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Apple iPhone 3GS

The diminished utility of the iPhone 3GS

by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

Right upfront, just so that there aren't any misunderstandings: I love the iPhone 3GS. I never leave home without it. I can't imagine life without it. And it's one of the best things ever. That said, having lived with the 3GS for half a year or so now, there are some sobering realities that cast a nagging shadow over the 3GS. Not a shadow large enough to make me want to switch by any means, but large enough to diminish its utility.

By far the biggest issue is battery life. No matter hat Apple says, it is considerably less than that of the 3G, and a whole lot less than that of the original iPhone. Battery life, of course, is relative. If you have your iPhone plugged in most of the time, you never run out of juice. And Consumer Report magazine gives the iPhone 3GS a red dot excellent mark for battery life. It's not excellent. In fact, when you travel, the battery life of the iPhone 3GS is so poor that you start treating it like a laptop computer where you always worry that you might run out of power and try to use it as little as possible.

My original iPhone was a terrific travel companion. I really never had to worry about battery life at all. In direct comparison to an iPhone 3G, the original always ran much longer. Cross-country trips while playing with the iPhone were no problem. I even used the original iPhone as an eBook with the Kindle iPhone app. I recall how I marveled that this terrific phone was also a totally dependable travel companion that I could rely on for entertainment, work and utility without having to worry about battery life.

Compared to the original iPhone, the iPhone 3G already was a gas guzzler. I recall that at the time 3G network functionality was blamed for the shortened battery life. When we took an original iPhone and a 3G on trips, the 3G always ran out much sooner than the first gen device. The 3GS is that much worse.

How bad is the battery life of the 3GS? So bad that on trips I hardly ever use the 3GS for anything but phone calls anymore for fear that I'll run out of battery life for when it matters. When I am in an airport lounge, I always try to find a seat near an outlet. When I need to check email or look something up online, my first thoughts is whether I have enough battery left on the 3GS, or whether whatever I am about to do will deplete the battery too much. Using the Kindle app to read a book on the 3GS? No way. Working on a project in Quickoffice? Much less than before. I wouldn't want to run out of juice in the middle of work.

As far as I am concerned, the much reduced battery life of the 3GS is a real drag. It truly diminishes the utility of this otherwise marvelous device. I don't want an iPhone that needs to be treated like an old laptop when it comes to battery life. I want one that I can use whenever and wherever, like the original iPhone. Yes, I like the bit of extra speed of the 3GS, but, frankly, in terms of overall utility, the original iPhone scored better. Because of battery life.

The second major issue is coverage and reception. By now everyone has probably seen Verizon's commercials showing their 3G network covering pretty much all of the United States whereas AT&T's map is almost blank compared to it. I have no doubt that's an exaggeration as I find decent AT&T 3G coverage in most places I go. Consumer Reports magazine gives Verizon much better grades than AT&T (which ranks last among major carriers) but I don't know how much of that is true for me. If I had a choice, I'd probably switch to Verizon, but that's mostly because I don't like the way AT&T is treating customers.

Coverage is an issue, though. There are an appalling number of places where there is indeed insufficient 3G coverage. If you constantly have to worry whether you have coverage and enough "bars" to get a halfway decent connection, that's not exactly reliable connectivity. And worse, the 3GS, or at least my 3GS, has worse 3G reception than even the iPhone 3G. On numerous occasions, I've noticed that side-by-side, the 3GS has fewer bars than the 3G. Sometimes it's one or two less, other times the 3GS strikes out completely whereas the 3G has no problem at all. That is not good.

Then there's another vexing issue, one that affects all iPhones, and that's the way AT&T has crippled all of the potential advantages of GSM. GSM, which stands for "Global System for Mobile communications," was conceived to be an international standard allowing people to use their GSM phones all over the world. It's a great idea, and one that's so ingrained in my thinking that I consider GSM good and everything else as limiting and proprietary. So much so that I never once got a cellphone that did not use GSM. And having little cards that you can switch from phone to phone? Wonderful.

Unfortunately, AT&T crippled GSM so much that almost all of its advantages are gone. On a recent trip to Mexico (Cozumel) I found myself unable to make a call on my iPhone. I had received a text from AT&T announcing that I'd be charged US$1.98 per minute if I attempted to make a call, but it simply never worked at all, even though the iPhone found a carrier. AT&T also informed me via text that I'd be charged US$19.97 per megabyte of data. I believe I usually use about 100 megabyte per month, so that'd amount to an obscene US$2,000 just to use the data part of the iPhone. Or about US$500 for the week I spent in Mexico. Worldphone indeed. Not. The way AT&T implemented GSM and locks its phones, you might as well not use GSM at all. So GSM will certainly not be a reason to stay with AT&T.

Overall, the iPhone 3GS has been a mixed blessing for me. The iPhone platform itself is wonderful, but the very mediocre battery life of the 3GS phone really diminishes its utility. And it should have better, not worse, reception than a predecessor device. As is, for the most part I'd trade the bit of extra speed in the 3GS for the much better battery life of the original.

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer