SUMMARY--Available in both CDMA/1xRTT and Quad-band GSM/GPRS, the Treo 600 moved Handspring into ARM and Palm OS 5 territory right before they were bout out by palmOne. The 600 integrates a 640 x 480 digital camera for quick snapshots, and an SD slot to go with it. In addition to a high quality look and feel, refinements were added to the interface, including an excellent 5-way nav disk. One can scroll among the possible selections on the screen, including buttons and pulldowns, and navigate without removing the stylus. The thumbtype keyboard can be used to quickly place a call, lookup a site, or send an email using hot key assignments. The design retains smart features like the mute switch and quick lookup of phone numbers in just a few keystrokes. Drawbacks are a 160x160 display, a slow processor, and not enough memory for a device in this class.
FULL REVIEW--Google the words "Treo 600 review" and you'll receive page after page linking to glowing reviews, even from writers who've never had a kind word for PDA/phone combos. And it's no surprise, really. The Treo 600 is an almost complete rethink of the genre. It's a great phone, a damn good Palm organizer, a superb email machine, and it looks cool. Unlike every other communicator I've ever carried--and that includes every communicator that ever made it out of the lab and was sold in the USA--the Treo 600 has never caused me to hear those dreaded words, "Why is your phone so big?" falling from female lips.
Past attempts to marry the common PDA with phonus mobilis have been, on the whole, both aesthetic and business disasters. The first "smartphones" were huge, brick-like beasts that sold so poorly that it became a running joke. In years following, Palm-powered combos slimmed down but still lacked user interfaces that anyone could love. When Microsoft jumped into the fray, their Pocket PC Phone Edition machines offered much to like in somewhat slimmer, more phone-like designs, but still the UI sucked for all but diehard Windows CE fanatics--my wife being among this number. (She loves her second-generation PPC Phone, the Samsung i700 running on Verizon's zippy CDMA/1XRTT Express Network.)
Handspring singlehandedly leapfrogged everyone with their Treo 300 communicator, a device that was well received by the press and users alike. Its main drawback was that it looked more like a PDA than a phone in an era when mobiles had become fashion statements. Small and shiny was all the rage and the first Treo design was neither. It was packaging, not functionality, than kept the early Treos from achieving mass acceptance.
Now we have the 600, Handspring's swan song before they are subsumed into Palm. And what a fine tune it is to hear as they depart this pond forever.
Hold a Treo 600 in your hand and you know something is there. It's larger (4.4 x 2.4 x 0.9 inches) and heavier (6.2 ounces) than just about any late model mobile phone. Hold it up to your ear and it feels no different than any mobile. The Sprint PCS model that I reviewed has a protruding lip around the earpiece that makes finding the sweet spot easy. The microphone is sensitive enough that you can hold the bottom of the 600 farther away than your typical mobile, thus reducing the display smear somewhat. Use the excellent speakerphone and you can eliminate the smear altogether. Like most current designs, the speaker is in the back so you never risk getting your eardrum blasted accidentally.
Controls consist of four assignable hard buttons surrounding a well designed five-way rocker cluster, front and center. Below is Handspring's controversial micro-keyboard--like a shrunken Blackberry 'board but with taller domed tops and backlit keys. On first glance, I laughed. How can I possibly use this dinky little 'board? I want my Graffiti! Over time, though, I've grown not to love it but to respect the genius of the design. Once I added in the Graffiti-like Jot (www.cic.com) handwriting reco engine, I use the pen for most text entry and the keyboard for dialing phone numbers, punctuation, and for entering special characters. For a longtime Pen-based guy like me, this is a fairly satisfying compromise that I can live with.
On top there is a power button and a very welcome mute switch. All mobile devices should have such easy to access controls for when entering environments where noise and/or RF signals are verboten. (Kudos to Handspring for taking the high road here. Nokia, Sony-Ericsson, Motorola, Samsung, LG, Sanyo--are you paying attention?) Rounding out the controls are a pair of volume buttons on the left side. The right side is smooth and snag-free.
Handspring made a number of seemingly small but actually quite important changes to the Palm OS to simplify and streamline using the device. The traditional Datebook and To Do functions are now called Calendar, while the Contact database is fully integrated into the phone. When you search for a name (which you can quickly do by merely typing the person's initials) you are presented with the phone numbers first. If you want address or email info you either hit the Menu button and scroll down to Open Contact or tap on the name. In another bright move, they've made it easy to get to your data while on a call--looking up another person's email address, for example, or jotting down a quick note to yourself. Once you are finished with this, just click on the Phone hard button and you're back in the call screen. Try doing this on a Pocket PC phone and you'll probably hang up on your caller, or at least get lost trying to get back where you were.
In short, making and taking calls are a snap, as they should be. No complaints here.
In the wireless data realm, getting things done is just as simple and drama-free. The five-way rocker comes pre-defined to activate the Favorites screen, which is essentially a launcher for up to 50 speed dials, websites, and often-used applications. Speed dial contacts can have a photo associated with them, so whenever they call you get their image on the screen to announce them--a thoughtful touch. Palm provides a simple Mail program than can access up to five standard POP3 mail accounts, though at the time I write this it is still in public beta. I've been relying on this simple but effective free app for many weeks with no trouble at all. It will check any account at intervals and during hours or days you select, and even supports simple attachments. Mail offers all the functionality that I need, but corporate types will want to look at the powerful new MessageXpress from Visto (www. visto.com/treo600).
The Treo 600 ships with an updated version of Handspring's redoubtable Blazer browser, now fully proxy-less. It is fine for smaller pages, but like all microbrowsers is really best suited for sites with dedicated, PDA-friendly layouts. I use Blazer regularly to look up a word at Dictionary.com and to glance at the news and weather sections of both Sprint and Handspring portal pages, but that's it. Any real surfing can wait until I get back to my PowerBook.
I'll media halfway
The one big disappointment in the Treo 600 is the modest 3375-color, 160x160 pixel CSTN display, a compromise made to keep the battery life high. Frankly, I would happily given up one-fourth of my talk time for a 320x320 transflective (outdoor-readable) display. After using a Tungsten T for months, the Treo 600's pixel-puny LCD is almost painful. On the bright side, the 600's LCD is just that: bright. Though unreadable in direct sunlight, it is very crisp everywhere else. If next year's rumored Treo 700 has an equally bright 320x320 display, I'll be first in line to upgrade and damn the cost --eyestrain is more painful to me than parting with a couple of C-notes.
In the trendy department, the Treo 600 has a 640x480 digital camera. As other reviewers have written, this little snapper is no substitute for your Canon, Nikon, or Sony pocket camera. In all but the best light, picture come out grainy and distorted. They are suitable only for display on a screen, not for printing. But to expect more is to miss the point. Cameras in phones are great fun and offer a new way to communicate. The space they take up inside is insignificant, so even if you never use them it doesn't matter. Just knowing the feature is there for that once-in-a-lifetime photo op is comforting. Handspring wisely recessed the lens into the 600's back to help minimize the inevitable smudging. Make it a habit to wipe it off with a soft shirt sleeve before shooting and you'll be happier with the result.
Another media capability offered by the Treo 600 is digital music playback. Though the device does not include a player, Pocket Tunes (www.normsoft.com) has been well received by my tech journalist peers. The 600's powerful 144MHz processor even offers you the ability to listen to music in the background while you perform other functions. Personally, I have no use for this feature, as I'm one of those annoying iPod snobs.
Concerning specifications, the 600's pretty well loaded. The aforementioned 144MHz ARM-cored OMAP processor benchmarks slightly faster than my reliable "old" Tungsten T. Raw performance is unlikely to be a problem for anyone except those who like to watch digital movies on a handheld--a practice that, I must confess, always leaves me wondering why bother?
Memory is an adequate 24MB of usable space, with an SDIO-compliant SecureDigital slot up top for those who require more space for music, photos, or whatever kind of stream floats your boat. You'll love the polyphonic ringtones and system sounds. The 600 sounds so much richer than any previous Handspring that you'll be startled the first time you hear it and consistently pleased to hear it thereafter.
I almost forgot to mention battery life because it is so superbly long it's easy to forget about entirely. The fixed, 1800 mAh lithium-polymer cell charges in three hours and provides four hours of talk time or ten days of standby. I pop mine on the charger (available as an option) every few days for an hour or so and have never run it flat in many weeks of constant use.
What's missing besides a high-res display? Not much. There's no Bluetooth, no Graffiti option, no analog roaming, no sync/charge cradle, and no included music player software. The case is an afterthought; get a good leather case if you value your communicator. Also, I could do without the fake chrome bezel treatment, but that is just my personal aesthetic preference.
All the usual suspects offer versions of the Treo 600: Sprint, AT&T, Cingular, and T-Mobile. Notably absent is Verizon, which is odd since their technology is identical to Sprint's. Amazon.com has a smokin' good deal on a Sprint 600 for first timers: US$250 after rebate. Everyone else charges between US$400 and US$500 at the time I write this (end of January 2004).
For anyone who is tired of purchasing, carrying, and maintaining both a PDA and a mobile, there is now a smartphone that can live up to the name. - -David MacNeill