Review: iPhone 3G (G�nial!)

By Joe Kissell

July 24, 2008

Paris-based iPhone user and reviewer, Joe Kissell, goes in-depth to describe what's so great about--and what still needs improving on--the iPhone 3G.

The night before the iPhone 3G launched here in France, I was at a get-together for North American expats in Paris, and I happened to mention that I was planning to get an iPhone the next morning. A woman sitting near me said that she'd heard about the iPhone, but didn't understand what the big deal was; her Nokia phone worked fine, took great pictures, played music, and did everything else she needed.

"What exactly does the iPhone do?" she asked.

I said, in my best faux-conspiratorial tone and with a carefully raised eyebrow, "It lets you talk to people who are far away."

Okay, maybe it was a lame attempt at a joke, but she didn't get it. "Any cell phone will do that," she said.

Of course. But for me, talking to people who are far away is the least interesting thing about any cell phone, especially the iPhone. I tried to explain how, despite the wealth of features in the iPhone, it has an amazingly easy-to-use interface and is just plain fun to operate—in a way that conventional cell phones (or even most smartphones) aren't. That didn't impress her, but to be honest, even that isn't what impresses me the most either.

What I was really thinking is that if my server (located at a datacenter halfway around the world) starts acting up while I'm out at a restaurant, or on vacation, or otherwise away from my computer and an Internet connection, I can use a VNC or SSH app on my iPhone to log in remotely, fix whatever the problem is, and get on with my day.

I was thinking that I'd never again have to plan my schedule around the fact that I might be getting a PDF late at night for a last-minute review before a magazine goes to press. I was thinking that I can start leaving my bulky Paris map book at home, and that I'll never get lost again, no matter where I travel.

In short, what made me excited about owning an iPhone 3G was that it will enable me to lower stress, reduce clutter, and do a lot of other things that can't be neatly captured by a feature checklist.

There have already been plenty of iPhone 3G reviews, but as each reviewer has his or her own priorities and interests, I wanted to say a few words about what I was (and was not) looking for.

To start with, the iPhone 3G is not only my first iPhone, it's my first smartphone of any kind. So I'm still very much in the "Wow, it can do that too?" mode, and not especially tuned in to the numerous subtleties that distinguish, say, a Blackberry from a Windows Mobile phone. I also don't work for a large corporation, so most enterprise features are uninteresting to me.

On the other hand, I am responsible for running a number of Web sites and performing a good bit of server administration, so I'm extremely interested in how effectively (and securely) the iPhone 3G will let me do those sorts of tasks. I also get hundreds of email messages per day in a total of eight main accounts; I use the Web and RSS heavily (both as publisher and as reader); and I enjoy music and movies as much as the next person—so I knew I'd be examining all those features carefully.

Finally, as an American living in France, I was quite interested to see how the iPhone 3G dealt with a number of issues involving language and geography that don't tend to come up in reviews from the U.S.

Physical design: The big screen

I normally carry my phone in my pocket, so one thing I was looking forward to was something thinner than my old model. And the iPhone 3G delivers—it's wonderfully svelte, and it feels great both in my hand and in my pocket. Sure, it's not the shortest or narrowest phone out there, but if the length and width were reduced, I'd have to put up with a smaller screen too, and I like the big screen. The phone feels solid in the hand and well-made. I'd love for it to be slightly lighter, but it's not unreasonably heavy.

However, as numerous other reviewers have mentioned, the surface (not only the screen but the back too) is a smudge magnet. I can't even look at it from across the room without getting greasy fingerprints on it. Yes, I'll be getting lots of mileage out of the included polishing cloth, and I'll be looking into cases soon, too.

The included earphones sound fine, but they look and feel extremely cheap—they don't begin to compare even with the set that came with my first-generation iPod. I'll be looking for a third-party replacement in the near future. The USB sync cable and AC adapter are nicely compact and perfectly functional, but I'd much prefer to have a dock. The France Telecom dealer where I bought the phone said that docks weren't yet available, but that a shipment was expected soon.

The first time I explored the phone's settings, I came across the brightness control and was shocked to see that it was set at the halfway point. When I slid it to full power I was almost blinded—it was really much too bright. Photos and video look spectacular, even at half brightness. I haven't noticed the yellow cast that many sites have mentioned, but then, I don't have an older iPhone to compare it against.

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