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A year after the iPhone first came out, Apple updated it with a new iPhone 3G.

The main difference is the ability to support higher speed 3G data.

If you don't already have an iPhone, is this the phone you have been waiting for?

And if you do have an iPhone, should you upgrade?

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Apple iPhone 3G update

What's new, what's improved, and who competes

The most visible difference between the original iPhone and the new iPhone 3G is its back - more rounded, made out of plastic rather than aluminum, and available in black or white on the 16GB model.

Part of a series on the Apple iPhone - please also visit the other articles listed on the right.



The original iPhone, released in June 2007, was a much acclaimed and truly innovative phone with some wonderful features.

But it also had some strange omissions and weaknesses that could perhaps be explained in part by the iPhone being the first ever phone released by Apple.  Much attention has been focused on the new iPhone 3G, in the hope that the inadequacies of the original iPhone might be resolved.

Is that the case?  Is the new iPhone 3G the phone the original iPhone should have been?

The new iPhone 3G - again, lots of hype

Apple's new iPhone 3G went on sale on Friday morning, 11 July.  Like last year's release of the original iPhone, the company did an excellent job of rousing excitement among the general public, and many cities had enthusiasts camped outside Apple stores to be the first in their area to buy a new iPhone 3G.

By the end of the weekend, Apple had sold over 1 million units of the new phone.  In comparison, it took 74 days to sell a million units of the earlier model when it went on sale, almost exactly a year earlier.  But the comparison wasn't completely fair, because the earlier iPhone went on sale initially in the US only, while the new iPhone 3G (the 3G means it works on third generation wireless data networks, not that it is a third generation model phone) was initially released in 21 countries.

We haven't found a comparison of US sales for the two models, which would be a more interesting number.

Disappointingly, many of the problems last year were repeated identically this year, with Apple's and AT&T's servers overloading with all the new phones being registered and new software being downloaded, but these problems improved after the first day.

Amazingly, one week later, lines still exist at many Apple stores, and the iPhone is seldom in stock, with all units being sold as fast as they can arrive into stores.  One has to wonder how many lost sales Apple (and AT&T) are suffering by their strange inability to supply the market with the phones it so desperately seeks.

Price - is it Cheaper or More Expensive?

There's been a huge amount of hype about this new iPhone, with the most commonly offered comment being that it is being sold for half the price of the earlier model phone.  An iPhone 3G sells for $199 or $299, compared to the most recent price of $399 for the earlier model iPhone they now replace.

So, on the face of it, it does seem the newer iPhones are remarkably less expensive.  Well, yes, but this observation needs some clarification.  The earlier model phone had cheaper calling plans associated with it, and because you can only buy a phone in conjunction with signing up for a two year contract with AT&T, the extra cost of the new phone plans pretty much balances out the lower purchase price of the phone.

The cheapest iPhone plan costs $70/month, including a miserly 450 anytime minutes and no free texting; a premium of $30/month over their basic phone plans, with the extra cost primarily buying you access to the iPhone's data capabilities.  So - and ignoring all the taxes and fees and surcharges that get added to the $70/month, and assuming you don't send a single text message during the entire two year contract, the cheapest all-up cost for an iPhone is not the $199 being widely talked up in the press, it is actually $1915.  Add taxes, fees, and everything else, and you're looking at a cost of between $2000 and $2500 for the two year period.

Increase the plan from the $70/month with 450 minutes to a more realistic 900 minutes at a cost of $90, and add the minimum $5/month for 200 text messages and your cost just increased by something over $600 - you're probably now looking at $3000 or more for the two year contract.

By comparison, get an entry level phone for free (or even with some cash back) and sign up for the $40/month rate and you're looking at $996 or less for the two years (plus taxes, etc), and if you choose a different carrier with a lower minimum rate (eg T-mobile with a $30/month plan) and you could be committing to as little as $755 or less for a two year plan.

For people who only want a cell phone as an emergency device that is almost never used, a pre-paid phone costing less than $250 gives you two years of service and 2000 minutes of talk time to be used during the two years (about 83 minutes a month), marking the low end of solutions available.

The bottom line, any way you calculate it, is that an iPhone represents at least a $1000 extra cost compared to a regular phone, in terms of the two year contract you must sign.  Some people will feel good at paying this much, and some people will see value in the data services offered by the iPhone as part of the associated extra cost.  But if you don't see a clear value to the extras associated with the iPhone, don't be blinded by the so-called $199 cost of an iPhone.  The true cost of ownership of an iPhone is vastly more.

Oh - one more thing.  The cost of an iPhone - $199 - is even in itself an understatement.  The iPhone is now available in two models, with either 8GB or 16GB of storage, and if you get the larger capacity 16GB unit (which most people will probably choose to do), you're paying $299 rather than $199.

Enhancement - High Speed Data

So, what extra do you get with the new iPhone that you don't get with the original model iPhone?

The most talked about enhancement is faster data connectivity - if you are in an AT&T 3G service area (see this map, which reportedly overstates the coverage area) you'll get very much faster data service.

If you want to use your phone for internet browsing, you'll definitely appreciate the faster speed compared to the earlier iPhone's EDGE capability, but note that any time the new iPhone goes out of 3G coverage, you'll be back to the EDGE (or even slower GPRS) data service.

The new 3G high speed data service is about 3 - 5 times faster than the EDGE data service (it seems to operate in a range of about 300kbps - 500kbps), which is in turn perhaps 2 - 3 times faster than GPRS.  EDGE based service is frustratingly slow, and while AT&T's 3G service is slower than the fast DSL or cable connections most of us have become used to, it is appreciably faster than EDGE and, for people who need to browse the internet on their phone, you'll definitely appreciate this added speed.

Note that the faster speed doesn't really make itself apparent for anything other than web browsing.  The other main data service that most of us would use - reading and sending email - is not so speed dependant, because emails are generally much smaller in size than web pages, and are usually downloaded automatically without you having to wait for each one to be downloaded.  And, when sending an email, who cares, after you click on send, if it takes one second or ten seconds to be sent?

AT&T sell 'unlimited' data service as part of their calling plans for the iPhone, but while the data offered is unlimited, they limit the uses you can put the high speed data connectivity to.  One very disappointing restriction is in not allowing you to use your iPhone as a data modem, and connect your laptop, through your iPhone, to the internet.  This would be enormously useful, and certainly the technology is present for this to be done, but the extra load on AT&T's 3G network could be considerable, so we are guessing that reason is why the capability has not been offered.

Another example of a gratuitous crippling of the iPhone's potential high speed data services is in not allowing iTunes songs and videos to be downloaded to the iPhone via the 3G data.  These can only be downloaded through a Wi-Fi connection, which again seems an unnecessary restriction designed primarily to keep the iPhone's 3G data usage as low as possible.

Enhancement - Extra Capacity

When the iPhone was first released in 2007, it was available in two models, with either 4GB or 8GB of storage.

The 4GB unit proved much less popular than the 8GB unit and was quickly discontinued, leaving only the 8GB model available.

With the new iPhone 3G, Apple is again offering two capacities - 8GB for $199 and 16GB for $299.  Although this is being written less than a week after the unit was released, early reports suggest that the 16GB unit is, as we expected, proving considerably more popular than the 8GB unit.

How much capacity do you need on your iPhone?  Well, for simple telephone related tasks, you don't really need any capacity at all.  1MB or less is plenty to hold all your address book and call history records.

If you're adding email, then the puny limit of 200 messages per email account also limits the amount of storage space you need - it is hard to see how email would require more than 1GB.

If you are using its camera for taking pictures, then you'll start to use up more space with images, but again, an extra 1GB of space should hold all the pictures you're likely to take during the course of many weeks of picture taking, and you can (and should) of course archive the pictures off the phone.

Your major need for extra storage comes when you start to use the iPhone for storing and playing music and video.  If you're using the phone only to hold music, then you'll find each GB of storage holds perhaps 18 hours of music (at 128kbps encoding), so if you allocate 5 or 6 GB to music, you can hold about 100 hours of music.  If you prefer, you could also consider this as 1500 four minute songs, or perhaps 100 - 120 CDs of music.  This is a lot of music, however you measure it, but some of us have considerably more than that, and/or some of us prefer to encode our music at a higher sampling rate, which takes up more space for the same amount of time.  8GB is barely adequate for holding a 'lot' of music, and clearly 16GB is much better.

Now, if you think you might want to keep some video on the unit as well, you'll really start to increase your storage needs.  Figure on each GB being able to hold about 80 minutes of video (this varies widely depending on the quality and resolution of video you're storing, of course), and so you'll see that a typical 2 hour movie needs 2GB or more.

If you want to store any video at all, you'll need to choose the 16GB capacity iPhone.

The iPod Touch - same as an iPhone, but without the phone capability - comes in three sizes; 8GB, 16GB and, from Feb 08, 32 GB as well.  The addition of the 32GB model to the iPod Touch range tends to confirm our belief that 'you can never have too much storage', especially if you want to enjoy video on the unit, something that is barely feasible with an iPhone or iPod Touch.

With only $100 difference in price, we suggest most people will choose the higher capacity 16GB unit, and we agree this is generally the better choice.  Indeed, the sooner a 32GB unit - and units with removable storage - becomes available, the better that will be too.  With micro SD cards being no larger than your small finger's thumbnail, and capable of holding up to 8GB of data (and costing only $5/GB or less), they are an essential extension of functionality and storage for personal music/video devices.

Enhancement - GPS

The other really good thing about the new iPhone 3G is it now has a built in GPS receiver.

If you want to use your phone as a portable GPS unit, this makes the iPhone with its nice large clear screen, bigger and better than any other phone's screen currently, a good choice.

The phone uses some enhancements to GPS to enable it to quickly work out where it is.  It does this by combining the GPS location information with triangulating its position from cell phone towers and known Wi-Fi locations, which means your phone will very quickly compute its position, sometimes even faster than a dedicated GPS unit.

Third party GPS programs from companies such as Tom-Tom, Telenav, and Google, are either already available or are being released shortly to provide features such as spoken turn by turn directions to help you get where you're going.

Battery Life - Enhancement or Not?

The earlier model iPhone was rated as having a 250 hour standby battery life, or 'up to' 8 hours of talk time, and a lesser 6 hours of internet usage.  It could pay up to 7 hours of video or up to 24 hours of audio.

While these seem like good numbers, most people found that in daily use, with perhaps an hour or so of phone time, some internet use, and with the phone's Bluetooth and Wi-Fi capabilities switched on, it was a struggle for the battery to last through a single day.  This was an even bigger problem because you couldn't carry a spare battery with you to swap over if needed, due to the non user-replaceable battery design.

A year later, there's been a slight increase in stated battery life, but if you're using the new faster 3G data, that will use up battery power faster than the earlier EDGE or GPRS data.

The new rating is for up to 300 hrs of standby, up to 10 hours of talk on regular networks and up to 5 hours of talk on the 3G network, up to 5 hours of internet use on 3G or 6 hours on Wi-Fi, up to 7 hours of video playback and up to 24 hours of audio playback.

It is interesting to see that some numbers have increased by 20% (eg standby and regular talk time) while others have stayed the same (audio and video playback).

However, while the theoretical battery life seems comparable or even better than the earlier iPhone, initial reports are suggesting that real world battery life is considerably poorer.  It is hard to know what to make of these reports, because battery life does vary enormously based on how the phone is used, and quite possibly the people reporting even shorter battery life have been using their phones for intensive web surfing.

The key variable is how much time the phone is connecting (either for voice or data) over the 3G network and how much time it is doing this over the older EDGE or GPRS/GSM network.  3G connections burn through battery life very much faster than do connections over the slower speed network (simplistically this is because the phone's CPU has to do more processing to manage the 3G connection).  Sadly, the iPhone 3G doesn't seem to have any internal smarts to allow it to either automatically, or to conveniently and manually at your command, switch between 3G and regular connections as needed to conserve/minimize battery usage.  A 'battery saving' mode would be a great feature to add to the phone.

At this early stage, all we can say is that the new iPhone continues to be afflicted with a battery life that is woefully inadequate.  The bottom line on battery life seems to be that it is comparable, and still inadequate, and if you're planning on using the phone's data capabilities much, you'll almost certainly need to be able to top up the battery charge during a full day of usage.

Software Enhancements

There are some interesting new programs now available on the iPhone 3G.  But, for those of you who already have an earlier iPhone, the good news is that these new programs are also backwards compatible with the original iPhone, and simply updating your firmware to version 2.0 (and its doubtless future updated versions) will give you the same capabilities as the iPhone 3G.

Two of the new software capabilities are enhanced email management for corporate users (ie support for Microsoft Exchange based email), and a fascinating remote control program that allows you to control the music playing through iTunes on your regular computer, via commands entered on your phone.

This Remote program makes for an exciting ability to have music piped through your house from your media computer, with an ability to control what you listen to, wherever you are in the house, from your phone.  There are dedicated products that provide this capability at present (most notably the very expensive but very nice Sonos system) and now your iPhone offers as a much less expensive way of achieving a similar if not identical result.

The other bit of very good news on the software front is that, subsequent to Apple making public its operating system and programming environment, they are now allowing third party programs to be installed onto the iPhone, and already there are over 500 different programs available to add extra capabilities to the iPhone.  Some are free, others range in price from a few dollars up to perhaps $10 or $20.  This greatly expands the range of usefulness you can get from your phone.

In theory, in order for Apple to allow a program to be sold through its iTunes storefront and be installed onto an iPhone, the software has gone through a rigorous quality-control process and so will be bug-free.  In theory....

Other Enhancements

Other changes are minor rather than major such as a slightly different rear cover, and changing the headphone connector so that it is now compatible with all normal 3.5mm plugs (the original iPhone socket was at the end of a hole that required a special design of headphone connector).

The rear cover is now made of plastic, apparently to allow better radio signals to reach in to (and travel out from) the many different radio antennas inside.  The phone has a multitude of different radio transceivers now - it supports all four GSM voice frequencies, an unknown number of 3G frequencies (perhaps three, maybe more), plus Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.  The plastic back is available in black, and white is also offered as an option for the 16GB capacity phone.

The phone seems to have good sensitivity/reception, and tests as having slightly greater range within a Wi-Fi network.

Reportedly sound quality on phone calls has improved, particularly when using the 3G network, although be aware that when you're on a 3G network, you're using up your battery at twice the rate of the 'normal' voice network.

Warning - Traveling Internationally with an iPhone

If you're taking your iPhone out of the country, be very careful of the roaming charges you'll incur.

Most of us understand that it is expensive to place and receive phone calls, but spare a thought for the cost of data service, too.  For example, every time you use the GPS feature on the phone, it is downloading large amounts of data to display a location map, and keeps on downloading more and more as you zoom in and out and move.

AT&T have two international data plans that apply in some but not all countries (currently available in 65 countries).  One plan gives you 20MB of data per month, for a cost of $25, and the other plan gives you 50MB of data for $60.

That might sound like a lot of data, but you can use up 20MB in less than an hour of web browsing and GPS usage.  Once you've used up your free allowance, you'll probably be charged $5 for each extra MB of data.

This page on the AT&T site has helpful information on how to limit your international data costs, but the whole thing is rather counter-intuitive.  What is the point of buying a wonderful phone with high speed data access if you can't afford to then take advantage of it?  Data service fees are outrageously high at present, and until they reduce to a more moderate level, there's just no way you can sensibly use an iPhone internationally.

By contrast, a Blackberry from T-mobile offers unlimited international data for only $20/month.

iPhone 3G Limitations

The list of limitations provided with the review of the original iPhone remains sadly almost completely unchanged.

Things that were missing a year ago are all the more inappropriate to still be missing a year later on a supposedly higher-end phone.  How absolutely peculiar, for example, that there is no cut and paste ability - one of the most fundamental elements of any program that works with words and numbers.  I guess being able to cut and paste isn't as glamorous a feature as some of the things the iPhone can do, but for people who seek a functional phone, it is probably more important.

The following is far from a complete list, but here are a few of the things - in addition to those mentioned in the text - that should be present on the iPhone :

  • There is no removable memory (ie SD card or similar) option.

  • The camera doesn't support video - a sad omission for a device that supports video playback.

  • No video conferencing ability either.

  • Battery life is too short and batteries can't be replaced other than by returning the unit to Apple.

  • No onboard Help service.

  • It can't take an external antenna connection.

  • Email remains limited.

  • Clumsy keyboard.

  • Can't use the iPhone as a hard drive storage device.

  • iTunes based restrictions on copying pictures and music to and from the phone.

  • Can't download iTunes music and video through the 3G network, only through Wi-Fi

  • The ability to route voice calls through Wi-Fi and VoIP, saving on airtime minutes

  • Doesn't synch with Outlook Notes or Tasks.

  • Cut and paste text feature missing.

  • Needs MMS message support.

  • Needs stereo Bluetooth for playing audio through Bluetooth stereo headphones (A2DP profile).

  • Needs the ability to use Bluetooth (or even a simple corded connector) to connect the phone to your laptop (and use the phone as a wireless modem) - this is called tethering.

  • The ability to transfer files via Bluetooth.

Which iPhone is Best

There are three differences between the two models of the iPhone 3G :




Price (with new 2 yr contract)



Back color


Black or White

If the extra capacity, or the extra color (!) is important to you, then clearly the extra cost associated with the 16GB unit can be justified.

It seems the 16GB unit is currently the more popular unit, and with the open ended nature of current and future capabilities of the phone, many of which may require storage capacity on the phone, we'd generally recommend you choose the 16GB phone.

Should You Buy an iPhone 3G?

If you already have an iPhone, should you upgrade?  If you need the faster data, GPS or the extra storage, perhaps yes. Otherwise, probably no.

If you don't yet have an iPhone, should you buy one?  That is a more difficult question, and to give the fullest answer, you probably should turn to the next article in this series which discusses current and future competing phones as alternatives to the iPhone.

Part of a series on the Apple iPhone - please also visit the other articles listed at the top on the right

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Originally published 18 Jul 2008, last update 21 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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