Aug 8, 2008

iPhone 3G problems

After a few weeks use, Philip Berne warns potential buyers about some major iPhone 3G problems he's seen since the initial review.

We've been using the Apple iPhone 3G since the day it was launched, and we wish that we could report smooth sailing, but we've had some significant iPhone 3G problems that have made us reconsider our original stance. Some of these issues may be fixable in future software updates, but some may be the result of problems in the hardware itself.

Battery life

Simply put, the battery performance on the iPhone 3G is abysmal. With our original Apple iPhone, the battery was at the low end of convenient. It would last through an entire day of normal use. It would let us watch videos on a six-hour, cross-country flight. If we remembered to charge it every day, it never conked out on us. Not so with the Apple iPhone 3G. With the new phone, we have to remember to charge the phone while we're at work, or we won't be listening to audiobooks on our long commute home. The battery usually dies before the end of the day.

Of course, it would be easy to pass the buck and blame the enhanced features. The new 3G network is a notorious power hog, as is the GPS sensor. Unfortunately, we don't use the features frequently. For Web browsing we obviously use the 3G capabilities, but our GPS use is usually limited to figuring out where we are, where the closest restaurant or subway stop is, and that's it. We leave Bluetooth turned on, but we don't talk long on our wireless speakerphone. Most of the time, we're simply listening to music.

Apple needs to do a much better job with power management. All of these extra radios and features built in should only draw power when they need to. We've talked to executives from RIM in the past who made it clear that with the BlackBerry, they think about power consumption first and foremost, and it shows in the excellent battery life you'll get from one of their smartphones. Apple needs to stop worrying about features and software add-ons and get back to basics, making a cell phone that can last through a day's use.


The other night, we stood in a huddle with a group of fellow tech journalists and compared how many bars of reception we were getting. While we saw another Apple iPhone 3G with a full 5 bars of service, ours reported a scant 3 bars. Once, we actually asked a bartender if the bar employed a cell phone blocker, as reception had dropped off completely as soon as we entered. It hadn't switched to EDGE from 3G, we were actually getting "No Service", though right outside we had some reception. This isn't a matter of brick walls and old buildings. We've compared network strength with other devices on AT&T's HSDPA network, like the Samsung BlackJack II, and the Apple iPhone 3G always comes out behind.

Perhaps worst of all, though, is that the enhanced network just doesn't feel very fast. Perhaps this is because of the complex page layouts that the Safari browser can accomplish, but if our iPhone 3G is running two times faster than our original Apple iPhone, as the Apple commercials claim, it certainly doesn't feel that way.

Buggy apps

The first time "Where" quit on us without warning, we were slightly annoyed. When the program simply stopped working for a few days, with no explanation or update available, we were concerned. In our experience with the Apple iPhone 3G, apps will crash about a quarter of the time. Super Monkey Ball will get as far as the title screen, then close and return to the iPhone's Home screen. We can't blame third-party developers for this issue, as Apple's programs are no better. Even Apple's own pre-loaded apps, especially Safari and the contacts list, crash much more frequently now than they ever did on the original iPhone.

Untrustworthy locations

In our original review, we complained that the GPS sensor took a few minutes to find us in the Google Maps app. So, you can imagine our suspicion when Urbanspoon seemed to grab our location almost immediately. When it placed us a few neighborhoods of from where we were standing, we started to understand. The original Apple iPhone used cell tower triangulation (and a similar Wi-Fi hotspot function) to find our location. The new Apple iPhone 3G uses that scheme along with a GPS sensor. But you can't turn off the cell tower triangulation, so it's hard to be sure if the phone is finding your exact location, or an approximate based on cell towers. In Google Maps this is easy to determine, but in many third-party apps, you won't know until you're sent looking for a taco joint that is actually 30 blocks away.

Trouble with iTunes, too?

The best thing about the iPod / iTunes combination was the speed and ease of use the media transfer software offered. Not anymore. Now, when you plug your Apple iPhone 3G into your computer, iTunes starts a very, very long backup procedure. On our Macbook Air, this process could take as long as a few hours. If you want to simply copy a new album or transfer a new application to the device, you can stop the backup and go right to the synchronization, but this could cause problems later. Also, the pairing seems buggier than we've ever seen. Often, iTunes will claim that we have made new purchases on our iPhone 3G and ask if we want to transfer them to iTunes, though we haven't done any shopping on the iTunes Music Store on our phone. Occasionally, on our Windows machines, the computer will lose the connection with the iPhone, and will stop charging without warning. We've also found that the phone charges much slower, if at all, when we're plugged into the computer while also making a phone call. The charge icon is there, but the battery doesn't seem to fill up, even during a long conversation.

The bottom line

The best news might be for owners of the original Apple iPhone. Very rarely is the first edition of a device more solid than its successors, but that's definitely the case here. It's not enough to make us switch back to our original device, which now acts as a glorified iPod touch. But these problems are serious enough that we wouldn't advise people to purchase the Apple iPhone 3G until these issues are sorted out. If you can wait a few months before making your purchase, we'd advise holding off until we see what the next revisions of the iPhone software bring. It's possible that all of these problems, including power management and even reception issues, could be fixed with a smart software update. It's more likely that Apple will simply have to take their licks and design a better iPhone that solves these problems from the ground up, in the hardware, where it really counts.

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