July 21, 2008

How Does Apple’s iPhone 3G Compare With New Touch-Screen Phone Competitors?

By Julio Ojeda-Zapata, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

Jul. 20--Cell phones, once awkwardly designed and awful to use, have come a long way -- thank Apple for that.

When it entered the cellular market a year ago with its groundbreaking iPhone, I declared it the first phone I'd buy. I adored its advanced, easy-to use touch display and its seamless integration of phone, iPod and Web-access features.

As a cell-less cheapskate, though, I blanched at the iPhone's steep cost. That was one pricey little gizmo.

Well, much and little have changed. Apple has rolled out its new iPhone 3G with a few hardware enhancements and dramatically advanced software capabilities along with a price tag cut in half (wow). But the iPhone is actually more expensive now, if you factor in long-term cell-contract fees, which are higher than before. So I'm still not buying one.

Should you? If you held out last time and are tempted to take the plunge now, I won't try to talk you out of it. With updates like Global Positioning System tracking and access to a faster cellular-data network, the new phone is sweet.

But if you have an iPhone, know this: The most substantive enhancements are in the software, and that software runs on old iPhones, too. Even Apple's iPod Touch, a cell-less touch-screen device, has access to it.

Apple also has debuted a suite of MobileMe online services -- including mail, calendar, contact-management, photo-publishing and file-storage options -- for the iPod Touch and all the iPhones, as well as for Windows and Macintosh.

Those on a U.S. cellular network other than ATT can't buy an iPhone (sorry) but do have iPhone-like options such as the just-released LG Dare, a touch-screen handset on the Verizon network, and the new Samsung Instinct from Sprint. While those can't match the iPhone's overall ease of use, they boast advanced features the Apple phone lacks.

The big physical changes in the new iPhone -- GPS location pinpointing and access to ATT's superfast 3G data network -- are welcome if not game-changing improvements.

The original iPhone has reasonably good location pinpointing using nearby cell towers and Wi-Fi networks instead of satellites. And its data access via ATT's older EDGE network is serviceable, if not spectacular (it does Wi-Fi, too).

But it's useful to get a super-precise fix on your location using the new iPhone, which shows where you are as a dot on a map. Move, and the dot also moves. I had a ball strolling across downtown St. Paul and seeing my dot self shift. GPS works anywhere -- even in remote areas where cell-tower and Wi-Fi-network triangulation might be unreliable.

It's also great to load Web pages far more quickly, via ATT's 3G network, when access to fast Wi-Fi isn't an option. ATT's 3G coverage includes the Twin Cities and other major cities, but is still a bit sparse elsewhere in the country.

The iPhone 3G has other, minor enhancements. Its back is a gleaming black or white now. Its shape has changed a bit, making it easy to grab and hold. Its earphone jack is no longer recessed, a "feature" that had forced users to find adapters for third-party earbuds. But the iPhone has an unfortunate new physical attribute: sometimes poor battery life.

The handset is otherwise largely unchanged. I could fit my phone into several cases designed for the original model.

Apple has not only made improvements to the operating software and basic programs found on the iPhone and iPod Touch but it has also opened these devices up to third-party developers that are spewing new apps by the hundreds. This is making the gadgets dramatically more useful.

In Apple's own mail application, for instance, it's now possible to delete or move messages in batches. My inability to do this before drove me crazy. Apple's calculator morphs into a souped-up scientific calculator when the phone is tilted horizontally, a movement the internal accelerometer can sense.

One small catch: While updating the Apple software on the original iPhone cost nothing, it's $10 for the iPod Touch.

Third-party apps get onto the devices via Apple's App Store, part of its iTunes Store. The App Store is accessible via iTunes computer software that transfers the programs to a docked iPhone or iPod Touch, or directly via 3G or Wi-Fi.

I went nuts loading a loaner iPhone and iPod Touch with software (much of it free). Apps include ones for accessing the Flickr photo site, Facebook social network, TypePad blogging service, Twitter microblogging service and the Google suite of Web services. There's fun stuff, too, like a lightsaber simulator and other games using the accelerometer to turn the iPhone into a motion-sensitive game console. You will definitely want to try Nintendo's Super Monkey Ball.

To make its mobile Internet gadgets even more useful for average owners, Apple is rolling out its MobileMe suite of Internet services (subscription required). The goal is to make personal information -- mail, schedules, contacts, photos, files and the like -- a breeze to access and update anywhere.

That is why there are on-screen switches to activate mail, calendar and contact syncing (Web bookmarks, too) on the iPhone and iPod Touch. Likewise, MobileMe content is viewable in a browser on a computer, as well as in desktop apps like Microsoft Outlook on a PC and Apple Mail on a Mac. Changes in one place are quickly reflected everywhere.

Apple's MobileMe headquarters on the Web is elegant and easy to navigate, but a bit sluggish and prone to viewing problems (the mail interface looks jumbled on small PC screens, for instance). It faces stiff competition from Google's Gmail and Calendar, which are great. But Apple does a swell job with contacts, has gorgeous Web photo albums that can be easily updated on any device and includes a generous 20 gigabytes of mail and file storage in its $99 yearly fee.

If your workplace has Microsoft Exchange -- server software for centralized scheduling, contact management and mail -- you're in luck. The iPhone and iPod Touch have Exchange support, meaning you can tap into your work info anywhere. I had full access to my Pioneer Press e-mail, calendar and contacts after punching in a few simple settings.


LG'S DARE (on the Verizon network) --How it beats the iPhone: Higher-resolution camera with flash; photo editing, annotating and panorama building; video capture; voice dialing; voice-guided driving directions; instant/multimedia messaging; drawing pad; stereo Bluetooth; expandable memory; removable battery; handwriting recognition; tactile ("haptic") screen feedback; laptop-modem option.

--Hardware cost: $200 (after $50 mail-in rebate) with a new two-year contract. Includes 8-gigabyte media card until July 31 (it's normally $40 more).

--Wireless costs: $80 a month for 450 calling minutes and unlimited data and texting.

--Details: estore.vzwshop.com/dare

SAMSUNG'S INSTINCT (on Sprint network) --How it beats the iPhone: Voice control for dialing, searching and more; voice-guided driving directions; video capture; multimedia messaging; expandable memory; haptic screen feedback; stereo Bluetooth; removable battery (with a spare and a charger at no extra cost); streaming live TV shows; more compact and easier to carry.

--Hardware cost: $230 with two-year contract. Ask about a $100 rebate (it may still be available). Includes 2-gigabyte media card (add $40 for 8-gig card).

--Wireless costs: $70 a month for 450 calling minutes and unlimited data and texting.

--Details: samsunginstinct.com or instinctthephone.com

APPLE'S IPHONE 3G (on ATT network) --How it beats the Dare and Instinct: Best-of-class touch display and Internet-access features; video-iPod integration; Wi-Fi; opens attachments (like Word, Excel and PDF files); thriving third-party software development; computer-grade operating system that is easy to update; complete compatibility with Macintosh computers as well as Windows PCs.

--Hardware cost: $200 for an 8-gigabyte model (in black), $300 for a 16-gigabyte model (in white or black). Requires certain ATT eligibility requirements or handset prices higher; ask for details.

--Wireless costs: $70 a month for unlimited data and 450 calling minutes. Text messaging is at least $5 a month extra.

--More info: apple.com/iphone and xrl.us/iphoneatt


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Copyright (c) 2008, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

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