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At the CTIA trade show in San Francisco, PalmOne formally introduced the Treo 650 smartphone, successor to the popular 600 model that has found its way into the hands of over half a million users. While I can't claim to have extensive experience with every smartphone on the market, I have worked with most of them. The Treo, I've found, provides the best combination of voice and data functionality.
It's true that smartphones are highly personal devices, so what is most valuable to me won't necessarily be critical to others. For example, the iPAQ 6315 arguably provides superior PDA functionality, the RIM Blackberry offers better e-mail services and the Sidekick II has more "cool" appeal. But for an everyday phone device with PDA, Web and e-mail functionality, the Treo is my pick.
Details about the new device have been leaking for several months, so there weren't any huge surprises. That's disappointing to the extent that PalmOne's decision to include embedded Bluetooth but no Wi-Fi support is a significant limitation. If you are a real road warrior who takes advantage of Wi-Fi hotspot services, you'll probably prefer the iPAQ. But most times when I am in range of a Wi-Fi signal, I am toting my laptop anyway.
For those of you who were hoping that the device's SDIO interface slot would allow for a Wi-Fi add-on, it doesn't look like that's the case. In a recent review, we were shocked to learn that PalmOne's own SDIO Wi-Fi adapter was incompatible with the Treo 600 (reportedly because of power limitations and driver issues). We've not yet been able to verify that the situation is the same with the 650, though the absence of any mention of Wi-Fi in the press release or on PalmOne's Treo 650 product pages would appear to confirm that suspicion.
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But enough of the bad news. There's plenty of good to report, including a faster processor, a much better display, a removable battery, an improved keyboard and the aforementioned Bluetooth support. The Treo 650 uses a 312-MHz Intel XScale CPU, which doubles the clock speed of the 600, so performance should be improved significantly. The display also is much improved. Although it isn't any bigger--display real estate has to be traded off for portability--it sports 320-by-320 resolution compared to the 600's 160-by-160. That should make navigating Web pages that aren't optimized for mobile devices a slightly less painful experience.
The removable battery offers about the same life as the old one (five to six hours of talk time and 12 to 14 days of standby time, depending on radio interface), but the modularity allows you to carry an extra battery on the road, which could save you in certain situations. The keyboard is now backlit, and PalmOne has added dedicated keys for basic phone functions--a small detail that will significantly improve usability. The integrated Bluetooth support should enable wireless synchronization capabilities, cable-free headsets and external keyboards while also facilitating the use of the 650 as a wireless WAN modem when you want to connect your notebook on the road. The integrated snapshot camera, which is decidedly ho-hum, now sports a 2x digital zoom and the promise of better images in low-light conditions.
On the software side, the 650 includes an upgraded version of PalmOS, version 5.4. In addition, the packaged e-mail application is now Palm's VersaMail, which includes support for POP and IMAP (the latter a welcome addition for me) as well as improved support for Exchange connectivity. Many of the leading third-party e-mail vendors wasted no time in announcing that their offerings now are supported on the 650. That should make RIM a little nervous. For those looking for some entertainment value, the system also includes an integrated MP3 player.
Repeating a market trend with the Treo 600, Sprint will be the first cellular carrier to offer the 650, probably within the next several weeks. The device supports the CDMA 1x standard, but it does not support the newer, high-speed EV-DO technology offered by Verizon. The news is a little better for GSM users. Although you'll need to wait a little longer to get one, probably first through Cingular, the 650 not only supports GPRS but also the faster EDGE data standard. That should result in a notable performance improvement. But given Cingular's current pricing strategy for this service, sticking with Sprint, which offers unlimited data for $15 per month, may be a better decision.
Dave Molta is Network Computing's senior technology editor. Write to him at email@example.com