Palm's first device to run Windows also operates on the speediest mobile network. Too bad it's not as elegant as its predecessor
The Palm Treo 700w made headlines a few months ago as the first Palm device to chuck the company's own operating system and embrace Microsoft's Windows. From a business point of view, the decision made eminent sense. Corporations are quickly adopting wireless e-mail and other applications. By moving to Windows, Palm was able to strengthen its appeal by reducing costs and giving corporate IT managers a familiar technology platform.
The Treo 700w, available for $399 with a two-year contract, has received mixed reviews so far. I decided to check it out for myself as part of a series of reviews on high-end handhelds (see BW Online, 2/24/06, "Symbol's Stylish Handheld"). As my colleague Steve Wildstrom notes, Palm (PALM) forced Microsoft (MSFT) to give it unprecedented freedom to tweak the Windows Mobile operating system before agreeing to implement it on Palm handhelds (see BW, 1/16/06, "Treo: Opening New Windows").
The leeway has resulted in some interesting innovations. The Treo 700w's home screen offers one-button dialing for voice mail and 411. And Palm's version of the Windows Mobile homepage has eliminated much of the clutter found on the standard version and substituted a Google (GOOG) Web-search window and another window for finding names and numbers stored on the phone.
The biggest breakthrough is that the device runs on Verizon's (VZ) broadband wireless network. That means connections at almost half the speed of a standard in-home digital subscriber line -- pretty zippy by handheld standards. And this sort of network, also offered by Sprint Nextel (S), is incomparably faster than the Internet connections cell-phone providers have used in the past (see BW Online, 2/15/06, "A Phone that Just Lacks Popcorn"). That makes downloading, sending, and receiving PDF files, spreadsheets, and other large e-mail attachments a snap. And it makes downloading music and video clips a breeze.
The Treo 700w forces the user to accept some bizarre compromises, though. The 650, designed for a slower-speed wireless network, is much loved for its simplicity, efficiency, and beauty. That model's terrific 320-by-320-pixel screen has been replaced with a lower-resolution version for the 700w, because Windows won't support the sharper image. The fact that the 700w takes a step backward in such an important and fundamental area is a major strike against it. And it's the sort of ridiculous quirk that gives the Windows platform a bad name.
I also was disappointed that the 700w cluttered up the 650's home screen, a clear, simple layout that features program icons against a white background. While tidy by Windows standards, the 700w isn't as straightforward as its predecessor. Users of the new model who miss that simplicity can use one of the 700w's programmable buttons to point to the Windows "program" menu, which looks similar to the 650 start page. But it isn't quite as nice.
Most people will use the 700w as a mobile e-mail appliance. As a "push" e-mail device, it syncs miraculously (or at least wirelessly) with an individual or corporate e-mail account. That eliminates the need to connect to a desktop or laptop computer to update e-mail or contact or calendar information.
I reviewed Windows Mobile 5 last year and found it to be a solid alternative to rivals such as BlackBerry, Seven, Intellisync, or Good Technology (see BW Online 5/3/05, "Putting Windows Mobile to Work"). Windows has been upgraded since then, and I'm not going to split hairs over which system is the best for e-mail. While some people may rebel against the notion of being tied to e-mail all day long, I'm not one of them. For me, it isn't only about staying connected with work, I increasingly use it to check in during the day with family and friends.
While the 650 offered a great way to keep up with e-mail, using it to surf the Web was a novelty at best and an annoyance at worst. Many photo-heavy pages, like CNN.com, simply failed to load at all. Even pages that did load were often distorted, with text floating over images and other formatting weirdness. The 700w is a big step forward as an Internet appliance, but it still managed to disappoint me. It's pretty fast, although Web pages didn't load as briskly as I expected. That's probably not Verizon's fault, though. The speed and memory capacity of the device influence surfing speed too.
The biggest drawback is the cell-phone-like shape of the 700w. The screen is plenty big for working on e-mail or even documents, but it's just too small for comfortable Web browsing. After spending several years using cell phones to view the stripped-down mobile version of Yahoo! (YHOO), I was eager to finally get my hands on a phone that could access the real thing. But the 700w's screen only displays a tiny part of each page at a time, forcing me to use scroll bars to search for the Yahoo sign-on screen. Bummer. I quickly pined for my old, stripped-down Yahoo.
Over the last few years, the Treo has come closer than any of its competitors to being an all-in-one mobile appliance. At this point, it combines a great organizer and e-mail platform with a decent camera (for either still or video photography) and a pretty good MP3 player. With room for memory cards, it can be used to play movies and games, and it also supports satellite-tracking attachments.
But when it comes to surfing the Web, I think the Treo may have hit its natural limits. And I suspect the engineers at Palm probably agree. That's why they have created a separate device, the Palm T/X, just for surfing the Web. By eliminating the keyboard, the T/X makes room for a much larger screen. And with built-in WiFi, it's actually useful for surfing the Web. It doesn't have a phone, though, and users may want to buy an external keyboard so they can work on documents more comfortably.
It just may be that the dream of creating an all-in-one device isn't ready to be realized. Or maybe the dream is misplaced. Perhaps people will carry a collection of small, lightweight devices like Treos, T/Xs, and iPods, all of which are optimized for different tasks. We'll grab one from the shelf or the drawer when we leave the house based on what we plan to do that day, just as we would pick our socks or belt.
Despite its drawbacks, the 700w is a very good device, retaining the basic elegance and solid feel of the classic Treo. While some may miss the Palm operating system, this version of Windows Mobile is appealing in its own right.
And consumers seem to agree. I spend a fair amount of time in the New York subway riding to and from work. Over the last few months, I've noticed that the 700w and its cousin the 650 have become increasingly popular commuter toys. They're hardly as common as the iPod, but they're catching on. And I'm not surprised.