The BlackBerry, iPhone, and T-Mobile G1 may be the kings of smartphone cool, but they all share one big shortcoming: They don't run Windows Mobile.
I know that statement puts me in a distinct minority. But I love the way Windows Mobile supports push email from Microsoft Exchange Server and easily syncs with Outlook. Not to mention several other business-friendly features the competition lacks - including VPN software and the ability to view and edit Microsoft Office documents.
The Palm Treo Pro - an unlocked, quad-band, Windows Mobile 6.1 device with a physical QWERTY keyboard and 2.5-inch, 320-by-320-pixel display - isn't the first Windows Mobile handset by Palm. Some models in the 700 and 750 series also run the Microsoft OS. But the HTC-manufactured Pro is the smallest Treo and most important, it overcomes a number of hardware and software problems that plagued earlier Palm designs.
The lean Treo Pro has a modern look. It fits comfortably in your hand, and I think the ergonomics are a bit better than the iPaq 910c's. For a size comparison, it has about the same footprint as the iPhone and is just slightly smaller than the BlackBerry Bold. Although the Pro's case is plastic, the build quality is very good. My biggest gripe is the shiny black surface, which really shows fingerprints and scratches easily.
Unlike similar devices, where configuration changes require an excursion into the operating system, Palm's hardware gives you quick access to a number of common functions. For example, around the case's edge are dedicated buttons for power, wireless connection, and volume - plus a ring silencer and a camera. On the bottom, there's a standard 3.5mm headphone jack and microUSB connector. Front-mounted buttons provide quick access to e-mail, calendar, and Windows menus.
The keyboard is a little cramped, and the keys will be too recessed for some. But with my medium-sized hands, I had no problems typing accurately. That said, it's not on par with BlackBerry keyboards or the Palm Treo 750's keyboard. Of course, you also can interact with applications using Window Mobile's on-screen keyboard or via the Pro's five-way navigation wheel. One nice touch: besides functioning as a Select key, the centre of the navigation wheel softly blinks white when you have a message waiting.
The screen, a long-needed upgraded from past Palm devices, is very crisp and readable indoors without cranking up the brightness. Outside in sunlight, the display almost washed out, but proved readable in the shade. A screen-saver mode, which turns off the backlight, shows the time and date, plus missed calls.
The Treo Pro's touchscreen was responsive, and I was very impressed with the accuracy when using finger presses. I pulled out the included stylus only a few times to deal with a dense Windows menu here and there.
Perhaps the biggest hardware limitation is the relatively minuscule 100MB of free user memory. Then there's the hassle of getting to the microSD memory card slot (which holds up to 32GB card, when they become available). The slot is hidden under the battery cover; I can see the cover getting damaged if it's removed too many times.
Once the Treo Pro is switched on, you won't find the fancy TouchFLO 3D user interface that HTC uses on some of its branded devices. Yet the Treo Pro simplifies a few tasks while maintaining clean screens. For instance, the MyTreo screen helps you set up the device. And the main Today display is uncluttered.
Since you're dealing with Windows Mobile 6.1 Professional, there's an abundance of corporate functionality. As with the iPaq 910c, I had no trouble connecting to a Microsoft Exchange server and receiving push email. I also added three POP email accounts, quickly configured using a Wizard; you can set the device to connect to these services on a predetermined schedule to download messages. There's a copy of Microsoft Office Mobile and the standard fare of Internet Explorer Mobile.
The Treo Pro generally performed well, launching applications within a few seconds. And there were no lags in input, such as entering numbers on the phone keypad.
Interestingly, Palm's reduced on its packaging (a good thing) and includes Microsoft ActiveSync software on the device rather than shipping an install CD for Windows XP. I had no difficulty hooking up to a Vista-running laptop; the OS recognised the Treo and automatically downloaded the latest drivers. Mac and Linux users will have to rely on third-party desktop connectivity applications.
Palm backed away from a lot of its past Windows Mobile add-ons, instead opting for a few from HTC. It's hard to tell if this has cut down on Windows crashes -- I did have a few unexpected reboots during two weeks of testing -- but the Treo Pro's stability was about the same as other Windows Mobile handsets I've used.
The nifty Communications Manager conveniently manages all the radios. And there's a great utility to quickly exit running applications so that you maximise free memory.
For GPS, Palm loads Google Maps and there's a trial version of TeleNav for turn-by-turn directions. The Treo Pro includes a QuickGPS utility that speeds up GPS calculations and achieved initial fixes within 30 seconds.
The 2-megapixel autofocus camera's quality is nothing to rave about. With up to 1,600-by-1,200-pixel resolution, shots outdoors are fine for, say, documenting construction jobs or insurance claims. My tests shots had accurate colour and good saturation, but displayed pronounced jagged edges. Indoor photo quality is poor. The bright spot is the HTC camera utilities, which go beyond what Microsoft includes with Windows Mobile. I appreciated the many camera tweaks, such as brightness and sharpness, that are easily set.
Palm doesn't match the IT management services offered by HP. Still, the Treo Pro works with Microsoft's Mobile Device Manager 2008 (which increases security and offers remote management).
For Palm users, the Treo Pro introduces a number of sought-after features in contemporary packaging. The larger screen is welcome, as are dedicated hardware switches, GPS, and multiple radios. However, a so-so keyboard and camera, plus the lack of anything really special about the Windows Mobile 6.1 implementation, will likely turn some prospective buyers away - as will the high price, compared to other unlocked devices with similar features.
The Treo Pro is easily the best smartphone in the Palm line to date. It packs a fresh design, multiple radios, GPS, and a decent screen; still, there's nothing that stands out from flashy competitors such as iPhone. By matching the competition's features, Palm may keep longtime customers from defecting. And sticking with Windows Mobile 6.1 Professional means that business-friendly features are to the fore.