It runs the Palm OS, it’s a PDA, it’s a phone, but it’s NOT a Treo. The Qool QDA-700 is a compelling PDA feature phone for those who want flexibility in a small and easy to use package.
With all of the news about the Palm OS platform lately, I had been one to think the platform was heading towards a niche end with Palm taking its popular Treo model and placing the operating system with Windows Mobile. I am not one who thought that as a platform the Palm OS had any place at all left to go; but to stay on the remaining devices owned by a shrinking user base. And then I was asked if I wanted to do the review for the Qool QDA-700. It is a Palm OS feature phone (not smartphone, I will explain that) and despite some of its rough edges, represents where PalmSource had been talking about taking the platform, and where I can see it being successful.
The Qool QDA-700 is a Palm OS feature phone. Unlike the smartphone Treo, which is primarily a data communicator and phone, the QDA-700 does not espouse to be anything more than a phone that uses the Palm OS to do some neat functions here and there. If you will, the feature side of things is the fact that it has a nice camera (with photo managing capabilities), MP3 player, and games that are a little better than those of many mobile phones.
In my time with the QDA-700, I tried to use it in place of my Treo 600 for all of my day-to-day activities. And within this review, my evaluation of the QDA-700 will be both as how it relates to my usage patterns (which may or may not closely follow yours) as well as some features that many reviews normally cover. I will also directly look at the QDA-700 as it compares to my Treo 600. And then finally, where the Palm OS platform can take lessons from this and the Treo to really be a successful feature phone platform.
Part I: Evaluating the QDA-700
Hardware and Software Specifications
- Dimensions (in mm and grams): 57.7(w) x 103.5(h) x 24(d); 139g
- Palm OS 5.4.1
- Motorola Dragonball I.MXL @ 200MHz (however Speedy reports @ 235MHz)
- 32MB RAM (applications area, 10.8MB available)
- 32MB ROM (internal memory card, 16.9MB available)
- 1.3 Megapixel camera with zoom (5MPx interpolated)
- 320x240pixel, 16bit, 2.8in TFT Touchscreen
- GSM (900/1800/1900)/GPRS (Class 10)
- SD memory slot
- Infrared wireless
- English and Chinese (via CHOS and PenPower handwriting suite)
- MP3 player
- Voice Recorder
- MPEG 4 player
- SMS/MMS, email, and web browser
- Image editor, eReader ebook reader
- Documents to Go 6 – Standard Edition
- Backup Utility
Design and Construction
I have owned quite a few PDAs and phones in my life and have to say the Qool QDA-700 most feels like a good marriage between the two. Due primarily to its lack of a hardware keyboard, it’s obvious that Qool really sought to make the QDA-700 feel more like a phone than a communicator or PDA. Physically, it reminded me of the old Treo 180g. The 180g was one of the first Treo models sold, and was special because it had a Graffiti area. The QDA-700 is similar to that design, but looks and acts more like a real flip phone, with just a cover over the screen.
There are five hardware buttons on the face of the QDA. The green and red buttons are common buttons for hanging up and picking up the phone. Additionally, while in most applications, hitting the green button takes you right to the dialer application screen. The outermost buttons on the front of the QDA are keyed to the tabs when in the custom application launcher and dialer application; while in other applications they act as the Home and Menu buttons. There is a 5 way navigator stick in the middle of the device. While it was accurate, I found it harder to move the stick down and sometimes difficult to register a press of the nav-stick when selecting an item. Unlike the Treo, this is not an enhanced 5-way nav, but only provides some basic functionality in some applications.
On the left side of the device are the camera and volume toggle keys. The camera button has a dual feature of being able to do a pop-up clock when the flip is closed, good for those moments when you just need to know the time. The volume toggle works for both the phone and MP3 play in determining the sound level.
The right side is very simple. There is the SD card slot; below that the IR port; and below that the reset button. The reset button can be pressed with the stylus tip, so no need to carry a spare paperclip with you. At the bottom of the right side of the device is the downward facing stylus, similar to the just reviewed Torq P100. It is a telescoping stylus, howbeit quite thin. I found it easiest to write with the stylus when it was extended. While in its compressed mode, it felt much like the much loathed Sony Clie styli.
In the rear of the QDA-700 is the camera (1.3MPx) with a small mirror for self portraits; the speaker (can be excruciatingly loud); and the removable battery. One of the things I like about the QDA is the lock that you have to click next to the battery compartment to lock the battery in place. If you do not lock the battery, then the QDA will not turn on. It’s a really neat way to make sure that you have secured the battery in place. Under the battery there is a sliding bay for your SIM card.
The top of the QDA only contains a protruding antenna (gets better reception than my Treo 600) and the power button; which can turn the screen on and off, as well as toggle the wireless connection on and off when held for a few seconds.
Some Detailed Software Talk
As stated above, the QDA-700 uses version 5.4.0 of the Palm OS. It was in version 5.4 that PalmSource introduced Chinese language support to the Palm OS, and due to this device being a big seller in Asia, it only fits that the QDA would have this version of the Palm OS.
Despite having a nearly recent version of the Palm OS (most current devices use version 5.4.8 and 5.4.9), there are some characteristics that it does not share with other Palm OS devices using Garnet (Palm OS 5). One of which is the previously mentioned lack of the 5-way nav functionality found in the Treo line. Where in the Treo, it is quite possible to never pull out the stylus to tap ok buttons and the like, with the QDA, you have to either have the stylus out, or use a finger (which quickly mucks up the screen with prints).
Another feature that is missing, unexpectedly, is the ability to remap the buttons. While that was sort of remedied with using the Launcher II application (a specialized launcher created for the QDA), it was just something I use often that was not there.
However, what is present in the software is quite interesting. Starting with the not-quite-standard 320×240 pixel resolution, which renders nicely unless you are playing a game or using a program that does not know how to handle the extra pixels correctly. The fonts used were thin; yet quite readable (I prefer these fonts to the ones on my Treo by far). Also, many of the included applications supported this screen resolution, meaning that I didn’t have to look at a weirdly-blue virtual Graffiti area all the time.
The QDA-700 shipped to me in a multilingual state, meaning that it had both English and Chinese languages available upon startup. Not that I am not a fan of the Chinese or anything, I just cannot read it and so that part of the device went largely unused. The Chinese language files take up of good chunk of the RAM and ROM whether you use them or not. The QDA ships with the Pen Power handwriting recognition program as well as the CHOS (Chinese OS) for those who prefer to use Chinese rather than English.
Other software that comes with the QDA-700 includes Documents-to-Go Version 6; Chatopus (a multi-network instant messaging program); Launcher II (an alternative program launcher); PalmSource Mail v5.2 (for email); PalmSource Web Browser v2.0.3; voice recorder application; (very well done) photo editing application; Clock (a world clock); and shareware versions of 4 Astraware games (Bejeweled, Fruit Frolic, Ricochet, and Spy Chase). Overall, this is not a bad package of applications.
Speaking Towards Daily Performance
As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, I own a Treo 600 and a T5, so I pretty much have my usage patterns settled down. Carrying the QDA, however, was quite refreshing. Maybe it’s because of its size (considerably less than the Treo, even when the flip is open), or the fact that it got better reception and had a larger screen area so that I could read bibles and other eBooks. I don’t know exactly, but I was quite impressed.
Of course, when speaking about phones, PDAs, and PDAs that are phones, one of the most important discussions of performance is the battery life. A phone that does not last a whole day isn’t much use. And a PDA that cannot handle on and off wireless connections is not of much use to this user. I found that the QDA-700 was quite impressive to the point of lasting almost 2 days on a charge. My use included about 2hrs of phone use, some email reading, and then the (often) occasional surfing for weather or a quick search in Yahoo or Google.
Palm Benchmark Numbers
- Arithmetic’s 409
- Heap Management 310
- Data Access 991
- Graphics 770
- Battery Test 4hrs 18min @ first low battery message
~5hrs when turned off and stayed off
All numbers are based on the baseline being 100 from a Palm m505
I did come close to giving this phone a really bad rating on account that it could not read the 280ish songs that I had saved to my 1GB SD card. But after talking with the support staff and trying just a few songs at a time, I was able to get the MP3 player working. There is a limit of about 200MBs for the songs, but that still is a good amount. The reason I mention that is that there is built-in support for MP3 ringtones. Uh, this phone is loud (even on low settings) and the vibrate function is louder than you feel it as well. It’s just perfect for those meetings when text messages are going back and forth.
In also speaking of multimedia abilities of the QDA, the camera wasn’t half bad. Using the camera button (on the left side), I was able to launch the camera application. The major gripe there being that you have to have the flip open to use the viewfinder and configure the settings to take the picture. The camera takes pictures at .1 megapixel (320×240 pixels with 1x, 2x, and 4x zoom), .3 megapixel (640×480 pixels with 1x,2x, and 4x zoom), 1.3 megapixel (1280×960 pixels with 1x, 2x, and 4x zoom), and an interpolated 5 megapixel shot (2560×1920 pixels with no zoom levels). Needless to say, you can get any kind of shot that you want to as long as there is good light. Though, even in low light settings, the night mode isn’t too bad either, though the pictures will show a lot of noise.
I will now touch on the PIM applications. It’s here that I noticed how bare the QDA really is, or how much work the Handspring/Palm team put into the Treo. There is basically nothing great about any of the PIM apps. You can add a picture to a contact, but other than that it’s the same basic Palm OS PIM action. Not that familiarity is a bad thing, my concern is the effort isn’t very polished. There is no skillful integration of the 5-way to navigate thru the phonebook, and looking for a number means taking out the stylus and getting busy with Graffiti 2.
Overall, it wasn’t an overwhelmingly great experience with the software side of the QDA. It’s simply a case of the QDA-700 being a decent phone, but a so-so PDA, lacking the software, integration and ease of use to be at the elite level of comparable products.
Part II: Comparing to the Treo 600 (not the Treo 650)
My daily driver, the PDA that I use most often, has been a Treo 600. I purchased it in order to consolidate the several pieces of tech in one pocket (Palm T5 and Sony Ericsson T616). So in part of my evaluating of the QDA-700, I used it as I would my Treo, and made some interesting observations (both positive and negative).
First, the positive observations
- The QDA-700 is a better “feeling” and “looking” phone than the Treo. Pull it out anywhere and no one will notice that it does more than make phone calls. It also feels like a phone, being much lighter than a Treo it doesn’t require a belt clip or special case. Signal reception was about 1 bar better in all areas than the Treo.
- It might not sound like much, but I liked that the alarms and ringtones were so loud. I had to adjust my Treo to vibrate and ring, with the QDA-700, that wasn’t the case, I could easily hear the ringer in all environments.
- Came with stereo headphones that also work as a mic. Meaning one less item to buy, and they sounded excellent too.
- Built in support for MP3 ring tones, but that song file size limit still perplexes me.
- Nice and easy to use camera. The controls could be cleaned up some but still very easy to understand.
Some not so positive observations
- The QDA-700 is most definitely a phone first, and then a data device. Using Graffiti 2 for text messages and short emails was more hassle than I would have liked.
- The non-standard resolution made for a hit-and-miss run with applications.
- Having to open the flip lid to navigate the stylus-driven MP3 player controls is a pain.
Some negative observation
- The included web browser and email programs were just plain bad.
- The included software was quite old, and in the case of Documents-to-Go a full version back. It would have been nice to see some more updated titles included with the QDA-700.
- There is absolutely no polish on the usability of the 5-way nav with the rest of the OS. You can select an application and click down a drop down menu (after you tap it with the stylus), but other than that the interface and highly stylus driven. This is a major knock on what is otherwise a solid (and stable) version of the Palm OS
- Where did all the RAM and internal memory card memory go? With only 10MB RAM and 20MB of the internal memory available, you will need an SD card right away.
If you didn’t skip to the end and read the entire review, this may surprise you, but I actually liked the QDA-700. No, it’s not as polished as the Treo and the lack of features like Bluetooth cripple its flexibility, but it is more phone-like than the Treo and that won me (and my pocket) over quite quickly. Its light size and easily handled form factor was just a refreshing change from carrying the Treo or other Smartphone bricks. If there was anything that I would improve/add to the QDA-700, it would be Bluetooth and a polishing of the usability and application suite/integration. Just those three things would give Qool Labs a heck of a nice product to offer beside the current Treo 650. Without, it looks and acts like a two-year-old model; solid, but not quite up with the times.
Qool is still working on getting a US carrier to sell the QDA-700, Cingular and T-Mobile being the only options as it’s a GSM phone, but price will be the kicker. If this can be had a $150 or less with contract, they will sell like hotcakes. If higher than that, it might as well only be sold thru grey market channels to those for which it’s a good fit.
- Nice compact design
- Solid base for future products
- Old software bundle that’s not very good
- Lack of availability
- No Bluetooth or WiFi
On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being best, I give the QDA-700 a 3.5 because it’s a good effort. It’s not by any means the best that’s out there; and there are questions about availability and price, but it’s a good model nonetheless, and a wakeup call that there really is more than one Palm OS train out there making devices.