Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

Smartphones Get Smarter

The cellphone — or, more accurately, the device formerly known as the cellphone — is getting to be more and more like a little portable computer. High-end models, known as smartphones, can handle large volumes of email, complete with attachments; surf the Web at high speed; view and edit Microsoft Office documents; take decent pictures; and play back music and videos.

To manage these laptop-like tasks, they come equipped with faster and faster processors; more and more internal memory; expansion slots for increasingly spacious memory cards; and small, but usable, keyboards, instead of mere phone keypads.

We’ve been testing two new such phones. One, from Palm Inc., is an improved model of the Treo, which has long been our favorite smartphone. The other, an entirely new design from Motorola Inc., manages to pack most of the Treo’s functionality into a much thinner and lighter body, at half the Treo’s price.

The new Palm model, called the Treo 700p, uses the Palm operating system and is being sold by both Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel Corp. for $399, with a service contract. The Motorola challenger, called the Q, uses Microsoft’s Windows Mobile operating system and is being sold by Verizon for $199, with a service contract.

COMMENT:Palm's Treo 700p, priced at $399 with a service contract (left)
Palm’s Treo 700p, priced at $399 with a service contract (left); Motorola’s Q, priced at $199 with a service contract (right)

The Q is the bigger news here. In the tradition of Motorola’s RAZR phone, the Q is a sleek, handsome devil. It demolishes the two biggest problems with smartphones like the Treo: They are bulky and expensive. The Q is a little wider than the Treo 700p, but it’s just half as thick and, at 4.06 ounces, is more than one-third lighter.

Unfortunately, its Microsoft software is much clumsier than the Treo’s Palm software, degrading its utility. Also, the Q’s screen is lower-resolution than the Treo’s and slightly smaller, and its battery life as a phone is weaker than the Treo’s. While the Q keyboard is larger than the Treo’s, we actually found it worse for typing.

Still, the Q is a decent solution for light email users and for those who have avoided a smartphone due to bulk and cost. We assume that, at $199, the Q will sell well and will challenge the Treo and BlackBerry in the marketplace.

However, we still prefer the Treo for serious users of mobile email, Web and Office. And the new model, with greater speed and other enhancements, only adds to the Treo’s strengths.

Both of these phones run on the new, broadband-like EV-DO data networks offered by Verizon and Sprint, so they are actually practical for Web browsing and for downloading big email attachments. In our tests, both registered speeds of between 200 and 500 kilobits per second, compared with about 70 kbps for the older Sprint and Verizon networks. Neither phone has Wi-Fi wireless capability.

The new Treo 700p is essentially the same as the Treo 700w introduced a few months back, except that the “p” model uses the Palm operating system, while the “w” model uses Windows software. Like the 700w, the newest model has a squarer shape than that of the older Treo 650. It also has bigger, better keys than the 650, roughly twice the usable internal memory and a higher-resolution 1.3-megapixel camera.

Also, the 700p now has — built into its memory — the excellent Documents To Go program from DataViz, which allows you to view, and in some cases edit, Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents and Adobe PDF documents.

The main advantage of the 700p, however, is its ability to use the high-speed EV-DO network. And the new Treo can be used as a modem for a laptop, either via a USB cable or a wireless Bluetooth connection.

In our tests, over a couple of weeks, the Treo 700p performed well. Web browsing was a pleasure at the new high speeds. Our only complaint was a short but annoying lag in displaying the text of emails and in performing certain other operations. Also, our test unit crashed twice and had to be restarted. (It didn’t lose any data in the crash.)

The Q is a mixed bag. Its hardware is elegant. Its software is annoying, often requiring two clicks to do what takes one on the Palm.

Motorola chose a more stripped-down version of Windows Mobile software than the one used on previous keyboard phones, and it does work better one-handed. But it still requires many of the extra steps of its Windows sibling and yet lacks the touch screen and built-in Office programs of other Windows-based smartphones.

In our tests, we found the Q easy to carry, but often irritating to use. Things like muting the phone, locking the keyboard and even playing the built-in solitaire game took much more effort than performing the same tasks on the Treo.

Smartphones

The Q has four navigation buttons positioned below the screen like the Treo; like a BlackBerry, it has a scroll wheel and back button on the right edge. The Q’s keyboard has more space between each key than most smartphones, but the rounded shape of the keys themselves makes them uncomfortable to use for more than a few sentences of email.

The familiar green Send and red End keys are prominently located just above the keyboard, and number keys are distinguished in black. We chatted away using the Q’s phone, and it worked well on voice calls.

Special designated Back and Home keys are next to the Send and End keys, and two other buttons enable direct access to email and the Q’s digital camera.

We set up email accounts on the Q using EarthLink and Hotmail.com, but Windows Mobile software really started to get annoying while we were navigating through our email. Performing a task as simple as deleting a message requires two steps — selecting Menu, then selecting Delete — and we couldn’t find any way to highlight and delete a group of emails.

By contrast, on the Treo, using the major email programs, you can delete an email with one click and even clean out a whole inbox with a couple of clicks. This may not matter much to people who get little email, but for heavy users, it’s crucial.

We also had trouble with attachments on the Q. While we successfully received some pictures and documents, a test series of four emails, each with a different type of document attached, failed on the Q. On both of our test Q units, using two different email services, the four attachments simply disappeared, even though they came through fine on the Treo and on Windows and Macintosh computers.

Viewing Microsoft Office and PDF files on the Q is a more cumbersome process than on the Treo, and the files can’t be edited on the Q.

The 320×240 resolution on the Q’s screen is 25% lower than that of the Treo 700p, which has a 320×320-resolution screen. Many things — Web sites, photos, attachments — just didn’t look as good on the Q compared side-by-side with the Treo. The Q’s built-in 1.3-megapixel digital camera captured videos and still shots without a problem, but the view on our screen was cluttered by information bars at the top and bottom.

You might like the $199 Motorola Q because of its price tag or striking design. If you don’t use email too much, or if you’ve never used another smartphone, you might not miss the more user-friendly features that the Treo 700p has to offer. We wish that the sleekness of the Motorola Q could be combined with the intuitive features of the Treo 700p. For now, we’ll stick with what works best — the newest Treo.


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