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Handspring Treo 180: Almost There

I’m sure it was only weeks after the introduction of the original Pilot before someone asked, "If I have all my phone numbers in this little organizer anyway, why can’t I use it as a phone, too?" To judge by the paucity of such devices since then, fusing a handheld and a cellular phone turns out to be a tricky problem.

Size is the main issue. Before the components in phones started to shrink dramatically, models like the Qualcomm pdQ Smartphone were bricks that ended up being larger and more awkward to use than two separate devices. At the same time, it’s not realistic to make a hybrid handheld the size of mini phones like the Nokia 8290 because the screen becomes unusable for organizer functions. How do you retain the usefulness of the Palm OS with the form factor of today’s cellular phones?

Despite the missteps of the past (or perhaps because of them), the handheld/cell phone hybrid is getting closer to being a practical solution for anyone who’s tried to juggle two separate devices just to place a call. Handspring’s Treo line of "communicators" (deliberately named to distinguish from the mere "organizers" that preceded them) appears to be the best combination so far. However, being the best right now doesn’t imply that the Treo is perfect – for every improvement or advantage, I found small annoyances with the Treo 180 I tested. With what would seem to be subtle tweaking, Handspring could make the Treo an outstanding product.

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A Smaller Slice — The best news, at least on the surface, is that the Treo’s size is more in line with a cell phone than any of its handheld/cell phone predecessors. Even using Handspring’s novel Visor Phone, which was an add-on that turned any Visor organizer into a cell phone, felt at times like using a 1980s elongated mobile phone. At 4.2 inches (10.7 cm) tall (with the clamshell design closed), 2.8 inches (7.1 cm) wide, and 0.82 inches (2.1 cm) deep, the Treo fits into the larger end of the size range of most cellular phones on the market today. It includes a built-in rechargeable battery, enabling Handspring to keep the Treo slim and keep the phone activated for hours without frequently swapping AAA batteries. And, thankfully, it weighs only 5.2 ounces (147 grams), so you can slip it into a pants pocket or purse without experiencing the too-common "tech slouch" caused by imbalanced equipment.

That said, I personally still found the Treo too wide for holding up to my ear comfortably. I’m accustomed to a much smaller and narrower phone, the Nokia 8290, so the Treo’s width felt like holding a small pizza box to my head. Using the supplied earbud-style microphone helped, but I often needed to make quick calls that weren’t worth the hassle of untangling the cord. (I can’t wait for Bluetooth-enabled wireless headsets to become more widespread; corded hands-free headsets are better than holding the phone to one’s ear, but I hate catching the cord on desk or a doorknob as I pace while talking.)

Goodbye Graffiti — Handspring has done more than shrink components to make the Treo line. A small keyboard has replaced the legacy Graffiti area for inputting data on most models (a Graffiti version of the Treo 180 is also available, but the color Treo 270 and 300 models come only with the keyboard). I’m conflicted about the change. As a longtime Palm user, I’m accustomed to Graffiti and have very few problems using it. However, people with no experience with Palm handhelds frequently ask me whether they have to "learn a new language" to use one, so I can see the benefit of not making users adopt a new technique for entering information. Plus, no matter what, it’s faster to press a key than write a character.

Just don’t expect to use the keyboard as you would a regular keyboard. The raised buttons are small and designed for your thumbs, an approach that works surprisingly well. (I’ve never had much hands-on experience with Blackberry communicators, which introduced the small keyboards, so forgive me if I sound like I just fell off a UPS delivery truck.) Once you get the hang of it, thumb-typing can be much faster and more accurate than Graffiti, which is especially useful when composing email or SMS text messages.

The Treo also includes a rocker switch on the left side that lets you scroll between items or access the menus, theoretically making it possible to ignore the included stylus. The rocker switch also controls volume while using the Treo as a phone, and pushing the rocker switch in selects whatever is highlighted on the screen.

Useful as these new interface elements are, introducing them to the Palm experience has drawbacks too. Unless you’re just typing, your hands are moving all over: using the rocker switch (which I guess you can do with your left hand while you type with your left thumb, but I’m apparently not that dextrous), using the stylus or a fingernail to tap buttons (I couldn’t find a way to do this via the rocker switch or the keyboard), and trying to avoid dropping the device.

With enough practice, I could probably juggle it all successfully, so I can’t work myself into too much of a lather on that point. However, at least two design decisions aggravated me on a constant basis.

Since there is no Graffiti area, and therefore no main Applications button, the only way to get to the Palm OS’s main screen is to press two buttons on the keyboard, a blue Option button and a combination Menu/Application button. Perhaps this is an indication that Handspring expects people to use the Treo primarily as a phone and only occasionally as an organizer. Surely, there’s a better solution.

My second gripe is easily fixed: there is no ampersand on the keyboard! I’d think that it would be invaluable when writing SMS text messages, where you need to be brief, to replace "and" with "&". To do this, you must type a plus sign (Option-G), then use the List Type key (marked with ellipses and next to the space bar) to select "&" from a pop-up menu. Handspring could easily replace the little-used percent key in future models.

The Great Communicator — The showcase feature of the Treo, of course, is the built-in cellular phone, which offered its own mix of features and annoyances. The grayscale Treo 180 and color Treo 270 models are GSM phones, with service in the U.S. offered by Cingular and T-Mobile (GSM is the dominant protocol throughout most of the rest of the world; check Handspring’s international sites for details on carriers outside the U.S.); the recently introduced Treo 300 is also color and uses Sprint’s PCS network.


Since my Nokia is a GSM phone, I was able to pull its SIM card and put it into the Treo, instantly making the Treo my primary phone. The only change I had to make was to call T-Mobile and add a $4 per month data service to enable email and Web access on my account. An included SIM Srvcs application on the Treo copied the names and phone numbers from my SIM card to the Treo’s built-in Address Book, so I didn’t have to re-enter that data. This incredible convenience comes with a price, though. Because of deals with the service providers, a Treo 180 with service activation costs $350; to get the communicator by itself, the price jumps to $550. The costs of buying a color Treo 270 or Treo 300 are even harder to swallow, priced at $500 with service and $700 without.

So how well does it work for your money? Finding phone numbers on the Treo beats any cell phone I’ve ever used, with a Phone Lookup feature that displays character matches in any part of a person or company’s name as you type. Not only can the Treo tell you who’s calling, but the log of incoming and outgoing calls makes it easy to call up someone from several days ago. You can dial using large, easy-to-press buttons on screen, or use a grid of keys in the keyboard – the Treo is usually smart enough to determine when you’re typing a phone number versus a person’s name. And having an actual interface for things like three-way calls and putting one person on hold while you answer another incoming call antiquates the arcane button combinations of most phones.

I especially like the physical switch on top of the Treo that lets you put the phone into silent mode. Why suffer through a series of menus, as on most cellular phones, to accomplish this simple and necessary feature? The Treo also has a speakerphone mode so you don’t have to act as go-between when, for example, your colleagues are trying to determine where to eat lunch.

And yet, again, a few minor things dampened my enthusiasm. At the top of the list: the lack of a Redial button. On my Nokia phone, pressing the Talk button brings up the last number I dialed, which I use all the time, such as when the line I’m calling is busy or I’ve forgotten to mention something important before hanging up. On the Treo, you have two convoluted options for accessing a number you just dialed: press the Phone Book button at the bottom of the device or flip up the lid, tap the fourth icon from the left to bring up the Call History List, then use the rocker switch or stylus to select and dial the top number. The slightly quicker method is to press the Phone Book button four times to get to the Call History List. Handspring must be able to engineer a better way to accomplish this simple action.

I was also surprised that the phone software in general could be sluggish. For example, pressing the number buttons on the keyboard (without pressing the blue option button to put it into number mode) would trigger the software to recognize that I wanted numbers instead of letters, but it took a second or two for the screen to catch up with my actions.

Synchronizing with the Mac, too, isn’t as straightforward as it ought to be, though this is a problem that spans both Handspring, Palm, and Apple. Although I didn’t have any trouble, Handspring cautions customers not to use Palm Desktop 4.0 if they haven’t first run the included Treo installation software. The company recently released a version of Palm Desktop that works with Handspring organizers, but the caveat still applies. I’d recommend running the installer and setting up the Treo under Mac OS 9, then switching back to Mac OS X (if that’s your primary operating system) before installing the latest Palm Desktop software from Handspring.

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Internet, In-Hand — Of the Treo’s online capabilities, I had the most fun with SMS text messaging, where I could send short notes to folks back at the office that they could receive and reply via email (if they had SMS-capable phones, we could send messages back and forth nearly instantaneously). However, I learned a valuable lesson the hard way: my messages were truncated at 160 characters, even though the software let me write as much as I wanted. Some indication, even a note at the bottom of the screen, would prevent that type of snafu.

Unfortunately, accessing the Internet required dialing a regular ISP (EarthLink, in my case), as opposed to the always-on service afforded by Palm’s i705 (see "Palm i705: Wireless Internet, If You’re Patient" in TidBITS-635). However, Handspring offers an upgrade that enables the Treo 180 and Treo 270 to take advantage of GPRS (General Packet Radio Service), a better way of handling data and maintaining persistent connections; the upgrade is already available in Canada, Europe, and Asia, and Handspring expects to release it soon for the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand.



Once online, Handspring’s included Blazer seemed to be a capable handheld Web browser, but it’s still tough to browse the Web on such a small screen. Similarly, email access was acceptable using the included One-Touch Mail client; at the time I tested the Treo 180, Handspring had not yet released Treo Mail, a $50 package that connects to the Internet and retrieves email automatically.


Almost There — The Treo is certainly the best organizer/cell phone combination I’ve seen. Despite the relatively high cost compared to purchasing two devices separately, people looking to reduce their gadget quotient will appreciate the Treo’s compact size and strong integration between Palm OS and phone software. Handspring has made it clear that it believes the communicator is the future of the handheld market, and is staking its business on that belief. The Treo isn’s so much a mature organizer that’s been combined with a cell phone, but rather a sophisticated early template of what communicators are going to become. For that reason, I’m more forgiving of the minor flaws I encountered, and look forward to future incarnations.

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