The iPhone: Second Time's a Charm

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Mario Tama / Getty

The new Apple Iphone 3G.

The original iPhone was a high-tech indulgence. From its gorgeous touchscreen to its classy Web browser, it set a new bar for the look and feel of mobile phones. Naysayers nitpicked about its technical shortcomings — and its top-shelf price — but its breakthrough design won it millions of fans nonetheless.

The new iPhone 3G should please everyone. Its look and feel are only slightly improved, but a faster network loads Web pages more quickly, true GPS functionality allows it to easily find places nearby, and the new $199 price (down from $400) makes it an affordable luxury.

Before deciding whether to buy, however, make sure you can actually take advantage of the iPhone 3G's high-speed data network. 3G stands for third-generation, which in non-geek speak translates to Web pages and mail messages that, ideally, load about three times faster than on the original iPhone. Even better, 3G coverage enables you to make a phone call and surf the Web at the same time. That's great, if you live or work in a place where the 3G network of AT&T (the sole wireless carrier of the iPhone) is active. (To find out, check AT&T's virtual map.) That's not so great in cities like New York where AT&T's cellular coverage is awful. As one of my colleagues in New York City, who bought the original iPhone, commented, "It's just a toy. You can't make phone calls on it, so I carry my Verizon phone with me all the time."

The real fun begins when you tap on the icon called "App Store" and start browsing the hundreds of add-on applications that have been developed just for the iPhone. You'll find tons of games (I like JirboBreak, a free game inspired by the Atari classic Breakout) and mobile versions of popular websites like Pandora, Facebook, MySpace and the New York Times. Most apps will cost you, but the vast majority are $9.99 or less. The apps work on the old iPhones too, but you'll enjoy them a lot more on the iPhone 3G because many of the programs, including Yelp (local business reviews), Whrrl (mobile social networking) and UrbanSpoon (restaurant reviews), use your exact location — provided by the iPhone 3G's GPS chip — to make recommendations. The apps also load much faster over the 3G network.

I was disappointed to learn, however, that 3G, while an improvement over AT&T's creaky Edge network, is still not fast enough to allow wireless downloads of either iTunes music or some of the larger applications. Instead, I had to either log onto a wi-fi network or physically plug my phone into my PC. And it still feels pokey compared to my cable broadband connection at home. At times, downloads took so long that I gave up on checking for new messages and waiting for mobile websites to load. Even the prettiest browser can't make up for that.

The virtual keyboard, perhaps the iPhone's most unloved feature, remains unchanged. I like it, but some people find it so torturous to type with that they refrain from sending e-mails or typing Web addresses altogether. Fortunately, the new apps in many ways serve as shortcuts to popular websites, reducing the need to do much typing. So, instead of launching the built-in Safari browser and typing a URL, you can just tap on, say, the free WeatherBug app to check the forecast or the iScopes button to get your daily horoscope.

Here's my top gripe: the iPhone 3G does not let you record video or watch live TV, features that are standard (and free) on less expensive rivals like the Samsung Instinct and Verizon Voyager. There is no excuse for leaving out these functions. Otherwise, I can live with the unremovable battery and accept the skimpy battery life (about 5 hours with heavy usage in my tests) as the price for the iPhone's big, bright screen. Since I don't have a huge media collection, the unexpandable memory (8 GB comes standard; for 16 GB, you'll pay an extra $100) doesn't faze me either. If you've got lots of songs, photos or other files, however, this is a real drawback.

Still, it's hard not to have a soft spot for the iPhone. The problematic launch of the iPhone 3G on July 11 was unfortunate. But once you've tapped around the browser for even a few minutes or played with the slider that lets you fast-forward or rewind voice messages in the phone's visual voicemail, it's easy to see why millions of people are sold. The iPhone has the most elegant user interface of any phone I've seen, and its add-on apps make it more than just a toy you'll soon outgrow. What's more, the iPhone's GPS chip and 3G network bring it closer in line with other smartphones' data capabilities.

So, if you can live with the $70-per-month fee for all-inclusive data and voice calling — and can get decent coverage with AT&T where you live — it's certainly worth considering. If you're on a budget (and who isn't?), though, you'll find more useful features on less pricey rivals.

Personally, I'm holding out for the new handsets that will run on Google's Android operating system due out later this year. Android phones will be carrier agnostic, so I won't be shackled to the AT&T network, and the phone's add-on apps are likely to be less expensive (and possibly even free). That's the promise, anyway. I'll know for sure once I get my hands on one.