PalmOne Treo 600 smartphone

Reg Review Handspring's second generation smartphone is a marvel of good hardware and human interface design. It's a GSM/GPRS (or CDMA 1x) phone with built-in camera, QWERTY buttons and stylus, that's backward compatible with the vast selection of PalmOS 5.0 software, and features an SD/MMC expansion slot.

While the Treo 600 doesn't have all the bells and whistles of its rivals (Bluetooth, video recording) out of the box, Palm users will feel right at home; and the Treo 600 deserves consideration from anyone wishing to upgrade their two devices, handset and PDA, in favor of one.

However, one single factor - the design of keyboard - means that any reviewer must qualify a recommendation heavily. While I struggled with the keyboard over three weeks, I'd hand it to friends who were able to type flawless and quickly. Others picked gingerly at the illuminated buttons before handing it back with an apology. While the style and grace of the Treo 600 more than made up for the keyboard experience - it really is a very fine phone, and it was a pleasure to use it as one - I didn't feel I'd got the most out of the device. So if you're going to evaluate it, there's no substitute for a hands-on test first.

Treo 600

Industrial design

While the Treo 600 shares the same brand as its ugly duckling predecessors, the 180, 270 and 300 models - it's almost unrecognizable. PalmOne, which is the newly independent hardware division of Palm, will continue to use the Treo brand, now that it has acquired Handspring.

A good choice of materials gives a first impression of a robust and durable device - a welcome change from recent plasticky 'candy bar' phones. While the earlier Treo communicators sported a cumbersome flip-up lid that only a Trekkie (or Walt Mossberg) could love, the gentle curves of the 600 make for a device much more comfortable in the hand and the pocket. Gone, but not missed, is the rocker dial on the left side of the phone and the two up/down 'lips' on the face for navigation. Instead, a metal four way navigation pad encircles a central push button, and this combination works very well: the feel is firm and well defined.

There's a lot crammed on that small space: 26-alphabet keys plus space, shift, backspace return, and a general purpose modifier key. I was pleased to see Handspring give 'home' and the 'menu' functions their own, dedicated keys. As with the earlier models, nine of the keys double up as a numeric phone keypad. But this has been moved to the left, a small change that makes it much easier to use in your left hand.

With the Treo I found a basic ergonomic issue that seems to be shared by every candy bar smartphone I've used: they don't balance very well. With the top half of the unit is the screen, the device tips forward when using buttons on the bottom half.

Handspring says it opted for a low resolution screen because the higher resolution LCDs on offer are hard to read in bright sunlight. It's a fair compromise: while the Treo appears to have a 'gauze' like grid that's perceptible when held closer than eighteen inches away, the contrast is excellent in all conditions.

And Treo shuns the standard green call/ red hang-up buttons in favor of on screen controls. The former isn't missed, but the latter is the first time you accidentally hang-up by nudging the screen with your ear. I'd prefer to see a dedicated hardware hang-up button to prevent lost calls.

While the vibrating alert could use a little more vim - I missed a couple of calls outdoors with the phone in a trouser pocket - the Treo has a dedicated speaker for music and ringtones: and it's possibly the richest I've heard.

Navigating the Treo

Handspring's design team worked hard to produce a phone that can be used one handed, and set themselves some tough constraints. Despite the presence of a stylus, there's no Graffiti, or any other handwriting recognition software supplied with the Treo. It's a conscious move to force users to use the QWERTY buttons, or the soft keyboard. As with the earlier Treos, I found this a jolting experience.

Handspring clearly has RIM in its sights, and RIM's BlackBerry, which has been a success with US businesses, has legitimized such tiny thumb keyboards. However, I found myself longing for a Treo in the form of a Tungsten, with just a slide down area for character input. How svelte would that be?

Nokia has an intriguing solution in its 6800 'scissors' series, which features a fold-out keyboard. It's a radical design that doesn't compromise either one-handed or two-handed use, and it poses much more of a potential competitive threat than pen-based rivals.

Handspring has tweaked the standard PalmOS PIM apps to use the navigation pad, and it works pretty well, though not flawlessly. For example, I could enter a new calendar appointment simply by tabbing through the controls on offer, but I couldn't navigate through the five "views" without resorting to the stylus. (Pressing the calendar button only flips between day and month view).

However the navigation pad comes into its own when using the Treo as a phone. Nokia, with its Janus-like Series 60 UI, has made a 'menu' key lead you to a 'desktop' of applications, with the Phone application as a permanently running, though separate application. On the Series 60, even quick dial is a separate application. However the Treo hides the distinction, and makes phone-related functions much more accessible. From the phone (by default, although this can be configured) the rocker takes you to the Applications screen, if you go West, or Contacts (South), Email (East) and the Treo's 'Favorites' panel if you go North.

Or, if you press the main button, a pop-up menu shows recent calls and two permanent options: the call log and the dial pad. The Favorites panel is very flexible: it provides five screens each of ten shortcuts, which can be applications, URLs, as well as quick dials. You can set up a shortcut to text a friend, which is a nice feature. Both Nokia and SonyEricsson could learn a trick or two here.

Reception and Reliability

A few reviewers have balked at the retro, Ericsson-style antenna on the Treo 600. While it's true that in Europe, external antennae died out somewhere around the last ice age (c.2000), US users need to cope with much poorer reception from their networks, especially indoors. I found that the Treo performed like a champ, and that assurance will trump aesthetics for users on this side of the Atlantic.

While it's harsh to judge such advanced new phones on reliability - no manufacturer has a great record here - the Treo lost its signal for no reason on several occasions on my AT&T network. I had to resort to the paper clip on several occasions (this is the only way to reboot the phone, as the battery isn't removable), and once the Treo reported that it didn't have enough power to turn its wireless features on, even though the battery was 60 per cent charged. These proved no worse than teething difficulties with the Nokia 9200 and early cuts of the Sony Ericsson P800, and they were rapidly fixed by subsequent flash updates, which we trust palmOne will provide.

Battery life on the new Treo is far superior to its predecessors, which could barely manage an hour of talk time or data sessions. Under intensive use, the Treo 600 had juice to spare at the end of the day, and could run comfortably over three days under lighter use. The Treo conserves power very aggressively by shutting down the screen after a few seconds, a wise choice.

Under heavy tasks, however, the Treo showed some spots. Using the VeriChat IM client, we were disconnected every time we switched away to another task. This was annoying enough for the reviewer, but drove IM buddies to distraction. Two out of ten infra red beams required a reboot. PalmOS 6.0, a ground-up rewrite emphasizing multitasking, should sort out many of these problems.

Software bundle

While phone vendors naturally like to stress their partnerships with corporate email infrastructure providers, the out-of-the-box offerings can be pretty underweight. But the Treo 600 has a better email client than either the Nokia 3650 or the Sony Ericsson P800 (now deprecated, and not having used the P900 yet, I'm wary of making too many direct comparisons). Neither rival allows users to limit downloads to a certain size, which is critical when using a capped GPRS data plan. And if Handspring's own email client isn't enough, excellent third party clients are available.

Handspring has also worked hard on its browser, which offers an intelligent 'small screen' mode and rudimentary JavaScript support for HTML pages. In practice, however, it proved sluggish and spotty, looking decidedly primitive compared to NetFront and Opera, and no quicker than the basic Doris Browser, popular on Series 60 phones for its sheer speed. (How much a higher resolution screen would help here, we can't say). There's no certificate management, making secure browsing difficult. When browsing with images turned off, I wasn't able to 'grab' an image, which you often need to do. palmOne needs to work with these third parties and bundle a mature browser with the phone.

The camera software is rudimentary too. It's perhaps the weakest part of the proposition: the camera is the worst we've used on a smartphone. It was nice to see a 'downsize' option and 'Set [as] wallpaper', but the Treo isn't going to be the device to ignite the MMS market - which could use a little fuel right now.

The PalmOS software is showing its age. The contacts book has allowed only five custom fields for several years now, and it's exactly a year since we were briefed about an overhaul. (The much-anticipated version 6.0 has slipped by six months, and will ship only now ship to OEMs by the end of the year). Again, Palm's rich developer base can help fill the gaps - Iambic's contact manager is an excellent alternative, for example - but there's a lot of opportunity for integrating the venerable suite into a successor that's both more flexible and more tightly coupled. (Do Memo Pad, To Do and Calendar really need to be separate applications?)

Another feature that helped established the Palm, HotSync, could also use a brush-up. Bluetooth really must be built-in: although SD cards will provide the missing functionality, that takes up a slot which really should be free for storage. (And using MMC/SD gives the Treo a huge advantage over the SonyEricsson models, which use the much more expensive Duo format).

It isn't possible to drag and drop files to the Treo, and users would appreciate a way of retrieving photos quickly and easily from the device.

The Treo is compatible with a great range of applications which need to be tweaked to take advantage of the phone's pen-free navigation philosophy. Going forward, PalmSource must begin to attract developers who are increasingly being drawn to the Series 60 platform for really groundbreaking new applications (such as VoIP Buzz2Talk) first. Palm's vast developer community must be seen as the platform's future, rather than its past.

Verdict

At $599, the Treo 600 isn't cheap. Palm owners at last have a modern smartphone upgrade that's a credible phone, and corporate buyers who currently support employees with both cellphones and RIM devices now have a serious reason to rethink their purchasing plans. With limited resources, Handspring has produced a smartphone that can teach its rivals a few lessons about usability. It was a pleasure to use.

PalmOne [Handspring] Treo 600
Pros — Excellent human interface
— Good battery life and reception
— Wide range of compatible software
Cons — Expensive
— No Bluetooth
— The 'keyboard' is not for everyone
Price $599 ($399 upgrade for existing Treo users)
More info Handspring


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