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Apple Renews, But Doesn't Reinvent, the iPhone

If you look at the review I wrote of the first iPhone, you'll see that my biggest complaint about it was its closed nature--that you were stuck running only the programs Apple shipped with it.

It's now a year later, and the new iPhone 3G can run hundreds of third-party programs. It also includes a faster Internet connection, GPS navigation and many other smaller fixes--but the software is the big deal here. That, in turn, explains why I write in today's review that the new iPhone doesn't represent a huge advance over the old model that runs the same software.

I have been enormously impressed by the craftmanship of these add-on programs--the clever, elegant interfaces I've seen make a lot of Palm, Windows Mobile or BlackBerry applications look positively hideous. Consider, for instance, the free restaurant-finding application Urbanspoon, which first uses the iPhone's navigation hardware to establish your position, then lets you request a random pick in your city by shaking the phone as if it were a Magic 8-Ball (a crafty use of the iPhone's accelerometer). Or audition Pandora's free Web-radio client, which brings personalized music to anywhere you've got a 3G or WiFi signal.

People seem to be extraordinarily excited about developing for the iPhone--something I can't say about any other wireless platform except Google's still-in-development Android.

I find myself much more tempted to get an iPhone than a year ago. And yet I most likely will not. Why? Because I don't want to be the guy waiting to use a pay phone in a Metro station. As long as the only phones that work in my morning and evening commutes (assuming I'm not taking the bus or biking) are CDMA models that run on Verizon's signals in the subway, not GSM units like the iPhone, my hands are largely tied.

Those of you living far from any subway stop may have your own reasons to shun the iPhone--AT&T Wireless's thin, scattered 3G coverage nationwide. A look at its map shows that while major cities and most of their suburbs fall under the 3G umbrella, the farther 'burbs, smaller cities and almost all rural areas are still awaiting upgrades to AT&T's network. To stereotype a bit: The more time you spend in -villes, -burgs and -boros (for example, Charlottesville, Fredericksburg and Boonsboro), the less you're going to like AT&T's data service. And yet users in these areas pay the same as satisfied 3G users who never leave city centers.

If you've got other questions about the iPhone--or any other personal-tech topics--I'll be online from 2 to 3 this afternoon for my usual Web chat. (You're welcome to throw in a question ahead of time if you'll be busy then.) You can also post your questions and comments here; in particular, I'd like to hear about what other iPhone applications I should try out before I have to return the review unit back to Apple.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  July 17, 2008; 10:10 AM ET
Categories:  Gadgets  
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As many esteemed reviewers have pointed out, "it's the software, stupid". I have a "classic" iPhone updated to 2.0 and am ecstatic about its new functionality (is that really a word?). I have acquired many apps, thrown many away (even some I purchased), and have made a short list of the ones I think are currently the best (they are the ones that have stayed on my iPhone), 1. TUNER (the very best radio app out there - it has 1000's of stations available and most of them work flawlessly even on the EDGE network!) 2. AOL RADIO (the second best performing , but with limited content and requires either 3G or WiFi) 3. AURORA FEINT (beautiful and addicting game) 4. BOX OFFICE (one of the best of several good movie trackers) 5. AP MOBILE NEWS (Great news client , so is NY TIMES - how about one for TWP? These apps are far easier to use and better to look at then going to the news sources via Safari) and the very best app, the one I have been waiting a year and a half for (ever since my PALM died) eREADER - by far the very best commercial ebook reader from the world's largest ebook retailer (now owned by Fictionwise). And the best part of this--all the books that I bought for reading on my Palm device (close to a hundred) are now completely available (without translation) for reading on my iPhone. What a gem!

Posted by: JCH in Dallas | July 17, 2008 11:22 AM | Report abuse

The iPhone and the iPod were two of the most hyped products in history. Nobody seems to remember that there were plenty of MP3 players available before the iPod and there are still plenty of alternatives. Apple seems intent on brainwashing it's "core" group of fanatics to buy copycat products that feature "cool" stying and, by the way, lock them into further transactions only through approved Apple business operations. I have a very capable media player that doesn't require the idiotic iTunes software that tries to take over all of your media files. I don't need to indenture myself to the cult of Steve Jobs to have all the technology I want.

Posted by: Larry-T | July 17, 2008 11:56 AM | Report abuse

"It's the software, stupid" works until you realise that other smartphones have had apps for years. There is nothing new under the sun in the iTunes app store.

Posted by: Mark | July 17, 2008 12:53 PM | Report abuse

I am a fan of Mac products in general but notice a disturbing trend: I like the first iteration of the product that I buy from them and then am disappointed from then on. Such was the case with the 3rd gen. iPod that I was given as a gift at Christmas in 2003. I loved the functionality (that is a word, and a very good one at that) and the features. The battery life was another story altogether... Anyway, this trend has continued to the iPhone. I have the first version and, with the 2.0 update, is right on par with the iPhone 3G in its "awesomeness factor." The back on the iPhone, the iffy-ness of the 3G network, the horribly diminished battery life, etcetera, etcetera, all contribute to my view that I shan't be getting another iPhone for a while. When the next is released, I'll see then if it's worth the upgrade. As it stands, I am almost always near a Wi-Fi hotspot and so feel few of the negative aspects of the EDGE network while using the apps. What the heck were they thinking about when they adopted that plastic back? Just wanted to bring that up again as it was a poor decision on their part. C'mon Apple!

Posted by: Luke H | July 17, 2008 1:07 PM | Report abuse

The only improvement I've noticed with the 3G phone is slightly faster data response (but oddly not to the speed of my laptop running with an AT&T 3G pcmcia card?!). The wifi reception seems a bit stronger too (but not the phone signal itself). As you mentioned, the new software is available for the old phone, so you can get the same bang without the buck. I thought SlingPlayer would be one of the applications available on the new platform, and was a main reason for upgrading (for the faster speed). Only to find, from my little digging into why it is not available, SlingMedia was not an approved developer or something for the first round! Argh.

Posted by: misschatter | July 17, 2008 1:33 PM | Report abuse

When it comes to phones, I am inclined to stick with the brands that made a name for themselves making phone, aka Nokia. There are several other brands in the cell phone market that I trust more than Apple. I do agree that the iphone 3G is rather pretty to look at, but it comes with a very steep price in the US. It might be more affordable everywhere else on the planet because the iphone 3G is sim-lock free over there and people dont have to be tied down to 2 years of slavery for an iphone. I use the F480 by samsung right now and it is amazing. The most important feature is what the device is for, making calls. Mine works rather well. It also has a better camera. By the way, my phone is not made of plastic. Apple tried to lure people into buying the iphone with a cheaper tag, but most people don't know that the monthly service fees are way higher than buying an unlocked version on ebay. I think the only way to own an iphone, if you can tolerate it, is to pay $800 on ebay and get one with no strings attached. Come to think of it, $800 can get you a rather nice smartphone on ebay. Yes, it will not have the apple logo on it and it will not look pretty like the iphone, but it will be more practical because it will have the features you want with the stability that Nokia and other big cell phone companies boast to have. I am sure that other GSM service providers will support the iphone when it comes to data and calls. They just wont support the device itself. Its the same deal when it comes to using unlocked phones from overseas. Don't get me wrong, I love Apple. I own a Macbook. Apple is great when it comes to computers, but they need at least a few years to mature when it comes to mobile devices.

Posted by: Angel | July 17, 2008 2:01 PM | Report abuse

Pretty sure that the plastic back was to increase antenna signals. That's why the back of the first iPhone was part plastic part metal. Now you have GPS signals as well as Wifi and 3G.

Posted by: saraj | July 17, 2008 3:12 PM | Report abuse

" "It's the software, stupid" works until you realise that other smartphones have had apps for years. There is nothing new under the sun in the iTunes app store. "

Sure, but the iPhone was lacking this feature in 1.0. That is the point here. IPhones are now able to do what the blackberry, palm and windows moblie have been doing for years. IPhones are still new and it will take time to get everything worked out. I love the fact that I can go to one place to get all the apps and have ready reviews on my computer and my phone. It is not like windows mobile where one would have to goto the lower depths of the internet to find free, VIRUS-FREE applications via download. I feel better that Apple are sanctioning and trying out the programs before they make it to the app store. I feel this make the phone more secure from attacks from unwanted malware, but still to be seen. I have had a windows mobile PDA for years and I find myself not missing it. I have had my new phone for a few days now and I feel that this will make my life easier and if not, look for a tool to make it easier right now, on my phone! I love the fact that I do not have to use a credit card on my phone. One can get a iTunes gift card and activate it as soon as it comes off the scanner. No personal info if lost or stolen! Now, there is something I do not like, but the pluses out way the minuses here. Security is a major plus for me.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 17, 2008 5:03 PM | Report abuse

"Apple seems intent on brainwashing it's "core" group of fanatics to buy copycat products that feature "cool" stying and, by the way, lock them into further transactions only through approved Apple business operations."

Welcome to capitalism 101 chief. I not mistaken, but isnt it what other makers of anything in this country are trying to do? Someone forgot about anti-trust laws at college. This is a world of obsolescent. All companies are driven on it and we thrive off it.

"I have a very capable media player that doesn't require the idiotic iTunes software that tries to take over all of your media files."

Well look again, Windows media player is very proprietary, idiotic and does not work well with others. ITunes might take over and localize media, but one still has complete power on where it goes and what format it is in, even if it is a .mwv format.

"I don't need to indenture myself to the cult of Steve Jobs to have all the technology I want."

And Bill is any better?

Posted by: huh... | July 17, 2008 5:59 PM | Report abuse

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Posted by: cnak | July 17, 2008 8:20 PM | Report abuse

Mark your comment in response to my comment - "It's the software, stupid" works until you realise that other smartphones have had apps for years - is essentially correct except for one significant factor. They are now available on the iPhone. Having had two of these other "smartphones" and many of their apps, I can honestly say that the really good apps on the iPhone are far better in both appearance (an important factor in use and acceptability in the marketplace) and user interface. The iPhone is really more a personal computer then it is a phone and as such has a much broader potential target market then a simple phone or even a smartphone. The availability of apps is certainly a bow by Apple to its consumers - in order to sell more iPhones. But, the real genius behind this "gift" is the App Store. This is one of the most brilliant marketing strategies ever developed --captive market, eager consumers, low prices, safe and, above all, easy purchases (one source for everything), shopping from the device for the apps, etc. This is outstanding marketing because it is a win-win-win for all concerned (Apple-the app developer - the consumer). And not so insignificantly, the consumer who experiences all this iPhone "magic" is more likely to turn around and buy a Mac. This is what the iPhone has that the other not-so-smartphones don't.

Posted by: JCH in Dallas | July 18, 2008 11:25 AM | Report abuse

After reading your review Rob I'm thinking about just buying an unlocked first gen iPhone on eBay. I'm just waiting for someone to figure out how to unlock the version 2.0 software...

Posted by: BR | July 18, 2008 5:18 PM | Report abuse

The one thing I'm curious to hear from Rob about is the Bluetooth performance. I've heard that there are problems (tremendous echoes) using this capability for hands free use with the systems built into many cars. I'd like to know more before I consider buying one as this could be a deal breaker for me.

Posted by: RZ | July 20, 2008 11:37 PM | Report abuse

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