One of the greatest scams in the world of tech journalism-in the world, for that matter-is that of the product reviewer. Reviewers get showered with toys, gadgets and software from companies hungry for publicity. Some of the stuff gets reviewed, some gets sent back, and most ends up in the reviewer’s house. I know: I started reviewing gadgets when I graduated from Columbia University back in 1988 and spent the next 12 years trying to keep up with the constant torrent of new stuff.
You might think that it’s fun to have a continual supply of gadgets and geek toys to occupy your time. In fact, it is tremendously fun. But it’s also pretty hard to keep up-there is just so much stuff coming out. What’s worse, I think, is that most reviewers don’t write reviews that are particularly relevant to the typical reader. They write about the check-list capabilities that a product has or lacks, but reading these reviews doesn’t let you know what it feels like to have the thing in your hand or on your desk.
With this column, I’m starting a new series on technologyreview.com that will try to change this. While my column in Technology Review magazine, “The Net Effect,” examines larger issues of the digital age-with particular focus on privacy-here I’ll bite into specifics. Each month I’ll profile a new gadget that is both captivating and significant.
This month, I tried out Handspring’s Treo 270, the latest incarnation of the Palm Pilot that made its debut back in 1996. In that time handheld computers have gone from being an object of ridicule to being an indispensable tech accoutrement for many knowledge workers. If you have a Palm and a phone, you should think about getting the Treo-it combines both devices, and more, into a single unit. If you can’t stand Graffiti (Palm’s weird shorthand nobody really understands), you should think about getting the Treo-it’s the first Palm-based system to have a keyboard for your thumbs. But if you want to look cool in a conventional sort of way, you should definitely avoid this product.
As its name promises, the Treo combines three basic functions into one device. First and foremost, the Treo 270 is a cell phone. For times when a phone is to intrusive, Treo is a two-way pager that can send short messages to any digital phone or Internet mailbox. Finally, Treo is an organizer that runs the PalmOS operating system-one with a great color screen and a glow-in-the-dark thumbboard, which saves you the chore of learning Graffiti.
For those of us who would never be caught dead with a pocket protector and feel constricted by pockets bulging and belts drooping with geekware, the Treo is good news: it lets you shed ounces of electronics without losing a tad of functionality. What’s more, the Treo is not just nimble, it’s positively svelte: the Treo 270 is both smaller and lighter than the Visor Prism, Handspring’s previous color organizer. (Treo weighs 5.7 ounces, compared with 6.5 ounces for the Prism.) The smaller size means that the Treo readily fits in both shirt and pants pockets-something that not even a Palm V can do with grace.
Alas, it’s conventional wisdom that combining three devices into one means making compromises: after all, there are smaller phones on the market today, and many of them get better battery life. But if you think of the Treo primarily as an organizer-one that happens to have a built-in pager and cell-phone-then there is really no compromising at all.
All Treos have a flip-top cover with a window to see the organizer’s screen. You can quickly check your schedule or address book without opening the lid by just tapping the buttons along the bottom of the face. The side of the Treo has a volume control that does double duty as a jog dial for scrolling the organizer through lists. The screen itself is magnificent: it’s a brightly-colored reflective LCD that’s equally visible in direct sunlight, dim light, or absolute darkness. And unlike other Palm-based machines, the Treo’s alarm is really loud (thanks, no doubt, to the alarm’s use of the cell phone ringer.) I can even hear the Treo’s bell when it is buried in my backpack!
Treo’s keyboard makes it the first Palm-based organizer to do completely away with Graffiti. While many people are sure to say “good riddance,” I find it somewhat awkward to switch from using a stylus to using the thumbboard. (I mentioned this to the folks at Handspring and they sent me a 5-page Word document with lots of keyboard cheats and shortcuts, but this information should have been made available to all customers.) But even with the toggling between the stylus and the thumbboard, this tiny keyboard is likely to open this handheld organizer to a much larger customer base than Palm ever enjoyed. Many people simply can’t remember that a Graffiti “x” starts with a swoosh to the right, while a “k” starts with a swoosh to the left. (Or is it the other way around?) With the thumbboard, you don’t have to remember: you just press the “x” or the “k.”
As a voice communicator, Treo builds upon Handspring’s experience with the VisorPhone. Open the lid and the phone shows you ten “speed-dial” buttons; you can dial any of them by clicking the button or by scrolling down the list and selecting with the jog-dial. Keep scrolling and you’ll discover that there are actually five pages of speed-dial buttons. You can also tap out a phone number on the Treo’s screen, or enter a phone number on the keyboard, or search the address book. Finally, the Treo remembers every phone call made or received-a call history that lasts until you clear it. The battery is rated at three hours talk time, six days standby, but it’s not swappable.
One thing I really like about the phone book is that it’s smart: if you open up the phone and type a few letters of a person’s name, the Treo will start searching through your Palm address book for a match. The net effect is that you’ve got an address book with hundreds or even thousands of entries-not too shabby for a tiny phone.
As a two-way pager, Treo lets you send and receive two-way messaging using the GSM (Global System for Mobility) digital telephone standard’s Short Message Service. You can scroll through your SMS messages, reply, forward them, copy them into a memo pad, or click a button to call back the sender with the phone. As with the call history, you keep the SMS messages practically forever. You can also create “boilerplate” messages for canned responses. Unfortunately, some steps to send a message can be done only with the stylus-awkward to do when you are typing with your thumbs.
GSM is gaining popularity in the United States. VoiceStream has had a nation-wide but spotty GSM network for years; meanwhile, both Cingular and AT&T are upgrading to the GSM standard. Since VoiceStream has the biggest GSM network right now, that’s who most Treo customers will be using. Too bad: VoiceStream’s handling of GSM’s advanced messaging features has been spotty at best. In particular, VoiceStream’s SMS-to-Internet gateway is unreliable-messages are occasionally lost, and earlier this year the gateway was down for more than a week. As it is, VoiceStream caps GSM messages at around 130 characters, and silently drops anything after the cut-off. This is a serious problem for people who depend on the paging feature for critical messages. (Handspring also offers a Treo 300 that works on the Sprint PCS network, which uses a different digital standard; alas, with Sprint the paging is only one-way.)
The Treo comes with Blazer, a web browser that runs over the GSM network. With my VisorPhone the web browser frequently disconnects, but with the Treo the web browsing has been flawless, albeit slow. Yes, with the Treo I am finally tempted to run up huge bills for wireless web browsing while waiting at the bus stop. Handspring has promised that its GSM Treos will be upgradeable to a faster standard-the high-speed digital GPRS (General Packet Radio Service)-by the end of this year, or early next. That will make the Treo’s web browsing five- to ten-times faster and change the rate plan so that I’ll only pay for the data that I download. That’s better than paying for connect time, although VoiceStream’s rates for GPRS are equally overpriced.
I like the Treo, but it’s far from perfect. The case only comes in “steel gray” plastic-I want funky colors, like the original Handspring Visor. Far worse, the Treo 270 ships with PalmOS 3.5.2, rather than 4.0. And unlike the Treo 90, Handspring’s Treo organizer that lacks a telephone (but still has that thumbboard), there is no SD expansion slot.
I was using the Treo the other day when somebody asked me why I was talking into my calculator. I laughed, but they had a point: this is one weird little piece of gadgetry. It’s cool, but it is different. Meanwhile, gone are the salad days when reviewers like me could let these equipment pile up in my house without paying for it. Since I already have a VisorPhone (bought with my own money, thank you very much), I’ll probably be sending the Treo back-compared with the VisorPhone, it’s just not a big enough upgrade to justify the $500 pricetag. But if I didn’t have that VisorPhone, you can be sure that I would get a Treo 270 for myself. As things stand, I’ll wait to upgrade until some future (and unannounced) Treo comes out with GSM, GPRS, and built-in 802.11 wireless LAN. Are you listening, Handspring?