Palm Treo 700w
The first Windows Mobile-powered Palm device looks good indeed
It cannot be!
No one thought it would ever happen, and yet a Palm device running the Windows Mobile operating environment is now here. The Palm Treo 700w Smartphone is the first such Palm, and also the first Treo to take advantage of Verizon Wireless BroadbandAccess service on its EV-DO network. As those who follow Palm's trials and tribulations well remember, the company vehemently denied any rumors that negotiations with Microsoft were underway. However, the fact is that, according to a Palm spokesperson during a recent conference call, Palm has worked closely with Microsoft and Verizon on this product for the last couple of years. It makes, of course, perfect sense that this was kept a secret. However, it also shows how much on target the rumor mill usually is.
The Big Lovefest
Now that it's all out in the open and the first actual product is here, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is just thrilled: "The Treo 700w showcases the dynamic blend of Palm's innovative design, Verizon Wireless's EV-DO network, and the power of Windows Mobile software to connect professionals to their critical information on the go." Palm president and CEO Ed Colligan is equally pleased: "Customers have long been asking for a Palm Treo smartphone on the Windows platform, and we're thrilled to say it's here on the Verizon Wireless network. The Treo 700w smartphone is powerful, flexible, easy to use, while also being enterprise grade right out of the box."
The overall message here is that this is a Palm that is enterprise grade as opposed to all those other Palms that only addressed part of the market, but not those corporate customers who wanted Windows Mobile. That's Palm's words, not ours, but that's what we knew all along anyway.
A Palm running Windows Mobile might have been unthinkable once, but that doesn't mean it makes no sense. From a corporate customer's perspective, it's likely much simpler to get approval to get a Windows-based Palm device, one that provides seamless access to Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 and other Windows software. IT managers all over the world won't lose sleep over soon no longer having to support all those Palm devices that employees bought on their own and wanted to use at work. Integrating those devices wasn't that difficult as Palm always offered good desktop tools, but the fact still is that Microsoft rules the desktop and increasingly the backend in corporate America, and having a common OS platform/family does make things easier.
Begin of a new era
If the 700w is the start of a new era, one where the corporate Palms use the increasingly industry-standard Windows Mobile OS while consumer-oriented Palms may continue to use the legacy Palm OS or whatever it may morph into, maybe that's not such a bad thing. Of course, we've seen other innovative mavericks with software better than Microsoft's go down the drain, or at least sink into insignificance, once they gave up on their own platform and chose Microsoft instead. Remember Psion? There we had a company that not only had a superior software platform but also superior hardware, and they still did not manage to survive as makers of consumer or even corporate handhelds and specialized on vertical market devices and software licensing instead.
What will happen with Palm is hard to guess. A negative scenario is that they, too, will quickly become just another of the many Windows Mobile OEMs and then disappear because they cannot compete with less expensive Taiwanese and Chinese licensees. An optimistic scenario is that the Windows Treo really catches on and propels Palm into something Microsoft has never had: an innovative hardware company totally dedicated to nothing but making great Windows Mobile handhelds and smartphones. The emphasis here is on nothing else. Sure, the HP iPAQ is terrific. But it's really just a line of slick handhelds made by Asian OEMs and representing a minuscule fraction of Hewlett Packard's overall business. Microsoft always had that problem with Windows CE: none of the OEMs took Windows CE devices very seriously whereas for Palm it was its only business, and so Palm prevailed for all those years. But this is a new era. Most likely, what will really happen with Palm lies somewhere in the middle; they will go on with a broader lineup that has appeal across the consumer/business broder.
Treo sales potential
In fact, while we had doubts about the likes of Palm competing with the likes of Nokia and Motorola in the smartphone space, the Treo may well be just what the market wants. According to Colligan, Palm shipped a million Treo 650s in the first half of fiscal 2006, and that's in addition to the more than a million Treos shipped in fiscal 2005. And that's also with the Treo 650 really just starting to hit on all marketing cylinders. I asked the Palm spokesperson during the introduction of the Treo 700w how they saw market share divide between the Palm-based Treo 650 and the Windows Mobile-based Treo 700w, not expecting an answer as companies are usually reluctant to make such predictions. I was thus surprised when the spokesperson volunteered that the Treo 700w "may double or triple the customer base." If we assume the Treo 650 will continue to sell at its current pace of two million a year, that would mean another two to four million Treo 700ws, for a total of four to six million Treos. Not a bad number, and Palm said it was going to release three more Treos during 2006. Those often burned Palm stock holders may yet have a reason to smile, or better.
The Palm Treo 700w
After all those contemplations, let's take a look at the actual product, the Treo 700w. Anyone who has ever seen a Treo 650 will immediately recognize the Treo 700w. They look almost identical unless you place them side by side. Then you'll find numerous little differences. The tiny thumbtype keys are shaped differently, and the same goes for the navigation pad, the hardware control buttons, and many other little touches. Everything is in the same place and works the same; it's just a bit different, just as Fords and Chevys used to have all those minor changes in chrome trim and other small areas every model year. The overall look of the Treo 700w is busy and almost a bit baroque, with a multitude of colors, shapes, curves and lines competing to make a whole. The overall result is not unpleasant, it's just that's it is pretty much on the opposite side of the design spectrum of, for example, the sleek, edgy Motorola RAZR or anything designed by Apple. That's not necessarily a negative as the Treo's success aptly proves.
As a result of this school of design, the Treo looks larger than it is. However, actual measurements are just 2.3 x 4.4 x 0.9 inches and it weighs 6.4 ounces on our scale. So while the 700w is thicker than its most direct competitor -- the HP iPAQ 6550 -- the Treo is smaller and it definitely feels smaller in your hand. Its screen, unfortunately, is smaller, too, at 2.5 inches diagonal versus the 3-inch screen of the iPAQ. Though it is small for a PDA phone, it is obviously a good deal larger than the teensy candy bar and fliphones that are being sold by the gazillions. There is now way around that (for now, anyway) as the Treo does a whole lot more than almost any other smartphone.
What do you really get?
What do you get with a Treo 700w? That would be a compact, brilliantly conceived all-in-one smartphone that combines many aspects of Palm's superior ease-of-use with Verizon's speedy EV-DO network and the industrial-strength Microsoft Windows Mobile 5.0 that has the coveted corporate seal of approval. You also get a device with a size, design, and form factor that apparently resonates with the buying public. It's not too large, not too small, and people seem to like the integrated thumb keyboard.
What is EV-DO?
What's the big deal with Verizon's EV-DO (Evolution Data Optimized) network? While I would not exactly call it "broadband access," it is significantly faster than what we used to have to browse the web and download email on handheld devices. Palm and Verizon claim 400 to 700 kbps download speeds, which would indeed place it into the lower DSL speed realm. Is it actually available? According to Verizon, about half the US population living in almost 1,200 metropolitan areas can take advantage of it. Sadly, as occupants of our editorial offices just outside of Sacramento, the capital of the State of California, we apparently fall into the other half as our 700w resorted to the older 1x data network. Still, coverage will increase as time goes on, and that's good news for a device that was designed, according to Palm, from the ground up for high-speed networks.
I did get a chance to witness EV-DO speed in another part of the Sacramento Metropolitan area. EV-DO is very clearly faster than anything I've seen on a mobile device, but it's still relative. Websites load a lot faster, but somehow it still does not seem like DSL speed. faster is always better, but "mobile fast" always seems different from "desktop fast."
Hardware: ups and downs
On the hardware side where Palm and Windows CE devices once wildly differed, you get roughly the same. Both Treo versions have an Intel 312MHz XScale PXA processor. The 700w, thankfully, has more memory than the Treo 650 -- a total of 128MB of which about 60 are available to the user for program and storage. On the other hand, the Windows Mobile version has less screen resolution: 240 x 240 pixels versus the 650's 320 x 320. Windows Mobile supports 480 x 480, but that would have increased the price substantially. As is, 240 x 240 actually looks very crisp and sharp on the small 2.5-inch display, so 480 x 480 may have been overkill. One concern I have is that virtually all Windows Mobile software is written for the 240 x 320 format. Despite Palm's assurance that third parties have been encouraged to make apps available for the square 240 x 240 format, that will take time, and a lot will never become available. As is, I did not find a screen capture utility so I could include screens into this review.
Both versions have a SDIO slot and both have an integrated digital camera, with the 700w sporting a 1.3 megapixel imager -- good for 1280 x 960 pictures -- versus the mere 640 x 480 pixel images the Treo 650 can take. Both have a 2X digital zoom. The removable Li-Ion battery is good for up to 4.7 hours of talk time and up to 15 days of standby, comparable to the Treo 650. Like the 650, the 700w has Bluetooth but no 802.11b WiFi.
In terms of software, with the Treo 700w you get Microsoft's platform and Microsoft's suite of applications: Calendar, Contacts, Internet Explorer, Messaging, Windows Media, mobile versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, a Camera application and one to organize pictures and videos, plus the whole slew of Windows Mobile utilities and control panels. You also get Picsel Viewer to view PDF files should they make it to the tiny screen. Neither Palms nor Pocket PCs have ever been lacking in good software, and so both Treos offer a lot right out of the box.
Palm innovations on the 700w
With Palm's reputation for user friendliness, you'd expect the Treo 700w to offer more than just the standard Windows Mobile software, and that assumption is right. There are a number of "Palm innovations" that emphasize one-touch access to the most commonly used communications features. Those features can primarily be found in and around the central Today screen. Specifically, Palm aimed to provide:
- A better view of the Today screen
- Fast and friendly call management
- Ease of communication and personalization
A better Today screen
The Treo 700w's Today screen indeed looks different from that on any other Windows Mobile device. It is packed with communication-centric information and quick access to communication features. There is a dial-by-name box which brings up the phone numbers of possible matches as soon as you start typing. Next come speed dial boxes that you can either tap to dial, or call by assigning a number or letter to them. You can have up to six of them on the screen, though using the maximum will take away space from the Appointments and Unread Messages listings. A nice touch is you can create "photo" speed dials that use little pictures instead of names. Another handy innovation is a unique web search box. Type in one or more search words and the Treo will immediately launch a Google search. Palm also implemented the cellphone way of using a left and a right hardware button below the screen to select onscreen menu options. "Menu" lets you quickly bring up a standard dial pad, the call logs, or change settings. "Messaging" brings up the standard Windows Mobile email and messaging client. All good stuff.
Fast and friendly call management
Under the area of "fast and friendly call management" falls an easy way to either forward an incoming call to voice mail, or respond with either a canned or live SMS message. Users can also set up speed dials that access voice mail systems in addition to Verizon's. "Sound enhancements" adds a "manage" tab to the standard Windows Mobile "Sounds & Notifications" panel. There you can select ring tones or, oh joy, add new ones that you can purchase or otherwise create. A fun touch is that you can also use video files as ring tones.
Email and messaging
Email and messaging pretty much use the standard Windows Mobile messaging client. But since Palm has a "push email" reputation to uphold that goes all the way back to the original Palm VII, you can sign up for a Verizon Wireless Sync account that in conjunction with special desktop software, can "push" email whenever it arrives in your desktop inbox. Corporate users with Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 installations can do direct wireless synchronization via Exchange ActiveSync. Wired synchronizing via ActiveSync 4.1 is fun insofar as the Treo 700w's sync cable, in old Palm tradition, has a hardware sync button like all those Palm cradles had. In Windows Mobile you usually sync automatically. Here you push the button. A nice retro/nostalgic touch.
Music and media
In this day and age of iPods, no mobile device would be complete without a fairly decent way to download and play music. The Treo700w uses the Windows Media Player Mobile that supports WMA, WMV, MP3 and 3G3 file formats. Music can easily be transferred with the desktop Media Player and then listened to via the Treo's speaker or stereo headphones. Remember that the Treo has a 2.5mm jack, so you need an adapter to use 3.5mm headphone jacks.
The 1.3 megapixel camera is a mixed blessing. It's nice to have the extra pixels but, truth be told, I'd rather have a better lens and lower resolution. As is, the Windows Treo generates rather murky, blurry 1.3 megapixel pictures. It still comes in handy to have the camera, but it truly puzzles me why even a premium device like the Treo 700w doesn't have a decent lens.
The availability of the high-speed EV-DO data network promises much more pleasant web browsing, and to some extent it is. Even with the slower 1x network the Treo 700 brought up web pages quickly and rarely got hung up. With EV-DO available, there was almost no waiting at all. Problem is that a 240 x 240 display is woefully inadequate to display today's massive, complex webpages. And some pages simply do not display right. I could, for example, not log into my AdSense account as the login boxes were off-screen. The challenge thus is to find a useful selection sites specially formatted for mobile devices.
So that's the Treo 700w. We like it. A lot. Palm picked an already hugely popular product as the basis for its first Windows Mobile device and then added its special sauce in the form of some much appreciated software touches where they matter most. The result is arguably the best Windows Mobile based smartphone yet. For now the 700w is Verizon only, but Palm will eventually add other carriers towards the end of 2006, and GSM versions are considered also. What does it cost? US$399 street with a 2-year service agreement, or US$599 without it. Expensive for a phone, but not for what it offers.
Wait... the Treo TripKit
This review cannot end without a special mention of the optional Treo TripKit, sold separately for US$199. It is a really fancy leather roll-up that looks like it might be a small toolkit from a fine luxury automobile, like a Bentley or a Maybach. It's supple and soft and smells deliciously like the richest leather. However, no tools inside this beauty. Instead you find a variety of essentials for the Treo owner on the go: a Bluetooth headset, an equally aromatic lambskin leather case, an international charger, an extra battery, a vehicle charger, and an extra stylus. I swear, the smell of the thing alone is worth the price of it.
-- Conrad H. Blickenstorfer