Dave Aiello writes: "For the past year, I have searched for a single device that could replace my cellular telephone, PDA, and pager. The products I used, a Nokia 8860 with AT&T Wireless service, a Palm V, and a Research in Motion 850 with Cingular Wireless Data service, are each fine products in their own right. But, the awkwardness of carrying them at once, the cost of maintaining two separate wireless service accounts, and the lack of integration between them kept my frustration level high." Dave has given a thorough look at the realities of using Handspring's new Treo to consolidate the functions that each of these other devices provides -- learn from his experiences, below.
MotivationsThe Treo 180 intrigued me when it was announced. I thought that it was close to the ideal unified device for me, because it would increase the utility of the Palm OS by integrating telephony and providing wireless web and email access. After a few weeks of research into the development of the Treo and its expected feature set, I decided to buy one and to quickly end service on my Nokia mobile phone and RIM pager.
I quit the other products altogether because I realized that as long as I was able to fall back on them, I would never fully adopt the Treo. After a month of using it, I still see situations where I could do what I want to do with my old devices more easily than I can with the Treo. Nevertheless, I am glad that I got rid of the other devices, I am learning to live with the current limitations of the Treo, and I believe that the Treo is just going to keep getting better in the next few months.
Hardware and Support
In the past, a number of friends told me that the Handspring Visors that they bought had serious quality problems. Issues most often cited were memory problems that caused otherwise stable applications to crash, and display failures. So, I was concerned that Handspring would have difficulty producing a device reliable enough to be used as a mobile phone.
My Treo 180 seemed solid for the first 18 hours I had it. Then I discovered that the backlight on the display did not operate at all. This is a show-stopper on the Treo because it is virtually impossible to use the mobile telephone feature in your car at night without the backlight. I expected to have to deal with this problem for a while because there was a two to three week wait for delivery of new Treo orders at the time.
To my surprise, I got a replacement Treo that worked properly in less than two days, and I had a week to transfer my data from the old Treo and return it (at no additional charge). The only thing I had to do to get Handspring Technical Support to offer me a replacement was indicate that I had read and followed the troubleshooting instructions that appear on Handspring's support web site. My conclusion from this experience is that hardware quality is acceptable and product support is excellent.
I want to mention a couple of physical design issues about the Treo 180 that I have not seen addressed in other reviews. One view of the Phone application is an on-screen dial pad, used to dial numbers not in your address book. Until I started using the Treo, I did not realize that much of my mobile phone dialing had been accomplished in the past without looking at the dial pad. In other words, I dialed by feeling the relative position of the keys. This is impossible with the Treo on-screen keypad.
A smaller design problem I noticed is that the headset jack is on the upper left side of the unit, right above the jog dial. This makes using the headset difficult unless the headset plug is flipped up so that the cable extends above the device, opposite the way most people would naturally orient the plug.
I also feel obligated to comment on the Treo's internal battery. The low-battery warning comes on fairly consistently after about 2 hours of call time. Since I spend a lot of time on the road, I tend to carry my charger in my briefcase, and charge when I am at my desk. This works well for me because the charger works quite rapidly, but some people will be disappointed by the relatively limited capacity of the Treo battery.
Although I was an experienced Palm user before I got my Treo 180, it took me a couple of weeks to understand all of the issues surrounding software for this device. Probably everyone knows that the 180 is the first PalmOS-based PDA to ship with a built-in keyboard; this has a number of side-effects that you won't be able to evaluate properly even if someone hands you a working Treo so you can try it for yourself.
The first problem, which you won't notice if you just look at the phone and calendar applications, is that most existing Palm applications do not provide menu equivalents for all of their major functions. I work around this problem in two ways: I downloaded a utility called PowerJog that allows me to use the jog dial to click on-screen buttons. My other approach is to look for applications that work better than the ones that Handspring ships with the Treo. For instance, I think One-Touch Mail 2.3 is ill-suited for the Treo: it's overkill for hand-held email and it's not keyboard friendly. A better choice is Mailer from ElectricPocket, although it is $29.95 after a 30-day trial period.
The second problem I ran into was the assumption that Treo users would happily use Windows or the Macintosh as their desktop or laptop OS. Many Slashdot readers use Linux instead. Although there are a number of ways to synchronize the Treo using Linux, some of the Internet applications are configured via a Mac or PC application, and then installed through the synchronization process.
OTOH, I would argue that the PalmOS is the single greatest strength of the Treo. Programs already exist to add functionality to the jog dial and to configure the extended functions of the Treo (like which application starts when the lid is opened, and which program runs when the user holds the Option key and presses an application button). None of this functionality was developed by Handspring, but the user community added it within a couple of weeks of the Treo's release. Handspring seems to understand that it is delivering a communications platform, not just a PDA with phone and Internet features added.
Internet Functionality: Not Really Ready for Prime Time
I bought my Treo knowing that Internet access would not work smoothly for a while. This is because the communicator was shipped before GPRS (Generalized Packet Radio Service) support was ready. Yes, you can make data calls to an ISP and this works well, but call setup time is still at least 30 seconds, which seems like an eternity to me.
I want to use GPRS, but I am seriously questioning whether users paying for their own mobile service will sign up, due to the high rates providers are charging in the United States. For instance, VoiceStream's highest-use consumer GPRS plan charges $39.95 a month for 10 megabytes of data transmission, plus $4.00 for each additional megabyte. This is in addition to the monthly service plan for voice calls. Cingular GPRS rates are similar. Nobody I know has used GPRS enough to have a feel for how much data service they will actually use, but the rates worry me.
SMS (Short Message Service) is a big feature of the Treo, which should make the communicator a hit in Europe and Asia where SMS is used more than in North America. There are two problems with SMS on the Treo, IMHO. Every American cell phone user I send SMS messages to is shocked that their phone has this capability, and they often don't know how to respond. The SMS client application, Handspring SMS 3.5H, has a bug in it that makes it difficult to reply to SMS messages received from VoiceStream's SMS-email gateway. The bug is a relatively simple addressing problem that was acknowledged by Handspring Technical Support. But, I have not seen anything indicating that they have updated their SMS client, and I'm not sure that this problem occurs on any other provider than VoiceStream.
Handspring recently announced a software/service offering called TreoMail that is touted as a competitor to Blackberry Enterprise Server. The Blackberry product lets corporate users read their Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Domino mail on a Research in Motion pager. Handspring apparently feels it needs a product like this to be credible in the corporate wireless email market.
I am using a Beta version of TreoMail Internet edition, which periodically connects my POP3 mail account to a server at Visto which hosts TreoMail. This product is really immature, because it's obviously intended to be used with GPRS rather than dial-up Internet access, and my Treo doesn't support GPRS yet. The problem should be mitigated by the option that TreoMail provides to send an SMS message when email arrives, but Handspring recently announced that the SMS alert would only work on Cingular's network until beta testing is completed.
I think Handspring made the right choice by shipping the Treo 180 before GPRS support was completed. The device is so well designed and the mobile phone-PDA integration works so well, that the hardware and software glitches I've identified seem insignificant. Handspring is making progress toward delivering mobile Internet applications, and third parties are developing software for it as well. I like the Treo so much that I am playing with IDEs for Palm OS development that I never would have looked at when I was using a Palm V.
This device is not for everyone, and it is virtually useless in areas where GSM cellular service is not available. That's a large part of the more rural areas of the United States and Canada as we speak. But, AT&T Wireless and Cingular are rolling out GSM support on their networks over the coming months, and devices such as the Treo will begin to take off. This is one of the first integrated communication devices that has more advantages than drawbacks, but it won't be the only successful one.
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