Walt Mossberg

A New Palm Treo Uses Microsoft’s Software, But It Doesn’t Beat 650

Palm’s Treo smart phones have been the best high-end cellphones on the market, with the finest combination of voice, email and Web-browsing capabilities in a hand-held device.

But many corporate information-technology departments have refused to buy the phone. Why? Because the Treo is powered by the Palm operating system and not by software from Microsoft, the only company whose software is supported by many IT departments.

So Palm this week introduced a Treo model that uses the latest version of Microsoft’s Windows Mobile software (formerly known as Pocket PC). On the outside, the new Treo 700w looks very much like the current Palm-based model, the Treo 650, which will remain on sale and will continue to be developed on a parallel track. On the inside, though, the new Treo’s key software functions — phone, email, Web, multimedia — are all different.

Palm

I have been testing the Treo 700w, which will be sold by Verizon Wireless, to see how it stacks up against the Treo 650, the phone I carry every day.

My verdict: Despite some nice new features, the Windows Mobile software is still inferior to the Palm software for one-handed use on the go. Its crucial email and phone functions are also weaker. And there’s a serious bug in its email software that affects individuals, though not corporate users. So the Treo 700w is neither as easy to use nor as powerful as the Treo 650. In addition, the screen on the 700w offers significantly lower resolution than the screen on the 650, and the new model costs twice as much — $400 versus $200.

For individual users, the main advantage of the new Treo 700w is that it is the first Treo to work on Verizon’s high-speed EV-DO network. That network delivers data speeds that rival those of home DSL lines. But the speed advantage will be short-lived, because I expect to see a Palm-based Treo in coming months that can also use the EV-DO network.

At first glance, the phones look nearly identical, though the new 700w is a bit more rounded. The key dimensions are all the same, but the color scheme is a bit different and the 700w has a slightly better keyboard. The individual keys are squarer, with a bit more room between them.

The built-in camera on the new model is much better than the primitive one on the 650. It can shoot at a resolution of 1.3 megapixels, up from just a third of a megapixel for the older camera. In my tests, the 700w’s pictures were much better. But the resolution of the screen on the 700w, a vastly more important component, has changed for the worse. Although it is about the same physical size as the 650 screen, it has a resolution of only 240 by 240, 44% lower than the 320-by-320 resolution on the Treo 650 screen.

There are some offsetting pluses. In my tests, downloading Web pages on the Treo 700w was wicked fast for a hand-held, typically hovering between 500 and 800 kilobits per second, roughly 10 times as fast as on the Treo 650. Also, the new model has more than twice as much usable memory, and slightly better claimed battery life.

Palm has also added some nice features to the Windows Mobile software. The Today page, which summarizes information like appointments and unread email, has been vastly beefed up. It now includes a box for looking up phone numbers and one for doing a Google search.

In addition, you can quickly initiate a phone call from the Today screen in a number of ways: You can start typing a number or a name from your contacts list, and that contact will pop up. You can use a previously assigned speed-dial letter or number. Or you can set up a scrolling bar containing photos of your frequent contacts and then tap on the relevant picture.

Palm has added other goodies. You can choose to respond to an incoming call with a text message, which is great if you’re in a meeting. And when listening to voice mail, you can use VCR-like icons to navigate among messages.

But lots of tasks on the Treo 700w require extra steps. On the 650, one click of a button takes you to email. On the 700w, two button presses are necessary. On the 650, the leading email programs allow you to delete a message by pressing one key. On the 700w, you have to press a key, view a menu and then press a second key.

And the email program lacks many of the advanced features of VersaMail or SnapperMail on the Palm-based Treo. For instance, there’s no simple way to delete — or to mark as read — large groups of messages.

When you’re on a phone call on a Palm-based Treo, you can turn on the speaker phone or mute the microphone by tapping large icons with your thumb. On the Windows-based Treo, you have to open a menu and then select these functions.

And then there’s that email bug. If you’re using a so-called POP email account, like the ones offered to consumers by EarthLink and many others, the Treo 700w will disconnect from the network after it checks for new email. This means that when the 700w next checks for email — or when you next try to get on the Net — you’ll have to wait for it to dial into the network again, which is annoying. Microsoft is working on a fix, but it will take months to deploy the patch to users.

The Treo 700w will appeal to some Windows Mobile fans, and to some corporate IT staffs. But for everyone else, I advise sticking with the Palm-based Treos.


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