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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

iPhone 2.1 Firmware Review: It Fixes Everything We Can See

iiPhone's 2.1 update last Friday was supposed to fix a whole dump truck-load of issues people have been having with the iPhone 3G. If the update did succeed in getting rid of dropped calls, improving battery life, dramatically speeding up backup times, improving application install speeds, more accurately displaying 3G signal strength display and eliminating keyboard lag, we could finally recommend the iPhone 3G to our friends without looking like asses. Did the 2.1 firmware do everything it promised? Oh yes.

Reception: This is the biggest improvement, at least on the surface. I'm now getting 4-5 bars in my office where I used to get between 1-2 (see photo above). Does displayed reception actually correlate correctly to actual reception? The hardware is the same, and one of the bug fix list has "improved accuracy of the 3G signal strength display" as one of its items, so is this just a placebo designed only to make you think that your reception is improved? No, it's actually improved.

Calls from my office used to get periodic drop-outs and injected silence, but I have not heard this once since I made the upgrade to 2.1. Brian, with his black hole of cellphone coverage that he calls his apartment, actually made a 12 minute conversation without disconnecting. What's the deal? How is the new software improving reception so much when the hardware is the same? Is it a new stack to handle transmission between the phone and the tower better? We have no idea, although recent reports have said that problems with the phone are caused by an immature chipset, and could be fixed via software, so this is somewehat likely.

It's too bad that Apple disabled the "Cell Information" screen in the iPhone Field Test Mode, which we used to test this ClearBoost case from Griffin, or else we could have used actual power readings from nearby towers to determine whether or not the signal has really been improved. What we can see in the Field Test Mode is that the dBm reading in the top left (where the reception bars were) show very similar numbers, flutuating on both phones between -97 and -103 from in the office. Sometimes one is higher than the other, but there's no consistency.

Verdict: Win.

Battery Life: Improved, but not dramatically. We did see an improvement in battery life this weekend when our phones lasted about 2 days on regular use. It previously only made it to somewhere around 1.5 to 1.75 days. Nothing dramatic, but noticeable.

Verdict: Slight win.

Reduced Backup Time: We definitely saw no more 20-40 minute backups with the 2.1 firmware, but the best indicator for this quirk being fixed would be the guy with an 8-hour iPhone sync. He reported back and told us that the same set of apps now give him a 14 minute sync time. Check this fix off as a winner.

Verdict: Win

3G Browsing Speed: This is an awkward one. The browsing speed wasn't actually noted as being one of the things fixed, but we decided to test it anyway because of the supposedly improved reception. For browsing, the same page loaded about 1.5 seconds faster on the OLD firmware (2.0.2) compared to the new one. On other sites, like, the old firmware actually loaded the page a whole 5 seconds faster than the new firmware. Strange.

We then used the Speedtest app in the iPhone App store to see if it was data transfer that was holding up page loads. On the 2.0.2 firmware we had download speed of 913Kb/sec, 581 Kb/s and 1048Kb/s. On the 2.1 firmware we had a 420Kb/s, 518Kb/s and a 718Kb/s. On the whole the new firmware seems to be slower in terms of data transfer, which leads to slightly slower page loads.

Verdict: Lose

Application Install: The same app (Speedtest) installed 15 seconds faster on the new firmware than on the old one. We downloaded this on the phone itself using the same Wi-Fi router for both. The downloading was just about simultaneous, but the install portion was much faster.

Verdict: Win

Crashing and hanging: It's only been about three days since we updated, but we haven't run into any crashes or hangs yet. 77% of you agreed with us on Friday.

Verdict: Probably win

Text messaging: Didn't see any keyboard lag here. Adam Frucci, the king of iPhone keyboard lag, claims that everything is fixed on this front.

Verdict: I guess a win?

Overall: Apple's really fixed the glaring reception, crashing and backup problems everyone's been seeing. Not only is everyone getting more bars than they were before, they're getting actual results. Brian's notoriously horrible AT&T reception at his apartment in SF is just bearably horrible now, kicking him down to EDGE from 3G where he can actually make phone calls that don't cut off after a few seconds. If you own an iPhone, you need to upgrade to 2.1—slower browsing be damned. Apple has finally put most of the iPhone 3G launch problems behind it, allowing the phone part of the device to be brought back up to par with the original 2G iPhone. [iPhone]