The newest handheld from Handspring, those wonderful people who brought you the Visor, the Treo combines the nicest portions of cell phone and PDA. The "cell phone" functionality is dual-band with typical frills (3-way calling, call history, etc). The PDA functionality is like any other handheld, with a nice roomy 16mb of memory. Treo's are available with either a Graffiti writing surface or a Blackberry-style keyboard. The address book ties in with the cell phone for auto dialing of numbers, and the device also uses the phone as its modem, providing web, email, etc. The phone is slotted for release in first quarter 2002, with the Treo Prism (color) slotted for 2nd quarter same year. Until then, I'll be saving my pennies and stealing change from senior citizens to afford the $399 price tag.

Okay, so now that I have a Treo of my very own, I can contribute a pseudo-objective, semi-comprehensive review. Ever since I was issued a Motorola Pagewriter 2000x at a previous job, I have been hooked on having a full QWERTY keyboard with which to send text messages, and ever since they made me carry a cellphone I've wished for a way to combine the two. So, about a year ago, I signed up with VoiceStream and got their Motorola V.100, which was indeed a phone with a keyboard that could receive and send SMS and email. Unfortunately, its operating system turned out to be brutally stupid even compared to the Pagewriter, so I started looking out for a replacement. Motorola's Accompli 009 looked like the early favorite, until its price tag was announced at $600, and when Handspring finally released the Treo in March 2002 and Best Buy put them on sale shortly afterward for $299, we had a winner. But enough about me.

Anyway, as stated previously, the Treo is essentially a largish mobile phone, of the "Star Trek" flip-open variety, which runs the PalmOS and includes all the PDA functionality thereof, as well as text messaging and Handspring's Blazer Web browser for mobile Internet access. Here is a quick rundown of its major features:

  • PalmOS 3.5.2H (Handspring-customized version)
  • 16MB RAM, 33MHz Dragonball VZ processor
  • GSM-compatible phone (dual-band 900/1900MHz or 900/1800MHz), CDMA version in development with Sprint
  • GPRS upgrade slated for 3Q2002
  • available with QWERTY keyboard (model 180) or Graffiti (model 180g), color-LCD model 270 announced
  • external ring/silent switch; "rocker switch" for easier stylus-free navigation
  • size: about 11cm high x 7cm wide x 2cm deep, excluding the little stubby antenna
  • lithium-ion battery stated at 2.5 hours talk time, or 100 hours standby (or several weeks with the phone shut off)

After a few weeks, my initial impressions are mostly favorable. It has taken a moderate beating, as all mobile phones must, without any real damage (fortunately, the LCD is visible through, but protected by, the flip-cover when closed). I have never owned a Palm or PocketPC organizer before (I know... what kind of a geek am I?), so I can't compare it directly to those. I bought the model with the keyboard, since I expected to be doing a lot of text messaging and didn't want to mess with Graffiti.

On that note, the ergonomics of the interface confused me a little at first, but now I can see that Handspring has put a lot of effort into providing ways to use almost all of the features without having to pull out the stylus (which would be a big inconvenience when using the phone - for example, you can hang up a call by pressing the Backspace key instead of touching the big "Hang Up" button on the screen). The keyboard's inclusion of a colored Option key makes this kind of navigation easier, in that you can use some of the letter keys as a numerical keypad (they assume this function automatically in some cases, based on context, such as in the Dial screen), and type extra symbols in text with the others. The keyboard itself is tiny enough that those with fatter fingers may find it difficult, but I manage okay.

As a PDA the Treo is pretty much just like any other Palm device, and will run most any app for that platform (as far as I can tell). It sports 16MB of RAM, which is the standard for higher-end Palm devices these days. A lot of people, including me, wondered why Handspring didn't go with PalmOS 4.0, but they claim that their crocked-up version of 3.5 incorporates much of that functionality. The PDA and phone portions of the Treo can be used separately: the power button on top will turn the display off or on with a single click, a double-click activates the backlight, or holding for a few seconds turns the phone on and off.

The phone side of the device has been generally good, although the earpiece is a little too quiet unless held directly over the ear (a speakerphone mode is also provided, but it too is on the quiet side). Since the phone is GSM only, coverage is lacking in some areas, because in North America, GSM basically means VoiceStream (or Cingular in a few places), but here in urban/suburban Washington DC this has not been a problem. But again, "traditional" phone use is where the aforementioned one-handed navigation becomes critical, and the rocker switch (which is something like Sony's jog dial) comes in handy. You can move it up, down, or in, the functions of which are context-sensitive: in the Speed Dial menu, for instance, you move up and down to the entry you want, and press in to dial it. You would do well to read the manual before using it as a phone, so you know all of the (sometimes counter-intuitive) shortcuts.

More than anything else, I was looking forward to having a true mobile Internet device; unfortunately, as of this writing the GPRS upgrade from Handspring is still slated for July at the earliest (VoiceStream's wireless data network, called iStream, is already operational). SMS functionality, meanwhile, is excellent: the SMS message screen has its own hardware button, and a received message will display by default when the device is opened. Frankly, once you've used the QWERTY keyboard it's impossible to imagine anyone sending text with a 12-button phone keypad.

The Treo comes with a wall-wart charger, a wireless earpiece, a USB sync cable (no cradle) and HotSync software. A real cradle and a 12v car adapter can be had separately; I would have liked to see them included, but Handspring is obviously trying to hit a price point here. I've briefly used the HotSync software to save my info and install a few small applications, but I haven't tried syncing it to Outlook (it's against my religion anyway).

So that's a somewhat rambling take on my new favorite toy. Overall, I recommend the Treo as a good way to decrease your Batbelt factor by combining two or more devices; if only my job would let me get rid of my medical-band pager, I would carry nothing else. My guess is that hardcore Palm fanatics will find deficiencies in the Treo when compared to their favorite PDA, and some phone users may dislike the extra functions or simply not need them. But for people like me, who prefer a compact, integrated device, the Treo makes sense.

Credits: The Handspring and VoiceStream official sites, plus and for other opinions and specs.

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