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3/29/2006
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Second Thoughts: Palm Treo 700w

After living with a shiny new Treo 700w for three months, we now have the wisdom of a grizzled veteran.

One of the dangers of reviewing hot new products is that you may not have time to really settling in and learn all the quirks of a new technology before being required to formulate a very public opinion. What may seem like a cool feature after a day or two of playing around may turn out to be more trouble than it’s worth, while real warts may not become apparent until weeks later.

Such, unfortunately, is the case with the Palm Treo 700w. I received my evaluation unit on the first evening of the Consumer Electronics Show, and after some limited messing around with it at the show, had to have my review in the following Monday (the original review is here). I was impressed enough with the unit to actually buy one from Verizon a week or so later. Now, three months later, I’ve compiled a list of issues that would have probably kept me from buying one had known about them.

Before we look at the Treo 700w "bad" and "ugly," let’s talk about the one truly "good" feature that keeps me relatively happy with it. That would be Wireless Sync, the service that lets you keep your contacts, calendar and e-mail in sync with your home desktop. It’s worked pretty much flawlessly for me, and lets me read my mail or schedule a meeting pretty much anywhere I have cell service, and not have to worry about the last time I hotsynced the unit. In fact, I don’t hotsync my Treo at all except to install new software or Audible content. The battery life has also been awesome. I never run out of power.

Now for the "bad" and "ugly." Let’s start with the “what-was-Palm-thinking” items. The unit may have 60 MB of memory available to the user, but only 24MB of that is available to run software (the rest is storage.) I’ve found that typically, with nothing run, I only really have around 4-6MB of available memory, and both I and other users have reported memory leak issues that require you to reset the phone occasionally to get even that. At least under Windows Mobile 2003 you could set how much memory you wanted to assign to programs and how much to storage, under WM5 you’re stuck with the division Palm chose.

The 240x240 screen is also too small, especially since both the Treo 650 and rumored 700p have 320x320 screens. It’s almost like Palm has deliberately crippled the 700w to make the PalmOS versions look better. Very few programs run flawlessly in the 240x240 footprint, although some vendors such as Mapopolis have made the effort to port their software. Prepare to be disappointed by the selection of software that runs without glitches.

But the real problem with the Treo 700w is the pitiful stability of the software. Many users (including I) have seen their units lock up and become totally unresponsive until reset. Even when running correctly, the phone can become sluggish and “go away” for a minute or more. Worse, even an incoming phone call won’t wake up the Treo when it’s in this state. I’ve lost quite a few calls because the phone went wonky.

There are also problems with ActiveSync. This, to Palm’s credit, may be more of a Microsoft issue. But there have been frequent reports of users who have ActiveSync 4.1 crash trying to deal with complex appointments in their calendar.

I also found that, even in the center of EVDO-covered Verizon areas such as downtown Boston, it can take two or three tries for the phone to establish a data connection. And Internet Explorer still took forever to render complex pages, such as the CNN home page.

Responding to a letter outlining these problems, a Palm representative indicated that the company would need to have a look at my unit to diagnose specific issues, in spite of the widespread reports of similar problems that have occurred. I have to wonder about the practicality of requiring a customer to ship their primary means of communications to the factory in order to diagnose problems widely reported on user message boards. They also implied that the memory issues where because there were programs running when I looked at the memory usage of the unit, in spite of the fact that I had verified nothing was running. The memory leak problem is real, and Palm needs to address it. Or Microsoft, if it’s a systemic WM5 bug.

The Treo 700w holds a lot of promise, but it has lots of “early adopter” headaches. And glitches that are acceptable in a PDA are showstoppers in a phone. Having to reboot a PDA is a nuisance; not being able to receive an important phone call is a deal killer. Palm needs to fix the problems and offer a firmware upgrade quickly, or the phone will become just another nice idea that was poorly executed.

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