- Review Price: £399.00
This week sees the first UK availability of palmOne’s latest phone, the Treo 650. An evolutionary upgrade from the highly-successful Treo 600, it sports a couple of major new features as well as several minor improvements made since palmOne’s purchase of the Treo’s original manufacturer, Handspring. It’s initially available through Orange in a specially branded version, with an unlocked palmOne release to follow through major retailers in a couple of weeks’ time. It’s the only notable PalmOS-based phone in Europe, where the smartphone market is otherwise dominated by Symbian and Microsoft. Prices for the handset from Orange will vary with deals – for example www.mobilebay.co.uk are doing the handset for £99 with a new £30 per month contract and £269 for an upgrade on an existing contract.
I should make any potential bias clear from the outset: I’ve been a Treo user since the 600 arrived in late 2003 and still love it to bits – despite it being somewhat under-specced compared to other high-end Palm devices, and recurring faults that saw me go through five handsets in eighteen months. Now that palmOne claims to have fixed Handspring’s manufacturing problems, I’ve been itching to get my hands on a 650 since they were announced late last year. Once the palmOne box was finally thrust into my hands, I was determined to resolve the question that’s been knocking on my brain for the past few months: Is this minority platform worth sticking with?
The answer: Yes. The Treo isn’t earth-shattering, it’s not going to wipe away the competition, but it’s a lovely device and well worth investigating – not just for existing Palm users, but for anyone interested in a new smartphone.
The core specs you need to know are these: It’s a quad-band phone, which makes it usable on any GSM network in the world, and has GPRS for internet access. The processor is a 312MHz Intel PXA chip, descended from the popular ARM family, and twice as fast as the 600. (You can feel the difference, too – the 600 wasn’t slow, but this is pretty nippy.) The touchscreen has also been upgraded to 320×320 pixels with 65,000 colours, bringing it in line with most of palmOne’s other devices. Full Bluetooth capability has finally been added alongside the existing I/O options of infra-red, the SDIO slot and the sync-port. The camera, while staying at the same VGA (640×480) resolution, now produces much better images than the 600’s frankly dire CCD, and the new software also lets you take short movies. Storage, however, is a major weak point: only 23MB of user-writable RAM, the same as in the 600, and it wasn’t a great deal back then; now, it feels downright miserly. Most applications can be moved to run off an SD card, but one would rather not have to juggle.
One area in which the Treo has always scored relatively well is its visual design. While not as diminutive and original as Nokia’s creations, it’s still far nicer to look at than the average Windows Mobile PDA/phone. It’s less bulky too, fitting easily in both the hand and trouser pocket, and making one-handed dialling possible without the need to evolve any new fingers. The palmOne-branded model I was given is attractively chromed, and what’s more, it actually looks like a phone. (Score one over the Blackberry there.) In terms of size it’s a little larger than the Sony Ericsson P900. The sticking point for many people remains the very American external aerial, which is not particularly attractive.
The keyboard is an area where the Treo really shines. It’s easily the most comfortable and usable keyboard of that size I’ve ever got my thumbs on and is well worth a try if you visit an Orange shop any time soon. The 600’s keyboard was already good, but the 650, with its larger, flatter and softer keys, makes typing wonderfully painless. You can even tap out a message one-handed without too much difficulty. In another nice touch, it lights up during use. There’s a darker subset of keys in the middle which double up as a number pad for dialling.
Another aspect of the Treo I’ve always loved is the silence switch on top, next to the SD card slot and the storage hole for the stylus. To put the phone into silent mode, just flick the switch. The genius here quickly becomes apparent when you’re in a meeting or movie: you can both feel the phone’s setting and switch it without taking it out of your pocket.
The side of the phone has a rocker switch for volume and a new programmable button that, by default, runs the pre-installed RealPlayer software. Underneath there’s a 2.5mm audio jack for the supplied hands-free earphone; one can also buy a variety of stereo headsets and converters for listening to music, or use the loudspeaker on the back of the phone, the quality of which has improved somewhat but is still not something you’d want to use for a boombox. (One would have hoped that, given the bundling of an MP3 player, they’d have thrown in a two quid headphone-jack converter for free, but apparently not.) Also below is the new standardised port providing data transfer and power in one.
The Treo runs PalmOS 5.4 like most other current Palms. In addition to the usual apps like the calender, notebook and to-do list are a flexible phone dialler, a customised version of the contacts book, a nifty SMS application, a web browser, a feature laden email client and an audio-only version of RealPlayer. On the supplied CD you’ll also find Documents To Go for reading and editing Word and Excel files, the Acrobat Reader for Palm (which compresses documents on the desktop before syncing) and a link to download IBM’s hefty Java runtime, a 3MB install which lets you run J2ME apps and games.
One of the main reasons for Palm’s enduring popularity despite more-technically-advanced competition is the simplicity of its interface design. It’s not overwhelming for beginners, yet there’s a large amount of power beneath the surface, and the smoothness of the experience means that you spend very little time managing the running of the device and far more actually doing what you need to do. The phone app is a perfect example: within a couple of button presses one can redial the last number, call up a list of the last ten numbers dialled, call up a complete call log, jump to the contacts app, activate the camera, et cetera – and none of these involve touching the screen. No complex menu layouts here.
Furthermore, all the apps are sensibly linked together, letting you jump between them without serious thought. The contacts application lets you jump straight to dialling or texting from the list view. The SMS application (another lovely piece of work, grouping together messages from each contact in instant-messenger-style threads) presents numbers in received messages as clickable links, which will take you straight to the dialler.
Of course, one of the major strengths in choosing an OS with the pedigree of Palm’s is the huge quantity of free and cheap software out there, much of it excellent. Examples are the fantastically-useful Vindigo guide, which provides a map and listings for central London, and the recent TCPMP, an open source video player that handled my desktop Xvid files perfectly without any recompression. The success of the Treo in particular means that there’s a great deal of customisation one can achieve with the right applets, ranging from fun little hacks (KeyCaps, my favourite, has sped up my typing considerably) to complete replacements to the phone dialler and SMS application, along with all sorts of other neat tricks ranging from MP3 ringtones (LightWav) to an ingenious tool that uses the camera as a lightmeter in setting the screen brightness (BrightCam). It’s just a shame that, with so much software around, the Treo doesn’t give you very much space to put it in.
As for the desktop side, the supplied CD comes with the Palm Desktop PIM and synchronisation software that also hooks into Outlook. It’s all pretty simple and works well – all it takes for a complete sync is a single press on the sync-cable’s button. You can also sync over Bluetooth and infra-red. I’ve been told that things aren’t as smooth on the Mac straight out of the box, but apparently a download called Missing Sync mostly fixes that.
A few minutes was all it took to confirm that everything I loved about the 600 is still here, but better. There’s the wonderful simplicity of an interface that realises that smartphones shouldn’t require genius users, and just gets you to where you want to go with a minimum of fuss – with the sped-up processor means getting you there just that bit faster. The camera, while still not being anything that you’d pay for on its own, is much more conducive to random photography, especially given the more-faithful renderings of the high-colour screen. The improved resolution makes small text much easier to read and large text more attractive.
However, it wasn’t all sweetness from the very beginning. The main reason I stuck with the 600 through the many replacements was that getting a new handset up to speed was simply a matter of plugging in and syncing; a minute later, all my data would be over and I’d have my setup back. Unfortunately, porting my data from the 600 wasn’t as straightforward as I’d hoped: while some of my apps were automatically removed for compatibility reasons, it managed to leave all my SMS messages behind as well, and reported some errors with my contact book. A little bit of tweaking fixed the contacts problem, but I never did work out what happened with SMS. Still, once I got past that to a relatively stable setup, the 650 performed as admirably on syncing as its predecessor.
After the initial obstacles, the 650 settled into my life even more easily than its predecessor. The keyboard is, quite literally, a joy; I found myself grinning when typing out a particularly long message that would have been a painful chore on most other mobile keyboards. It’s a wonder they’ve fitted something so usable into a space that small. Its performance as a phone is just fine, the audio quality being slightly better than the 600. Speakerphone quality is also improved with less distortion, though it’s also a little quieter, and those I called with it seemed to have a harder time hearing me.
As far as connectivity goes, there were no major surprises. Pairing the Treo up with other devices worked pretty easily: my attempts to hook up to a PC and a Nokia phone all went smoothly, as did file transfer. Using a borrowed Nokia headset was a little more problematic, as the connection seemed to come and go occasionally. GPRS worked about as well as on the 600, which was fairly solid but slow. As for WiFi, don’t hold your breath; palmOne say they’ll be releasing drivers for their SD-card adapter, but they don’t seem to be particularly enthusiastic about it. In the meantime, Enfora will soon be shipping a bulky-but-powerful “WiFi sled” into which the Treo will fit.
As well as the keyboard and interface, another area where the Treo scores well over the competition is battery life. After a day’s happy toying with the device, leaving Bluetooth on most of the time, the battery level had only dropped to 80%. Further testing showed that the drain was consistent, so one can comfortably expect two to three days’ use on a single charge, and possibly more. Compare this with the Treo’s main competitor, the XDA IIi (marketed by Orange as the M2000), which, with heavy use, has problems getting through a single day. New for the 650 is the removable back cover that lets you get at the battery compartment. Spare cells are already available on the net for about twenty pounds, and since the onboard RAM is flash-based, you can change over without fear of losing your data.
Now that it has Bluetooth and a high-resolution screen to go with its excellent user interface, the Treo 650 can sit comfortably among the smartphone market leaders. While it may not have the flash and power of some of the fancier Windows Mobile and Symbian devices, it makes up for it with comfortable styling and considerably better battery life. The exemplary design means that it doesn’t just switch smoothly between the roles of phone and PDA, but handles both together with such natural confidence to make it look easy. Don’t be fooled; I doubt we’ll see as good an all-rounder as the Treo for quite a while.
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