Palm's Treo 700w Smartphone - the first Windows Mobile-based Palm product - makes some very smart adjustments in melding the popular Treo hardware with Microsoft's operating system for handhelds. Is it a perfect hybrid? No, but it certainly should strike fear into the hearts of other Windows Mobile smartphone vendors.

Like its Palm OS-based predecessors, the 700w (which runs Windows Mobile 5) capably strikes a balance between personal digital assistant and cell phone. It's small enough (4.4 by 2.3 by 0.9 inches) and light enough (6.4 ounces) to fit in most trouser pockets, but not so tiny that you can't read the display or type on the integrated QWERTY keyboard.

Previous Treos have arrived in the UK from Orange, but for now the 700w is available only in the US, where Verizon has a six month exclusive contract.
It costs $500 (or $400, along with a $90 monthly plan, made up of $40 voice plus $50 data). This price is not out of line for a full-featured PDA-phone hybrid.

Similar to the 650
In many ways the 700w is similar to the Palm OS-based Treo 650; both use the same connectors, for example. The 700w is powered by a 312-MHz Intel XScale processor and has 128 Mbyte of memory, including 60 Mbyte of user-available memory.

At first glance the Treo 700w's button layout doesn't seem much different from that of the Treo 600 or 650 (both of which are based on the Palm OS). On closer inspection, however, you notice that the Calendar button immediately to the left of the central rocker button has been replaced by a Windows Mobile Start button that brings up the main Windows Mobile menu. Meanwhile, the e-mail button immediately to the right of the rocker is now an OK button, which you can use to shut down Windows or processes (instead of tapping an on-screen OK or X). This button is especially useful considering Windows Mobile's proclivity for keeping apps running and using up memory (you can even shut down a bunch of apps in a memory manager by simply pressing the OK button). But I missed the one-touch access to my e-mail and calendar.

The two buttons directly beneath the display, which in the 650 are smaller and bring up the main Palm menu and the current screen's drop-down menu, respectively, now simply activate right- and left-hand on-screen options (a common feature in many cell phones).

A new today screen
Instead of the familiar icon-driven Palm home screen, the 240-by-240-resolution screen displays a variant of the Windows Mobile Today screen that adds two empty text boxes - one for typing in a contact's name or phone number (so that you can quickly initiate a phone call) and another where you can type in keywords for a Google Web search.

When I did a Web search, I was immediately struck by how swiftly Google's results arrived, usingVerizon Wireless's EV-Do network. Its performance at any Internet activity leaves that of other Treos (and most other handhelds of any sort) in the dust.

But I was less pleased with the altered contact-lookup feature. Unlike Palm-based Treos, which let you search your contacts by typing in a first initial and a last name, the 700w assumes you are typing in a last name followed by a first name; if it finds no match, it assumes you are typing a number. The problem is that you can wind up doing more typing, since entering a last name can bring up half a dozen members of the same family - and you have to type in the whole last name before you can get to the first name. The first-initial/last-name combination more quickly narrows down the list of possible candidates.

Speed-dial by photo
As an alternative to contact lookup, you can of course assign speed-dial numbers to frequently called phone numbers. Palm embellishes this common cell phone feature with text and photo speed-dial options.

You can assign a name to a speed-dial number (like "Mom" or "Jane"), and if you've added an image to a contact entry, you can use that image instead. Either way, the images or names will appear on the Today screen, where tapping or selecting (using the navigation buttons) the image or name dials the number you've assigned. (If a contact has more than one phone number, you must decide which one the speed-dial feature will call.) It's a lot easier than memorising a bunch of speed-dial numbers.

Another new phone feature is the option to respond to an ignored incoming call with a text message. Since Caller ID typically lets you know who's on the other end, you might want to use this option if you're unable to answer the phone but would like to give the caller a more personalized response than a prerecorded voice-mail message. The call itself still goes to voice mail, but you might, for example, quickly type a message saying you'll call back in 5 minutes.

Of course, this works only when the caller is on a cell phone or handheld that supports text messaging, but since the Treo's Caller ID feature looks for matches in your contacts, it will also display whether the call is from a home, work, or cell phone.

While on a voice call, you can send text messages and run other apps on the handheld - but you cannot use the EvDO data network.

Visual voice-mail commands
Another new and helpful feature is a voice-mail management system that uses icons similar to those on a VCR or DVR. The idea is to eliminate confusion over differing keypad commands for various voice-mail systems: For example, the command for replaying a message may be different on your work system than it is on your cell phone, but by assigning the appropriate key to an icon, you don't have to remember a lot of these commands.

The phone comes preconfigured for Verizon Wireless's voice mail, but you can add the settings for other voice-mail accounts. There are provisions for dialing extra digits before you get to the actual voice mail, but the setup can be tricky.

In addition to the usual customised ring tone capability, the Treo 700w lets you use a video clip as a ring tone.

E-mail wizard
The Treo 700w comes with out-of-the-box support for Microsoft Exchange 2003 e-mail (accessed via Outlook Mobile) and Hotmail accounts (you don't need to use Hotmail's Web interface). Additionally, you can collect mail from up to five POP3 or IMAP accounts.

Though the unit has integrated Bluetooth for setting up a hands-free car kit or a headset, it does not support use of the device as a modem; you can't get your notebook on 3G via a Bluetooth hookup.

The 700w's 1.3-megapixel camera is a definite step up from the VGA camera in previous Treos. Image quality is noticeably superior, especially in bad lighting conditions. You can also perform rudimentary image editing tasks on the device, such as cropping or rotating images, or changing the brightness and contrast levels.

Windows Media Player Mobile can play music and video transferred from a PC running Windows Media Player 10. (The device supports Microsoft's Janus copy protection technology; you can play music from compatible services such as Rhapsody.) And going forward, the Treo 700w will support Verizon Wireless's VCast streaming multimedia service.

The Treo 700w is almost guaranteed to please a growing number of mobile professionals who are tied to Microsoft Exchange Server, and the fast data support is the icing on the cake. Palm may not have single-handedly solved all the problems of Windows Mobile - it's still a convoluted operating system that frequently gets tangled up in itself - but the Treo 700w is a credible step in the right direction.

OUR VERDICT

Mobile professionals tied to Micorosft Exchange should be pleased with a Palm that takes steps to solve the problems of Microsoft's convoluted Windows Mobile operating System - and can access fast data services