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Current iPhone Owners Should Think Twice Before Upgrading To The iPhone 3G

Early reviews on the iPhone 3G are trickling in, and it looks sweet. It's a little bit faster and a little bit better than the first-generation iPhone. But it's not a breakthrough device. If you already have an iPhone in your pocket, you'll want to think hard about whether to shell out to upgrade.
Early reviews on the iPhone 3G are trickling in, and it looks sweet. It's a little bit faster and a little bit better than the first-generation iPhone. But it's not a breakthrough device. If you already have an iPhone in your pocket, you'll want to think hard about whether to shell out to upgrade.If you already own an iPhone -- or an iPod Touch -- you'll get the best feature of the iPhone 3G on Friday, delivered to you discreetly by tiny little invisible elves wearing soft-soled shoes. Or, rather, it'll be pushed out to you over the Internet when Apple updates the firmware on existing devices to the iPhone 2.0 operating system, which permits running third-party apps. The software is free for iPhone users, $9.99 for users of the Touch.

What do you get if you spring for the iPhone 3G hardware? Access to the 3G network, of course -- but only if you live in one of the 280 U.S. cities now served by AT&T 3G, with AT&T expecting to broaden coverage to 350 cities by year end. A friend who's considering buying the iPhone 3G lives in Iowa -- that whole state isn't served by 3G. The New York Times's David Pogue notes that 10 states don't have any 3G coverage at all.

Sure, 3G is faster than the EDGE service currently supported on the iPhone -- but is the additional speed worth the additional cost of upgrading? I always found EDGE to be adequate, but on the other hand, of course faster is always better. You're going to have to decide if it's worth the cost of upgrading.

3G support will cost you battery life. In Walter Mossberg's review of the iPhone 3G, he writes:


[I]n daily use, I found the battery indicator on the new 3G model slipping below 20% by early afternoon or midafternoon on some days, and it entirely ran out of juice on one day. I overcame this problem by learning to use Wi-Fi instead of 3G whenever possible, turning down the screen brightness and even turning off 3G altogether, which the phone permits.

The iPhone 3G's battery life is comparable to, or better than, that of some other 3G competitors. But they have replaceable batteries. The iPhone doesn't.

I've found the original iPhone's battery life to be marginal. It's got plenty of juice for my normal use, when I'm at my desk most of the day with the iPhone plugged into the charger and only out of the charger a few hours at a time. However, when I'm away from the office all day and I only have time to charge the phone overnight, it often runs out of juice in the late afternoon, unless I take steps to adjust power consumption. So I'm not thrilled at the thought of a device with even less battery life than the existing iPhone. You can improve the battery life by buying an extender, like this one from Kensington, but that's an added expense, and it's one more device to worry about -- one of the main reasons to buy an iPhone is to reduce the number of devices in your pockets by combining the cell phone, iPod, and PDA into a single unit, and having to carry around a battery extender will reduce that benefit.

The other benefit you get with the iPhone 3G is support for GPS. That's pretty sweet, but Pogue notes that it's limited:


According to Apple, the iPhone's G.P.S. antenna is much too small to emulate the turn-by-turn navigation of a G.P.S. unit for a vehicle, for example.

Instead, all it can do at this point is track your position as you drive along, representing you as a blue dot sliding along the roads of the map. Even then, the metal of a car or the buildings of Manhattan are often enough to block the iPhone's view of the sky, leaving it just as confused as you are.

I was looking forward to getting the iPhone 3G so I could throw out my Garmin Nuvi 350 and use the iPhone for turn-by-turn directions in the car. Doesn't look like I'm going to be able to do that -- at least not for a while, until and unless third-party vendors come out with software that provides turn-by-turn directions (in defiance of Apple).

(Note that I've been quite happy with the Garmin Nuvi. But I've had it for two years and that's about the time I start getting itchy to upgrade my toys tools.)

So my advice to you is, if you already have an iPhone, you should think hard before upgrading to the next-generation device. If you're happy with your iPhone, you might want to upgrade right away if you're a fanatic enthusiast and want to keep up. Otherwise, I suggest waiting to see when applications ship. If you see an application you absolutely must have, which requires GPS or 3G, get yourself an iPhone 3G at that point. Wait until the application is actually available and shipping, though -- I've wasted plenty of money buying devices today based on promises of capabilities they'd have tomorrow.

As for me, I plan to upgrade Friday morning, when the iPhone 3G goes on sale. Why? Well, it's my job -- that's the only way I can get my hands on an iPhone 3G in time to write a fast review.

I think I'd still upgrade even if it wouldn't help me in my career. The 3G and GPS are nice to have, but for me the real clincher would be additional storage. I bought one of the first-generation iPhones on the day it came out, and it's an 8 GB model. That means I have to do some juggling to get all the music, podcasts, and audiobooks I might want to listen to on the iPhone, and I don't really have room for video. I'm looking forward to twice as much legroom with a 16-GB iPhone 3G. (Of course, if it weren't my job to keep up with technology, I probably would have waited to buy an iPhone until a few months after they launched, and 16-GB models became available then.)

If you decide to upgrade the iPhone, you'll have to buy a new handset. If you're eligible for an upgrade, you'll pay the regular price for the iPhone -- $199 for the 8-GB model, $299 for 16 GB. If you're not eligible for an upgrade, you pay $399 for 8 GB and $499 for 16 GB. You can find out whether you're eligible, and get other information, on the AT&T Web site. (I'm eligible. Woo-hoo!) Either way, you have to extend your existing AT&T service contract by two years, and pay an $18 upgrade fee.

How about you? If you own an iPhone, are you planning to upgrade? Why or why not? Let us know.

Editor's Choice
Brian T. Horowitz, Contributing Reporter
Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter
Nathan Eddy, Freelance Writer
Brandon Taylor, Digital Editorial Program Manager
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing