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iPhone 3G review

How does Apple's handset perform for gaming and other uses?
by Stuart Dredge
It's fair to say the iPhone 3G launch wasn't a roaring success from Apple's point of view. Sure, it sold a lot of handsets, but also angered a lot of users when activation issues left them kicking their heels in-store or at home before being able to use their shiny new iPhone.

Luckily, we eventually managed to activate our iPhone 3G on Friday night, meaning we've spent the weekend playing with it, and downloading games from the new App Store.

With that in mind, here's our review, which is written decidedly from a Pocket Gamer point of view, assessing Apple's handset as a gaming device. However, we've also looked at its other main features to see how it performs – and how it compares to the 2G model.

Look And Feel
The most obvious difference with the iPhone 3G is its tweaked design. Some people have complained about its black plastic back, but we think it looks sleek, and feels solid in your hand, and a bit more comfortable to boot.

We're hugely enthused about one seemingly-minor design tweak – the way the headphone socket is now flush with the top of the device, rather than slightly indented. Why? It means you can use your own headphones without needing a converter, which was a glaring flaw in the 2G model.

The downside is the location of the external speaker at the bottom of the device, next to the charging port. When holding the iPhone sideways for landscape gaming, it's easy to muffle the sound accidentally with the palm of your hand. Maybe not such a big deal if you're planning to use the headphones when playing, of course.

Otherwise, it's the same as the last model – nice big touchscreen, stripped-down buttons, and overall a hugely desirable handset.

Gaming performance
Now to the nub of our review, as Pocket Gamer. How does the iPhone shape up as a gaming device, given the somewhat hyperbolic predictions that it could be a DS-killer? The topline: it's very good, although it may take time for developers to get the most out of its features.

Games can be played in portrait or landscape mode, with many opting for the latter as a default. Power-wise, it's very impressive, chucking 3D graphics around with aplomb – games like Cro-Mag Rally and Crash Bandicoot Nitro Kart 3D run smoothly and pack a considerable visual punch. Considering these are launch games, the iPhone is clearly a powerful piece of kit.

But the big thing is the controls – specifically the combination of motion-sensing and touchscreen input. Games have to use one or the other, since there are no physical buttons on the iPhone.

Taking the motion-sensing first, we're very impressed by how the iPhone performs, with the obvious caveat that it's down to developers to get the most out of its accelerometers.

Okay, so it takes a few minutes to get used to Super Monkey Ball or those two racing games listed above (translation: we were a bit rubbish at first), but the iPhone's motion-sensing is clearly sensitive enough to work for a wide range of games requiring fairly intricate motion.

Also impressive is the way some games use motion more simply – for example Gameloft's Diamond Twister detects whether you're holding the iPhone in landscape or portrait mode, and makes gems fall accordingly, adding a new layer of strategy. Motion in iPhone games doesn't have to be about tilting and flapping the phone like a madman, in other words.

The touchscreen is good, too, with multi-touch ensuring games can involve more than just jabbing at the screen. Again, developers will be responsible for making the most of this, but at its most basic, iPhone is clearly adept at any puzzle game requiring items to be dragged onscreen.

Even for more complex action games, onscreen buttons or controls work well – we haven't found ourselves cursing the lack of regular keys much. It'll be interesting to see how it copes with, say, football games or beat-'em-ups.

We should also mention the sound quality, which for games is top-notch, whether for music or sound effects. Of course, we say this having spent a few years playing Java games with MIDItastic sound, so we're perhaps more excited than the technology truly deserves. But still, iPhone games sound great.

Battery life
Onto more general features that have a direct impact on gaming, starting with battery life. Let's be honest: it's a bit disappointing. Not in an 'I can't use this device!' way, but if you're playing games for any decent length of time, expect to see that battery bar dropping faster than you'd like.

This is compounded by the way using wi-fi and especially GPS saps the battery on your iPhone, although a neat tip is to turn off the 3G antenna in the Settings menu if you want to get more talk / playtime – 3G is good for web surfing, but if you're planning to spend a while gaming on the iPhone, you can turn it off.

In many ways, the iPhone 3G is comparable to Nokia's N95, which suffers equally from speedy battery drain if you're using its advanced features. Accept the fact that you'll be charging the phone up once a day, and it's no problem. But new battery technologies (fuel-cell?) can't come soon enough for whatever iPhone Apple follows this model with.

App Store and syncing
We gave some first impressions of the iPhone App Store last week, and have remained impressed, give or take the odd niggle. It's a cinch to browse, buy and download games, and relatively easy to find specific titles. It's a shame there are no video previews on the iTunes App Store, as there are for iPod games, though.

The App Store application on the iPhone itself works very well, although it'd be nice to have an option to sort the Games category by release date, to easily see the newest titles. Suffice to say, the App Store (along with Nokia's N-Gage application) shows the way forward for how mobile games are sold.

Syncing your iPhone to iTunes on your PC or Mac (the former, in my case) works fairly well, too. It seems to take a long time to install apps onto the iPhone from iTunes, though. More annoying still is the surprisingly long time it takes to back-up your iPhone when you plug it into the PC – leaving you tapping your toes for what seems like an age.

Here's where we get into more serious territory. At the time of writing, I'm having serious problems with my iPhone 3G. In the last two days, it's had two major crashes while installing apps – both times sending it back to its reboot screen, where it got stuck in perpetuity.

Both times, the only way to rescue the device has been to force it into recovery mode, necessitating a several-hour long firmware and back-up restoration process (you can read some of the frustrating details here and here on our sister site Pocket Picks).

Is this a peculiarity my iPhone or my computer, or something more seriously wrong with the device itself? It's hung while installing apps a couple of other times, too. If this is a wider problem, it needs to be sorted out by Apple with a firmware update, and fast.

Game catalogue
What about them games, though? There are lots available, and judging by the App Store chart, they're the most popular kind of app right now. There is, however, a lot of clutter: too many sudoku and solitaire games, for example, and a lot of rewrites of Pong and other retro games that smack of developers messing about with the iPhone SDK, rather than trying to create an innovative and cool experience.

The emphasis seems on the casual, with a lot of puzzle and card games. Cro-Mag Rally and Crash Bandicoot Nitro Kart 3D hint at great things ahead on the racing front, though.

Perhaps because of the relatively short time they've had with the iPhone SDK, few developers have opted to include multiplayer or connected features, although there are examples like Multiplayer Championship Poker, which went live today.

We expect to see more of this as the platform develops – particularly if developers only have to worry about iPhones playing against other iPhones over the network, rather than braving the handset fragmentation that's held back Java-based multiplayer games (in Europe, at least).

All in all, iPhone's stable of launch games feels like just that: launch games. They're pretty good, but augur better things ahead as developers push the platform further.

Non-gaming features
This is a review focusing mainly on the iPhone 3G's gaming capabilities, but there are plenty of other features to explore. A short rundown of the key points we've noticed follows.

First, the camera. It's a bit pish still, being a two-megapixel affair that takes acceptable snaps, but pales next to the kind of cameras you're seeing in phones from Sony Ericsson, LG, Nokia and Samsung. We've had a couple of examples of fisheye-like shots of close-up people that weren't welcome, either.

Meanwhile, you still can't send picture messages or record video – the ability to send snaps by email is well-implemented, but MMS really should be in there, too.

3G! Yes, the 3G is welcome if you spend a lot of time surfing with the iPhone (and judging by the stats on the 2G version, a lot of people do).

While a fair number of websites have iPhone-optimised versions – a trend that can only increase – if you spend time on sites that aren't, you'll welcome the faster 3G data speeds. Now, if only Apple would bite the bullet and include Adobe Flash support in iPhone's Safari browser…

We haven't really had time to get into the iPhone's GPS feature yet, and we suspect it'll take some innovative apps to really make the most of it – since its main use on the phone is with the built-in Google Maps feature. Don't expect turn-by-turn directions, but if you're in an unfamiliar area and need a map of your surroundings, it works well. Watch this space for how apps use it, though.

Being able to customise the iPhone's menus is a great feature, letting you set up several homescreens of icons that you flip right and left between. My handset now has a screen for games, for example, and a separate one for other apps.

As a music phone, iPhone is excellent as ever, particularly with the new headphone socket enabling you to use your own cans. This sound quality extends to voice calls, too, which sound noticeably better on the iPhone 3G than the 2G model – clear as a bell.

The iPhone 3G is an excellent handset with a few flaws. However, the experience of using it – the user interface itself – is still fantastic, and showing the way forward for its rivals.

The reliability issues are a real concern, assuming my shop-bought model isn't just a dodgy model. There is a worry that as phones are becoming – to borrow Nokia's phrase – multimedia computers, they're starting to suffer from the same problems as actual computers: crashes, glitches, weird bugs.

It's good, then, and if you've been wanting an iPhone for some time but held off due to the lack of 3G, now's the time to buy, particularly on O2's decent tariffs.

There's a valid question around whether 2G iPhone owners should upgrade yet, however, given that the really exciting thing is the iPhone 2.0 firmware and the App Store, which work on both 2G and 3G models. It may be worth waiting a month or two, to see what Apple releases on the software update front to correct any technical gremlins.

But getting back to our initial premise: the iPhone 3G as a gaming device. It's full of potential, and with millions predicted to be sold, you can expect developers and publishers to be pushing its boundaries in the coming months.

It might not kill off the DS – the lack of pony sims on the App Store will see to that, if nothing else – but in the context of mobile gaming as a whole, the iPhone is one big leap forward.

Reviewer photo
Stuart Dredge 14 July 2008
Apart from some post-launch technical gremlins, the iPhone 3G is an excellent handset that is hugely promising in terms of mobile gaming
gaming score
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design score
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features score
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audio score
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Specs Available inUK, Europe, US, Worldwide
ModesGSM, 3G, 850, 900, 1900
Band typetri
Built In Memoryn/a
Removable Memory TypeMicroSD,
Primary screencolour
Number of coloursn/a
Screen size480x320
Secondary screennone
Polyphonic ringtonesn/a
Camera Resolution2.0 megapixels
Music formatsn/a
Infrared portno
Messaging Optionsn/a
MMS supportno
Voice controlno
Predictive textyes
SAR ratingn/a
Phonebook entriesn/a
Number of included ringtonesn/a
Downloadable extrasyes
Talk time5 hours
Standby time300 hours
Other featuresAccelerometer, multi-touch input, audio and video playback, wi-fi, GPS
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