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Newest iPhone worth the wait

The Baltimore Sun

If you coveted the first-generation Apple iPhone but decided to play it smart and wait for the second iteration, your patience has been rewarded.The iPhone 3G is better than the original in almost every way.

In fact, now that third-party developers can write software for the iPhone, the little device is an endless source of entertainment - as well as a platform for useful business applications that transform it from a cute gadget into a true hand-held computer.

The iPhone hasn't changed much physically, with the same brilliant 3.5-inch, touch-sensitive screen serving as both a display and control panel. There are only three buttons, one that displays the Home screen icons, a volume control and a power switch.

The biggest difference is improved hardware that ties the phone into AT&T;'s third-generation wireless network. It provides much faster and smoother Web browsing (300 to 500 kilobits per second) than the glacial Edge network that the original iPhone uses. It's a great showcase for the superb Safari Web browser's MultiTouch interface.

Unfortunately, AT&T;'s 3G network doesn't seem to be any more accessible than its older sibling. I still couldn't get a reliable network connection at my desk in The Sun's newsroom, even though AT&T; technicians insisted the signal outside the building was strong. I got a four-bar signal on my Verizon phone in the same seat.

For price-conscious buyers, the iPhone 3G has good news and bad news.

Good: The iPhone itself is cheaper, starting at $199 with 8 gigabytes of internal memory and $299 for 16 GB - with the usual odious two-year contract.

The bad news is a higher monthly charge - $75 for the most popular calling and data plan with text messaging, compared with $60 for the original iPhone.

This is in line with 3G voice and data plans from other carriers, so if you want a higher-speed network, you'll have to pay for it.

Like the earlier model, the iPhone 3G will abandon the AT&T; system and latch onto any Wi-Fi network in the area (provided that it's unsecured or you have the password for it). That's good, because short-range Wi-Fi networks are usually much faster than any public carrier's wireless system.

Another major improvement is better voice quality on phone calls. This basic virtue somehow disappeared in the rush to jam cool features into the first version, but if you're serious about the "Phone" in iPhone, your calling partners will now be able to tell that it's you on the other end.

The new model also comes with updated firmware that will synchronize e-mail, contacts and calendars with Microsoft Exchange servers, giving those mean old corporate IT bosses one less excuse for treating the iPhone as a second-class citizen. Along with servers that can "push" e-mail and other data to the iPhone without requiring you to log on - like the popular BlackBerry - the new features turn the iPhone into a serious business tool.

And like many other improvements that don't involve hardware, this one is available as a downloadable upgrade on older iPhones.

Also new in the iPhone 3G is a hybrid, GPS-Wi-Fi-cell tower triangulator that pinpoints your location on the iPhone's Google Maps application and updates it as you drive, walk or bike. It won't replace a dedicated GPS receiver (it doesn't speak street names), but it's free, useful and integrated with Google's vast database of pizza parlors, coffee shops, hotels, restaurants and other points of interest. Just don't fixate on watching your position change while you drive.

Now for the really cool stuff. Apple has opened the iPhone to third-party developers - which its competitors have done for years - but none has the astonishing variety of iPhone and iPod Touch applications now for sale by download through Apple's iTunes App Store.

Some of these programs are sublime and some are just goofy, but most take advantage of the iPhone's superb display and unique features. Prices range from free to $80 or more, but most apps are priced well under $10, which makes them great impulse buys.

There are dozens of games, ranging from fully authorized versions of Crash Bandicoot, Super Monkey Ball, Scrabble and Tetris ($10 each) to freebies that give new life to old favorites such as Othello. Many take advantage of the iPhone's built-in accelerometer, which senses movement and lets players control games by tilting and waving the phone itself.

There are also some bizarre titles such as the Cow Toss (no real animals are injured), a Cow Bell, which rings when you tap the screen, and Moo, which makes the iPhone moo whenever you turn it over. I don't know what to make of this bovine fixation among Apple developers.

Among the cool things I downloaded for free were the complete works of Shakespeare, a nifty game called TapTap that combines elements of Tetris and Space Invaders with hip-hop music, and Phone Saber, which turns your iPhone into a Star Wars light saber, complete with sound effects. You have my permission to punch out anyone who inflicts this on you in the office.

There are some downsides to the iPhone, besides the flakiness of the AT&T; (formerly Cingular) network, which consistently ranks near the bottom in Consumer Reports' user surveys for coverage and reliability. For example, the otherwise excellent built-in camera has no flash.

But the real problem occurs when you use the iPhone behind the wheel. With no physical keys, the iPhone requires you to look at the screen when you make a call, and its size makes one-handed use difficult. Nor does it offer the option of voice commands.

With more Nanny States enacting legislation requiring hands-free operation of cell phones while driving (a bill to that effect just missed in Maryland this year), an iPhone could be problematic for commuters who like to chat on the road.

That said, the iPhone 3G is a superb piece of multipurpose technology. Apple's engineers solved most of its early problems, and buyers who are willing to pay the monthly freight will have a wonderful tool at their disposal.

mike.himowitz@baltsun.com

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