Telephone/PDA has flaws, but potential

Hybrid: The Treo 600 is expensive and its keyboard is difficult to use, but it works better than its predecessors.

November 13, 2003|By Mike Langberg | Mike Langberg,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PalmOne's new Handspring Treo 600 has almost convinced me that it's possible to merge a personal digital assistant with a mobile phone, after years of rejecting Frankenstein-like hybrid "communicators" that did many things - all of them badly.

The Treo 600 is expensive, listing for $599, and has a tiny keyboard, but the overall hardware and software design surprised me with its elegance and ease of use.

Making and answering calls isn't more difficult than with a conventional mobile phone, a distinct departure from previous hybrids. A five-way rocker switch in the center of the face makes it easy to navigate through PDA functions - addresses, calendar, to-do lists - and wireless data applications - retrieving e-mail, Web browsing - with one hand. It has a built-in low-resolution camera and software for playing back MP3 music or books from the Audible service.

The Treo 600 was designed by Handspring, (www.handspring.com) launched in 1998 by Palm's founders. Palm acquired Handspring this year in a restructuring plan.

The wireless industry is embracing the Treo 600. Four of the six nationwide carriers will offer it by the end of this month: AT&T Wireless, Cingular Wireless, Sprint PCS and T-Mobile USA. This is the first time I can recall a phone/PDA hybrid getting support from more than one carrier at launch.

Cost will vary. Sprint PCS, which began selling the Treo 600 in mid-October, knocks the purchase price down to $449 with a two-year service contract. The other three carriers will probably offer similar discounts.

The Treo 600 doesn't require special monthly fees, but you will need to sign up for data service if you want to use e-mail or browse the Web, in addition to a monthly voice plan. Sprint PCS provides unlimited data usage for $15 a month, an excellent deal, while T-Mobile's unlimited data plan is $29.99.

What you get for your money is a straight design, rather than a folding clamshell "flip" design. If you're of the flip persuasion, there are two Palm hybrids available so far: the Kyocera 7135 Smartphone (www.kyocera-wireless.com) and the Samsung SPH-i500 (www.samsungusa.com/wireless).

The Treo 600 weighs 6.2 ounces - no more than PDAs without wireless, although an ounce or two heavier than the sveltest mobile phones. It measures 4 1/4 inches by 2 1/4 inches by a half-inch, not much longer or thicker and only slightly wider than most nonflip phones that don't include a PDA.

Battery life is a respectable four hours of talk time and 10 days of standby time.

Most of the Treo 600's face is filled by a color LCD screen measuring 1 1/2 inches on each side. It's the brightest screen I've seen on a mobile device, although not the sharpest. Underneath the screen, along with the five-way rocker, are the familiar Palm launcher keys and the tiny keyboard.

Inside is the new Palm OS 5.2 software, with richer graphics and better support for audio and visual programs than in previous Palm operating systems. In addition to the organizer basics, software bundled with the Treo 600 includes programs for retrieving text-only e-mail, playing MP3 music, shooting and sharing pictures from the built-in camera, and Web browsing.

Almost all the Treo 600's many applications can be controlled one-handed with the rocker switch; the keypad is needed only for entering strings of text. This is a welcome and important change from earlier hybrids, which required either two-handed keyboarding to move through basic functions or holding the phone in one hand and a stylus in the other.

The Treo 600 comes with a stylus, but there's little need to pull it from its slot.

I spent several days with a Treo 600 borrowed from Handspring, running on the Sprint PCS network, and had no trouble mastering the software. One-handed use is so simple that I was tempted to check my e-mail while driving - a temptation, I want to emphasize, I managed to resist.

Still, I'm not completely sold on the concept of communicators; there are just too many compromises. Among my gripes with the Treo 600:

The QWERTY keyboard is so tiny that I couldn't type fast and kept making errors. I wasn't comfortable writing more than a few words in reply to e-mails. A bigger keyboard would be an improvement, but then the unit might become too wide.

Skin oil from ears and cheeks smudges the screen, a problem that's not unique to the Treo 600. When I complained about this in reviewing an earlier Treo, a wisecracking public relations person for Handspring mailed me several pre-moistened towelettes. Cute, but no solution for a genuine problem.

Web browsing is slow, because the relatively underpowered processors in PDAs need a lot of time to render graphic images. Also, Web pages are rearranged into very long vertical strips to accommodate the narrow screen - making it confusing to navigate pages with multiple columns intended to be viewed on a computer monitor.

The headset jack works only with phone headsets. If you want to listen to MP3 music or Audible audio books through a headset instead of the tiny built-in speaker, you have to buy a $5.99 adapter plug and use Walkman-type earphones - and still carry a headset if you want hands-free phone conversations.

Despite these gripes, I believe the Treo 600 would work well for anyone who needs all its capabilities in one convenient package and isn't put off by the cost. The rest of us, I'm betting, won't have to wait more than another year or two to get affordable and practical PDA/phone hybrids.

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