TECH & YOU PODCAST
Palm (PALM) users who pick up the new Treo 700w are in for a jolt. Just below the screen is a Windows key that makes it clear this is different from any product in Palm's 10-year history. Folks who use Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows Mobile software on a Pocket PC or smart phone will get a few surprises as well. The new Treo is different from any other Windows device.
When Palm licensed the Windows Mobile 5.0 software last year, it won unprecedented permission to make substantial changes in Microsoft's basic software. It has made the most of this freedom, drawing on its experience with keyboards to eliminate many of the annoying usability problems that have plagued Windows Mobile devices, particularly phone-equipped Pocket PCs.
One result is that the Treo 700w ($400 from Verizon Wireless with a two-year contract) is the first Pocket PC whose stylus will rarely leave its storage slot. The basic layout of the keyboard is similar to the Treo 650. The main difference is the addition of the Windows key, which brings up the Start menu, and an O.K. key, used to complete most actions. These replace the Calendar and Mail keys on other Treos. Two cell-phone-style soft keys, whose functions vary with the operation at hand, replace Palm's Menu and Home buttons.
Palm has drastically changed the Pocket PC home screen for the better. Instead of a jumbled list of choices, the Treo home screen features speed-dial buttons and two boxes where you can enter text. The one at the top picks names from your contacts as you type. The lower one is for Google searches. The battery gauge at the top remains visible on all pages, overcoming one of Windows Mobile's silliest shortcomings.
THE STYLUS SHOULD BE SUPERFLUOUS as an input and navigation tool on any device equipped with a keyboard. You hardly need to use one with Windows Mobile 5.0 software, which is showing up on various devices in addition to the Treo. But on most systems there will be one critical task that requires tapping the screen -- such as changing some of the settings on the Tab key. On Pocket PCs, you can't do that from the keyboard, but on the new Treo, you can. There are still occasional annoyances. As you type text, the Pocket PC software suggests word completions. The only way to accept one, if you really feel the need, is to tap the screen. But you can also ignore the suggestions and just go on typing.
Other Palm innovations go beyond fixing Microsoft shortcomings. One simple but valuable one is the ability to program speed dials with the codes and passwords needed for access to voicemail. You can also program such buttons as forward, back, and delete with the appropriate digits. Unfortunately, these codes can only be single digits, which won't work with many corporate voicemail systems.
Another innovation adds a new option called "Ignore with SMS" to the handling of incoming calls. This is a real boon at business meetings. Instead of just shunting a call to voicemail, you can send the caller a text message -- handy in a setting where tapping out some text is acceptable, but answering the phone is not.
The Treo runs on Verizon's fast BroadbandAccess network, making it ideal for data. Palm designed the Windows Treo primarily in response to demand from corporate customers, and once the appropriate software is finished, it will be able to receive corporate e-mail and other data automatically from BlackBerry, GoodLink, and Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 services (BW -- Jan. 9).
I've been using Palms of one sort or another for a decade, and at first the Treo 700w seemed a little weird. Many Palm aficionados will prefer to stick with the familiar Treo 650. For one thing, it offers a better display, since Palm actually had to reduce resolution to meet Windows standards. But Pocket PC users and many newcomers to high-end smart phones will find the Treo 700w a delight. It's by far the best Pocket PC I have used and the first one that I have ever really wanted to carry.
For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Tech Maven at www.businessweek.com/technology/wildstrom.htm
By Stephen H. Wildstrom