Palm Treo Pro — a good business phone but otherwise lacklustre

When Palm unveiled its much publicized phone based on Windows Mobile 6.1 – the Treo Pro – many wondered how this latest offering would stack up against to the competition.

Bell Mobility brought the CDMA version of the Treo Pro phone to Canadians at the end of February. Would the new offering reinforce Palm’s reputation as a leading provider of business productivity devices? Would the phone’s media offerings match those offered by market leaders such as Apple’s iPhone and the BlackBerry Storm?

Not really.

Bell is offering the Treo Pro for $99.95 with a three year contract and $549.95 without a contract. The subsidized price seems appealing for a high-profile smart phone. But is it worth it? Let’s take a look.

Geek-chic deliciousness

As a sleek pocket device with fun buttons to press, it’s hard to top what the Treo Pro delivers in a small package.

The aptly-named device fits perfectly in your hand, its curved surfaces sliding comfortably into your grip. The obsidian black surface glows attractively and the heft of the device is satisfying.

The buttons are soft and squishy, forgiving on the thumbs. The buttons on the front of the device are flush to the surface save for the subtle bumps of the green “answer call” button and red “end call” or lock screen button. The navigational directional-pad (d-pad) ring also rises out from the device’s exterior.

The four hardware buttons surrounding the d-pad are a Taskbar shortcut, a Calendar shortcut, an “OK” button, and a messaging centre shortcut. The centre button adorned by Palm’s logo serves as the action button and provides an alternate to clicking on the touch screen with your stylus.

When not being used, the device screensaver displays the time and date in a large, black on grey format.

One drawback is that your fingerprints will inevitably tarnish the smooth and shiny exterior of the phone.

Out-of-box experience

The Treo Pro has to be the easiest phone to start using as soon as you bust it out of its packaging. This phone exemplifies the the plug-and-play experience.

Upon connecting the device to your computer via its in-the-box USB cable, Windows takes over and installs all the necessary synchronizing components. There’s no need to load software from a CD or download anything from the Web. Within minutes, the phone is synchronizing itself with your Outlook contacts and calendar, making your device useful right away.

Two new items will be placed upon your desktop as a result of this first interface with the phone. You’ll have a PDF document that serves as a digital manual – there’s no paper manual in the box – and a “Treo My Documents” folder. This folder serves as a synchronizing hot spot for files on your phone. Drop Office documents or media files here and it’ll be uploaded on the next synch, and any new items on your phone will be pulled down to this folder.

One quibble I have is the Treo Pro’s use of a micro USB cable needed for synching instead of a standard USB connector. But this is made up for the ability to synch via a Bluetooth connection.

Navigation

In anticipation of the upcoming Pre phone, Palm doesn’t quite yet seem ready to give itself up entirely to a touch screen device that is operated with taps of the finger.

Instead, the Treo Pro can be operated via the full QWERTY keyboard and d-pad, or by using the stylus to press buttons on the screen. The combination of the two could be confusing, as it’s not clear when best to use one option over the other.

I found myself sticking mostly to the hardware controls, not wanting to bother sliding out the stylus from its holster. The odd time, I tapped a button on screen with my finger. But that didn’t always work out the way I expected, and some buttons are just too small to tap with reliable results.

The stylus works well in most situations, but I found its response time would lag in certain scenarios. Particularly when Web browsing, the stylus can feel a little unresponsive.

One inexplicable feature is a touch screen keyboard that can be called up inside various applications. The keys are too small for use with your fingers, so it must be intended for use with the stylus. But why someone would choose to tap out a message with a stylus on this crammed arrangement when a full QWERTY key set sits at their thumb tips is beyond me.

I do appreciate the design of the stylus – a plastic and metal hybrid that feels solid. I couldn’t snap the stylus in half.

Productivity features

Getting work done is where the Treo Pro performs best.

Thanks to a well-implemented Windows Mobile 6.1 as the operating system here, office users will have a similar experience working on their desktop workstation, laptop computer, or their smartphone.

Familiarity can count for a lot when you want to be productive. Having key Microsoft applications on your hand set helps with that a lot.

Treo Pro users will use Outlook to manage e-mail, and have access to mobile Office applications such as Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote. That ensures you can review attachments you receive, make edits to documents, or even create new documents on the go. It’s a great set of features to have on a phone.

The phone is a snap to set up for synch with your desktop Outlook client. Just plug it in to the micro USB cable. Everything from your calendar to your notes will be uploaded to the device.

There’s also a PDF reader included that works quite well. You’ll be able to flip through pages by pressing the d-pad up and down. You can zoom in for a better look at the text by clicking the on screen + and – icons with your stylus.

Outlook mobile works well as an e-mail client. You can set up multiple e-mail accounts and manage them individually with such fine grain details as how often you want to receive new messages, what size of e-mail you’ll accept, and whether to receive attachments or not.

Some things that detract from the overall e-mail experience include the lack of push e-mail unless aided by an exchange server. BlackBerry users might miss that sort of immediacy for their personal e-mail accounts, but most users can probably accept receiving e-mail at five minute intervals.

Also, there’s no unified Inbox. Users with several e-mail accounts must click in and out of different Inboxes to sort through new messages, as opposed to seeing all messages listed in one window.

This version of the Treo Pro also loses points for not coming with a GPS application that can be used for free. The included GPS Nav will cost users $3.50 per day or $10 per month for audible driving directions. But downloading Google Maps Mobile is a solution to this problem, and that free application works very will on the Treo Pro.

I’d recommend adding it as the first download for this phone out of the box.

Media and entertainment

The camera is quite good for a cell phone. At 2.0 megapixels, pictures delivered are fairly crisp and the camera performs well in indoor lighting compared to other cell phone cameras at the same resolution.

The camera application is quickly accessed by pressing a button on the phone’s left side. The application offers up a respectable array of options for taking pictures or video. There is a “sports” mode that results in a quicker shutter speed, a photo-stitching function that pieces together three pictures in landscape mode, and a zoom feature. The zoom settings are puzzling because it can be up to 4x in some instances (when taking Contacts pictures) but remains only at 1x for general picture taking.

The camera is quite easy to use with the d-pad. Pressing up will zoom in on your subject and pressing the left and right buttons will cycle through shooting modes.

The Treo Pro’s music capabilities are slightly above pathetic. My experience with the Java-powered music playing application that comes installed on the device was definitely disappointing.

The application takes a long time to load. After finding every song on your external and internal memory card, it does break it down into an easily navigable menu system based on artists, playlists, genre, or album. From there, you play the music via a set of typical controls operated on the touch screen.

But the application is unreliable. Loading time can take more than a minute for seemingly no reason, even after an initial scan for your music is completed. There can also be significant lag time in going back and forth between different menu screens. Combine that with the fact that I couldn’t get the stereo headset that is packaged with the phone to work, and you’ve deterred all but the most determined user from using this as a portable music device.

It’s too bad, because the microSD card is expandable up to 32 gigs and that could hold an awesome library of tunes.

Treo shines much better when it comes to video playback. Not only is the device compatible with a wide range of video codecs (AVI, WMV, MPEG, and more) but it is also capable of streaming all those video types thanks to the pre-installed Kinoma player.

The inclusion of a YouTube player seems almost out of place on this all-business phone. But its performance is impressive. Videos stream in quickly and there’s little loading time, and the playback quality is quite good on the Treo Pro’s 320×320 resolution display.

Still, media buffs will likely opt for a phone with a higher resolution display and a more reliable music application. One strange design decision has the 3.5 mm headset jack on the bottom of the phone instead of the top, which I find a bit awkward.

Web browsing

Surfing the Web on Treo Pro is a good experience tempered by some bouts of mediocrity. The 3G and Wi-Fi connectivity mean you get a fairly speedy connection and Web pages load up in a reasonable amount of time.

But an irritating feature of the Internet Explorer browser is that you’re unable to scroll around a page until it is fully loaded. That doesn’t seem to take long for pages formatted for a mobile screen, but standard pages are a different story. The odd Web site that wasn’t formatted for mobile also sometimes resulted in a memory overflow error and I was booted out of the browser.

Mostly, browsing through the Web is helped by the touch screen functionality and the stylus. Clicking on links and scrolling around Web sites is intuitive and easy to do. Users can easily mark favourites and come back to them with the menu options along the bottom of the screen.

A built-in Google search bar on the home menu is a nice touch to quickly launch into the Web.

Final thoughts

Palm’s promotion of the Treo Pro as its new flagship phone is a confusing move at best. Though appropriately stylish and professional looking, there’s no special new functionality here that separates the phone from the competition.

A lackluster music application and a screen resolution that is a step behind other devices means this device won’t be snapped up by heavy media users.

The stylus-driven touch screen navigation aided by a d-pad makes it seem like Palm couldn’t decide how its own device should be used. That confusion is now inherited by the user, who’s not sure when to thumb the D-pad, slip out the stylus, or coordinate both activities.

The phone’s strongest suit is its potential use as a a business device – solid productivity and communication tools are made readily available here. Plus there are no headaches in getting the phone to synch with your PC, even the first time around. But these features are also available in other Windows Mobile devices, and even in the Palm Centro. So there’s nothing new there either.

In the end, this effort leaves us waiting for the Palm Pre, which has the potential to be truly different.

Since smartphone aficionados caught wind of the Palm Pre, it’s been the focus of many a blog-post and geeky tweet exchange.

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