Review: iPhone 3G (Rogers)

Apple’s iconic iPhone 3G may be the only mobile device you’ll ever need–heck, the only device, period. (Until Apple comes out with a 4G version, of course.)

The new iPhone, released in July, is available from AT&T for $199 with a two-year voice-data plan ($70 – $130 a month), and from Rogers in Canada for the same price with a three-year plan ($60 – $115).

If you bought the original iPhone last year, the new one offers significant inducements to trade up, especially for enterprise users. Chief among them is broadband-speed Web surfing, downloading and e-mail on the mobile network–the new iPhone works on UMTS/HSDPA networks as well as GSM/EDGE, including overseas.

If you somehow missed iPhone mania last year or earlier this summer (off the planet perhaps), but you’re now in the market for an electronic swiss army knife, this is the deluxe model, but without a deluxe price.

It does everything, and most of it well: voice, e-mail (including push), 3G and Wi-Fi Web surfing, music, video, 2-megapixel still and video photography, GPS navigation. And it features a brilliantly designed touchscreen user interface, the hands-down coolest of any smart phone we’ve seen.

What else is new in the iPhone 3G?

Improved sound quality–Apple says. Support for Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync, which means secure push e-mail, contacts and calendars for enterprise users. Built-in VPN (virtual private network) with strong two-factor authentication.

And access to scores of new applications written by third-party developers, and available at the wildly popular new Apple AppStore.

What’s not to like about the new iPhone?

In truth, very little, although the non-corporate e-mail experience – at least in our testing of a Rogers iPhone–isn’t a patch on BlackBerry. The onboard navigation software and GPS is definitely nit-pickable. And the absence of a physical keyboard or keypad does present some constraints.

Some of these are more than quibbles, but none comes close to being a deal-killer.

Let`s start with the good, though. The big thing is 3G connectivity. So what does it mean in real life? We tested the iPhone on the Rogers HSDPA network in Canada.

A dedicated You Tube application, linked by default from the iPhone home page, was our first testing ground. With a moderately strong connection (three bars of five according to the phone) at off-peak hours, the video was pretty good: motion smooth, audio more or less synched.

Images were a little fuzzy but clear enough in most cases to be able to make out what was going on. With weaker connections and at peak times, images got fuzzier, but video never hiccupped.

YouTube is a good test because the application automatically adjusts video quality according to bandwidth available in order to avoid pauses for rebuffering. When we switched to Wi-Fi connectivity over a home office network with multi-megabit Internet service, video was sharp as a tack–well, as sharp as it would be on a PC–and smooth as silk.

We also tried two online Internet speedometers, one operated by McAfee, the computer security software company, and one operated by, an online telecom journal. The DSLreports speedometer is designed specifically to measure iPhone 3G performance.

(Note: many other online speedometers won’t work because they’re based on Flash, which is still not available for iPhone, although Adobe says it will be.)

Results? In different tests with signal strength, ranging from two to four bars on the phone, and at different times of day and week, we were getting connection speeds from just under 500 Kbps to just under 900 Kbps.

That’s similar to, or slightly better than, other 3G mobile devices we’ve tested, and better than some entry-level DSL services.

Nothing apparently has changed significantly from the first-gen iPhone Web surfing experience–other than the speed, that is. The Safari browser worked well in my testing. Double tapping the screen enlarges the image. In most cases, this makes pages with otherwise unreadably small text readable.

This is one area where the iPhone (and iPod Touch) touchscreen interface really pays dividends. Scrolling down a long Web page–or across it if you’ve enlarged it–is a simple matter of flicking with your finger up, down or across the screen.

And if you tap the overlapping page icon at the bottom of the Safari screen, which also shows the number of Safari tabs you have open, you get a thumbnail filmstrip of open pages which you can scroll across using the same flicking motion.

Improved sound quality?

We didn’t have a first-generation iPhone to compare, but this one sounds remarkably good, significantly better than the music-playing BlackBerry and Motorola smartphones we’ve tested recently–clearer, fuller-bodied, more realistic. It’s similar in quality to an iPod Nano.

The included earbuds appear to be standard iPod issue–i.e. not bad sounding, not great. (We tested sound quality with audiophile headphones.) If you want to jog while listening to tunes on your iPhone, you’ll probably have to buy different earbuds – these ones will fall out unless you have very tiny lug holes.

For iPhone users who don’t work for a company with a Microsoft Exchange e-mail system, nothing, apparently, has changed in the e-mail experience.

If your company uses Microsoft Exchange, it looks to be fairly simple to set up an Exchange account and receive true push e-mail, which you couldn’t do with the first-generation product. We weren’t able to test the Exchange functionality, however.

In the iPhone’s Settings menu, you’ll find an option for Fetch New Data, in which you can toggle Push on or off. This allows the phone to support Exchange and other push e-mail services.

If Push is set to Off in the Fetch New Data tab, or if the software doesn’t support push, the phone uses the schedule you select–every 15 minutes, every 30 minutes, hourly–or only retrieves data when you tap the connect button.

Only Active Sync mail applications, Apple’s Mobile Me and Yahoo mail work in push mode, according to Apple. But my Rogers POP mail account, which is Yahoo, did not work in push mode..

Also, at least with Rogers service, the phone appears to only download headers, at least sometimes. On a few occasions, when we opened a message, the software went back out to the server to get the body, but was unable to get it for some reason. This, we assume, is a Rogers problem and nothing to do with the iPhone mail software.

The good? Messages look great and are easy to read. Return addresses appear as easy-to-tap buttons in open messages.

Setting up the iPhone to receive messages from our POP account was easy. The phone automatically downloaded account information based on e-mail address and password – but then our ISP is, um, Rogers, so that was perhaps no great achievement. And setting up the iPhone to send messages did require a second step–turning on the Rogers SMTP server in the iPhone Account settings–which was not done automatically. We had to contact Rogers to clear up the problem.

It’s a small thing, but perhaps Apple (or is it Rogers?) should configure the mail settings so that the SMTP server toggle switch is set to on by default, and then give users a warning during set-up that it’s on until they turn it off.

The bundled Google Maps and routing application works nicely with the built-in GPS. This is not a real-time, turn-by-turn navigation system, though, simply a route finder, which is pretty useful on its own. Major navigational software makers such as TomTom and TeleNav have announced full navigational systems for iPhone 3G.

We did experience some problems with the routing function. If the software doesn’t recognize the street address or place name you’ve input–because you used the wrong format or a variant of a name–it will sometimes find the nearest match and give you directions to the entirely wrong place.

We’ve said little here about the interface or basic functions such as voice and photography, which have apparently changed little or not at all from the first-generation product.

The App Store, widely covered in the mainstream media, we’ll also pass over, though it’s certainly one of thestrong inducements to consider iPhone. The number of applications available doesn’t rival the number available for Symbian, for example, or Windows Mobile, but iPhone is catching up faster than anyone might have expected. And this is a great, easy-to-use store for buying (or downloading free) applications.

The touchscreen interface, also widely covered elsewhere, is obviously a feature that helps put this product into a category by itself. It’s simple, elegant, attractive, easy to learn–and for the most part works well.

The only drawback is the reliance on an onscreen keyboard. Even though the iPhone’s virtual keys are larger than the physical keys on a BlackBerry or other keyboard-equipped smartphones, we found it too easy to miss the letter or character we were aiming for. Maybe it just takes more practice.

As a phone, the iPhone is excellent. Voice quality, presumably because of superior audio componentry to support the music functions, is the best of any smartphone we’ve tested recently. And the ability to set up voice mail to automatically appear in e-mail is a very nice feature–though not unique to iPhone.

Bottom line: if you need a smartphone and want one with good music and video playback abilities, this should come near the top of your list of products to explore further. It’s not perfect – no product is – but it comes closer than most.

And it has that Apple design extra, that je ne sais qua that turns the iPhone into something very–pleasing.

Gerry Blackwell is a veteran technology journalist based in London, Ontario, Canada.


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