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A Week with the Handspring Treo 300

by David Weiss
03/13/2003

Just about everywhere I go, I carry a PDA and a cell phone, and I've been doing that for a number of years. But I've often wondered what it would be like if the two devices were merged into one, and Handspring's answer to that question is the Treo 300. Would I be willing to trade my PDA and cell phone for a Treo 300? Fortunately, I was able to borrow one, to find out.

My PDA is a Palm m500, a thin, monochrome-display PDA with an SD card slot for adding more memory, applications, "e-texts," etc. My current cell phone is a Qualcomm QCP-2760 that I bought about three years ago. Though it's thin and narrow, it's gargantuan by today's standards, since it's just over six inches tall. It's got a small, low-resolution, monochrome screen.

As far as integrating the two, I don't. Supposedly, its possible for my m500 to use my cell phone for a wireless Web connection, but this requires a proprietary serial cable that I haven't had the energy to track down. Also, I just couldn't see myself connecting the two in a public place. I already feel a bit ridiculous when I'm standing at the train station with a Palm in one hand and a phone in the other, but I put up with it. Also, my cell phone doesn't have an IR port, so beaming phone numbers is not an option.

Out of the Box

The Treo comes in a cool white box filled with smaller cool white boxes that fit together in a sort of puzzle; one has the Treo, and the others store the USB and AC cables, a car-lighter charger, and an earphone. I pulled out the Treo itself, a slick, molded-plastic device that fit nicely in my hand, and plugged it into the wall to charge while I ran some errands. The power light glows red when it's charging and green when it's fully charged, which is a useful feature; the m500 always glows green when it's in the cradle, no matter what its status. When I got back, cheered by the green glow on top of the Treo, I unplugged it and plunked down on the couch to give it a whirl.

As soon as you open the lid, it springs to life, displaying the speed-dial page of PhoneBook, the Treo's phone application. The screen looks good--it's colorful and bright--but it doesn't compare with the higher-resolution screens on Palm's Tungsten T or Sony's high-end Cliés. Still, the color screen was a welcome sight.

Built for Speed-Dial
Built for Speed-Dial. This screen opens when you flip open the Treo's lid. The numbers 1-5 below represent five such screens you can populate with phone numbers.

Time to make a phone call. I dialed a number on the keyboard and immediately the screen jumped to PhoneBook's dialer page, with large numbers that I could tap on with the stylus. As I punched the numbers into the keyboard, they scrolled across the top. When I hit the green Dial button, a message informed me that Wireless Mode was off, and asked if I'd like it turned on. I tapped "Yes," and after about 15 seconds, I was on the network, the power light blinked green, and the phone dialed obediently. Now I need to mention that in my apartment, where I first tried out the Treo, I get terrible reception with my Qualcomm Sprint PCS phone. In fact, there's only one place in the apartment that gets any reception at all. So when I tried the Treo, I was impressed to immediately get the network. I got very good reception, the sound was clear and unbroken, and the other party reported that they could hear me loud and clear.

Tap Dancing
Tap Dancing. Use this screen if you'd prefer to tap out your phone numbers using a stylus, rather than using the keyboard.

I pulled out the stylus, eager to find my way around the device, and immediately I felt at a loss. There's no Home hot spot, as there is on most other Palms. Not only that, I soon realized, there are no Menu or Find hot spots, and no Graffiti area. Of course there isn't, because the Treo has a keyboard. If you're used to the Blackberry pagers, the Treo's keyboard will be a welcome sight. The keys are close together, and small, but they're oriented in such a way as to be thumb-friendly. But for me, a die-hard Graffiti user, I felt I had a lot of learning in front of me.

I noticed that there was a Home icon on one of the Treo's keys, and that it was accessible using the blue modifier key, which acts as a kind of second Shift key. With both thumbs, I successfully issued the command that brought me to the main applications screen. And using the stylus, I was able to poke around through the various application categories to see what was installed. But when I wanted to see how much storage space was free, I was again stopped short: how do you pull down the menus without the Menu hot spot? Then I learned that a key with a Graffiti-style Command stroke pulls down the menus. (Of course, tapping any tabbed area at the top of the screen with the stylus also shows the menus.)

Once I got adjusted to the Treo's anomalies, it began to behave like a regular PDA, except that the two-stroke key command for Home--which is the Palm OS way of quitting an app--still bugged me to some degree; it's awkward to do with a stylus in your hand.

A Welcome Sight. Use the "Blue Key" plus Home key combination to enter the familiar Applications interface of the Palm OS.

Wireless Surfing

Having gotten the basics down, I thought I'd surf the Web. I learned that you can press and hold the power button to turn Wireless mode on or off, so it's pretty easy to move back and forth between modes. The only thing that confused me at first was that you have to hold down the power button until you hear the "goodbye" tones, past the point of seeing the Goodbye screen.

I navigated to Blazer, the Treo's Web Browser, which opens with a PCS Web splash screen of various PDA-friendly Web sites. I tapped on CNN and after a few seconds in which the Treo opened up an Internet connection, the PDA-friendly version of CNN's site loaded in about 15 seconds, and it was well laid out and easy to read. It may seem like a pain that you have to wait to open up an Internet connection after turning on Wireless mode, but Internet fees are separate from phone use, so it behooves you to know exactly how much of the data service you're using.

Surfing, PDA-Style. Blazer opens with a well-organized portal of PDA-friendly Web sites.

Soon I was off and running, happily surfing the Web. Navigation got even smoother when I discovered the thumb wheel on the left side of the Treo, which you can also click. Scrolling this wheel moves you from link to link, and clicking it follows the link.

To celebrate my surfing success I decided to step outside. It was an overcast but warmish day, and I found a good spot on a bench in a nearby park. I tried surfing the Net on my own terms; that is, entering URLs--PDA-friendly or not--and seeing what happened.

Go Forth and Browse
Go Forth and Browse. Blazer lets you tap on icons for popular expressions such as "www," to make text entry easier.

I tried the fairly graphics-rich site for the San Francisco Chronicle, and it took a full minute and a half to load. Also, the page is rendered rather strangely: First off, the entire SFGate.com logo was missing, and all of the graphics and text is arranged in a single, thin column. Graphical text, such as the navigation bar listing "Traffic, Weather, and Live Views," was too small to be readable, and had lost its hyperlinks. Still, the main photos on the page came through fairly well. All of the text was there, appropriately hyperlinked.

Site Seeing Site Seeing
Site Seeing. You can surf just about any site with Blazer, but many will look very different from what you're used to. Below are a few more examples: the O'Reilly Network and Apple's site.
O'Reilly Network O'Reilly Network

Apple Apple

Remembering that my editor for this piece, Derrick Story, has a PDA-friendly site for his photography business, I typed in the URL for his site; not only did it take just seconds to load, but it looked great. The moral of this part of the story is, when you're surfing the Web with a Treo, it's best to surf on those sites optimized for PDAs; however, it's nice to know that if you really want to, you can surf just about any page with a Treo. You might have a half hour to kill waiting to meet with a client, and with a Treo, you could be surfing their site. Blazer, the Treo's Web site, can't deal with Flash, however, nor can it work with many kinds of forms, but I hardly expected it to.

Think Small
Think Small. Many Web designers are starting to build mobile versions of their sites, which are vertically oriented, and usually contain just one graphic and enough text to fill a tiny screen.

The next day was finally bright and sunny, after a solid week of hazy skies, and I felt that it was my duty to call one of my friends who works in an office, to gloat. I flipped open the lid of the Treo but I was in for a big disappointment--in direct sunlight I found the Treo's screen to be almost impossible to read. I fumbled with the brightness and contrast, to no avail. Finally, I reached a shady spot and was able to get oriented, but I'd lost a bit of my urge to gloat once I'd stepped out of the sun.

Web Email

My next experiment was to send my girlfriend an email. At first, I tried Earthlink Mail, but Blazer couldn't display the page correctly. So I tried my Yahoo account. The browser had no problem with that site, but my short message--I believe I said something like "Hey Sweetie--I'm writing you from the Rose Garden, using the Treo! Whoo Hoo!"--took an exceedingly long time using the keyboard, and it didn't feel at all spontaneous.

But when I returned to my home computer, and checked out a few specs on the Treo, I was euphoric to come across a free app called RecoEcho that lets you write Graffiti anywhere on the Treo's screen. This program works like a charm--you write letters on one half of the screen, and numbers on the right, and it places the text wherever the cursor is. The only thing that's odd is that instead of tapping twice to enter punctuation mode, you do an upward slash from right to left.

Synching Up

Next, I thought I'd try out synching. I use both Macs and PCs at home, but I wanted to synch the Treo with the data on my PowerBook, so I was disappointed that the enclosed CD only had software for Windows. I tried to synch with the current software I had for the m500, but I needed to download and use the version of Palm Desktop specific to the Treo.

Once I synched, all of my Address Book records on my Mac populated the Contacts portion of the Treo's PhoneBook app. This was where I felt a deep appreciation for the phone/PDA combo--just tap on a Contact's phone number and tap Dial to call.

The Treo doesn't ship with a cradle, but you can order one if you like. I like cradles, because they prop up the handheld when you're synching, but I could also live without one, and a simple USB cable, which comes with the Treo, is much more portable. Speaking of cradles, one disappointment I had with the Treo's cradle connector is that there aren't a lot of peripherals built for it, as there are for my m500, or many of Handspring's Visors. So you can't, for example, attach one of those cool full-sized folding keyboards, or at least at present; it's possible that a developer is working on one.

POP Email

Next I thought I'd work on getting and sending email from my POP accounts. Out of the box, the Treo isn't set up to do this, so I downloaded a trial version of Mailer, from Electric Pocket. After entering my addresses, passwords, and server information, I tapped "Send and Receive," and lo and behold, I was getting email. When I replied, however, I got the message that "Relaying was unacceptable to the server," or something to that effect. I scoured the Web for help and tried out a few alternate SMTP servers at Earthlink (the host for my email account), but nothing worked until Handspring tech support furnished me with the following pearls of wisdom which, as far as I was able to gather, weren't available in any documentation:

Username: Should be YourUserId@earthlink.net, not simply YourUserId.
POP3: Should be mail.earthlink.net and not earthlink.net, which works fine on my Mac.
SMTP: Should be smtpauth.earthlink.net, not the traditional smtp.earthlink.net.

Once I entered those settings, all was well, and I was able to both get and send email. Once, while waiting for my girlfriend to emerge from the dentist, I received an email from a buddy in Canada, dashed out a quick reply using Graffiti, and sent it off. It was an exhilarating feeling.

The Verdict?

Most people would certainly want to trade their PDA and cell phone for a Treo 300, especially if they have an antiquated, inflexible phone such as mine, and they need to keep their phone and PDA with them at all times. The Treo 300 is a highly-portable and wondrous device that truly merges a phone with a PDA, and does so with some fine touches.

But I wouldn't make the trade, because I'm very attached to my m500; it's the perfect size and weight to keep comfortably in a pants pocket, and though it lacks color, I can read the screen under all conditions. And I've grown accustomed to the SD slot, which allows me to work on large Word files (with a little help from DataViz's Documents To Go). Also, I have the option of using one of those folding portable keyboards (though I haven't splurged for one yet). As far as wireless Internet goes, my dream is to get a Bluetooth card and phone. The beauty of Bluetooth is that the devices don't need to point toward one another, and they can be several feet apart or in different pockets or bags.

David Weiss is an Oakland, California based freelance writer. He's worked as a senior editor at Macworld magazine, and as the lead editor of MacHome Journal. Read more about David at www.davidweiss.net.


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