Round Robin: TiPb vs. Palm Treo Pro Final Review
[This is an official Smartphone Experts Round Robin post! Every day you reply here, you're automatically entered for a chance to win an iPhone 3G, Case-Mate Naked Case, and Motorola H9 Bluetooth Headset! Full contest rules here!]
Of all the reviews I have to write as part of the Smartphone Experts Round Robin, I have a feeling this one is going to be the hardest. See, I was a Palm OS user since the Palm V and stuck with the platform through the Treo 680, before switching to the original iPhone.
That, year after year after year, Palm still hasn't been able to ship a successor to Palm OS Garnet is inconceivable to me to the degree that what I'm now holding in my hand, gorgeous and powerful though it may be -- isn't a Palm, isn't a Treo. Not really. I was funny about that in my video. I'm actually more than a little sad about it real life.
The Treo 800 series should really be running Palm OS 2.0 "Nova". Since it's not, however, I'm reviewing an HTC handset running Windows Mobile 6.1 -- something I'll be doing almost immediately again with the HTC FUZE/PRO.
How to handle that? To avoid redundancy, I'm going to stick reviewing hardware -- a front facing Qwerty this time, slider the next -- and breaking up the software into two parts. This review (and thanks to Dieter for the idea!) will focus on the traditional Palm core -- the four pillars of PIM (Personal Information Management). The FUZE review will cover everything else Windows Mobile (media, apps, maps, etc.)
And I'm going to begin, after the break!
The Palm Treo Pro hardware is a real departure. Gone is the little gray box that debuted with the Treo 600. The big honking antenna disappeared with the 680/750, but now even the legacy Treo 800 inset screen and gunship good looks have been given the heave ho.
Some have said this is because HTC basically designed and built the unit. Whatever the reason, it looks fresh and modern. It moves Treo -- physically at least -- into the next generation.
It looks good. It feels good. The form factor is very nice in the hand. Like the Google Android G1 (also by HTC) it does feel a tad creaky, but I'm beginning to think that a) the iPhone just spoiled me for build quality and b) plastic with removable battery equals a little bit of creak.
Buttons and Keys
A few niggles. The camera button is oddly placed. Having a physical button is okay, and I'm sure some appreciate it, but putting it below the volume rocker is non-sensical to me. The iPhone, by contrast, puts the mute button there, so all volume controls are grouped, and you can feel if the mute is in-line or off-line with the volume rocker, letting you immediately understand state.
On the opposite side is a WiFi on/off button. I'm not sure why it's there, or why it even exists. An "airplane mode" style toggle, maybe, but why just the WiFi radio? Is that any more necessary than Blue Tooth or cell? I really don't know.
The keyboard, on the other hand, while a little cramped compared to the 680, is a huge improvement just based on the key material itself. Gone are those hard, rounded nasty little nubs I could never really type on, and in their place is something... like gummy bears. I can't really describe it, but boy does it improve my typing experience. Keep this material and expand the keyboard back to full Treo size, and Palm has a real winner on their hands (and in ours!)
That said, the iPhone has really spoiled me off hard keyboards and the Treo has re-affirmed that fact. I only need the keyboard for text entry, and after I'm done, I was just sitting there staring at it staring back at me. "Go away! I'm done with you!", I felt like saying, "I want to watch some video now and you're in the way!". But it couldn't go away. I'm not sure if the FUZE or Bold will pull me back from this precipice, but for some types of users, I'm thinking the era of hard keyboards is over.
As to the hard buttons -- they depress me a little. And confuse me. The original Palm PDA's were pretty much perfect at this, but it's something Palm has struggled with since transitioning to the Treo line. My 680, for example, had a Green, Red, and Phone button (3 buttons just for the phone!). The Treo Pro has a Green, Red, Windows, and OK button. None of these seem optimal to me. And hitting Red (end call) to get to the Today screen seems counter-intuitive. So does every button but the center of the 5-way and OK serving to wake the device, with the center unlocking it. I realize we need different buttons to wake and unlock, but the center just seems so natural.
Windows Mobile Treo has finally caught up with the Palm OS 650! Yup, we have 320x320. It's unfortunate that it happened around the same time the Bold shipped 480x360 and the HTC Touch HD dropped the 800x480 bomb, but welcome to the 21st century! Speaking of which -- FLUSH! This is something I've wanted on a Palm for a long time, and boy does it deliver. After Kevin's epic deflation of the stylus in his review -- an issue I shan't revisit here since he nailed it so well -- it's nice not to have to try to poke into corners with any type of input any more.
The next step for Palm will hopefully be a non-square screen. This device with the Bold screen would be impressive (and would likely make Dieter faint).
Fit and Finish
The speaker being placed along the side is genius. If I hold the iPhone wrong, I can't hear a sound coming out of it. With the Treo Pro, even if I put it flat on the table, the audio is not effected one bit.
The standard USB connector is also very much appreciated. Absent a near iPod monopoly and the ubiquity of the dock connector that goes with that, sticking with standards is a win for every body.
Overall, this device really shines in fit and finish, and it's obvious Palm and/or HTC spent a lot of time sweating the details. While I benefited from Kevin and Dieter's tutorials on how to open the battery cover, once open there's a handy tab to pull out the battery, and SIM entry/exit was a breeze. I use this example because it's easy to scrimp inside where you think no one's looking. We looked, and no scrimpage was found.
This device is well made -- and beautiful -- inside and out.
Final Hardware Thoughts
Downside? I have iPhone out cables that connect to TVs to basically give me a portable AppleTV (the dock even works with the Apple Remote). I take shows and stuff I've rented to my friends and family to enjoy together on the big screen. This week in particular, I really missed being able to do that. Apple is still the only one who's nailed ecosystem.
In a world without the iPhone, however, -- and maybe the Bold, can't say yet -- this would be the type of hardware I want. If they could better the buttons, it would be the kind of hardware I carried -- if I still wanted a hard keyboard, which is a thought I'll be finishing in the FUZE and Bold reviews.
Windows Mobile for PIM
Palm nailed the Zen of PIM back in the late 90s. Say what you want about the aging Palm OS (and I've said plenty myself!), but it's arguably still one of the best PIM app suites on the planet. The story about it, about the early Palm team counting key strokes, is near legendary now, and it showed. Everything was easy. Everything was intuitive. Everything worked.
This is not that Palm.
Windows Mobile works -- don't get me wrong! -- but it takes work. I have full faith and confidence that if I invested the time to tweak and tune every little setting, to dig into every little registry entry, to basically Dieter or Malatesta the heck out of it, I could achieve something that the Palm OS did pretty much out of the box. But I have neither the time nor the inclination to do that.
By way of example, I bought my iPhone 3G on launch day, and iTunes was down, so no syncing, no activation. No problem. I put in my Exchange details, boom, work was running. Put in my MobileMe, boom, personal was taken care of. Put in my Gmail, boom, TiPb was happy. It all just worked.
With the Treo Pro, I never got OTA anything working. I never got BT sync working despite trying 3 different Macs (all failed at different points). I even bought MissingSync out of desperation, and USB tether would cause MissingSync to beachball of death continuously. I tried launching Windows XP via Parallels and it wouldn't even see the device.
Now, most users aren't Mac users, fair enough, but I am and I know many, many Mac users were Palm users prior to the iPhone, so I don't accept the really poor user experience. I should also point out that I never had a problem syncing my old Treo 680 via MissingSync via BT or USB on the Mac, and I likely could have figured this out too given more time and patience (and forum help). But I oughtn't have to.
Cases in point:
Phone aside, Email is the killer app. It's what made the BlackBerry the Crackberry. I use Exchange for work and Microsoft makes not only the Treo Pro's OS, but Exchange itself, so I was anticipating a quick and painless set up.
I was wrong.
First, just like I inexplicably can't setup Exchange in Outlook on a PC (gotta go to Control Panel!) I had to setup ActiveSync first on the Treo. Entering my info was easy enough, though password handling reminded me of iPhone OS 1.x, where we're expected to enter pseudorandom passwords that are totally obscured, which was made extra hard by having to use shift and alt to change state on a visually unchanging hardware keyboard. I managed to do it eventually however, only to be stopped dead by ActiveSync refusing my company's certificate.
On the iPhone, I just ignore the security warning and it works fine. With the Treo, I could find no way around it. TreoCentral Forum member Conrad gave me awesome directions for manually finding my certificate on my desktop and transferring it to the Treo Pro, but there's no excuse for that having to be part of the process.
So, while I could get the certificate easily enough, I couldn't transfer it over from my Mac by either BT or tether, so I couldn't get Exchange.
I did get Gmail setup, though it defaulted to POP. Forum member RichChestmast tipped me to flipping on IMAP, however.
I like the Calendar App. I couldn't sync either Exchange or MobileMe (where I keep my personal data) over, so I just re-entered everything manually (which technically avoided tethering!). Anyone who's used Outlook -- anyone who's used any Calendar app, will be right at home, and that's the highest of praise for PIM apps.
As mentioned, there's a hard key for the calendar, letting you zip right into it and cycle through states, and I'll use this opportunity again to announce my appreciation for the Today Screen, which would be a welcome option on the iPhone.
Also, the Windows Mobile calendar provides both week view (like the G1), which the iPhone lacks, and year view, though the screen size and ratio constricts it to 9-month view. Both of these would be welcome additions to the iPhone.
Tasks and Notes
As I mentioned in my Android review, the iPhone's stupefying lack of a Tasks app, and lack of any built-in way to sync notes, even with Exchange which supports just that type of syncing, has conditioned me to pretty much stop using these pillars.
They're here. They work. But they're not particularly attractive (making me miss Marker Felt is about as low as any Notes app could ever sync). I'll get into this more in the FUZE review, but it's not 1998 any more. UI matters.
(Yes, I refuse to surrender that jargon to lesser complaints). When Bill Gates took the stage at CES and stunned the world with a Palm running Windows Mobile, one of the first things that got me psyched was the Photo Dialing. I loved how Palm tweaked out Windows Mobile.
I didn't notice anything special about the Treo Pro. In a world with Touch Flo 3D and Xperia Panels, I was expecting something.
Far as I could tell, though, when Palm ordered up the Treo Pro, they held the sauce.
When I was having trouble figuring out how to review this not made by Palm, not running Palm-OS Treo, Dieter gave me some great advice -- review it as a Treo, as something you use on the go to get things done.
In that regard, it's decidedly middling. The latest, greatest hardware and Windows Mobile, while better looking and far more powerful than my old 680, just weren't as fast and easy to use. They took more work, and that meant they were far less Zen. And, dagnabit, the measure of any true Treo is in the Zen.
I'm really conflicted about this device. It looks and feels great, it's powerful and configurable, but for every point I feel it improves from the Treo 680, there's an equal point where I feel it falls short.
I love the new key material but the board is more cramped. I can do far more with it, but it's just not as easy to get things done. It's not the aging Palm of yesteryear, but it's not the Palm I need today -- not quite.
I've pretty much come to a conclusion that's been brewing in my head for a while now (and I'm sure I'm not the first to think or post about it). In many ways, the iPhone is far more the successor to the original spirit of the Treo than any current model being sold by Palm today. Windows Mobile, for all the smart business and stop gap reasons that make perfect sense for Palm Inc. from every angle, just doesn't feel like a Treo to me, and the iPhone does. The iPhone is what I wish Palm had shipped 5 years ago. So I'll end where I began the Treo Pro is an HTC Windows Mobile device -- a terrific one, maybe the best one available here and now -- but it's not a Palm. Not a Treo. Not for me.
Here's hoping Palm hits a home run with Nova for next year, and we get a 2.0 OS device in Round Robin 2009.