Review: iPhone 3G Software Is A Sweet Upgrade

We put the Apple's iPhone 2.0 software through its paces, along with a half-dozen top apps. Despite a couple of bugs, the new software makes a great phone even better and gives first-generation iPhones and the iPod Touch an extreme gadget makeover.

Mitch Wagner, California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

July 11, 2008

10 Min Read

iPhone enthusiasts got a nice surprise from a day before its official release. The site posted a link and instructions to download and install iPhone 2.0 software. That gave impatient fanatics a chance to play around with the software and see what it looks like in advance.

The iPhone 2.0 software is the biggest update since the iPhone shipped 13 months ago. The biggest change: The iPhone and iPod Touch get the ability to run sanctioned third-party apps, which can be downloaded either from the iPhone itself or from iTunes. Apple also added a couple of little tweaks to the iPhone's other capabilities that will appeal to power-users.

All in all, it's pretty sweet.

The easiest way to get the iPhone 2.0 software is just buy an iPhone 3G or new iPod Touch, and the iPhone 2.0 software comes pre-installed. The software as also available via an automatic update through iTunes. It's free to iPhone users, and $9.95 for users of first-generation iPod Touch.

Before upgrading, though, be sure data is backed up, because the upgrade completely wipes all the data off the device being upgraded -- address book, calendar, bookmarks, music, videos, everything. The desktop iTunes software will think it's working with a new iPhone, and will ask whether you want to back up from an existing configuration or start fresh. Of course, you want to choose to re-install the backup.

I followed the instructions on the MacRumors site, and my iPhone updated to the iPhone 2.0 software in about 15 minutes, as recorded for posterity on Twitter in this message at the start of the process and this message when it was done.

iTunes required about 50 minutes to restore all my data to my iPhone. The address book, calendar, bookmarks, and other information took only a couple of minutes; the bulk of the time was spent restoring more than 900 audio tracks. But the process is painless; you can leave your iPhone entirely unattended while it's going on, and continue to work on your computer normally while the update is happening in the background. Getting Some Apps

Now it's time to get some apps. You can buy apps from iTunes on your desktop, where the App Store appears as a section of the iTunes Store. Clicking here will take you directly to the App Store. Or you can buy from the App Store on your iPhone and download wirelessly.

I took a whirlwind tour of the App Store for several hours, and downloaded and tested a half-dozen applications and a game.

The App Store on the iPhone lets you browse by Featured apps or Top 25 -- I'm not sure what the difference is between the two, I suspect that Featured apps are handpicked by Apple, while Top 25 are either top-rated by users or most popular downloads. You can browse categories, including business, education, entertainment, finance, lifestyle, and one called "Social Networking" (It's a measure of how those services have matured that Apple now considers them a separate category.) You can also search for apps by name.

When you find an app that looks interesting, tap on it for a description and user reviews. Like what you see? The price is in the upper-right corner; tap that and the price changes to a "buy" button.

Tap that and the download will begin. If the app isn't free, you'll be billed automatically through iTunes.

The App Store will ask you for your iTunes password first -- a security feature you'll appreciate when your vindictive 10-year-old nephew gets his hands on your iPhone and tries to download two dozen applications at $20 each. Give the App Store your password, and the application downloads and installs itself in the background, appearing as a grayed-out icon on your iPhone home screen with a thermometer bar measuring the progress of the installation. You can continue to use your iPhone while the app downloads.

If the app is very large, the iPhone requires you to be on a Wi-Fi network before downloading; I got that warning when I tried to download a 10 MB application. I haven't tried it with an iPhone 3G just yet, but I suspect if you're on a 3G network it'll allow you to download even large applications.

The App store has a huge selection of applications. I looked at seven for this review.

A First Look At Apps

OmniFocus is a personal task manager that can be used standalone, or synch wirelessly or over iTunes with a desktop version for the Mac. It lets you keep track of and organize your lists of things to do. I've been using OmniFocus for the desktop to manage my day-to-day to do lists since December; I already love the iPhone version and I can tell this is going to be the start of a beautiful friendship. Price: $19.99

AIM: is an AIM client from AOL. It's nice. It does pretty much what you'd expect: You can chat with buddies on AIM, ICQ, .mac, or MobileMe (which is Apple's new name for .mac). The app lets you see who's online, see your groups, and add buddies, etc. It's free.

Twitterific: Like the AIM app, it does pretty much what you'd expect: You can send and receive messages on Twitter. Twitterific also has a couple of pleasant surprises: It uses the iPhone's location feature to let you know which of your Twitter buddies are physically nearby. You can take pictures and share them with your Twitter buddies right away. And it has its own built-in mini-browser for easy viewing of links your Twitter buddies send. The free version shows you an ad every now and then, the premium version is ad-free and is priced at $9.99. I like the free version a lot.

Google Mobile App My first thought on hearing about it was, "Why bother? Why not just search in the mobile browser?" But, as my colleague Tom Claburn explains, and I discovered with hands-on testing, the Google iPhone app is faster, chiefly in that it suggests results and alternate searches as you type. And searches are location-specific.

However, as my colleague Eric Zeman notes, I'm disappointed Google hasn't come out with iPhone versions of its other apps: Google Docs, Blogger, Picasa, and especially Gmail. Sure, you can use the iPhone's Mail app to synch with Gmail, but that has missing capabilities; most notably, you can't star messages for later reference in Mail.

Mobile Flickr lets you upload photos from the iPhone camera to Flickr, and browse and share them. I uploaded this photo to test it, and it worked fine, except for one problem -- the photo, as it appeared on Flickr, was upside-down. It was the work of a moment to turn it right-side-up using Flickr's built-in editing tools, but I had to be at my desktop to do it. Price: $2.99. Exposure is a free alternative, you can browse photos but not upload them.

Facebook, a free app, will look familiar to anyone who's used the browser-based Facebook iPhone app that's been out for 10 months or so. You can read and update status messages, your profile, your friends' profiles, your private messages, and chat.

Sega Super Monkey Ball. There's a monkey. In a ball. You roll the ball around and eat bananas for extra stamina and try not to fall off the path. Tilt and turn the iPhone to steer the ball. It's a nice little game, simple and addictive, making good use of the iPhone's high-quality display, and accelerometer, and the limited capabilities of the built-in speakers. Price: $9.99.

That's just the first wave of iPhone apps, we'll be looking at more in the next few days. Next on my list: Steps, a neat-looking app that lets your iPhone function as an odometer; Weight Tracker, to help you lose weight; and Evernote, a note-taking app that syncs with the Web and desktop.

Native Apps Get Upgrades Too

But what about the iPhone 2.0 software itself? What's changed there?

The software makes a couple of small, but nice, changes to the built-in apps. Calendar items are now color-coded to match their color-coding on the desktop.

The Contacts app now gets its own icon on the home screen; you don't have to go into the phone app just to look someone up. You can also search the Contacts app by name or company; previously the only way to find a contact was to browse through the app, like riffling through the pages of a phone book.

The location-finder in the Google-based Maps app seems more accurate than I remember it. In older iPhones (which is what I'm now working with), it works by triangulating on nearby Wi-Fi base stations and cell towers. Last time I checked it from my home, a couple of months ago, it narrowed the search down to my neighborhood, today it narrowed my location to within a few houses. Of course, that improvement might not be a result of the iPhone 2.0 software.

You can batch-delete mail or photos. However, Mail still doesn't support landscape mode for viewing messages, which is a pain in the neck.

When entering passwords, you see each letter on the screen as you type it, for a few moments, before it's replaced by an asterisk.

On the down side: Syncing is slow if you just downloaded a big app. I timed it at 11 minutes after installing one large app. If you haven't downloaded a lot of data to your iPhone, syncing is pretty fast; I timed it at a few seconds. The reason it's slow sometimes is that iTunes backs up your iPhone when you sync it.

Here's the most serious bug I found: When I opened the phone application, I couldn't get out -- tapping the "home" button simply cycled me through the different screens of the phone app. The only way I could get back to my home screen was to reset the device by holding down the power and home buttons until the Apple logo appeared on the screen. Fortunately, this reset didn't erase my data, and the problem did not recur after resetting.

After evaluating the iPhone 2.0 software, I think it's amazing that Apple is giving it away for free to existing iPhone customers, and for a nominal $10 to Touch customers. The update is meaty enough that they could have charged $50 or more for it, and gotten away with it, but instead they're giving it away. I understand that Apple is a business and they didn't give away the software out of altruism. It's looking to create an ecosystem for applications, which builds customer loyalty and makes you more likely to shell out for a new iPhone every couple of years. Moreover, Apple gets a 30% cut of the price of applications.

However, whatever Apple's motivation, the iPhone 2.0 giveaway is a great benefit to existing iPhone and iPod Touch customers.

The iPhone 2.0 software makes a great smartphone even better. It's got a couple of bugs in it, but overall it works well, and the supported applications and games vastly improve the productivity and play-value of the device.

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

Mitch Wagner is California bureau chief for Light Reading.

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