PalmOne Treo 650 Review

Monday, December 19, 2005

I don't care what anyone says about the Treo 650's memory issues, lack of WiFi support, limited Bluetooth functionality, poor sound quality, dialing delays or the fact that it's only available on Sprint PCS. It's the still the best Smartphone on the market. Mobile business professionals who want an integrated device should look no further, especially if your organization uses Microsoft Exchange for email and calendaring.

It's no secret that palmOne created an evolutionary device with the Treo 650, rather than a revolutionary one. They've been criticized at length for taking this course of action, but what business and government wants is stability and progressive enhancements. Organizations are still just now adopting the Treo 600, so a massive shift would probably have hurt palmOne more than it would have helped, and we all know palmOne doesn't need any more bad press. Overall I really like the Treo 650, but this review won't be glowing. palmOne has done very well in many areas, but there's plenty of room for improvement with the next model.

Due to the length of this review we have included below a table of contents so you can jump to a particular section you are most interested in.

The 650 features both dedicated phone answer and hang up buttons, the latter doubling as the power button and force to sleep button. There are also dedicated home, menu, calendar and email buttons. Noticeably absent from a wireless device is a button to launch the web browser, but there's only so much space available. Surrounded by these buttons is the slightly smaller D-pad with action button in the center. All of the buttons feel solid and the D-pad is extremely functional; I think it's even better now that it's smaller. People with smaller thumbs will probably be able to navigate the device with one hand a little bit easier now.

Underneath these keys is the revised keyboard. The Treo 600 keyboard was either good or terrible, largely depending on whether or not you ever used a Treo 300. I still contend the Treo 300 offered the best integrated keyboard, except perhaps the BlackBerry devices it was licensed from. The 600 was much more cramped and palmOne tried to do something about that. The keys are slightly larger and fanned up on the corners, something that is becoming very popular with notebook PCs. The little extra size in the keys makes a noticeable difference over the Treo 600. Women or people with long fingernails will still probably be frustrated with the tiny keys, but in most cases this new alignment will be appreciated. The keyboard is very responsive, providing a nice tactile click when depressed.

The keyboard features 35 keys. Most keys have multiple functions that can easily be accessed by a blue function button on the left, the Alt button, or shift keys in both lower corners. The space bar is large, though the enter key could be a touch bigger and should have a different treatment than the very similar backspace key above it.

The Treo 650 memory is a love hate sort of thing. palmOne made a smart move by adding non-volatile memory. That means when the Treo loses power, the memory will not be wiped out. But at the same time, they only made 23.7 MB available to the user, which stores some files less efficiently than the Treo 600, resulting in less net storage space. palmOne has resolved the situation by providing users who request it with a free 128MB memory card. They think the memory can be used more efficiently with a software patch, but at this time, no patch is available.

It's really a shame that this is even an issue. After determining that business users would rather have more memory than WiFi in the Tungsten T5; there is no reasonable explanation for why the Treo 650 got such a raw deal in the memory department. While it's true that many users will find the memory ample for all their contacts, email and a few games, it's really not enough for moderate to power users. I maxed out the RAM with 6 applications in addition to what comes pre-installed. Of course programs can be installed to the Secure Digital card slot, but taking cards in and out is a pain and they're hard to keep track of.

For light users, the memory isn't going to be a problem at all, but anyone who was busting at the seems with a Treo 600, is going to be in a worse position now. The memory issue is the most significant Treo 650 blunder in my view and sadly one that can't really be improved on, short of a removable memory card. While it's not a deal killer, it's a mistake that simply should not have been made. Whoever thought this was a good idea needs to be removed from the planning team for future devices.

The Treo 650 is currently only available in a CDMA (800/1900 MHz) model on the Sprint PCS network. At some point in 2005 palmOne is expected to release a GSM/GRPS/EDGE (850/900/1800/1900 MHz) model. Both models will operate the same way, they'll simply connect to the voice and data networks a little differently. In addition to the mobile phone/data connection, the Treo 650 also offers Bluetooth and Infrared. Sadly WiFi is not included and is currently not able to be added via the Secure Digital slot. There is a hack in process that will allow this and palmOne will surely officially support WiFi via the SD slot at some point, but it took them many months to figure it out for the Tungsten T3, so I wouldn't hold my breath.

Mobile Phone/Data

The Treo 650 sparkles as a phone, but really shines as a data device, thanks to Sprint's speedy data network. Downloading 20-30 entire emails through VersaMail is fast and reliable, at least 100 times faster than doing the same on a Tungsten T5 with a Bluetooth connection to a mobile phone with T-Mobile. This fact is the single most important issue with the Treo 650 I believe, and the one that should be the lynchpin that will seal many prospective buyers.

The phone in the 650 is pretty good, but a few software bugs prevent it from being great. For one, any time you dial out of the call log or phone book, there is a delay of up to five seconds before the call is attempted. Making a call by entering the number manually doesn't have this problem, so I can only assume it's a software communication bug that can probably be fixed with, yes another patch.

Another fun issue is that you can't hang up on a single call if you have two that are active. For instance, if you re talking to Person A, and Person B calls you. If you answer Person B's call, there is no way to hang up on just one of the calls. The hang up software button is replaced with one that only lets users kill all calls. I'm sure this too can be repaired, but it's another on the list of annoying issues that shouldn't happen.

As far as dialing, numbers can be directly entered, selected from an email (which is a small but very nice feature), selected from the call log or picked off the contact list. Selecting a number from the phone book is a major pain. Even if you have 50 people with two phone numbers each, it takes three clicks with the d-pad to get to the second person on the list. There is paging using the stylus, or you can type in the first few characters of either the first or last name and the list will filter down. I prefer the way many traditional mobile phones present the information, letting the user first select the person then the phone number to call. This is a usability issue that concerns me as I think it takes longer than in should to access a phone number, especially one handed.

The call log stores call data for seemingly every call I've ever made. New contact records can be created right out of the log, an "add contact" button will appear next to numbers that are not in your contact list already. It won't let you append a new number to an existing contact though, a nice feature in the future perhaps. The call log also defaults to cancel, so to browse numbers another key press has to take place first. Again, dialing out of the call log is laggy, but will likely be fixed at some point.

From the phone program, users can also quickly launch applications. There are four quick buttons to get to contacts, call log, voicemail and web. Paging down opens up several more choices; including 48 slots for speed dial entries or shortcuts to applications, documents, etc.

Aside from the annoyances, which I think can be relatively easily repaired, and the lack of voice dialing, the phone is pretty solid. The data is the real winner here though. I'll be interested to see how the data networks of other carriers stack up, but on Sprint PCS, the Treo 650 has been a pleasure. I'll actually be much more sad to give it up than I thought I would be.

Bluetooth

The Bluetooth 1.1 integration in the Treo 650 is a huge improvement over the Treo 600. Sprint has muffled the usefulness a little bit though by disabling the dial-up networking feature. This essentially means that notebook owners with Bluetooth can't use the Treo 650 as a modem. Clearly Sprint is trying to for notebook users into buying an air card with its own data plan. An understandable goal, but it only upsets people and a hack was released to work around this problem within a week of the Treo 650 being released.

The Treo 650's Bluetooth does support headsets though, which is great. Using the wizard, I easily paired with my Sony Ericsson HBH 65. The connection between the headset and the Treo 650 is much faster than between the headset and my Sony Ericsson K700i. The quality of the connection is much worse though. I had bad static at even short distances. Other Treo 650 owners that I've talked with also have similar issues with Jabra's Bluetooth headset. I can only hope that the radio strength can be resolved with a software patch in the future.

Aside from the headset connection, the Bluetooth can be used to sync the Treo 650 with a Bluetooth enabled PC. There's a handy little wizard to set up the pairing with instructions on allowing Bluetooth sync on the PC. Users that are not familiar with Bluetooth might be a little confused with setting up the serial connection, there's little support for this. The sync process is slow going, as one might expect, but it's substantially faster than syncing over IR and of course there are no wires needed.

The integrated Bluetooth is a smart addition to the Treo line, something that greatly increases the usability of the device. If the quality of the radio can be improved with software, all the better, but it's not so bad that the Bluetooth hurts the Treo 650. If it's a hardware issue, it definitely needs to be addressed next time around.
The Treo 650 is a good phone and a great data device. I suspect, thanks to the Exchange license, that palmOne will be able to convert a lot of potential BlackBerry buyers. I'm disappointed with the testing of the Treo 650 and some of the bone headed decisions and inconsistencies from the Tungsten T5, which are targeted at a similar audience. Overall though, palmOne does enough right and most of their issues can likely be fixed with a patch, or resolved with self-help third party hacks.

Perhaps the best thing going for the Treo 650 is the competition, which is generally pretty poor and misguided. The Treo easily towers above the competition, including devices that cost much more. There's no doubt palmOne built on the success of the Treo 600, without taking many risks along the way. Hopefully the next iteration will continue the evolution in a little less time.

Pros
Exchange integration
Clear and bright display
Fast Sprint data rates
Good application integration
Very good keyboard

Cons
Poor QA testing by palmOne
No WiFi support
Limited built-in memory

Bottom Line
Even with the numerous shortcomings, I really like the Treo 650. It's the best Smartphone on the market and the ultimate business tool.