Every so often I think I should get a PDA to help me organize and keep track of my life. I always wind up deciding that the disadvantage of having another device to synch and carry around with me outweighs the potential advantages of a PDA, and I continue to use the date book on my cell phone instead. For many people, though, PDA's are invaluable tools.
A new wave of gadgets commonly referred to as "smartphones" combine the features of cell phones and PDA's into one device. The proliferation of the Internet and new wireless networking technologies including 802.11 (?Wi-Fi?), Bluetooth, and High-Speed cellular networks like EDGE, have made Smartphones full-on personal data and communications powerhouses that keep people connected to voice, email, and data networks even when they?re away from the office.
The Treo series from Palm is the most successful line of smartphones to be released in the United States to date. The Treo 650 combines a cell phone with the flexible power of a Palm-OS PDA, touchscreen navigation with handwriting recognition, and QWERTY thumbboard for advanced email support. The 650 also features a VGA camera, Bluetooth connectivity, stereo audio support with headphone jack, and an expansion card slot capable of everything from additional memory to GPS connectivity.
All of this pocket power does come with a price, but it's not all that steep when you think about it. The Treo 650 is larger and heavy than today's average cell phone, but at 59mm W x 113mm H x 23mm and 6.3oz it's really not all that bad. While the unlocked 650 does sell for $549 direct from Palm, the locked version is commonly available for under $300 when purchased with a service contract; GSM (Cingular, T-Mobile) and CDMA (Sprint, Verizon) versions are available. It should be noted that a new Windows Mobile-based Treo, the CDMA-only 700w, is also now available.
Treos have become so popular because they do what other smartphones until recently couldn't quite pull off, combining phone, PDA, and email functionality into a device that's ergonomically comfortable and easy to use. The Treo 650 is no exception ? this is an awesome device in many ways, and that was clear from the first few moments I spent with one. Just as quickly, I thought back six years to my aforementioned go-around with PDA's, and as I set about reviewing the 650, my guiding question quickly turned from, ?So how good is the Treo?? to ?Is the Treo the right device for me??
The question is somewhat complicated by the newly emerging breed of smartphones running on Windows Mobile, Symbian, and Linux platforms. While the Treo is certainly the forerunner for most business-centric users, consumers looking for the ultimate in cutting edge and/or powerful design and features might find the 650 a bit dated in look and feel, citing obvious factors such as a lack of included Wi-Fi support with more individual concerns like the outdated VGA camera, or frustrations in running applications designed for Palm touchscreens on a device that begs for its thumbboard to be used as often as possible.
The GSM and CDMA versions of the Treo 650 are essentially identical save for the cellular radio itself: The GSM model is a quad-band world phone while the CDMS is a 800/1900 Mhz only handset. I tested the GSM version on Cingular's network in the San Francisco, CA Bay Area.
The Treo 650 shares the same basic design and casing found on the Treo 600, which also somehow manages to combine a touch screen and thumbboard without feeling cramped or overly bulky. The earpiece is embedded at the top of the phone's front, directly above the ample touchscreen display.
Nestled below the screen is a row of buttons including dedicated Call Send/End, Home, and Menu buttons, and an excellent five-way digital navigation pad. Below these is the QWERTY thumbboard done up in silver save for the ten contrasting blue buttons which double as a keypad for dialing. The thumbboard is a compromise between space saving and ergonmonics. While larger QWERTY boards found on newer phones like the Cingular 8125 (a rebranded HTC Wizard) are easier to use, the 650's board works quite well once you get used to it. This keyboard is also backlit very nicely.
The 650 feels quite comfortable in hand, with a nice combination of solid construction and soft curves. My hands are a bit on the large side, but the average user should have no problems operating the device one-handed (as appropriate), holding it with one hand and wielding the stylus with the other, or holding it near the bottom with both hands for two-thumbed typing.
A left-side rocker switch controls volume, and a button just below that serves to confirm volume changes and launch Real Player. There are no controls on the right side of the handset, and a ringer silence button is mounted on the top edge alongside of the SD card slot and IR port. A 2.5mm stereo headset jack is located on the bottom of the phone alongside the sync/charge port that supports USB connections (a data cable is included with the phone). A stubby antenna sticks up about one-third of an inch from the top left of the phone ? a necessary evil, I suppose
The Treo 650 also has a rear-mounted VGA camera which performs fairly well for still imagery and video capture but, by today's standards, is a bit outdated. The new Treo 700w packs a 1.3 megapixel camera which, from reports I've read, far outshines the 650's capabilities.
While most potential buyers wouldn't shy away from a device like the Treo because of an inferior camera, the smartphone market is now competitive enough that anything less than a 1.3MP sensor (preferably with a business card scanner) is something of a negative.
Rather than attempting a laundry list of everything the Treo 650 can do, a sort of open-ended summary might better explain it. First off, it's a candybar-style phone with a rear-mounted speaker phone and support for Bluetooth headsets. The phone supports MIDI ringtones, vibrating ring, and picture caller ID. My test model worked very well on Cingular's GSM network, performing similarly to my own Motorola V551 and other Cingular phones I've tried in the area. Ringer and speaker volumes were adequate, as was voice quality. Talk time is rated at six hours with 300 hours of standby time (the CDMA version is slightly higher).
Running Palm OS 5.4 Garnet on a 312 Mhz Intel PXA270 "Bulverde" processor, the Treo can do quite a bit for you. Included applications handle productivity basics from personal information management to MS Word document creation, and Email to multimedia viewing. The widespread acceptance of the Palm OS means that everything from games to graphics is available for the Treo if you?re willing to look (and perhaps pay) for it.
Between the processor speed, low memory overhead of Palm 5, and the built-in 32MB of non-volatile memory, the Treo 650 has plenty of juice for almost everything one might want to do with it. Non-volatile memory also means that your data won't be lost should your battery run out mid-task, which is a very nice feature.
The 320x320, 65,000 color display is bright, sharp, and a joy to use for text, images, and even video, though it's no longer state-of-the-art in cell phone screen technology. The touchscreen works well both for UI navigation and handwriting, though it is smaller than a standard Palm display.
Being that the Treo's functionality depends so much on its touchscreen, the handset is best stored in a protective case or belt holster when not in use. The phone is a little large to keep in a pants pocket, anyway, so many aftermarket cases are available to suit individual styles and needs.
Call quality on the Treo was excellent using both the earpiece and rear-mounted speakerphone. Bluetooth support for headsets worked quite well, and the 2.5mm headphone jack can also be used with a standard, wired headset.
The built-in mp3 player works very well, and an optional adapter allows the use of high quality 3.5mm headphones with the Treo. Combined with the flexibility of the SD memory card slot, the Treo 650 can be used as a portable audio player that provides high-quality sound through headphones, docking speakers, or even connected to a home, portable, or car audio system.
Included software provides for playback of Real Media and Audible spoken word programs, and Palm OS software is also available for QuickTime and Windows Media playback. A quick look around the Web found shareware applications that provide integration with Apple's popular iTunes audio software, as well as more esoteric multimedia fare such as OggVorbis support.
Both SMS and MMS messaging protocols are supported by the Treo 650. MMS messages allow for audio, pictures, and videos to be included with text in your message, provided that both the sender and receiver's cellular service supports MMS. The Treo's camera/camcorder and SD memory card slot allow for creative MMS composition using both included and widely available shareware applications.
Even without built-in WiFi support, the Treo 650 is a very capable mobile internet device. Palm's VersaMail application supports POP3, IMAP, and Exchange Active Sync email (including multiple accounts), and the included Blazer web browser provides a good small-screen Web experience, though it can't handle everything your desktop browser can. Cingular also included their Xpress Mail client on the Treo I tested, and support for Blackberry email is also available.
Treo owners tend to be heavy data users, and the lack of WiFi means that Web and email on a Treo is subject to your cellular provider's data speeds and pricing. I found email on the Treo to be excellent, and Web to be more than acceptable. WiFi on a laptop it's not, but for a true handheld device, it's quite good.
Still, newcomers to the US smartphone market are shipping with WiFi integration right out of the box. As such, the Treo loses ground in terms of both flexibility and cost of ownership. Consider also the future potential of WiFI telephony services like Skype: A WiFi smartphone could hop off of pricey EDGE networks and onto cheaper a WiFi signal for data and (potentially) voice applications, boosting your speed and cutting your monthly usage costs way down in the process.
The SD expansion slot means you can use also use it as a fairly robust mp3 player (with the use of a 3.5mm headphone adapter) and/or to transfer files between computers. The slot also supports MMS cards and SDIO cards for GPS functionality. Unfortunately, Wi-Fi via SDIO is not supported, though a somewhat bulky Wi-Fi sled is available from Enfora and some folks around the Web have claimed to have hacked Palm's SDIO WiFi drivers to work with the 650.
With built-in Bluetooth 1.1 and an SDIO slot that's GPS-ready, the Treo 650 has the flexibility to sync with your PC/Mac, ISP email, corporate email servers, transfer files to other Bluetooth-equipped devices, and take advantage of myriad GPS services currently and soon to be available. As discussed above, the lack of WiFi is a minor drawback in practicality and something of a negative when the Treo is compared to newer cellphones. An included USB sync cable also allows for wired connectivity to PCs and other devices.
Treo owners swear by their handsets while other people can't understand why someone would need such a complicated device attached to their belt. Whether or not you'd like a Treo really comes down to which side of the fence you fall on: If you want constant mobile access to email and/or Web resources along with your phone, you're a "Treo Person."
The Treo 650 is an excellent device. Combining broad functionality with intelligent, as simple as possible, industrial design, the handset is easy to use as a phone, PDA, email/Web client, and multimedia player. Newer smartphones offer cutting edge features such as larger, slide-away QWERTY keyboards, high resolution cameras, and WiFi connectivity, but the Treo has a compact form factor, the Palm OS' longevity and legions of happy owners backing it up.
If you're in the market for a smartphone and don't need WiFi or a high-res camera, the Treo 650 is a solid choice. With futuristic smartphones like the iMate Jasjar ,HTC Wizard, and the forthcoming Motorla Q and Nokia N61 pushing the bleeding edge, true gadgetheads might shy away from purchasing a Treo 650 just yet. However, heavy email and PDA users will particularly appreciate the Treo's workhorse functionality and familiar Palm interface, and consider goodies like the mp3 player an added bonus on top of a solid, reliable communications powerhouse.