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Treo 600: Not Your Parents' PalmPilot

by Ian F. Darwin
04/30/2004

There's a perception in some circles that a Palm computing device, still sometimes referred to as a PalmPilot even though the PalmPilot name was retired about four years ago, is "just an organizer." While it is a very good organizer, the Treo 600 blows that tired old misperception completely out of the water. Palm's Handspring Treo 600 is at the very high end of the PDA spectrum. It provides full PalmOS 5.2 support, with a fast 144MHz ARM processor, a full GSM (quad-band) or CDMA cell phone, full proxyless web browsing (not just WML) and email support, synchronization with Palm Desktop and Microsoft Outlook, a 640 by 480 camera with the ability to email directly from the camera, reasonable MP3 stereo sound (with extra software), an SD/MMC card slot, and a USB connection for downloading data and PalmOS applications and for uploading data to your desktop. The Treo 600 is everything you need in a handheld.

I bought my first digital camera at the first JavaOne in San Francisco in the late 1990s. It was a Kodak DC25; its "high-res" mode was a whopping 640 by 480, it stored its pictures in a proprietary undocumented format (mangled TIFF) on CompactFlash cards, came with software to upload pictures to Windows 95 and Mac OS 8, and cost about $250. My second (not counting the odd cheapo tethered webcam) is a refurbished HP620 I bought my wife for a vacation; this camera cost about $150, takes pictures in resolutions up to 1200 by 1024, and stores photos as standard JPEG files. My third digital camera is my Treo 600 cell phone. It cost about as much as both other cameras put together, but then it's also a fast PalmOS device with 32MB of RAM and an SD slot. I know it's mainly a PalmOS device and a phone, but having it be a tiny digital camera (though not as tiny as this!), for not much more than the original "new" price of the Treo 180 it replaces, makes it a darn good deal.

What's in the Box

The phone comes ready to use, with the following accessories:

  • Palm Desktop software for Mac OS X and Windows
  • Power adapter
  • USB cable with HotSync button and connector for power adapter
  • Cabled earphone with "answer" button
  • Slipcase phone protector for carrying in purse or computer bag
  • Manual (but nobody reads those, right?) -- this is also available as a PDF from the web site

What's not included? You can buy, for extra cost:

  • Cradle
  • Belt case
  • Car charger
  • Adapter to use stereo headphones instead of a three-pin, cell-phone earbud

If you want one of the above accessories, buy it with the phone to save shipping. Just go to www.PalmOne.com and follow the link to Treo Accessories.

Another source for accessories (and Treos too) is TreoCentral.com. They list many accessories including, a combination (phone and stereo music) pair of headphones.

One of the hardest parts of writing this review was simply getting my hands on a device. Demand was seriously outranking supply in October 2003, when the first Treo 600s were shipping to Sprint customers. The Treo 600 comes in two flavors: CDMA (for Sprint) and GSM (for Cingular, T-Mobile, AT&T, and others). CDMA phones are charcoal grey; GSM units are shiny chrome. (See the GSM Vs. CDMA sidebar). In Canada, where I live, CDMA is used by Bell Canada and by Telus, and GSM by Rogers and Fido (Microcell). Since Handspring (like other cell-phone makers that sell direct) gets money from the carriers to sell the phone with a contract, for a long time you couldn't buy one at all without a plan. But as of February 2004, you can buy an unlocked Treo 600 (at least in GSM), which you should be able to use with any GSM carrier. My existing service with Rogers and their support of GSM and GPRS made the GSM model of the Treo 600 a natural choice for me, even though Rogers didn't "support" the phone when I started (they do now). The delay in supporting Rogers was due to, as one of Handspring's marketing communications people put it, the Treo not having been "optimized" for the various networks. Now I'm no expert on the nuances of GSM technology, but as a techno-old-timer, the term "optimized" sounds to me like a thinly-disguised euphemism for "adapted to the standards violations of your particular carrier" or at least to "the standards variations" of your carrier.

As it turns out, the phones from all of the carriers except one seem to be the same. I compared a Generic phone from Handspring with a Rogers (Canada) phone. The firmware revision is the same (2.05), and the "software revision" only a few dot-points different (1.08-INTL versus 1.11-INTL), which is probably explainable by the few months between their shipping dates. Handspring's Treo overview page does note that phones purchased for Cingular in the U.S. are optimized for that network and warns that "Customers who use Cingular-branded Treo 600 smartphones on other GSM/GPRS networks may not receive optimal voice reception or data speed." It doesn't say what happens when you use a generic phone on the Cingular network, and I was unable to try my phone on the Cingular network due to not living in their coverage area. I did manage to borrow a Fido/Microcell SIM, and the phone seemed to work fine on their GSM network.

First Impressions

Everyone who sees the Treo 600 is impressed by how well-built it looks (and feels, among the people whom I deign to allow to touch it). Treo 600 looks a lot different from the older Treo by not being a flip phone, but more the shape of a modern cell phone. Compare the older Treo (on the left, with the flip closed, covering the keyboard), the Treo 600 (middle), and my wife's little free-with-activation AudioVox on the right. Note that the older Treo is very roughly the same size as the current Tungsten devices from Palm.

Three phones

The screen is bright and beautiful color (160 by 160 by 24). So bright, in fact, that I didn't replace my pocket flashlight when I lost it; I live in the country where, with no streetlamps and no neighbors, it gets very dark on moonless nights. Yet I can use my Treo 600 to walk around the house at night without crashing into things.

Goners

What's missing form the Treo 600 compared to the older Treo line?

The feature I thought I'd miss most is "Binky," the friendly flashing LED. I drive a lot in the country because I live there and, at night, that friendly flashing LED helps me see whether I'm in range of any cell towers. It happens outside of cities, you know. Line of sight and all that: you go behind a big hill and poof! No coverage. Binky has kept me company for many hours, but based on the initial information on Handspring's web site, Binky seemed to have been deleted in a good cause -- battery life. More about that later. I was therefore pleased to power up my new Treo 600 and find that Binky had survived, although in a smaller incarnation.

What really is gone is the 180's annoying delay when you started a call. Like most PDA/phone combos, the Treo 180/300 is really two microcomputer chips in one cabinet. There is the Palm device (a moderately fast Motorola Dragonball in the 180/300, and a much faster 144MHz Arm processor -- actually a TI OMAP 1510 -- in the Treo 600), and the telephone hardware, which is also a microchip. Perhaps due to a glitch in the communications between them, my older 180 left the screen totally blank for a couple of seconds when you placed a call. And that was after a second or two of non-response, where you were never sure it had noticed that you'd tapped an on-screen phone shortcut. Treo 600 fixes this: you tap on the screen and instantly see the Dialing... screen. Also improved is the start-up screen; when you power the phone on or off you get a nice chime sound and the Tower screen:

phone on phone off

In fact, the whole Treo 600 experience is more sound-oriented. There are blips for gaining and losing coverage, touching the screen when not expected, dialing phone digits, and so on. Sometimes it gets excessive, but you can turn many of these on or off individually, either in application's Preferences menu or in the Prefs application itself. And you can switch all sounds off with the big sound/silent switch on the top of the phone.

When Two Become One

Handspring was created a few years back when Palm's original designer Jeff Hawkins and a few other senior Palm people left to form a new company. They made a series of innovative handhelds -- up to the Treo 300-- and sold a lot of them. But not enough to pay the rent. As of fall, 2003, Handspring has moved back in with Palm. The new company is called "palmOne," and the Treo is branded palmOne on the front of the phone, although mine still had the Handspring logo on the outside of the box.

One thing that's gone that I do not miss is the flip-phone-style lid. While it provides a nice protector for the screen and keyboard, one of the long-standing tech support issues with the 180 line was that the cable between the phone's body and the earpiece in the flip would break after being opened and closed some random number of times. If the phone were still in warranty, you could get a factory replacement. If not, you could pay a bunch to have it repaired, or if you were very brave, repair it yourself.

Installation and Documentation

Installation of the SIM card in the phone was trivial, as expected, and it connected to my cellular provider (Rogers) in seconds. I have not had any glitches with connections, although once, when I was in an area with very poor reception from Rogers, the phone locked onto arch-rival Fido's signal and apparently connected. I didn't even try to make a call. If this every happens to you (getting connected to the wrong network), or if you want to pick from among several suppliers when roaming, you can go to Phone Menu->Options->Select Network and make your choice.

Installation of the Palm Desktop software on Mac OS X was not so simple. This software connects with the standard Palm HotSync application in the Treo. Installation died due to a known issue with StuffIt that appears on the Palm site but is not in the README file that came with the Treo. Although Palm's site claim it is not needed on Panther, it seemed to be needed anyway, so I clicked the link from that page. When you get to Aladdin/StuffIt's web site, they blame Apple.

In the end, all this may not have been necessary. What really matters is that if you have iSync 1.2 installed, you also need the permissions fixer that undoes some little permissions glitch that is blamed on the iSync installer.

Once I got it installed, the desktop software ran fine, and has been running smoothly for about a month. On the Mac, it can synchronize entirely with Palm Desktop, or you can sync your contacts into Address Book and your calendar items into iCal.

Nobody ever reads the manuals that come with a cell phone, right? Well, the folks at Handspring recognize that, because the first page of the instruction manual begins, "If you read nothing else ..." and goes on to explain the basics. As a reviewer, I seldom read manuals, preferring to bumble through things and thereby get the same experience as the majority of my readers, who tell me they seldom read manuals.

Seriously, the manual seems pretty good, and is worth at least a quick glance. It will tell you how to avoid damaging your device, for example, and that's gotta be worth something on a device that's worth over $400.

Tiny Keyboard

keyboard

What about the keyboard? Its form factor is even smaller than that of the Treo 180/270/300 it replaces. I found that typing on it is no worse, however. There is a shift key for upper case and an Option key for the numbers, punctuation, and other characters. You don't type on a handheld the same way you type on a laptop or desktop, of course. You work out some variations of two-thumbed and one-handed typing, depending on what your other hand may be doing and how important it is not to drop your Treo on the ground. The keyboard layout is different from the 180, and I find it improved -- more of the special characters that you need all the time are available. Of course, as you can see from the picture, the range of characters on the keyboard is still pretty limited. The Alt key produces a drop-down chooser of characters that are considered variations on the last key you typed. For example, typing Option, then W, gives a + sign; pressing Alt covers the + with a drop-down to let you choose + or &. It sounds a bit convoluted, but it works well in practice.

The keyboard is illuminated, so you can type at night. It's a bit hard to see some of the Option character markings in the dark. Heck, at my age, it's hard to see some of them in the daytime, without my reading glasses on. Just kidding, folks; you can see them all fine in daylight. The keyboard illumination cuts out after a minute to save battery life, but you can change the timeout setting in Preferences.

five-way navigator

Above the keyboard are the usual four Palm buttons (configured by default for Phone, Calendar, Email, and Screen On/Off). In the middle of this row is the five-way navigator, which extends the traditional Palm Up and Down buttons with Right and Left, and a Center button that means Activate or Enter in most applications.


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