No other company has done more to advance the concept of the all-in-one communicator than Handspring with its innovative Treo line. Though it will soon be subsumed by Palm, Handspring is still shaking things up with the Treo 600, a wholly new design that adds a camera, an expansion slot, and other new ingredients to an already potent blend of phone and wireless PDA. The big news isn't that the Treo 600 can do all this--other devices can too. It is that the Treo 600, which will be available from Cingular, T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T Wireless, and Verizon for about $500 with service, does all of them well.
Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.
At the time of its debut, the Treo 300 was arguably one of the best phone/PDA designs available in the United States, but because of its PDA leanings, it suffered a little as a phone and was a bit awkward to hold it against the ear. The Treo 600, by contrast, resembles a full-bodied candy bar-style phone. Overall, it's only about 3 percent smaller than the Treo 300 (2.4 by 4.4 by 0.9 inches, not including the antenna), though it weighs slightly more (6 ounces). But because of its design, the Treo 600 seems more compact, and it fits more comfortably in your hand and your pocket.
One small gripe: Without the signature Treo flip cover, the screen, though recessed, tends to get covered with fingerprints and dust quickly. While our test unit didn't have one, the final version will include a protective sleeve for those who want to use it.
By far, the biggest design innovation is the rocker switch with a center button, which Handspring refers to as the five-way. This navigational button is similar to the ones found on many phones and Palm Tungsten handhelds, and it allows you to control nearly all of the Treo 600's functions--not just the phone features--with one hand. It works amazingly well. The applications included with the device, such as the POP3 mail program, the Blazer browser, the P-Tunes MP3 player, and the Kinoma video player, are already enabled for the five-way; many others are in the works.
The backlit keyboard is another story. It's significantly smaller than even the miniature keyboards on competing devices. The rounded, asymmetrical keys and some smart software compensate a little, but we found it difficult to adjust to the cramped keyboard, though we use BlackBerrys on a daily basis. Still, it's acceptable for short URLs or text messages and is a reasonable trade-off to keep the size and weight down.
The jog dial on the side is gone, replaced by volume buttons for the ringer and the phone only. A separate switch atop the Treo turns all device sounds on and off; with the latter, the mobile goes into vibrate mode. Also on top is a power switch, an SDIO expansion slot for adding memory or accessories such as a Wi-Fi adapter, and a metal stylus. At the opposite end is the headphone jack, which unfortunately uses the space-saving minijack that we've derided on other compact PDAs such as the HP iPaq 1940. On the back are the VGA camera lens and a second speaker tuned specifically for the vastly improved ring tones and alarms, as well as the speakerphone. While no cradle is included, this is a relatively minor omission, considering most people will be satisfied with the compact charger and USB syncing cable.
The Treo 600 gives you the best of both worlds; it has the features of both a power PDA and a high-end phone for voice and data. There are numerous ways to initiate a call with the Treo 600, but most users will punch the application key that launches the touch-screen dial pad. From there, the five-way provides quick access to Favorites (speed dial), Contacts, the call log, and other applications. You can also dial using the numeric keys on the minikeyboard. If that's your preference, you can then replace the virtual dial pad--which shows up by default when you power on--with a custom background.
On the handheld side, the Treo 600 is fairly well appointed. It has a 144MHz ARM processor; 32MB of memory (8MB are occupied by ROM); and a 2.5-inch, 3,375-color LCD. Though the passive-matrix screen is very bright, it's still difficult to read in direct sunlight and certainly isn't the equal of the high-resolution displays found on today's Palm handhelds and Sony CLIEs. The Treo 600 runs Palm OS 5.1.2H, and in addition to Contacts, it includes all of the standard PIM applications (Calendar, To Do List, Memo Pad), which you can synchronize with Windows PCs or Macs.
Simply put, the Treo 600 is an e-mail machine. The Mail program handles up to five POP3 accounts; you can even add new POP3 e-mail accounts directly to the device and start using them instantly. You can also download and install new applications (PRC files) or MIDI polyphonic ring tones--a huge plus over older models. SMS lets you send text messages up to 160 characters in length and includes a nice, new chat feature that basically mimics instant messaging.
The Blazer Web browser has several new tricks. It reformats Web pages in a single column so that you don't need to scroll from left to right; you can also save pages for later reference and beam bookmarks to other devices. We installed PDAapps' VeriChat, an excellent IM client for AIM, ICQ, MSN, and Yahoo that works with the five-way control but is not included. Handspring also did not bundle a desktop redirector for do-it-yourself access to Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Notes e-mail, though corporations can still give employees access using server-based solutions.
Since the phone is MMS ready, you can use the integrated VGA camera to send pictures (with sounds or notes) via POP3 e-mail or to attach images to contacts in your phone book for photo caller ID. The Treo works fine for these basic tasks, but it really struggles in low light and will hardly replace your digital camera. To get the MP3 player, NormSoft's highly rated Pocket Tunes 2.0.5 (which supports MP3, OGG Vorbis, and WAV files), you have to register your Treo 600, and you'll need to purchase an adapter for the mini stereo headphone jack if you want to use your standard, Walkman-style headphones.
Handspring says its first objective with the Treo 600 was to build a good phone, and the company has largely succeeded. In our tests of the GSM world phone (850/900/1800/1900; GPRS), the sound quality was consistently solid whether we held it to our ear, used the included earbud, or activated the speakerphone. Using GPRS, we found that data service in both the San Francisco Bay Area and the New York metropolitan area was reliable and fast enough for e-mail, though it dragged a bit downloading Web pages.
In our tests, the Treo 600 easily outlasted older models, thanks to its rechargeable lithium-ion battery, which runs nearly the entire length of the unit and is about twice the size of an average cell. We managed to get 4 hours, 54 minutes of talk time--an hour shy of the 6 hours that Handspring promises. In our tests for standby time, the Treo 600 fell well short of the rated 10 days, but actual battery life varies widely depending on how hard the phone has to work to pick up a signal in a given area. One reason to get this Treo 600 over the Sprint's CDMA version, officially dubbed the PCS Vision Smart Device Treo 600, is that the GSM phone offers longer battery life. On the other hand, Sprint's 3G data network is a bit speedier than the GPRS data networks with which this phone is compatible.