Brighthand’s First Impressions of the palmOne Treo 650

by Reads (91,514)

Update: The full review of the Treo 650 is now available here.

During the year since palmOne’s last smartphone came out, there have been quite a few contenders for the title of “Treo 600 Killer,” yet no device has delivered the right combination of features, power, ease of use, reliability and simple elegance to dethrone the king of all smartphones… until now. The new ‘best in class’ will most certainly be palmOne’s latest offering, the Treo 650.

Announced last month by palmOne and Sprint, the highly sought after Treo 650 is finally starting to quietly trickle out into the hands of those who ordered theirs early, even though the official word is that it will be shipping by late November or early December.

Better Buttons

One of the very first things I noticed about the new 650 is that the phone feels better than the Treo 600 (even though the 600 feels great).

Treo 650 The keyboard buttons in the ‘smile’ pattern are easier to use, and the tactile feedback is even better than the acclaimed 600’s buttons. The keys are flatter and larger, and thumb typing is a far better experience.

Another thing that gets my praise is the slightly higher center button of the 5-way navigator. Something as simple as this makes using the 5-way navigator a more accurate experience because I find myself accidentally pressing one of the directional buttons (the outer ring of the 5-way navigator) much less often than I did with the 600. It’s enough of a difference to make navigating more accurate without being so raised as to get in the way.

Besides the better tactile feedback and improved thumb-typing keyboard layout, palmOne has continued to improve on their already clever button layout by adding two new buttons just beneath the screen on either side of the 5-way navigator. To the left is the Applications (home) button and to the right is the Menu button. Compared to the 600, this layout is much better because you use those two buttons so much, and if you’re using the 600 with one hand, you feel like you might drop it when you access Menus.

Improved Web Surfing

Enough of the subtle changes, let’s talk about the big improvements that’ll have everybody raving. The new hi-res screen is absolutely incredible! While photos and typical Palm apps look better, the real improvement is how usable the Web is on this new unit. If you’re ‘okay’ with the Treo 600’s display of Web pages, you’ll flip when you see a site with four times the resolution on a screen that’s still the same physical size. While palmOne’s Blazer browser still optimizes graphics for the screen, most sites I visit are far more usable because the graphics are not so scaled down as to make them unreadable.

And speaking of the Web, it seems to load pages far more quickly, and surfing the Web from the 650 is actually a pleasure. Yep, I said I actually enjoy using the Web on this Treo. Using the Web on a 600 is slow, and as a traveler I find that I would only use it when I absolutely had to. The 600 frequently takes as long as a minute, sometimes more, to even get the first glimpse of a page, and reloading a cached page by pressing the back button was even slow. In a side-by-side comparison using the same service provider (Sprint) pages load far faster on the 650 and you can start reading most pages almost immediately. It’s funny that I haven’t read anything from palmOne or Sprint about the improved Web experience but I’m impressed, and you’re sure to notice it too.

Keeping in Touch

VersaMail While the email speed is about the same on either unit with my POP account (both are pretty quick), I really like palmOne’s provided email program VersaMail. It has all the stuff you’d expect and corporate users will like that it can access Microsoft Enterprise Server 2003 right out of the box via ActiveSync, and you no longer need third party software. However, VersaMail doesn’t do everything the third- party stuff does, so corporate email users will need to do a little testing to see what they like best.

Most users will also appreciate that there’s a setting in VersaMail to automatically check for new email on a user-defined schedule, resulting in a BlackBerry-like email experience with all of the extra capabilities of a palmOne mail solution, like the variety of attachments and server compatibility.

More Usable

palmOne’s approach to Favorites within the phone application is a tremendous improvement and it makes navigating even quicker. Favorites still work similar to the Treo 600, but what’s nice is that you start with four Favorites already on screen and navigating with the 5-way navigator quickly takes you through the list without the need for extra button presses. (It’s far more elegant to use than it is to describe.)

Treo 650 Interestingly, palmOne made the volume buttons on the side into a single toggle so you can feel it while you’re on a call and differentiate it from the new button just below volume which is linked to the ROM-native RealOne player. Of course this new, additional side button is user-programmable but you just have to wonder if palmOne was thinking about Nextel’s Direct-Connect service when they stuck this button on the side. (Nextel customers don’t hold your breath. Nextel isn’t known for offering leading edge technologies that tech-savvy customers really crave like Bluetooth or a Palm OS smartphones, but that’s another story.) In fact, the Treo 650 does have Bluetooth but I haven’t done anything more than make my Tungsten T2 talk with it. I don’t even have a new Bluetooth headset to report on, but I can’t wait to get one.

Red and Green

Oh, and there’s still more new button technology on the 650, and those new to smartphones will find it comforting. palmOne has a red ‘phone’ button that turns the device on, and holding it down activates or cancels your cellular carrier signal. A quick press of the red phone button hangs up too. As well, the main phone application button is green now. Having a green and a red phone button is so ’80s,’ but people understand it and the added bonus is that this setup makes using the PDA while on a call, a much more user-friendly experience. Now, when you’re on a call, you can navigate to any application, and if you want to hang up you don’t have to navigate back to the phone program. You just press the red phone button. As you might guess, you still can’t do Internet-based stuff while on a call, but c’mon.

Say “Cheese”

Finally, let’s talk about the camera. Web rumors almost universally agreed that it would be 1.2 megapixels like the Zire 72, but it’s not. It’s still VGA quality at 640 x 480. palmOne says that this is because they could have included a weak 1.2 megapixel camera with low light performance on par with the Treo 600’s or include a great low-light VGA camera.

I think they made the right decision. The quality is far superior to the 600’s camera, and the digital zoom and camcorder functions make it still better. Additionally, most pictures people take with their camera-phone are for use in the device itself or to be mailed as picture mail or video mail. In both cases smaller is better and the improved low light performance makes it more usable. I can actually use the word ‘good’ in the same sentence as ‘Treo pictures.’

No Backups

I’ve looked really hard to find something that’s a down-side so my review can sound a bit more balanced, and so you don’t think that palmOne or Sprint staff wrote it. All I can come up with is the new flash memory management software. Sure, palmOne’s new flash memory allows the device to retain data in memory when you lose power or change batteries (a great new feature), but unfortunately none of the expansion card backup programs like BackupBuddyVFS, BackupMan, or palmOne’s own Backup Card can backup this new device (or the Tungsten T5 which also uses palmOne’s new flash memory).

From what I’ve read online this is a known issue and it will eventually be addressed, but until it’s fixed, this could just be the big Achilles’ heel of the Treo 650. Considering that the only true protection for your Treo 650 data is a HotSync, the irony is that travelers will have to bring the laptop along on every trip until this gets handled. I already do that when I travel, but as soon as there’s a card backup solution, I’ll be thrilled to leave the laptop at home when I travel!

Editor’s Note: It has been discovered that the Treo 650 doesn’t use its memory very efficiently, and therefore has less Storage capacity that expected. However, palmOne is working on a fix for this. More information on this issue can be found in this article.

Conclusion

There’s a lot more to this great improvement on the most popular smartphone ever invented, but it’s going to take a few weeks to flush out all the functionality for a thorough review. For now I’ll sum it up this way…

Everything that made the Treo 600 so hot is even better. The Web, messaging, the camera, the better screen, better buttons, and more powerful applications all join to make the Treo 650 the newest ‘must-have’ smartphone, and when I can back it up to and restore from a card it will be… dare I say it… as close to perfect as it gets in a smartphone. With the Treo 650 palmOne has once again raised the bar.

Considering that the competition has yet to reach the Treo 600’s quality, reliability, feature set, and ease of use, the 650 just has to annoy every competitor in the market as much as it will delight every Treo 650 owner.

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