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  • The iPhone 3GS Report: A Second Visit

    July 13th, 2009

    My first report on the iPhone 3GS presented the tale of a botched ordering process when AT&T got involved for a pre-shipping verification. However, the phone itself has worked great since Day One, without any activation delays or other untoward behavior to report.

    Certainly, a sequel is called for, although I can’t say that I’ve anything atypical to report. I know some iPhone 3GS users, and some who bought the previous version, reported a hot-running environment. Even with occasional use during the days when it’s 110 degrees in the shade here in Arizona, the phone has functioned quite nicely, without building up any excessive heat.

    I should point out that, if it runs too hot, you’ll see a warning message on the phone, which is a safety measure taken by Apple to make sure that critical internal components are not damaged. If you do see such a message, best thing to do is shut it down and let it cool off, and if the problem keeps recurring even when the phone isn’t being subjected to rigorous use, it’s a case for Apple’s service people to figure out. As with any mass-produced electronic gadget, some iPhones will end up defective. No way around it. That’s what warranties are for, and I think the extra $69 to expand the program to two years is worth it, unless you plan to trade off again next year, assuming AT&T cooperates with a sensible upgrade program.

    It does appear that the iPhone’s biggest problem is probably AT&T, although it’s possible that some of the other carriers in other countries do worse. In any case, AT&T has not garnered the best reviews for network quality and customer support over the years. I presume that, to capture a deal with Apple, the former number one wireless carrier in the U.S. had to agree to provide certain minimum levels of quality.

    Indeed, customer support has always been first rate in the nearly two years I’ve been a customer of theirs. Network quality appears to have undergone steady improvements; not perfect, but getting better. New cell towers in my neighborhood zapped most disconnect symptoms. I still encounter an occasional dead zone where dropped calls are common, but that’s true for all wireless systems.

    Voice quality is good, as good as any wireless phone I’ve used on AT&T, Verizon Wireless and certainly better than Sprint, a company that seems to be suffering from a continued loss of customers no matter what they do. In passing, maybe Sprint will be helped by the Palm Pre, which it’s still offering exclusively, but not if they can only sell 50,000 units every week. That is not a success in the cell phone business.

    If you live in a very congested city, such as New York or San Francisco, all bets are off. Most of the reviews that describe consistent connection and voice quality issues were written in either location, which is where most of the tests were done. Clearly AT&T has ongoing capacity issues in major metropolitan areas that still need to be addressed.

    Then there are those two significant features that are not available because of AT&T. One is MMS, which provides the ability to send, say, a video or photo in the same fashion as a text message. That’s not too important to me, as regular email will do just fine, but those for whom texting is a constant probably disagree with me.

    The other problem is more significant. Although the iPhone 3.0 software supports tethering, which allows you to use your iPhone as a broadband modem with your Mac or PC, AT&T has yet to roll out that feature. There’s also some controversy about what it will cost. A published report said $55, which is far more than AT&T charges for other phones that can be used with a computer, but AT&T denied the claim.

    It may well be that the charge will end up being $55, but that includes the standard $30 data access charge. This means you’ll pay $25 extra, which is not such a serious dent on your budget. Other alternatives cost more.

    But AT&T’s biggest remaining hurdle is to expand 3G capacity, and that is surely not a simple matter. It means investing billions of dollars to build extra broadband pipes and cell towers. Even when the checks are ready to be signed, there may be complex zoning and right-of-way issues to resolve before construction of a cell tower can even start. The phrase “shovel ready” is a joke in such circumstances.

    AT&T is supposedly also working to double broadband download speeds, but it may take months or years for that added performance potential to be available in your city. That means that the speedier Internet access promised in the 3GS remains unavailable; it is to me so far.

    However, the 3GS is otherwise an excellent performer. I believe Apple when they boast of roughly twice the speed for many functions. Internet sites appear far quicker, and switching from app to app also feels snappier. I’ve yet to assess the promise of improved gaming performance with more robust graphics. Games are not my cup of tea, but I plan to try a few in order to judge the potential.

    There is, as you might expect, more to come.



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