About over a year after it first appeared in stores, Palm’s Treo 650 is still the company’s most important smartphone.
Having held the line for an unusually long time by technology standards, it has just since been updated with the more rounded-looking Treo 700p (non-GSM only for now), and 700w (Windows Mobile 5.0) though the new models are fairly minor upgrades in most underlying respects, so the design and spec remains nearly identical.
It's not new, but it's still current in the UK. But is it still up to it?
Unlike Nokia’s pseudo-smartphone, the 9300i, the Treo 650 really is a screen-based smartphone, lacking the full QWERTY keyboard and WiFi access of the Nokia model.
It is entirely geared towards building an applications package around the phone, not offering multiple connectivity options as would a computing device.
Does anyone care about the lack of WiFi? This is something most PDAs and rival smartphones have, as does the company’s own PDA-like Tungsten LifeDrive, but let’s look at it from the point of view of the phone companies that shift the Treo.
The last thing they want is for their customers to abandon call and data charges in favour of potentially cheaper and faster WiFi that minuses revenue.
The problem with this perspective is that it puts the Treo design firmly in “it’s a fancy phone” category, and doesn’t really address the issue of why Palm didn’t make the device upgradeable as an-add-on through its SD/SDIO memory socket.
It has a web browser built in, which is full-featured enough, but using this will mean accessing the Internet using go-faster GSM comms such as enhanced GPRS (EDGE).
This is starting to look like a major weakness, and with VoIP access from mobiles coming down the turnpike, the Treo could quickly become obsolete unless Palm works out how it can revive the phone-to-computer concept.
On the other hand, it is an excellent phone that can also deal with email. The 320x320 65K colour screen is nice and clear, the backlit keyboard acceptable (ie fiddly but better than using a conventional phone for texting) and the quad-band support means it will work anywhere in the world. You also get Bluetooth.
It takes some time to get used to having to dial numbers using the touchscreen, but that design feature makes for better integration between the phone and applications sides. In Nokia’s 9300i, the two elements are very much separate.
Numbers can also be dialled using one section of the keypad, but the size of the keys means that this needs concentration.
The basic platform is a 312MHz Intel PXA270 processor, running PalmOS 5.4, with a pretty lightweight 21 MB of usable memory. Reputedly, PalmOS uses memory efficiently but if it bothers you more can be added using the SD card slot, and these are now cheap enough for it to be of no consequence.
The memory has been upgraded on the more recent models.
It also has a built-in camera, a doffing of the cap to consumers. You’d assume that some companies wouldn’t be keen on such an inclusion for security reasons.
This is a family of phones for people who like Palm of old and don’t fancy joining in with Blackberry. It has a touchscreen, and perhaps that’s what makes it odd at times for those used to a conventional phone. But as with the Palm PDAs, it’s the software, stability, and Office compatibility of its integrated apps that are strengths.
For the money, I’d want the WiFi option, which has become a standard technology in many rival devices, and perhaps even some VoIP support. That is unlikely to happen because the Treo design is clearly geared towards phone companies selling phone-and-email-on-the-move to customers willing to pay.
Arguably, there is a powerful computer hiding inside the Treo waiting to get out – the computing/PDA heritage of the device, and of the PalmOS - suggest as much. But it is as a phone that it will be bought. The Nokia 9300i is a better option for anyone wanting a computer-based phone at the moment.
A final whine about pricing. Why does the Treo 650 cost £399 ($720) purchased contract-free from the European Palm website and only $299 (£165) in the US?
Ok, so the Treo 700p/w are now on the market in the US, but I’d suggest somebody needs to look at those European prices before people start getting annoyed.
Do you want a phone or something more? If the latter is an issue then Nokia’s 9300i is a better bet, albeit that the 9300i is a mediocre phone. More generally, despite looking as flashy as ever, the Treo concept is growing old. There's no WiFi, and no sign of VoIP capability.