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    Michael is a trainer and consultant specializing in making mobility technology work in people's everyday lives.
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Five Weeks with the Treo 650

Posted by Michael Brown on March 13, 2006

A few short weeks ago I upgraded my Treo smartphone from the 600 model to the 650. The 650 has been out for a while, but it only became available on Bell’s network a few months ago. After working with the 600 for a year, I felt it was time to upgrade in order to stay current with the hardware that’s being actively distributed on the market. So, this blog will look at the differences between the models, and how the 650 has evolved to be a more productive device than the 600.

When you put the two Treos side-by-side, you’ll notice certain differences right off the bat. The keyboard has been slightly redesigned, with the keys being slightly larger and the entire keyboard being slightly curved. The launcher and menu buttons have been moved from the bottom row of the keyboard on the 600 to a location above the hard buttons on the 650. This move has freed up room to add a second shift button, and a dedicated Alt button (it used to be combined with the ‘0’ key on the 600), which makes it easier to type and access alternate characters. The keyboard backlighting is also much improved over the Treo 600 in that it’s much more noticeable since the keys are white and not grey like the 600. The colour of the case is nice on the CDMA model; it’s a two-tone Blue-grey/chrome which looks pretty slick. The 600 CDMA version I used to have was charcoal grey. The screen is also waaaay better, being a 320×320 pixel screen, as opposed to the 160×160 pixel one on the Treo 600. It’s also a 16 bit screen, as opposed to the 12 bit on the 600, which gives you much more realistic colours than the 600. The screen is a huge improvement, allowing you to fit more information on the screen, as well as having sharper fonts and nicer graphics.

The Treo 650 has Bluetooth 1.1, something that the Treo 600 didn’t have at all. Bluetooth is a short range “cable-replacement” technology intended to connect products and accessories. One of the biggest benefits to Bluetooth on the Treo 650 is that it allows you to use wireless telephone headsets or handsfree devices with your Treo. In my particular case, I use Bluetooth as a wireless network connection to my Linux powered business server, primarily for e-mail, SMB file sharing and Internet access from my Treo. I find that the Treo has a much better
Bluetooth implementation than my other Bluetooth enabled Palm, the Tungsten T. The Treo has more sensitivity on the Bluetooth radio, which allows me to get a better range of usable area; the Treo will connect in places where the Tungsten simply will not. The Bluetooth software stack is also much better on the Treo; it handles dropped connections much more gracefully than the Tungsten ever did. Basically, when you connect to the network/Internet over Bluetooth, it is treated like a “dial-up” connection; so, if you’re idle (meaning that no data is flowing over the connection) the server will disconnect you after a period of time to free up the connection. If that happened on the Tungsten, it usually resulted in an immediate soft-reset, or it would hang or reset the next time I tried to use the Bluetooth connection. VersaMail 2.5 (which I had on the Tungsten T) was the usual culprit that triggered an immediate reset. The Treo gracefully reconnects in a similar situation. The Treo’s Bluetooth also supports Bluetooth headsets and hands-free speakerphone systems, so you needn’t take the Treo out of it’s holster in order to answer calls. You can simply “pair” the Treo with a headset or car-kit, and then speak/listen through it while you use the PDA functions on your Treo. For those not familiar with Bluetooth, “pairing” is a function of Bluetooth devices where you have them find each other and then you let the two devices know that you want them to trust each other.

The built-in PIM apps on the Treo 650 (and all currently shipping Palm Inc. handhelds) are the enhanced Palm applications, compared to the standard PalmSource & Handspring Licensed ones included on the Treo 600. This results in somewhat more capable information management applications, at the expense of some compatibility with older software. I’ll go into that in more detail as we go along. The first major benefit is that the limitation of 4KB for notes and memos has been expanded to 32KB. This allows you to fit more information per-record than before; basically, you can now store about 6400 words in a memo, rather than the approximately 800 words on previous models. This also applies to the note sections of Contacts, Calendar appointments, and Tasks. The Contacts application has really been enhanced. It allows you to store a person’s picture in the contact record, as well as the person’s birthday. Contacts now stores 3 addresses per person (home, work, and other), and now has instant messaging ID fields, as well as a place for a website and 9 user-definable fields. This contrasts with 1 address, no special fields, and 4 user-defined fields on the Treo 600. These are welcome additions for those people (like myself) who are very contact-centric.

The down side is that these additions are specific to Palm branded devices (other Palm OS licensees use the standard PalmSource PIM applications), which means that the additional contact fields will not Sync to software other than that supplied on the Treo CD, without the purchase of third party software. In some cases, this might be a good thing, as the third party Sync software may have features the Palm-supplied software might not. For example, the Palm-supplied Outlook conduits do not sync the Picture into Outlook, nor will it excluded syncing Private records (ie not sync personal stuff into Outlook at work). Chapura’s PocketMirror XT does both of those and more, and many people find they work better than the Palm-supplied Outlook Conduits. Mac OS X users have Missing Sync, which supports Syncing the new Palm PIMs to the Mac Address book (among other things). For other desktop apps that have Palm Sync conduits that expect to Sync with the PalmSource PIM apps, Palm came up with a novel idea of the Data Manager patch; basically, the DM patch intercepts attempts to read & write to the PalmSource apps, and then shuffles the information through a compatibility layer for the old-style Address database and the new Contacts database. In theory, it’s a great idea; in practise, it wasn’t as well done as it could’ve been. The “Data-Mangler” patch as it’s affectionately known to Palm software developers does have some problems, and does have the performance penalty of having to re-write each call to the old-style databases. Generally, it’s more of a problem for applications on the Palm itself that try to access the various PIM databases directly than it is for HotSync conduits. If you plan to sync the new PIMs to a particular desktop application, check first to see if it supports the new style PIMs on the Treo; if it has a conduit that supports the new databases, that’s the preferred route to go. If it doesn’t, you can use the conduits for the old-style PIMs, but keep an eye out for possible problems.

The calendar application has also gotten an overhaul. It now supports categories for your appointments (the old-style Datebook database itself supported categories, it was just that the Datebook application itself didn’t) and will let you filter your day view by category. It also sports a “Today” or agenda view, giving you an overview of your appointments and tasks for the day. It has the week and month view, as well as a year view (accessible through a menu choice Options -> Year view). In addition to being able to set a category for each event, there is a new field for Location, which is found in the details dialog for the event. Alarms and repeats are still standard features, as before. The Tasks application has also been overhauled. The list view now has tabs for All (tasks), Date (with options for Due Today, last seven days, next seven days, and past-due) and by Category (allowing you to filter by category). Tasks can now also have alarms, which is great for reminding you when you need to do something; you can choose to set an alarm, have it sound ‘x’ days before the due date, and choose what time you want it to sound.

Most of these PIM changes came about to address the needs of users who sync with groupware solutions like Microsoft Outlook. People with large amounts of data, especially contact information, found the old-style PIMs limiting. By adding these additional information fields, Palm has increased the usability of their handhelds and especially the Treo 650. There are many other little enhancements that make a big difference in the Treo’s usability. The phone application has a nice new feature that if you receive a call from someone you don’t have in your contacts, you are given the option of adding that contact right after your call finishes. If you say yes, it takes you to the Contacts application with the phone number already added and the focus on the name fields. You can then add the pertinent contact information and set the phone number type (work, home, mobile, etc. and when you hit done, it will be added to your contacts and then later hotsynced to your desktop application. The phone application also has been redone so that you have a lot of status information available on the one screen. The status of the Bluetooth and cellular radios, battery, and GPS location information are at the top of the screen. GPS location information is for location based services offered through your carrier; it determines your approximate location based on information it receives from the cellular towers, and relays that information back to the cellular network (privacy-concerned customers can turn that feature off for all but 911 emergency calls). The phone screen also shows the number of voicemails and unread messages in VersaMail. The phone screen favourites have been redesigned and the 5-way launcher feature from the Treo 600 has been removed. I liked the old 5-way launcher of the 600, which let you hit the phone button, then up/down to immediately launch something like the camera application. The new favourites app can work almost as well, if you think about where you place your favourites, or if you define shortcut keys for “press-and-hold” to launch a certain app.

Being a smartphone, messaging is a key component of the Treo’s daily life. I’ve always liked the SMS application on the Treo 600, as it can let you organize messages with the same person as “chats”, much like most popular instant messaging applications. It has a nice quick text feature, which let’s you have pre-configured “canned phrases” which can save you a lot of typing. The SMS app is basically the same on the 650 as it was on the 600, with the addition of an option to show the first line of text from the person’s last response to you in the list view. VersaMail is much improved over previous versions. I’ve used VersaMail from 2.5 on the Tungsten T to 2.71 on the Treo 600 to 3.1 on the Treo 650. Unfortunately, on the Bell Mobility ROM version, VersaMail is an older version (3.1b), and not the latest 3.1f like on the Telus Mobility current ROM. I do hope Bell qualifies the 1.04 Treo ROM on their network soon; there are some bug fixes that would be nice to have. Generally, VersaMail works really well. I use it for reading mail from my IMAP business mail server and for reading mailing lists I collect via a POP account at Yahoo. It works really well via Bluetooth, but the HotSync conduits can be occasionally flaky. That’s nothing new; they’ve been temperamental since version 2.5, but they are getting much better. It used to really mess up fetching POP mails at HotSync time (it used to mix up headers and bodies during the sync so the body never was what the subject claimed it was). With the 3.1b version I’m running it will sometimes truncate the message body during the HotSync with the VersaMail conduit, or otherwise misrepresent the size of the e-mail (like saying a 48kB mail is 3kB). But it does work well wirelessly, so I usually check mail that way first before HotSyncing.

There are only two annoyances I have with the Treo 650. The first is that the vibrating alert is still anaemic; the one on the Blackberry can really get your attention. The one on my Treo is noticeable only if I’m at rest; I can’t feel it if I’m in the car driving, and some days, I can’t tell if it’s my Treo vibrating or if it’s my stomach rumbling (I use a belt-clip case). The other is that the screen does get washed out and almost unreadable in direct sunlight. I understand that it was a design decision, as the majority of people use them indoors, but it’s still annoying. The best things about the Treo 650 are the ease of navigating around it, and the integration of the applications. Using the built-in apps, you rarely need to use the stylus as they are designed to be accessible one-handed using the 5-way navigator. Third party apps that aren’t designed for the Treo are usually pretty easy to get around, but sometimes will need the stylus to access some functions. The integration between apps is excellent; for example, birthdays listed in the contacts application are displayed in the calendar, and tasks can also be shown in the calendar agenda view. Should the built-in applications not have what you’re looking for, many third-party apps are available that work with the built-in databases, allowing you to customize your Treo for your particular needs. In my opinion, the Treo 650 is the best ever “Life Management Tool” to leverage today’s digital lifestyle.

One Response to “Five Weeks with the Treo 650”

  1. […] the actual contents of the mail are from another). I’ve written a bit about VersaMail before (5 weeks with the Treo 650), and I’ve used it since I got my Tungsten T (VersaMail 2.5), to my Treo 600 (VersaMail 2.7, […]

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