iPhone 3G 2.1 Firmware hands-on: Noticeable improvements

The iPhone 3G 2.1 firmware has now hit the streets, and we've snagged the 237.8MB download. That's a fat bolus of software, even bigger than the monstrous 225MB of the iPhone 2.0 firmware. Here's Apple's list of fixes in the release:

• Decrease in call set-up failures and dropped calls
• Significantly better battery life for most users
• Dramatically reduced time to backup to iTunes
• Improved email reliability, notably fetching email from POP and Exchange accounts
• Faster installation of 3rd party applications
• Fixed bugs causing hangs and crashes for users with lots of third party applications
• Improved performance in text messaging
• Faster loading and searching of contacts
• Improved accuracy of the 3G signal strength display
• Repeat alert up to two additional times for incoming text messages
• Option to wipe data after ten failed passcode attempts
• Genius playlist creation

Let's see what we can find that's different in an instant hands-on:

The first thing I noticed after the installation and reboot was five bars of AT&T reception rather than the usual 1.5 -2 that was the norm in the past. The reception has always been pretty good here at our Midwest Test Facility, so I'm thinking the diff here is in the accuracy of those bars. Another immediately apparent difference is in the 3G logo at the top of the screen. Big deal — it used to have a contrasting background and now it just says 3G in blue or black.

I downloaded a program from the App Store, and I immediately noticed a tremendous speedup in the time it took to install the app. Wow! Instead of sitting there installing with that blue bar hardly moving for 10 minutes and slowing down everything on the iPhone, it was ready to go in literally two seconds. Huge improvement. Bravo, Apple.

Text messaging is supposed to have improved performance. Sending and receiving messages with two other recipients went smoothly, but it's hard to tell if performance has improved.

The most annoying aspects of the 2.02 firmware — the crashing and obnoxiously long backup routine on every sync — have also been improved. The new firmware took a mere 2:38 to backup itself and then transfer the app I bought. That's amazing, considering this process took at least 10 times longer when using the previous firmware release. As for the crashes, so far so good, but I'm going to load the 60-something apps I used before (with so many crashes the phone was almost unusable), and see what happens.

So far, this looks like an update that delivers on many of its promises.