Walt Mossberg

Dash and Treo 680 Have Bargain Prices, If You Can Compromise

For years, Palm’s Treo smart phones have set the standard for combining a good phone and a great data device into one relatively small package that also sports a full keyboard for typing email. But the Treo is being strongly challenged by a bunch of new rivals that are thinner, lighter and less expensive.

The slender Motorola Q, despite software that is markedly inferior to that of the Treo 700p, is wooing some users because it is much slimmer and now can be had for just $99, versus $299 for the Treo. The Nokia E62 is about the size of the Q and also costs just $99 these days. The tiny BlackBerry Pearl is just $199. And Samsung has introduced the skinny BlackJack for $199, too.

So, this month, Palm is striking back with a lighter, thinner, cheaper model of its own, the Treo 680, which is being offered by Cingular Wireless at $199.

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Meanwhile, T-Mobile has introduced a new slim, light competitor called the Dash. It has built-in Wi-Fi wireless networking to supplement the slower cellphone data network. And it costs just $149.

I’ve been testing the new Treo and the Dash. Both are OK, but neither is as good as it could be. The new Treo still has great software, but it makes some compromises and still fails to match the new competitors in slimness, lightness or price. The Dash has very nice hardware, but is hampered by lousy software.

The Treo 680 is shorter than the Treo 700, because it doesn’t have the 700′s protruding antenna. It’s about 11% thinner and 14% lighter. But it’s still much larger than the new class of Q-type competitors. The Dash is slightly wider than the new Treo and about the same length. But it’s much thinner and lighter. The Dash feels great in your hand because it has rubberized paint.

This new Treo works just like the 700p. It uses the same Palm operating-system software, which is much easier and faster than the Windows Mobile software used by the Dash and the Q. As I have noted in the past, simple operations like deleting an email or displaying your calendar are usually one-click processes on the Palm OS devices, while they often take two or more clicks, or involve opening menus, on the Windows devices.

Also, the Treo 680, like the costlier 700p, comes with better functionality for handling Microsoft Office documents than the Dash does, even though the latter uses Microsoft software. The 680 has the same large, high-resolution screen as the 700p. By contrast, the screen on the Dash, while bright and vivid, is lower resolution.

But the new 680 is less capable than the 700 series Treos. First, it runs on a much slower cellphone network, called EDGE. This EDGE technology isn’t broadband speed, and is only about one-seventh as fast as the networks from Verizon Wireless and Sprint that the Treo 700 uses. Cingular does have a new network with speeds comparable to Verizon‘s and Sprint’s, but the Treo 680 can’t take advantage of it.

Second, the Treo 680 is a big step backward in terms of its camera. The camera’s resolution is only about a third of a megapixel, while the camera on the Treo 700 — and the Dash — is 1.3 megapixels. Finally, the stylus on the Treo 680 is cheap and just plain awful. It actually bends when you use it.

The Dash is also stuck on the slow EDGE network technology because that’s the best data network T-Mobile currently offers. It makes up for it with built-in Wi-Fi, which is much faster than EDGE, and potentially much faster than the Verizon and Sprint cellphone data networks.

In my tests, I was able to use the Dash for email and Web browsing via Wi-Fi in my office, my home and a couple of coffee shops. The Wi-Fi setup and connection process was fairly easy, and T-Mobile has added software to the Dash that guides you through setting up access at Wi-Fi hot spots it operates in airports, Starbucks shops and other locations.

In fact, T-Mobile offers a data plan for $30 a month that includes both cellphone Internet service and access to its Wi-Fi hot spots. This is on top of the cost of a voice plan.

There are some downsides. The Dash doesn’t automatically switch on Wi-Fi. You have to do it manually. And, in my tests, it was much slower using Wi-Fi than a laptop was. For instance, in my home, on my very fast Wi-Fi connection, the Dash got just under one megabit per second, while a Mac laptop inches away got over 14 mbps. On a slower network in my office, the Dash got around half a megabit per second, while a computer inches away got 1.3 mbps.

I also found the keyboard on the Dash to be more cramped and harder to use than the one on the Treo. And the touch strip it uses to control volume didn’t work well.

If you have always wanted a Treo, but couldn’t handle the price tag, the 680 may be for you. Just be prepared for its slower speed and inferior camera. If you yearn for Wi-Fi in a slender smart phone, and can put up with a clumsy software interface, go with the Dash.


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