Can I Resist the iPhone 3G?

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July 14 2008 12:31 PM

Can I Resist the iPhone 3G?

An Apple obsessive confronts the company's shiny new bauble.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Ever since the Apple IIe, I've thought of Apple computers as the pinnacle of design excellence. Whether I was wending my way down the Oregon Trail or listening to the robot-y text-to-speech voice read "yo mama" jokes, I loved those early machines more than I've ever loved all but a small handful of people. Once I could afford them, I started buying as many Apple products as I could: iPods, an iBook, an iMac, a Macbook, and the Macbook Pro on which I'm writing this. When Apple announced the iPhone, it was obvious that I had to buy one. A year ago, I wrote a piece for Slate in which I rhapsodized about the phone. I didn't care about waiting in line for five hours or spending $599 on the device or dealing with unbelievably terrible reception.

When Steve Jobs announced last month that Apple was releasing the iPhone 3G, I knew—once more—that I had to have one. On July 11, the first day the phone went on sale, I woke up early and went to an AT&T store in Washington, D.C., with some snacks, some homemade lemonade, a couple of spy thrillers, my MacBook Pro, and a DVD of Miss Austen Regrets, a touching tale about Jane Austen's life as an aging spinster.

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Soon after I settled in, an AT&T employee announced that the store had no 16-gigabyte phones, only the smaller-capacity eight-gig models. The crowd started grumbling. One of the grumblers—a guy I remembered from the first iPhone launch—was griping that buying this new phone and signing up for a service plan would indenture him to AT&T for another two years. When I heard the same loudmouth last year, I was inclined to ignore him; if you're so ticked off, get off the line, buddy! This year I thought: This bearded boob has a point. It just wasn't worth it for me to buy an eight-gig iPhone 3G that would cost me hundreds of dollars more for only a marginal benefit over the iPhone I already had. A 16-gig iPhone 3G—now that I would buy. I decided I would go to the Apple Store in the Big Apple, the most gleaming, gorgeous Apple Store in the entire Eastern seaboard!

Before I headed to New York, I needed to field-test the new iPhone. My friend Peter Suderman had camped out overnight to get one; he let me borrow the new bauble while he napped. The first thing I noticed was that even though the iPhone 3G is slightly bigger than the original, it felt a tad lighter. Otherwise, my old iPhone and his new one were all but identical. The first iPhone was a revolution in smartphone design and a dramatic leap forward into an age of ubiquitous connectivity. To match the original in revolutionariness, the 3G version would have to fire lasers, electronically impregnate you with your own clone, or at least be way smaller. But this was … the same thing. I mean, I knew the two phones were to be basically the same, but seeing this with my own eyes made a difference.

How about those lightning-fast data speeds? One of the iPhone's great pleasures is that it gives you the ability to read about Degrassi Junior High in a full-size browser when you'd otherwise be forced to make human contact. The problem, of course, was that AT&T's Edge network was so abominably slow. You know how people love to whip out their iPhones to settle a bar argument, then fail to settle anything because their Web speed is so damn slow? With 3G, you can truly be an annoying know-it-all: Um, actually, no. The GDP per capita of Burkina Faso is $1,300. Better still, I was able to load YouTube videos in a snap, and, within seconds of searching for Dirty Projectors MP3s, I was listening to "Rise Above." Very impressive!

Even better is the new GPS feature. I get lost a lot, and it's kind of thrilling to see myself as a blue dot traversing an unfamiliar urban landscape. On the old iPhone, I either relied on a "current location" feature that was decidedly imprecise or had to type in my location monotonously—pretty tough to do when you can't find comprehensible street signs. Of course, plenty of other smartphones have had GPS capability for ages and are a damn sight cheaper. But I must say that blue dot does look cool—now if only I could use the iPhone to target Hellfire missiles ...

As I was listening to music and following the dot, I suddenly noticed that the battery was wearing down super quickly. I didn't run any fancy tests like Walt Mossberg, who found that the 3G network sucked out the iPhone's energy at an impressive rate, but that was my strong impression as a veteran iPhone user. Since I was borrowing Peter's iPhone and didn't want to leave him dry, I panicked and switched from 3G to Wi-Fi. If I knuckled under and got one of these 3G phones, battery drain would be a constant worry.

Of course, it wasn't as if my original iPhone was perfect. My main beef is that AT&T's voice network is so awful that my phone conversations generally consist of me saying, "What? Huh? Wait, let me run to the park across the street so I can hear what you're saying." Still, when I first got the iPhone, I liked it so much that I briefly considered moving to a new apartment in the hope of finding better reception. Ultimately, I decided that I liked my house too much to leave. Rather than abandon the iPhone, though, I held out hope that the next model would look cool and allow me to talk to my friends and family. Indeed, everything does work more smoothly on the iPhone 3G. Everything, that is, except talking to people. The reception in my humble abode remained miserable to nonexistent.

After returning my loaner iPhone 3G to Peter (thanks, man!), I had a lot of thinking to do. It occurred to me that the most exciting new iPhone development—the App Store, with its games and mapping utilities and shopping programs—didn't actually have anything to do with the new phone. It was part of a free software upgrade that I could get for my 2007 model. I also reflected on the fact that the only reason the App Store is exciting is that Apple previously tried to shut down anyone who created neat new programs for the iPhone, treating them and anyone who used their non-Apple software like crooks. While I'm excited to get these new apps on my phone, I'm not about to give Apple a cookie for behaving like a reasonable company would have in the first place.

Next, I drilled down into the new AT&T service plan. Because 3G networks don't grow on trees, I get that AT&T is charging $10 more per month. Considering the gain in speed, that's probably worth it, and I could probably save some money by buying fewer Anytime Minutes, given that I barely use the iPhone to make calls because I can barely get a signal.

I'm not proud to say that I decided to call New York's 24-hour Apple Store (from a landline) to see if it had any 16-gig units available. It did! Hooray! I arrived close to 10 p.m. and made my way to the back of the line—where an Apple employee told me I'd have to come back at 7 a.m. I left, and this time I'm pretty sure I'm not going back.

Apple sells some pretty great computers, and the iPhone 3G is a great smartphone, but I can take only so much abuse. Perhaps in a year's time, when my contract runs out, Apple will have gotten a clue and signed up with a better mobile network. For now, though, I think Whitney Houston said it best: Steve Jobs, you can't take away my dignity.

Reihan Salam is a columnist for Slate.

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