Recent reviews revisited

This month, I’m going to revisit three smartphones, which I’ve now had time to put through their paces in a real-world business environment. That’s the upside of being a columnist rather than a reviewer who only looks at a product once. (And yes, I have been walking round with three phones, and yes when one rings you do have to search all your pockets in the middle of the high street.)

Recent reviews revisited

I’ll start off with Palm’s Treo 750v, which I reviewed for PC Pro (see issue 146, p76). I can sum up that review as follows: “Palm takes a brave step, abandons Palm OS, builds Windows Mobile 5 phone, improves usability of WM5 and only lack of Wi-Fi keeps it off the A List”. Well, I’ve been using the 750v for a few weeks now and I can reaffirm my initial feeling that it’s a great phone. Palm has really worked hard on the ergonomics, and especially on one-handed operation.

Despite the hype, though, you’ll find that you can’t chuck the stylus away completely – there are several scenarios in which the Treo still needs a tap on the screen to make something happen. This is especially true for third-party business applications that often abandon the standard Windows Mobile look-and-feel for their own quirky user interfaces, particularly ones that are available on multiple platforms like Windows Mobile, Symbian and BlackBerry. This might be an important consideration if you’re thinking of upgrading your users to the 750v from some touchscreen-less Smartphone edition of Windows Mobile – they’ll be used to just pressing buttons and that isn’t going to be enough.

In most ways, the 750v feels more like a proper phone than a PDA/pocket computer, but the stylus dispels this illusion, which is hardly Palm’s fault. Its designers did a splendid job of making the 750v suitable for single-handed operation, but odd quirks in the standard Pocket PC edition of Windows Mobile 5 itself, exacerbated by the aforementioned third-party applications, have together undone Palm’s good intentions. For personal use, this probably isn’t a big issue, but in a business environment there are all manner of jobs where single-handed use is a real advantage, perhaps even a necessity. That doesn’t include driving while using the phone! But there are other tasks that are equally tricky, such as looking up something via your PC keyboard. Stylus-based operations usually force you to drop everything and use both hands, which feels inconvenient to people used to single-handed mobile use.

I’d actually like to see a 750v running the Smartphone edition of Windows Mobile, especially the new version codenamed Crossbow, which should be out in early 2007. Unlike the current WM5 Smartphone edition, Crossbow includes mobile versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, and sticking that on a 750v and abandoning the touchscreen might prove a potent combination.

At first, I was a bit worried about the Treo’s keyboard – it’s so much narrower than most PDAs that I expected its keys might be too closely spaced for typing, but Palm has played a clever trick. Whereas most handhelds have straight lines of keys, the 750v’s keyboard has, like all recent Treos, a significant curvature that’s been taken a few degrees further so it looks as if it’s smiling! As we all learned in maths, a curve between two points is longer than a straight line, and this allows Palm to achieve wider key spacing in a narrower width, making the keyboard surprisingly usable.

I’ve been less than impressed with the screen, which is only 240 x 240 pixels, while many Windows Mobile apps are written to work at the more common 320 x 240. Even the email setup program that ships with the 750v looks awkward on the shorter screen. This lack of vertical pixels is a pity, as the screen itself is quite large (especially given that the Treo 680, which is essentially a 3G-less version of this phone running Palm OS, apparently comes with a stunning 320 x 320 screen).

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