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Palm's first phone – what's the Treo 600 like?

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Orange gave pride of place to Palm's first genuine smartphone this week, as the long-awaited Treo 600 made its debut in London. The Treo was developed by Handspring, the company started by Palm founders Jeff Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky, who are returning home as Handspring merges with Palm. Palm's hardware division will eventually be renamed PalmOne, but for now, the Treo is being launched under the Handspring banner.

Although last year's Zire included voice functionality via an earpiece, it's Palm's first genuine smartphone. But is it any good?

First impressions with the Orange Treo 600 confirm that Handspring designers have got a lot of things right. Although many of the improvements are incremental, perception is everything and this is the first Handspring that looks like a phone, and does so without alienating loyal Palm users. Most importantly perhaps, Handspring has lost the cumbersome Perspex shield, which became notoriously prone to damage. This allows for a much slimmer device in the 'candybar' form factor. A higher pixel density allows for a smaller screen area, (it's still 160x160) and the 'keyboard' has been further shrunk. It's quite usable, although 'buttons' is a more appropriate description than keys. The headline improvements are the addition of a camera and an expansion slot.

A five-way rocker is a welcome addition, although Handspring has dropped the dial that provoked so much grief from Lawsuits In Motion. The four default buttons are now Phone, Calendar, Messaging and 'Screen' (which double up as the Blazer web browser. However the 600 finally sees the welcome return of the 'Home' button, it's there on the bottom row.

Comparisons with the Sony-Ericsson P800 are inevitable: the first UIQ phone set a high bar for functionality, and is the best-selling single PDA outside the US. While we would hesitate to draw conclusions from first impressions (a long-term test revealed a few usability issues with UIQ), Handspring is finally a contender. There's no Bluetooth, and the bulky external antenna is reminiscent of 1998-vintage Ericsson phones. (Ericsson disastrously tried to use its squat antenna as a branding differentiator... just as phones began to sport internal antennae).

The screen has the gauzy quality of its predecessor, but it doesn't have the washed out colour of the P800. The lack of Bluetooth may count against it with Macintosh users, now that Apple has outstanding Bluetooth support, allowing some really useful applications to be written. However the taller but slimmer Treo scores high on usability in a head to head comparison. Handspring supports pen shortcuts and isn't crippled by this bug masquerading as a feature: "Persistence".

So for Handspring, here's a warm welcome back. ®

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