data usage on the plan is metered the carrier should have no problem with the customer using the phone as a modem.

Any improvements to the camera?

Camera functionality seems to be almost exactly the same as the first-gen iPhone. That is to say in good lighting it takes surprisingly decently shots – much better than most camera phones despite the limited two megapixel resolution. In low light it really struggles and without a flash in the phone it’s basically impossible to get a non-blurry shot.

However one interesting improvement is that when you open the camera application it asks if you will give it permission to read your current location. This then adds GPS coordinates into geotags in your photo. The potential for geotagging is huge – Google is already showing photos ‘close’ to a location when you search for it in Google Maps. (For example if you search for the APC offices in Google Maps it shows nearby photos that have been geotagged and uploaded to Picasa.)

Although Apple’s not the first company to put geotagging into a mobile phone its predicted significant market penetration of smartphones should really give photo geotagging a good kickstart. Hopefully Apple will even build geotagging into the next version of iPhoto.

Contact search

The long-awaited contact search feature works very well and is a very welcome addition to contacts (now you can type a few letters of a contact to view matching contacts – like most other phones but the iPhone searches all characters within a contact’s name rather than just the first few which is handy.)

The functionality is rather buried at the top of a scrolling A-Z selector though – I’m not sure why Apple didn’t just make it an ever-present search field.

Australian localisation of the phone

Apple Australia has made numerous localisations to the iPhone that will be sold here. The Australian iPhone 3G ships with the Australian Stock Exchange and All Ordinaries Index preconfigured in the stocks widget and the weather widgets have Canberra Sydney and Melbourne preconfigured which shows Apple is making some attempt to localise the content on the phone in each region of the world.

Mobile Me and App Store

At the time we reviewed the iPhone 3G neither Mobile Me or the App Store were available for testing (the App Store just came up on the phone as “not available in your country”).

However iTunes 7.7 did mention in its install notes that the ‘Remote’ application allows control of iTunes via an iPod Touch or iPhone so the functionality will certainly be there.