Review – Handspring Treo 600

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The Treo comes in two flavors: CDMA/PCS for use on Sprint, and GSM/GPRS for use everywhere else. The two types come in different colors to seperate them out: GSM is silver, CDMA is “carbon” grey with silver trim. We received the carbon/silver CDMA Treo made for the Sprint PCS system.

The casing is 100% pure plastic all over, from the buttons to the antenna and back. Even so, it’s not bad quality, and certainly not flimsy. I don’t know if it’s the thickness of the Treo or the shape of the case, but either way it feels very solid. I also like the way is fits into my hand–it seems well rounded.

The front of the Treo sports a small thumb keyboard, a 5-way directional pad, and 4 application buttons. The directional pad is well-made, with a firm full motion in each direction. The center “action” button is a seperate piece from the pad itself, and is a little difficult to know when you’ve pressed it. The four application buttons trigger–from left to right–the phone application, calender, messages, and curiously enough, the right-most button toggles the Treo on and off. This is in addition to the normal power button mounted on the top of the case next to the antenna.

I’ve never been a huge proponent of thumb keyboards, and the Treo didn’t convert me. The keys are smallish, kind of flat, kind of rounded, and not very suitable to my mind for significant text input. I compared the keys with a Treo 90 which was still lingering in the local Radio Shack, and the keys were similar, though a bit closer together on the 600. The keys are backlit in green whenever a key is pressed–on the letter keys the letters show up in green on a black background, on those that double as numbers the text appears black on a green background. The backlighting is actually rather well done, and really helps you find that errent key in the dark.

The top of the Treo 600. Bottom left, the stylus; upper left, the vibrate switch. Move this over and the Treo is instantly on quiet mode. Nice and convenient. To the right of this is the standard infrared port. Just to the rear of the IR port is the SDIO slot, which for reasons completely unknown to me, smells like peppermint. No, I am not joking. With an SD card inserted, the card sticks out just a tiny little bit–not enough to be a nuisance, but enough to annoy the perfectionist in me. The rest of the case is so smooth and well-fitted, and then you’ve got this ridge of an SD card sticking up. Gah. Nothing to do for it, unless you want to file down your memory card–not recommended. Also, curiously, the SDIO slot is backwards, i.e. the label of an SD card would face away from the user.

Above and to the right is the main power switch. Pressing this toggles the Treo on and off–pressing and holding the button will activate or deactivate the wireless module. In the bottom right is the antenna.

Looking at the rear of the case, in the upper left hand corner is the stylus and the camera lens. The stylus is, as included styli go, about an 8.5 out of 10. It is a bit narrow, but long enough, solidly built, and has an aluminum barrel with plastic tips. It loses a few points for the writing end, which rather than the usual rounded point ends in a kind of tiny knob. Rather than being under the top, as is the usual, the Treo’s extra-long reset pin can be exposed by unscrewing the stylus tip. The reset pin is plastic, and rather flimsy for my taste, but functional. The top of the stylus is shaped to conform perfectly with the outside case of the Treo, and when inserted you’d barely even know it was there if it weren’t for the notch to remove it. The silo is very snug, and won’t lose your stylus on you.

The camera lens is covered by a small plastic disc. There aren’t any focal length markings on the case, or anything else of note. The actual functionality of the camera we’ll discuss under Camera. The strange brass thing on the right side of the picture is something inside the Treo which was originally covered by a small rubber cap that fell out a few days after I got it. I have no idea what it is or what it does.

Top center is the Treo’s access information, just to the right of its loudspeaker. On the CDMA Treo this is a sticker which provides the serial number, or ESN of the unit for use in activation. On a GSM Treo, I presume that this spot would be occupied by a SIM card slot. I’ve whited out the test unit’s ESN number just as a precaution. The loudspeaker is the main system speaker for notifications and alarms, and is used as the speaker when in speakerphone mode.

The Treo 600 was originally developed by Handspring, which then merged with Palm Solutions Group and became palmOne. Since I dislike the new name, you’ll probably see me refer to Palm, Handspring, or PalmSpring at points. This is also why the Treo, despite being sold under the palmOne brand name, is engraved on the back case with the Handspring name and logo. The only Palm logo you’ll find is the standard silkscreened Palm Powered emblem on the lower back of the case. (Center and bottom center.)

The reset hole is on the right side of the image. The hole is particularly deep–by my estimate, about 4 tenths of an inch. A stylus tip definitely won’t do the job, and neither will most replacement stylus pins. If you don’t have your Treo stylus, you’d better get a paperclip.

Casewise, my overall impression of the Treo is good. It’s well built, even if I don’t particularly like the keyboard.

Hardware

Processor: 144 MHz ARM-class OMAP 310 processor

Operating System:

Palm OS 5.2H

Display:

160 x 160 transmissive 12-bit (4096 color) CSTN LCD
Memory: 32 MB RAM (24 MB available to user)
Size & Weight: 4.4″ (5.3 /w ant.) x 2.4″ x 0.9″, 5.9 ounces (GSM), 6.2 ounces (CDMA)
Expansion: 1 SD card slot with support for SDIO
Docking: Standard Treo docking connector
Communication: Choice of integrated CDMA or GSM wireless
Audio: 1 internal speaker, 1 int. microphone, 1 int. earphone, 1 headset jack
Battery: 1800 milliamp-hour Lithium Ion battery, non-replacable
Input: Touchscreen, thumb keypad, 4 remappable application buttons
Software: Phone, Messages, Blazer web browser, Documents to Go Viewer
Other: 300,000 pixel CMOS VGA camera

 Processor

The 144 MHz TI OMAP31p processor that drives the Treo 600 is the same processor that sits under the hood of Palm’s extremely popular Zire 71. While seemingly not quite as snappy as the Z71, the Treo is more than fast enough to satisfy. It’s a safe bet that any Palm OS 5 machine will be plenty fast enough for any reasonable task you could put to it. With so little overhead to deal with, the minor performance differences between units just don’t add up to much.

Operating System

The Treo 600 runs Palm OS 5.2.1H. The ‘H’ stands for Handspring-modified, and represents the changes made to the core applications and user interface to accomodate the keyboard and phone integration. Aside from preloaded Sprint applications, the only major change is the complete removal of Grafitti. The Treo 600 has no native support for any version of Grafitti, or any other way to write text on the screen. I understand that the Treo is a keyboard-centric unit, but the removal of Grafitti and the marginalization of the software keyboard–which is only available from a menu–leave no option for text input other than the thumb keypad, which is inconvenient for some tasks. I really don’t like the fact that when I’m using the stylus and need to input a single letter or two, I have to shift my grip so that I can use the keyboard. This isn’t helped by the fact that the keyboard keys can’t be pressed with the stylus, but I’ll discuss that further under Input.

Display

Let’s be honest–there is nothing to love about the Treo’s screen. There’s not really even anything to like. From the top:

The screen is an old-style 160 x 160 pixel low resolution LCD. With 320 x 320 on all but the ultra-cheapest entry-level Palms these days, 160 x 160 is insane, particularly on a device that costs between $400 and $700.

For a number of years, almost all color LCD display technology has been based on an active-matrix, thin-film-transistor design. Before these TFTs were available, LCDs were based on passive-matrix CSTN (Color Super Twist Nematic) technology, which was slower in response, provided poorer image quality, and less color. When active-matrix TFTs were introduced, they were so clearly superior in every department that they swiftly replaced CSTNs in every serious application.

Or perhaps I should say almost every serious application. For reasons known only to the design team, the Treo series has continued to use passive-matrix CSTNs in their color handhelds. To put a point on it, the Treo’s screen is based on technology that was old five years ago.

The screen has a number of dark streaks running down it vertically that are highly noticible when viewing an image. Being 12-bit, the screen can display a maximum of 4,096 colors, which is a noticible difference from the 65,000 colors which have been standard for years. What colors there are appear washed out. Static is noticible on moving images. The screen’s only saving grace is that it is reasonably bright, but even this is a mixed blessing since without the ability to turn off the backlight you are automatically wasting tremendous power whenever you use the phone.

Left, Dell Axim. Right, palmOne Treo 600.

I am, to be frank, quite disappointed at the Treo developers’ choice of screens. It is an extremely poor selection for an ultra-expensive cutting-edge Palm phone.

Memory

The Treo comes with 32 MB of RAM. Of that, 8 MB is taken off the top for ‘heap’, or system memory. The remaining 24 MB is available to the user. I admit that I was a bit leery of losing 25% of the memory right off the top–in a Palm that costs $500 to $700, you should not even have to wonder whether you’ll hit the memory ceiling–but after looking at the Treo again I don’t think it should be a problem for the target users, since the Treo isn’t the kind of high-intensity business or office unit that would require a lot of memory.

Size & Weight

The Treo is 4.4 inches long without the antenna, and approximately 5.3 inches with the antenna. The aspect about the Treo that makes it feel the smallest is its width, just 2.4 inches. It’s a very unusual shape, unusually long by unusually narrow, much closer to an actual phone-shape than a typical handheld. To emphasize this, the Treo is a full 0.9 inches thick, much thicker than the majority of Palm and PocketPC handhelds which reside in the range of 0.5″ to 0.7″.

 

Treo 600 with Dell Axim X5.

The GSM Treo weighs 5.9 ounces, the CDMA slightly more at 6.2. The Treo does indeed have some heft to it. I don’t find this problematic, but I am a bit more forgiving in size and weight than many people. I can tell you this, you won’t mistake the Treo for even your average candy-bar phone, and a shirt pocket is probably out.

Expansion

The Treo features a single standard SD card slot, with support for SDIO. Not that SDIO matters much in this case, since the WiFi and Bluetooth cards have no drivers, but it is available.

Docking

The docking connector is the same as on previous Treo models–I was able to go down to Radio Shack, pull the charge cable out of the Treo 90 display model, and plug it straight into the 600. Surprisingly, the 600 does not come with a cradle at all–only a set of three cables that each end in a typical Treo connector. The first is a basic charger of the flat wart type that fits into a single outlet space. The second is a USB Hotsync cable. The last is a Y-adapter that lets you connect both of the previous cables to the Treo at the same time. I can apprecciate the elegance of this system–your base charger is your travel charger too–but that doesn’t excuse the complete omission of a cradle. I would much rather have a cradle, even if it’s just a cheap plastic prop, than to have the Treo lying on a table or desk to sync and charge. A cradle is a great way to avoid having your $500 phone slide off the desk and smash on the floor, it would be easier to keep the cables straight, and it would look better.

Communication

The CDMA Treo supports 800 and 1800 MHZ bands; the GSM version supports 850 MHz, 900 MHz, 1800 MHz, and 1900 MHz. The CDMA Treo does NOT support analog systems in any way, shape or form, so don’t expect service in antiquated areas. As it happens, the Sprint network in my area is either dying or non-existent to begin with. Even after driving a dozen miles west hoping to hit the outside edge of the network serving Buffalo’s suburbs, I struck out. As such, I’ll hand off wireless-specific commentary to Brian.

[Brian] Perhaps the most interesting feature of the Treo 600, is the ability to access the web and email without the hassle of multiple devices or an add-on card. I used the past Treo’s extensively, so I was quite interested to see how the 600 would stack up. Overall, it works well, featuring a new version of Blazer for web browsing.

I find email to be much more suitable for this device than web browsing though. As Adama pointed out, the 160×160 pixel screen is a bit problematic. Standard web pages are crunched, making the experience pretty much unusable. You can however browse pages designed for mobile devices such as this without issue. The Treo 600 is stuck with an identity crisis of sorts. The 600 had to make a number of sacrafices along the way to produce a generally high quality end result. The problem is that it does some things well, but a number of things marginally well or worse. Web browsing is a perfect example. If you compare the Treo against other high-end cell phones that have web browsing built-in, the 600 is far superior. However, if you compare it against PDAs with wireless connections, like the Tungsten T3, then then 600 is clearly outmatched. So it comes down to this, the 600 is better than cell phones, worse than standard PDAs and better than other integrated units like those from Samsung and Kyocera.

I mentioned that email worked well, and that’s where the Treo 600 has the opportunity to excel. The ease of use and speed is the key here. Users may quickly connect to the web, pulling down their email or they may connect to a mobile designed web client. I enjoyed being able to grab email and respond with the keyboard, while standing in line for a burrito at Chipotle. Of course this type of use works well in any line, traffic jam or other downtime. The implications are pretty serious for busy people. If we can monetize the 5 or 10 minutes here and there instead of doing nothing, after a few weeks you’ve gotten a heck of a lot more done.

Audio

The Treo has a single speaker in the back of the case that is used for both system sounds and the speakerphone, as well as a microphone pickup and earpiece in the front, in the placement usual on a cell phone. There is also a headset jack on the bottom of the 600 for a 2.5 millimeter earphone/mic headset. Overall quality is good–a bit better on the speaker than most, probably because it has to reproduce human voices with good quality, which is does.

Palm’s specifications say that the Treo is MP3 capable with 3rd party software and a stereo headphone adapter. What this means is that the Treo will play audio, but mono only. Tungsten|W, anyone? In any event, the Treo isn’t made as a music machine. I guess they assumed that anyone in the Treo’s market niche wouldn’t be interested in listening to music.

Battery

The Treo is powered by a practically gargantuan 1800 milliamp-hour battery–neccessary to run both the power-hungry wireless communication and the slightly less power-hungry Palm components. It is a bit of a shame that the battery isn’t replacable given the commonality of this feature on even the most basic cell phones, but I suppose that is to be expected. Handspring’s site mentions an extended battery that would offer 50-60% more talk time, but if this becomes available it would have to be a sled-type add-on, increasing the already substantial thickness of the Treo.

PalmSpring claims up to 10 days of standby time out of the 600, but after being left off the charger for about 30 hours without being used or recieving any calls, the Treo was down to 39% battery remaining. That’s not good. You should definitely expect to recharge the Treo at least once a day if you want to keep the battery in decent condition.

Likewise, the talk time is over-rated. Palm states that talk time is 6 hours for GSM, 4 hours for CDMA. In fact, since I started writing this review, Palm revised down the CDMA Treo’s expected talk time from 5 hours to 4. However, that is still a little optimistic. From full charge to auto-shutdown, with the screen set to automatically dim, the CDMA Treo gave me only 3 hours and 42 minutes. That isn’t exactly impressive, and the post facto revision of the specs doesn’t leave me brimming with confidence about the 600. What else are they mis-stating in their favor?

Standby time: Approx. 48 hours

“Talk” (transmit/recieve) Time: 3 hours, 42 minutes

Input

I’ve already discussed the tactile feel of the keyboard, so we’ll move past that. The Touchscreen is perfectly acceptable, with no major flexing or anomalies. The removal of Grafitti and the hiding of the soft keyboard is more perplexing. What possible purpose could be served by removing soft input? Frustration, but little else in my view. Some characters aren’t easy to type on the keyboard, and I found it irking that when I had to enter even a single text character, I had to put away the stylus and go for the keyboard. I wish the designers had made the keyboard keys concave (rounded inward) instead of convex (rounded outward) so that you could use the stylus to press them when you only needed to input a couple of letters.

Software

Nothing unusual here. Aside from the basic apps, the phone and email programs, and the optional Blazer web browser and TreoMail, the only thing of note is the Documents to Go viewer edition, which allows Treo users to view Word and Excel documents recieved by email. It does not, however, provide editing capabilities.

Camera

Unsurprisingly, the Treo’s camera is a typically low quality as most 0.3 MP cameras, which brings us to the usual admonition to the designers: If you don’t intend to make it at least 1 megapixel, don’t bother. A 1 MP camera is useful–a 0.3 MP camera is wasteful.

Test picture: my fluffy white cat and gracious photographic subject

Test picture: my other cat, being uncharacteristically still

Further lesson to the engineers: it does no good to cover the lens with a transparent protective cover if the cover is just as easily scratched as the lens and a hundred times more accessible. The lens is recessed a good sixth of an inch into the casing, which protects it against casual damage. The protective cover, however, is right on the outside skin of the case. One good encounter with keys, and you’ll never take another picture. If you want to keep the camera functional, you’ll need to put the Treo in an individual pocket or a case that covers the lens.

Conclusion

The Treo 600 is exactly what Handspring bills it as: it is a Palm powered smartphone. As such, it’s much more phone than Palm, with the somewhat decimated feature set you would expect from that. It’s also living proof that if connectivity is your goal, a traditional two-device solution is still best for the vast majority of users. The Treo 600 is basically a phone, email device, and organizer that just happens to be based on the Palm OS. Look at it that way before buying, and if you still want it then you’ll probably be happy. If you want a full-fledged Palm, with the power and flexibility that entails, you should probably buy something else.

Pros:

  • Choice of built-in GSM or CDMA
  • Compact and durable
  • Vibrating ringer

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Terrible screen
  • Can’t deactivate backlight
  • Mono audio

Bottom Line:

If you absolutely need your phone and your Palm to be the same object, then the Treo is a contender–very likely the best, given the very limited field of candidates. Otherwise, spend the same amount on a Tungsten T3 and a T68i Bluetooth phone. You’ll be happier.

Another Perspective:

[Brian] Look, the decision as to whether or not the Treo 600 is for you is pretty simple. The perfect buyer for the 600 is someone who wants access to mobile email and limited web pages on the run in the easiest and fastest way possible. They don’t want to deal with Bluetooth connections to a cell phone and prefer the input style consistent with the 600′s keyboard. The 600 buyer likes the addition of the SD slot to hold business files or perhaps a few MP3s when they want to have fun. They think the idea of the camera is cute, but most won’t find many ways to use it. The 600 buyer doesn’t really care about gaming, but they like to know playing a few games like Bejeweled will work just fine. If this sounds like you, the go for it.

The 600 won’t really work for me because of the hardware limitations, particularly the screen. A few other minor gripes that need to be addressed include moving the audio jack to the top of the device, including a 2.5mm to 3.5mm adaptor and including some sort of lens cover for the camera. I think the next version will be substantially better, but again, the 600 is full of compromises. They couldn’t put in all the power and bells and whistles the engineers would have prefered without slaughtering the battery life. Battery is key…everyone expects to charge the device overnight, but it has to make it through the day without dying.

In the end, I think the Treo 600 is by far the best Palm OS integrated device on the market. I like the growth shown over the Treo 300 and am excited about the potential for this product line in the future. Many business users will enjoy this device, especially Palm OS newbies who prefer the keyboard over graffiti entry.

Purchase Information:

A number of carriers now support the Treo 600 including Sprint, AT&T and Cingular. To purchase online with a new service plan, try viewing some of the available merchant resellers.

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