Brighthand Reviews the Handspring Treo 270

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The Treo 270 is a smartphone that offers both voice and data capabilities. But, because it is a smartphone, can do much more than a simple mobile phone; it’s also a full-featured Palm OS handheld.

GPRS Service

When Handspring first began offering this device last year, it was limited to connecting to GSM networks, which meant its data transfer rate wasn’t very high. Over the summer, several wireless companies, among them Cingular, began GPRS service, which offers a higher data transfer rate. Recently, Handspring released an upgrade that allowed the Treo 270 to connect to some of these faster wireless networks.

I’ve been using a borrowed Treo 270 for a couple of weeks now that has GPRS service from Cingular. I found it to be very useful, though I think there is a lot of room for improvement.

Surfing the Web on it is comparable to using a regular 28.8K modem, or maybe a little bit faster. Not as fast as I could wish but not frustratingly slow either, especially if I mainly used sites formatted for mobile devices.

Really, it’s all about convenience. It doesn’t matter how fast your net connection at home or work is if you are in your car. I found Cingular’s GPRS service to be acceptably fast for when there was something I wanted to look up right then and there.

For example, my wife and I were out at dinner with some friends and the idea of going to a movie was brought up. I pulled out the Treo 270 and, in a minute or so, was about to tell everyone what was playing and when.

The GPRS service as implemented on the Treo 270 isn’t “always on.” In order to access the Internet, you have to connect to the service, which can take 10 to 30 seconds. You have to do this every time you want to surf the Web or download your email. Turning the Treo off shuts the service down.

Blazer

Handspring provides a free copy of its Blazer web browser with every Treo. The one that came with the Treo 270 I used was modified so that the Cingular user web site was its default home page and I couldn’t find a way to change this.

Blazer is a decent enough browser for a regular user but hard core users will probably find it too limited. It’s perfectly adequate for displaying web sites that have been formatted for mobile devices but comes up a bit short with regular ones.

This is mainly caused by the fact that all pages are reformatted to fit the width of the Treo’s small screen. There isn’t an option to leave pages as their designers’ intended and you scroll back and forth on them. This leaves most regular pages an almost hopeless muddle. You’ll probably be able to eventually find what you are looking for but it isn’t a very easy process.

Obviously Handspring realizes this because Blazer comes with a bookmark to a page on the Handspring site that lists lots of sites that have been formatted for small screens. This includes news, reference, and other useful sites.

Blazer let’s you bookmark your favorite sites and supports caching so you don’t have to re-download an image if you downloaded it on a previous visit.

It will also let you control the quality of the images you download. If you choose to make all images just 4-bit greyscale they will download much faster than if you let them be displayed at full color.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t support JavaScript, which will prevent you from using some websites, like checking your Yahoo! email.

However, don’t let this be a reason to not get the Treo. There are several other browsers available from other companies that offer more features that will work fine with the 270.

Treo Mail

I’m sure one of the major reasons you are considering a smartphone is to be able to get your email at any time or place. The Treo doesn’t come with a full-featured email app, though you can buy one from Handspring called Treo Mail 1.5 for $20, or there is an enterprise version that is $100.

I took the basic version, called Treo Mail Internet Edition, out for a spin. This lets you check the email on a POP3 email account. It has some nice features, like the ability to schedule when the device will automatically download your email, but it’s a bit limited. The fact that it can only check one email address was the biggest limitation to me.

Like with the web browser, there are other email apps that offer more features available from other companies. I tried the Treo 270 with SnapperMail from Snapperfish Ltd., which has a really impressive feature set.

Voice

Of course, all these data-capabilities don’t affect the 270’s voice capabilities. When using it as a phone, you open the flip lid and hold the 270 up to your ear. The speaker is near the top of the flip lid and the microphone is below the keyboard. Of course, this means you can easily touch your cheek to the screen, which isn’t something I suggest if you like a clean screen. Fortunately, Handspring supplies a hands-free headset, which works well.

You can dial numbers from an on-screen keyboard, from a key-pad superimposed on the keyboard, from a speed-dial list, or directly from your address book.

The 270 offers lots of handy phone features, like 3-way calling, speaker phone, and more. It also has one I think all mobile phones should have: a single button that completely shuts its speaker off. If you go into a movie, you can easily make sure your phone won’t ring without having to fool around with a bunch of settings. You can set it to always vibrate when your receive a call and the speaker is off.

PDA

Though I’ve focused so far on the 270’s wireless capabilities, I don’t want you to forget that it’s also a Palm OS handheld.

The 270 was the first Treo smartphone to include a 160 by 160 pixel color screen. This screen is 12-bit, which means it can display 4,000 colors, not the 65,000 16-bit screens can. I don’t think this will affect your use of the 270 much. You don’t need 16-bit color for email or even ebooks, but you might have a few complaints if you want to show people pictures from your last vacation on your handheld.

Indoors, the colors on the 270 are strong and its screen has good contrast. However, the screen doesn’t look as good outdoors. It’s easily washed out by strong light, which can make using the device in sunlight a bit of a challenge.

One of the features about the 270 that makes some long-time handheld users nervous is that it doesn’t use Graffiti for text input; instead, it has an integrated miniature QWERTY keyboard. This will probably be a bonus for first-time buyers as they won’t have to learn Graffiti at all. And long-time users shouldn’t be nervous. After extensive use of the keyboard, like writing most of this review on it, I’m significantly faster on the Treo 270’s mini-keyboard than I am on another handheld writing Graffiti.

This device also has a jog wheel, a small widget on the left side that lets you use your thumb to scroll around in some applications. This makes it fairly easy for you to look a phone number up in your address book and call it one handed. You can also move around on web pages displayed by Blazer using the jog wheel. Sadly, this isn’t nearly as integrated into the Treo’s operating system as it ought to be. You can’t even use it to launch applications.

The 270 isn’t as small as some mobile phones but it certainly can do a lot more than those do. It’s 4.2 by 2.8 by 0.8 inches and weighs 5.4 ounces. It fits pretty well in a pants pocket, though it’s a bit thicker than I like.

Handspring has been kind of conservative with its smartphones. All of them still run Palm OS 3.5, when the cutting edge is up to OS 5. They also use kind of outdated 33 MHz Dragonball processors. This won’t affect your ability to do word processing or play many games, but multimedia is pretty much out of the question. You won’t be using the Treo 270 to listen to MP3s, for example.

It does have 16 MB of memory, which is a pretty good amount. In fact, you won’t find a Palm OS device with more. It would be nice if the 270 had a memory card slot, though.

The battery life on the Treo 270 is decent, especially when you consider the heavy drain caused by its wireless hardware. When I was testing it, I set Treo Mail to download my email once an hour during work hours. Plus, I did a good bit of web surfing. I also used it has my regular handheld, looking up phone numbers, writing this review on it, etc. While doing this, I tracked how long the device was on using an app called UpTime. The Treo 270’s battery gave almost three hours of use before the first battery warning. This means I needed to recharge the Treo every night because its battery wouldn’t last for two days the way I was using it.

Conclusion

The 270 is a convenient way to keep in touch with the world while you are on the go. With GPRS service, you can check your email and do a bit of surfing from almost anywhere. It also a pretty good handheld and a nice way to keep track of your schedule and contacts. At $499 plus the cost of the wireless service, it isn’t for people with thin wallets, though. If you can live without the color screen, you can get a Treo 180 for just $99 with rebate.

I believe that this is the direction all handhelds are going. Within a few years, handhelds without wireless access will be as rare as hen’s teeth. The 270 is a fine step in this direction.


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