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Switching to the iPhone 3GS

How did that go, and do I see much of a difference?

by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

I had passed on the iPhone 3G because, with the exception of the GPS, it didn't seem to be much of an improvement and I really liked the more solid feel of the original iPhone. I also was still under the 2-year contract (what an ingenious way to keep people from frequently buying new phones; obviously locking customers in and milking them dry is what matters most) with the evil AT&T. I really never missed having a 3G iPhone because the original one seemed to do everything just as well, plus it got much better battery life. Even the location triangulation worked remarkably well. About the only time I wished I had a 3G was in the few areas where EDGE coverage was worse than 3G coverage.

When the iPhone 3GS came out (thanks, Apple, for the nice pic above), however, my contract was up and I was one of the few who actually qualified for the stated US$199/299 price for the 16/32GB 3GS models. I can't imagine life without an iPhone, and since AT&T probably wasn't going to drastically lower my service rate even though I had paid off the "subsidy," the lure of the new iPhone 3GS with its faster processor, higher res camera, video, e-Compass and new-for-me GPS became strong enough to bite. I saw no need to spring for the 32GB model as even my old 8GB iPhone still had several gig left over, and so decided to go for the US$199 16GB model.

Not wanting to wait in line or endure the usual AT&T troubles of keeping up with activation demand, I decided to wait a week before I got mine. I was about to hop in my car and head for the local AT&T store when I thought I should probably call them to see if they had any. So I waded through the usual phone-tree idiocy of finding out whether I needed to proceed para Espanol and a bunch of annoying questions AT&T uses to weed out common riff-raff from cash-laden prospects, then got to a real life person. The store, of course, did not have any iPhones. When would they come in? "It'll be weeks." Thank you very much.

I saw no further reason to patronize the local AT&T store, especially since the person had been curt and seemed to have no interest in my business whatsoever, and decided to order online. This can be quite confusing with AT&T, but had actually worked well for me in the past. So I placed the order which, according to the website, was going to take one to two business weeks. Fine.

I ordered on a Friday and, amazingly, the package with my new iPhone arrived Fedex on Monday morning. That was the good part. The not-so-good part is that whoever packaged my iPhone didn't put in any packaging materials into the box whatsoever, so that my iPhone bopped and bounced around inside the outer box. I hoped it wasn't damaged. The box contained the iPhone and an AT&T Quick Start Guide with 20 pages of AT&T legalese in Spanish and English and a couple of pages of poorly worded useless information (mostly caveats and warnings), all in starkest contrast to Apple's own little manual that's a work of art and quite obviously made by and for people.

I must admit that I dreaded the activation process and I sure hoped I wouldn't have to go to the AT&T store anyway to complete whatever AT&T's lawyers decided to put in people's way before they could use their iPhones. I turned the iPhone on and it wanted iTunes to synchronize. So I fired that up, but iTunes really didn't seem to know how to handle an update from one iPhone to another. For example, the only option I seemed to have was to either set up a MobileMe account or try one for free for a couple of months. Neither option was very good since I already have one, and have had it for years. Fortunately, iTunes offered a link to a page that sort of described on how to get started with an iPhone, only it, too, ignored the possibility that someone might switch from an older iPhone to a new iPhone.

Oh, let me insert a rant here: Like millions of people, I started at mac.com and was then switched over to mobileme.com. Ever since, I've been in some sort of netherworld between those two, with some apps and systems demanding my mobileme.com account and others my old mac.com account. I honestly can't figure it out, and why Apple ever decided to make that silly switch is beyond me. I sure hope Steve Jobs didn't have his hand in this as that would make me doubt that he's still the old Steve Jobs.

iTunes then offered to restore a backup of my old iPhone onto my new one, and that seemed a good way to go. That took quite some time. At the end it seemed to me that too little data had downloaded, and sure enough, no photos. iTunes apparently couldn't remember which pictures of my iPhoto library I wanted on the iPhone, and so I had to start over selecting them. Prepping the pics and then loading them took another long while, though considering that I loaded almost 5,000 pictures, it wasn't too bad.

The iPhone, however, wasn't activated yet, and a notification on the iPhone screen said this would take a while. There wasn't any further explanation what "a while" was, but I recalled an earlier exercise in activating someone's iPhone, and then "a while" really meant "forever" as activation required a phone call. iTunes didn't offer any further help, and I didn't think it'd be as easy as putting the old SIM card into the new iPhone 3GS, especially since my new phone came with its own card, and it wasn't.

Not knowing how to proceed I took another look at the AT&T Quick Start Guide. Step 1 said, "to activate smoothly and quickly, keep your iPhone OFF." And so on. Puleeeze. Somewhere down the line came the one good piece of advice on the Quick Start Guide, a reference to att.com/Activations. I cranked that up, entered my cell phone number, was asked for some form of identification, and then asked if some really long number was what corresponded to the number in my hardware. That number, IMEI it was I think, was present in tiniest print on the SIM card in the new iPhone. I pried it out with the help of the little tool that comes with the iPhone box and confirmed the number. Ta-da! The iPhone was activated. Almost all of my stuff from the old iPhone was there. Some apps lost all their data, some didn't know that they had been updated, and my voice mails and voice mail message were gone. Else, no problem except that two or three apps that used the camera no longer work. I hope updates will be forthcoming. Else, the update was really very good. When I opened Safari, it even had the six windows that had been open on my old iPhone.

Do I notice much of a difference between the original iPhone and my new 3GS? Honestly, almost none. The old one feels more solid and the screen has a higher quality feel to it. The new screen, as the one in the 3G, seems more recessed into the device whereas in the original it seemed to float closer to the surface. It feels pretty quick, but I never felt the old one was slow. I am sure I'll come to appreciate the new camera and especially the GPS. I hope I can sell the now (to me) useless original iPhone on eBay or somewhere.

Oh, one final weird thing. The box the iPhone came in included a prepaid return label. I really had no clue what that was all about, and I certainly didn't have any intention of sending back my old iPhone to AT&T (hey, I paid A LOT for that phone). Turns out that AT&T, while confident that I would enjoy my new iPhone, included the return label in case I wanted to return the phone within 30 days. Go figure why that was necessary. Maybe, since they packaged it so poorly, they anticipated damage in transit and included the label as a precautionary measure.

Anyway, I'll miss my wonderful original iPhone with its nifty little stand (the 3GS has a plug and nothing else), but I am thrilled to have the new iPhone 3GS and can't wait to try out all the new stuff!

PS: A day after my new iPhone arrived, I got an email from AT&T with some instructions that were mildly helpful, but mainly suggested to follow the instructions in iTunes. This was one of the first times snailmail beat email.

PS2: Now that I've had the new 3GS for a few weeks, I'd say the switch is worthwhile for those who can get it at the $199/$299 price. The 3GS does not obsolete the 3G or even the original iPhone, but it is definitely a bit quicker. Battery life is considerably less than the original, and perhaps the biggest improvement is the much less smudge-prone screen surface. I know, that sounds like I am not that impressed, but I really am. It probably shows just how good the original iPhone already was.