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Handspring Treo 90

Some say goodbye, some say hello

by Shawn Barnett

May 28, 2002; 3:01am

Some won't like the latest PDA from Handspring. There are many changes and there is some confusion that will come with the new Treo 90. Yet more will love it, and while a lot of features have said goodbye, many more are welcome indeed. No matter how you look at it, Handspring's Treo 90 is another big change for the handheld maker as it works its way into what will hopefully be an innovative push into profitability.

Dichotomy of the merged unmerged

To write or opine about a given item, one has to break it down into both general statements and detailed analysis. Up until now, Palm OS devices have been relatively easy to explain, because they evolve subtly over time. The Handspring Treo 180 represented a radical evolutionary leap, as it took the simple pen-based Palm OS device and integrated cell phone and pager functionality, offering these new functions without extra cost. The name Treo suggested Trio, since it was pronounced the same, and connoted three devices in one. It also introduced an integrated keyboard to the Palm OS world.

So as I look at the Treo 90 I'm tempted to get frustrated. All it has that makes it anything like a Treo is the Palm OS, the small size, and the keyboard. It is not a combined device, it is no communicator; this is not a "treo" of anything. Indeed, it will be confusing to tell someone that you've purchased a Treo, yet it has no phone or built-in wireless data ability (I'm not sure it's wise to dilute the brand this early before name-recognition has gotten its foothold). It's from Handspring, yet it has no Springboard slot. It's a Palm OS device, with a stylus, but it has no Graffiti area. Contradictions abound. "It's a step ahead as a Treo, and a step back as a Treo," I mutter as I look at the specs.

But that all dissipates as I take the Treo 90 in my hand. Four ounces. Slim, smooth, subtle curves with a flat, handsome, understated flip lid. Press any of the four application buttons and you can see the basic information without even flipping up the lid, because of the clear panel and bright color screen. Raise the lid and you find the keyboard, identical to the Treo Communicators.

Unlike the Treo Communicators, the screen is framed with shiny dark black plastic. Instead of being mounted on a fat round hinge, the Treo 90's lid is recessed and hinged on pins that sit in divots molded into the plastic housing.

On the left there is no scroll toggle, as is found on the Treo Communicators, only a lanyard point with no lanyard included to attach there; Sony does this too, and I'm mystified why they'd think to include the lashing point yet no lanyard. The back is simple and sleek, with a few marks and a serial number and barcode. This is the first time we've seen external approval marks on a Handspring device; in the past they've taken pride in hiding these marks under doors or behind the Springboard module. The Treo 90 is just too sleek and simple to hide these marks anywhere.

On the top the simplicity finishes with a power button on the user's top left, a centrally mounted SD slot, the IrDA port, hidden behind the plastic oval surrounding the SD slot, and the shorter, Treo-sized stylus.

The Treo 90 comes with a charger and HotSync cable; no cradle is included, which is also true of the other Treos. Both cables can be easily disconnected and brought along for mobile charging and HotSyncing. The HotSync button is integrated into the Treo side of the connector. The bottom has the same connector as the rest of the Treo line, compatible with the optional cradle, though it doesn't rest against the back of the cradle. Users will have to align the connector a little forward for it to mate with the cradle properly.


The Treo 90 has the same screen as the new Treo 270, a transflective color STN that displays 4,096 colors. This is a less-expensive alternative to reflective TFT, as well as the Transflective TFT seen in the Sony T615C or the newer NR70V. Indoors, it's a little more than twice as bright as the reflective and transflective TFTs I have here (Palm m515, Compaq iPAQ, Sony NR70V), and outdoors it is a little dimmer, wanting a different angle from the reflective TFTs for easy viewing. It's strange, but whereas the reflective TFTs are flat and contrasty, the color screens on the new Treos appear to have depth. It's as if the icons and letters are small plastic objects suspended in a nearly-clear wax substrate. The effect is interesting. What's most important is that the screen is easily used indoors or out, something that was a shortcoming in the first two color Palm OS devices, the Palm IIIc and Handspring Visor Prism, whose screens went black in direct sunlight.

The screen on the Palm m130, which also has a transflective CSTN screen, doesn't display this mysterious depth. I bring the m130 into the discussion because it is in the same price range and as I noted in my original review its one flaw as a color device was its slow screen refresh for action games like Zap 2000. Slow refresh is a standard problem with color STN screens. The Treo 90's screen seems to be a bit faster than the Palm m130. There isn't as much ghosting, though play seems a bit faster on the m130. Both are fuzzy with action games, however, so serious gamers should consider this when shopping for a color device. TFT will be clearer for action games. Slower games like Bejeweled are just fine on these bright and vibrant backlit displays.

One note: Pictures are good, but not fantastic on the Treo 90's 4,096 color display. 4,096 is a lot more colors than 256 (Palm IIIc), but a lot fewer than 65,536 (Palm m515, Visor Prism). As a result subtle gradations like skin tones turn into color zones, especially on faces. Close-ups of faces often look like "paint by numbers" paintings rather than photos. It's not terrible, just not as photo-realistic as competing 64K color machines.

Current monochrome users will like the Treo 90 for it's versatility in many lighting situations, and its superior brightness indoors (superior to other reflective/transflective designs, that is), not to mention its smaller size and low weight.

Key combinations

Palms have long since gone beyond the four function buttons that appeared on the original US Robotics Pilot. So Handspring uses the built-in keyboard's little blue option button make the ToDo and Memo buttons launch CityTime and Calculator. Of course, that's not all you can do with the option button. In fact, you're going to have to learn a lot of new keystrokes and key combinations, because making a 34-button keyboard emulate a modern 84 button keyboard is a bit complicated.

First off, the scroll buttons don't behave as you're used to. They jump from one program or item to the next, presumably so you don't have to get the stylus out so often. You can also type the first character of the item you're looking for, like P for Preferences. If you want to scroll like before, you press the shift key, then the scroll button.

All of these shift keys, by the way, are "sticky" meaning that like the shift and punctuation shift in Graffiti you just press them once to tell the Treo that you want the next character affected; there is no need to hold the button down, as we've seen on the Sony NR70. On such a small keyboard, this sticky shift is essential to keep one from injuring oneself in a game of finger "Twister." Press the option and shift buttons twice, and the shift is locked, necessary for number and all-cap entry.

Many characters are not displayed on the keyboard at all. These are accessed in a non-obvious way. For most symbols, you first press the option button, then the key where the character is hidden. Naturally you have to know which one you want. Let's say the ampersand character (&). This is "behind" the + character, so press that. Then you press the "..." key, which doubles as the zero key. This brings up what's called the List View. Now the plus character has a pull-down menu attached, from which you can pick your character. In this case, the only other option is the ampersand, and it's already selected, so all you do is tap on it with the stylus or press the space bar. If the list has more characters, you scroll down with the scroll buttons, then select with the space bar. The most in any one list appears to be seven, though the keys that conceal more characters are randomly scattered across the keyboard. Even the List View button itself conceals two characters. Accented characters are accessed without the option button, and even formerly essential characters, such as the shortcut stroke, are buried, in this case under the S key. Shortcut is now not so short: Type S, then press List View, then hit the down scroll button three times (or up twice), then press spacebar. Sheesh.

Users will do well to read the manual and the Welcome program, and explore the device themselves. As was true with Graffiti, there's a lot more than meets the eye, and some experimentation and study will allow users to make the most of their purchase. Though the keyboard takes away the complication of learning Graffiti strokes, it adds the new complication of learning key combinations and remembering where characters are located. In applications that accept typing input, Command G will bring up the keyboard help screen, which includes copious tips and a complete list of the symbols and where they reside.

Stylus or keyboard: both

I think a lot of existing Palm OS users are going to give the Treo 90 a try, so I'll continue to bring up the differences working with a keyboard instead of Graffiti. The keyboard is both blessing and curse to the experienced Palm OS user. I've discussed this at length with a few readers, and I'll give it another try here.

With these two new Treos they've taken steps to remove our dependence on the stylus, something they worked for years to get us comfortable with. I've already mentioned the use of the scroll button to select applications; the same is true with memos in the Memo Pad. Traditional Palm OS devices scroll the list and rely on the user picking the individual memos with the stylus, but this new Treo method allows users to avoid removing the stylus. Unfortunately with a long list it also takes longer.

To make this shorter, I'll just say that most users switching from another Palm device will find themselves shifting between left hand holding for viewing, both hands for typing, and back to one hand again when they remove the stylus to start tapping again.

The power switch is badly placed at the top left by the way. It's only really easily turned on with the index finger when in the right hand, which should please lefties. Otherwise it's cumbersome. Until users get accustomed to the all-button method, it'll be a bit of a juggling act. It's not bad, just new.

Menus are accessed by pressing the command stroke button on the lower right. Hawkins and his team tried a number of different symbols to replace the command stroke, but in the end the Graffiti symbol for the command stroke worked just as well as any. One can move from pull down to pull down without touching the screen by pressing the scroll up button, and pressing the scroll down button selects the menu options.

There are still instances when you'll need to tap on the screen, like when you're in Preferences and you want to pull down the top right menu. You'll have to get out the stylus at that point, or just tap with your fingernail, a less accurate option. There may be another way to jump to this menu, but I haven't found it yet.

You can move the cursor back and forth in a line of text by holding the Option button and pressing the scroll up and down buttons, and most affirmative buttons, like "OK" and "Done" can be selected by pressing Option + Enter.

Also, it used to be very simple to re-center yourself on your Palm OS device by tapping on the silk-screened Applications button in the Graffiti area (the small house icon). Re-centering now requires pressing two buttons all the way across the keyboard from one-another: the option button and the command button. It's not that problematic, but it does require both thumbs and isn't as easy as tapping on the formerly ever-present house icon.

I'll say again that the keyboard is surprisingly easy to use for basic typing. Many seem to think that thumb typing will be clumsy because they're so big and infrequently relied-upon by humans for precise manipulation or work. But angling the thumbs downward slightly makes selecting each key simple. As I said in the Treo 180 review, it does usually involve both thumbs and both eyes to seek out each character, which is a little less casual than Graffiti can be to the trained user, but it will be preferred by those who for whatever reason didn't like Graffiti.

It's a shame that the keyboard is not backlit like the keyboard on the Treo 270. A color device is a natural for use in darkness, but not if the main interface we're being trained to use is accessed visually and made completely unavailable by darkness.

Flip lid

I prefer PDAs with flip lids or other built-in screen protection, so I really like the Treo 90's slim, well-integrated lid. It is attractive and adds hardly a millimeter to its thickness while completely covering the screen and keyboard. But Handspring knew from experience that some wouldn't like it at all. So they made it removable, and also thought to include a keylock. Just hold down the power button for two seconds and the keys are locked. Repeat the action and press OK onscreen to deactivate the keylock. The unit does look quite a bit better with the lid, so most users will likely leave it. Many cases will of course require removal of the lid.

One minor problem with the Treo 90 is finger smudges. Not only will you get them on the screen, but on both the inside and outside of the flip lid. As I say, it's minor, but it is unattractive and annoying, and completely unavoidable.


While the Treo 90 is not a Communicator, Handspring has not left it without wireless options. The first is available from in the form of a cell phone connection cable. Many popular data-capable phones are supported and it is only US$29.95.

Because it uses Palm OS 4.1H, the Treo 90 will be compatible with things like Web Clipping, so Handspring has not left it without options.


It's been getting harder and harder to sync more than one brand of device with your computer due to the many USB HotSync drivers, and the Treos are no exception. In fact, when I installed the Treo 90 before the Treo 270, I was shocked when the latter's software disabled the former's. I was informed by Handspring that the Treo 90 is the newer version of the software, and designed to work with all Treos. Sure enough, reinstalling the Treo 90 software has made both devices able to work on the same computer (I'm told this software is also available for download from the Handspring site).

Otherwise, the Treos are backward compatible with most programs and data sets. I've not come across any that don't work. I will reiterate that the Treo 90's SD slot will only work with SD and MMC memory cards, not SDIO cards, and not most pre-loaded SD format cards (cards with commercial software). Commercial MMC cards seem to work. Handspring tentatively plans to roll out SDIO compatibility when and if more SDIO cards become available.


Gone is Graffiti, gone is Springboard. Nearly eliminated is the stylus. Likely on the way out are monochrome screens. Missing is integrated Bluetooth. Also gone is excessive weight and size. The Visors were criticized for being a little too big and some said unattractive.

Say hello

Arrived is Hawkins' prediction that "if anything these things are going to get smaller." The Treo 90 is the smallest, slimmest, and equal to the lightest PDA out there: the monochrome Palm m500; only the Treo 90 is color, and that low weight includes the flip lid. When I say it's the slimmest, I don't mean thickness, I mean width as it sits in the hand. It has more of a bullet shape than the m500 series, and it is shorter than all others as well, with a short stylus to fit. Some in our office have said the plastic back looks cheap, others have said it looks elegant. I'm pretty pleased with the whole package, and side with the elegant votes save for one slight blemish: the mold seam just below the SD slot. Hopefully that will be smoothed on production models.

Yes, the metal of the Palm m515 and magnesium of the Sony NR70V are nice, but light weight and low cost are also important virtues. The Treo 90 is comfortable stashed just about anywhere and is hardly noticeable in a shirt pocket, jacket pocket, or even front pocket. It approaches the RIM 957 in size and its tapers soften the feel.

What nearly all PDA shoppers want is present in the Treo 90: light weight, slim profile, a good color screen with integrated screen protection, easy data entry, removable storage, fast HotSync, a slick look, and a good price for all of it. I predict it will be very popular. US$299.

-Shawn Barnett

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