By Olga Kharif
INTERACTIVE VIEW >
The Good It takes the pain out of downloading e-mails and large files
The Bad Its microphone is a pain
The Bottom Line It's a better PDA than a phone
The new Treo 650, which started shipping to Cingular customers in early February, has generated lots of buzz -- and for a good reason. This smartphone -- a cross between a cell phone and a personal digital assistant (PDA) -- is truly cutting edge.
Although it looks similar to palmOne's previous model, Treo 600, there are plenty of changes. It can download e-mails and access the Web faster than any other smartphone available in the U.S. It's also packed with lots of nifty features, such as an improved interface and ability to take video clips. That's in addition to a standard built-in camera, e-mail access and synchronization, a digital music player, and text and picture messaging.
A lot of the basics, however, still need work. The Treo 650 is a great PDA -- but a not-so-great phone. It seems designers are still trying to figure out the mix needed to make smartphones -- a relatively new category of mobile devices -- winners. Making a good cell phone isn't easy. And that goes double for a phone with multimedia capabilities.
Take Treo 650's microphone, which is located at the bottom of the device. To shoot the video, I had to point the front of the Treo, equipped with a camera, toward my subject. The microphone didn't pick up any sounds at all, while the video itself was of poor quality. Perhaps stuffing so much into one little gadget is the problem.
That microphone, which also doubles as a speaker, is also a spoiler when it comes to listening to music files. It seems to me that I should be able to lay the device on my desk so I can listen to music as I work. But with the microphone located in the back of the device, the audio ends up muffled. Listening to music using Treo earphones, which comes with the device, is much more enjoyable. And unlike its predecessor, Treo 650 is Bluetooth-enabled, so you can easily use it with a cordless headset that uses Bluetooth technology.
I also have issues with the phone's other speaker -- the one I hold up to my ear when talking. The sound is distant and muffled. I enjoy my conversations a lot more when using the Treo with a headset or when I resorted to the handset's speakerphone function.
The Treo as a phone can be annoying for yet another reason. Say, you turn it on to listen to music. Then you decide you want to make a phone call. The device will tell you that it needs to turn on the phone function and connect to the network, even though the phone has been turned on all that time. I had to wait 20 to 30 seconds for the connection to be established. If I were using my basic cell phone, the connection would have been made the minute I turned it on. That's what I was expecting -- but didn't get -- with the Treo.
That said, the smartphone has lots going for it, particularly its speed as a PDA. It works on so-called Enhanced Data for Global Evolution (EDGE) technology, used on parts of Cingular's network.
The network allows for average download speeds of 100 to 130 kilobits per second, which is about twice the speed of a dial-up connection and nearly twice the pace of Cingular's older, General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) network. While you won't exactly be zooming through cyberspace on Treo 650, you will see a dramatic improvement.
The Treo also saves globetrotters some serious money. Like the previous model, it can operate on several different types of wireless networks. This should have you covered if you travel to Europe at least.
Better yet, palmOne sells an "unlocked" version of the device. In industry lingo, a phone is "locked" when it's only designed to operate on a certain carrier's network. For example, you can buy a locked Treo 650, which works on Cingular's or Sprint's network, for $100 to $250 less than the $699 "unlocked" version. But the discount comes at a cost: If you decide to change your wireless service providers, you'll have to throw away your Treo and buy a new device.
Treo fans will also notice that the new device has a bunch of noticeable improvements over Treo 600. Its internal microprocessor is faster. It has a removable battery that offers up to six hours of talk time and 300 hours of standby time. The resolution of its touch screen is four-times sharper, it has an extra button that can be customized to instantly launch applications, and the quality of the photos it takes are excellent.
In all, the new Treo 650 is a good device, but it needs many fixes to make it a winner.
Kharif is a BusinessWeek Online reporter based in Portland, Ore.