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The Smart Phone Moves Up a Grade

PalmOne scores with the Treo 600: a powerful PDA that looks (and is marketed like) a cell phone. But software glitches mar its performance.

By calling its Treo 600 a “smart phone,” PalmOne wants to you to think that its new handheld device is primarily a telephone, secondly a computer-and perhaps forget that it is a handheld organizer running the Palm 5 operating system.

PalmOne, for those of you who need a scorecard, is the company resulting from the merger earlier this year of Palm and Handspring. The Treo 600 is the third generation of Handspring’s combination of a Palm-based computer with a cell phone module, an idea that the company first explored in 2000. Unlike the previous models, the Treo 600 is shaped and sized like a phone, not like an organizer. There’s a prominent stub antenna sticking out the top. There’s a little VGA digital camera on the back, so you can snap pictures of the crowd when you are pretending to be dialing. And when you see photographs of the device in advertisements, the screen is shown displaying a big 12-button virtual keypad-presumably a lot less intimidating than the 35-key QWERTY keyboard that takes up the phone’s bottom inch.

But make no mistake: The Treo 600 is a PDA through and through. It is, in fact, a fabulous PDA, with a brilliant anti-scratch screen that’s easy-to-read, even in direct sunlight, and a nice little keyboard that makes it easy to type in names and addresses. It is equipped with a 144-megahertz processor-five times faster than the one in the Treo 300 and most other Palms.

Why, then, does PalmOne emphasize that the 600 is a phone? Because the cell phone market is roughly ten times larger than the market for PDAs. What’s more, cell phone users tend to upgrade their devices every 18 months; most people seem to be far less eager to upgrade their Palm-based machines. Thus, by positioning this device as a “phone,” PalmOne hopes to capture part of a larger, far more lucrative market than it has targeted in the past.

The 600 is noticeably smaller than the other Treos that Handspring has been selling for the past two years, but it’s still larger than today’s top-of-the-line cell phones. But more important than size is battery life: PalmOne claims that the 600 provides four hours of talk time and “up to 240 hours (10 days) standby.” That’s a generous estimate; in my testing, I got about two days of standby and perhaps an hour of talk time before the phone went dead. That may sound horrible, but it’s actually twice as long as the Treo 300 that I used previously-a device that rarely made it through the day without needing a battery recharge. The 600 has enough battery power to get me through a full day (and sometimes even two) before I need to charge the phone again.

(I’m using the CDMA version of the Treo 600 that is compatible with the Sprint PCS network; the GSM version offers 50 percent more battery life and works with both the AT&T and Cingular networks. For people who need extra battery life, PalmOne plans to offer an external booster battery that should double the talk time-although it will also double the phone’s thickness.)

In addition to the beautiful screen and the keyboard, the 600 has a five-button navigation dial in the center that makes it easy to move the cursor around the screen. There’s a slot in the top of the device that holds an SD card, allowing you to expand memory to hundreds of megabytes-a handy feature,  since the 600 can double as an MP3 player. The screen is so bright that I have literally used it as a flashlight in the dark.

One place where the smart phone concept works well is in the tight integration between the Palm address book and the phone’s dialer. When you press the phone button you have a choice of dialing a number, jumping to your Palm’s address book, clicking on the “redial list” to see the last ten phone numbers you called, or clicking to the “Favorites” application-a list of 50 fast-dial buttons spread over five easy-to-read pages. When the phone rings, the computer searches through the address book, to see if it recognizes the Caller ID number -a pretty cool trick when your phone has more than a thousand names, addresses, and phone numbers in its database. You can also clip numbers from Web pages or e-mail messages and automatically dial them.

In addition to ordinary  voice communications, the 600 also can serve as a wireless data transceiver. The GSM version allows you to send and receive short text messages; the Sprint CDMA version lets you only receive text messages. The error screen that the CDMA phone displays when you try to send a text message claims that   “this service will be available soon.” I’m not holding my breath.

If you’re looking for wireless Web surfing, though, the 600 is just the ticket. Its built-in Web browser allows you to cruise Google, CNN, or practically any other site you want-unlike other phones, you aren’t limited to sites specifically designed for the tiny cell phone screen. And by using a special application program called “Wireless Modem,” you can turn your Treo into a modem for your laptop. (Beware, though: doing so violates the terms-of-service for Sprint PCS.)

Purely as a cell phone, the 600 isn’t terrible. It has much better reception than previous Treos. It also has a neat “speakerphone” option that  makes use of a super-loud speaker that’s mounted on the back; put the Treo on a table in a quiet room and three or four people can gather around and hear the caller at the other end of the connection. 

I like the Treo 600 a lot, but my experience with it has been far from trouble-free. Early on, the built-in Web browser corrupted the phone’s auto-completion database so that whenever I typed a URL, the phone would crash. To solve this problem, I had to back up my phone, do a full reset, delete the backup of the corrupted database, and restore the backup. I’m an experienced Palm user and managed this without much trouble; a neophyte would  have had serious problems. Another time I plugged the Treo into a charger and it decided to spontaneously reset itself, wiping out all of its stored data. Fortunately I had just backed up the phone, so no real work was lost.

I had hoped that the Treo 600 would come equipped with Bluetooth or 802.11 wireless networking protocols like some other Palm devices. Sadly, it does not.  At least PalmOne has finally brought out a USB cable that allows you to charge the phone off your laptop, rather than having to plug a power adapter into the wall. You can buy this cable from the PalmOne Web site for $14.95.

Pricing cell phones is of course black magic, because of the various rebates and service plans that they come with. The Sprint (CDMA) version of the Treo 600 costs $599 without service activation or $449 with new service. (So if you have an existing account with Sprint and want to keep the same phone number, you’ll end up paying $599 plus $36 to move the phone number from the old phone to the new phone.) The AT&T Wireless (GSM) version costs $499, with or without service activation.

My biggest concern about PalmOne’s smart phones has to do with software support. Handspring has been making smart phones for more than three years, ever since the company brought out the Visor Phone, which slid into the “springboard” slot on Handspring’s original Visor. In all that time, I have received just one update or patch from Handspring/PalmOne; that patch added GPRS service to my Treo 180, allowing me to use the built-in Web browser. PalmOne just doesn’t make a habit of bringing out new features, or even fixing bugs;  the company’s attitude seems to be that its phones are good enough as they are sold, and if they aren’t good enough for you, you can just buy the next model as soon as it becomes available.

And like a sucker, I have dutifully purchased upgrade after upgrade, moving from a Visor Phone to the Treo 180, then the Treo 300, and now the Treo 600. Each time, I have gotten a better product, but each product has had its share of crashes and bugs. I understand why Handspring had not made fixing bugs a priority-the company didn’t make money fixing bugs-and I hope that the new company extends its customer commitment to after the sale.

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