Palm Treo 500v smartphone
Review D'you know the most interesting thing about Palm's Treo 500v? It's a Windows Mobile smartphone without a stylus. For years, we've been noting PDA and, later, smartphone makers' attempts to overcome the Microsoft OS inability to work one-handed, but until now no one's quite succeeded.
Past Palm and recent HTC devices have come close, but the 500v is the first to hit the market without its manufacturer feeling the need to include a stylus even just in case. Not that it would be much use: the 500v doesn't have a touchscreen either.
It's a Palm device that might have been made by Nokia. Indeed, the 500v's look has a decidedly Finnish tone to it, which is interesting given the rumours earlier this year than Nokia might be about to acquire the PDA pioneer. Makes you think, doesn't it?
Palm's Treo 500v: Nokia inspired?
That the 500v can operate stylus-free is because it runs the version of Windows Mobile 6 designed for regular handsets rather than the form of the OS designed for the PDA-style devices Palm is famous for.
Stylus lovers will disregard the 500v, but in many respects it's Palm's best Windows Mobile device yet. The older 750v may have a higher number, but that's because of extra features rather than inherent superiority.
Here's why. Face on, the 500v is slightly shorter but also slightly wider than the 750v. But while the older machine is all angles, the newer phone has deep curves that make it look smaller than it is. More to the point, it's barely two-thirds the thickness of the 750v, which also makes it feel smaller.
New-style Qwerty grid
We can remember trying the 750v for the first time and remarking on how much smaller it felt than the old Treo 650 did. On paper, the dimensions weren't much different, but the way Palm's designers pulled in the corners and angles really gave the 750v in your hand the sensation of being much more petite than its predecessor. Well, they've done it again, and the 500v feels it's been shrunk by the same margin again. It's lighter too.
Gone is the tactile rubber-like feel of old, replaced with a varnished look that helps the 500v slip in and out of pockets and bags with ease. The two-tone colour scheme isn't new, but the way the lighter, silver tone wraps all round the sides, top and bottom then folds horizontally across the front to highlight the control keys, and folds over the back at the top to highlight the camera and speaker gives the handset a modern look that, for once, is more phone than PDA.
The earpiece is a simple slit in a plastic front that runs smoothly right over the very nice bright, crips, high-contrast 320 x 240 screen - bigger than the 750v's 240 x 240 job - to stop at the control area. Around the ring-shaped navigation cluster are two soft-menu keys, a Home button and, in place of the usual OK key, a Back button. Either side of all these are big call make and break buttons fitting flush with the other controls.
Top and bottom
Once again, there's micro Qwerty keyboard, complete with an inlaid numeric pad in a different colour. But this time all the keys are laid out on an grid of right angles rather than the upward curves of the 650 and 750. Single-handed typing's a little trickier, perhaps, especially reaching for the keys in the bottom right-hand corner with your thumb, but two-thumb texting is no harder than it was with the old keyboard.
There's a tiny recessed power button on the top of the 500v - at the other end is the microphone, a mini USB port and a socket for the bundled earpiece's 2.5mm jack. The left-hand side of the 500v is home to the usual Treo volume keys and a third, customisable button that by default launches Internet Explorer.
The 500v makes one step backward: the placement of the Micro SD card slot under the removable battery, next to the SIM slot. Recent Palms have externally accessible memory card slots, and switches on the top to activate silent mode. We've always felt this switch was a key differentiator that allowed Treo users to go straight into meetings or movies while owners of other handsets were left in working their way through menus to quieten their phones.
Palm's new take on Windows Mobile's menu...
Palm has gone further than before to hide away the usual Windows Mobile UI. Here, the Today screen is just a photo with the customary status icons, date and time. Pressing the Start soft menu brings up Palm's own GUI, which runs a series of icons below the status panel, all in grey except for the central one, which is displayed in colour. Pressing the left or right keys on the navigation control's ring takes you to the next icon along. In turn, that changes the contents of the panel below the selected icon. Each is a list of options, pictures, videos, whatever that you scroll up and down through using the navigation ring.
...and the Main Menu
You can just see the edges of the next panels along, a clever touch that doesn't take up much screen space but makes it clear there are more things to the left and right of the panel you're looking at, reinforcing the way the UI works. Moving from one to the next changes the soft menus.
It's a really easy UI to get to grips with, and Palm's placed all the 500v's key applications, settings and functions. The only thing it lacks is a link to the camera, but once you've reached it through the Pictures & Videos app, or the icon-filled Main Menu - press the centre of the nav control when you're in the Today screen - you can quickly find it again in the Recent Programs panel.
The black version looks better than the white one
But what the UI needs is the smooth scrolling of the iPhone. Here there's always a sense of jerkiness to the motion and a lag between the press of a key and the appearance of the menu. To be fair, it doesn't impede what you do and it's no worse than any other Windows Mobile device - better than some, in fact. But it's still not a smooth as a handset in this day and age really should be.
If the iPhone does nothing beyond forcing other phone makers to speed up their UIs, it will have been a success in our view.
The 500v is a 3G device, but it lacks HSDPA support, presumably to keep the manufacturing cost down. But since network subsidies tend to level that out, can the 500v really afford to be without it, especially since it hasn't got Wi-Fi either? Make no mistake, this is a data device. It's set up out of the box to use Vodafone Live! as a web portal and content source, and Microsoft's Windows Messenger is there too, ready to make use of the connection. A Google Maps app is ready to use.
So to is Mobile TV, and app that pulls down live Sky broadcasts onto the 500v. It sounds attractive, but at £5 a month for a postage stamp-sized picture - you can blow it up full screen, but the resolution's not up to the job - we can't really recommend it.
The handset has Bluetooth 2.0 with Enhanced Data Rate (EDR) connectivity and can operate as a wireless modem, but again that missing HSDPA support means it can't deliver true broadband speeds to your laptop. Still, Bluetooth was a fast way of getting stills snapped on the 500v's two-megapixel camera over to our main machine. Not that they were anything to write home about. Shots taken in bright light are fine, but are muddy and fuzzy in darker places. But then 500v is no worse for snapping than most similarly specced phones out there.
Decent resolution but basic
As you might have seen from the picture on the front page of this review, the 500v has no video-call camera. That's no loss to us - atually, it's an advantage: it makes for a neater look - but it might put a few potential buyers off.
Call quality was generally very good, but we missed the loss of Palm's patent threaded messaging, which presents a set of SMS messages exchanged between you and a chum the look of an IM conversation. Maybe Vodafone expects punters to use IM instead - we're not convinced though. Incidentally, the 500v is a tri-band GSM/GPRS device, so it'll roam in most, but not all, parts of the globe. Would it really have been that much of an issue to make it quad-band? 3G is limited to the 2100MHz frequency - again potentially limiting travellers who want fast data.
The battery life par for course for a 3G phone without Wi-Fi. Using the device for data - ie. using 3G and keeping the screen on - will sap the battery far more than calls do. So will using Bluetooth, particularly if you make use of the nice-to-have A2DP wireless headphone technology - though the handset comes with an adequate wired set.
Palm's Treo 500v isn't the 'power users' Windows Mobile device - no Wi-Fi, no HSDPA - but it's an impressive attempt at bringing the handset family into the reach of the mainstream. It's wonderfully compact and it looks good. Palm's new UI is a big improvement on the standard WM one, and its micro-keyboard is as easy to use as anything on a BlackBerry or HTC device.