Paul Taylor: A Palm that opens Windows

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What is the technology world coming to? Apple Computer launches a new Mac built around an Intel – yes Intel – microprocessor and Palm debuts a wireless smartphone/communicator based on a Microsoft – yes Microsoft – operating system.

I have yet to lay my hands on Steve Jobs’ new $2,000 MacBook Pro, which is powered by a dual-core Intel engine with up to four times the speed of its predecessor, the PowerBook G4. But the specs look pretty impressive. I did, however, manage to pick up a Palm 700w after it was launched at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The Treo 700w, the first in the Palm family of Treo smartphones to run Microsoft’s Windows Mobile 5.0 operating system, is clearly targeted at the same market as RIM’s Blackberry devices, including my favourite,
the 8700.

It has been designed to build on the success of the existing Treo 600 and 650 models and to appeal to professionals and corporate IT departments that feel more comfortable with a Windows-based machine than one running the Palm operating system.

The 700w combines a solid mobile phone with a full suite of personal digital assistant tools and adds 3G-based high-speed wireless data access to e-mail and business applications.

One immediate result of the operating system switch is that the 700w comes with Microsoft’s Office applications for Windows Mobile, a mini version of the PC Office suite, plus Internet Explorer Mobile and Windows Media Player Mobile. Crucially, it also supports direct access to Microsoft Exchange Server 2003, which enables mobile access to e-mail and Outlook calendar and contact information, which will appeal to those companies that use Exchange Server and are reluctant to invest in RIM’s rival push e-mail server software.

In the US, it uses the Verizon Wireless Broadband Access EV-DO (Evolution Data Optimized) network and costs $399 after a $100 discount with a two-year contract. Palm says it is negotiating with carriers to launch in other markets.

Out of the box, the Treo 700w, which is powered by an Intel XScale 312MHz (megahertz) microprocessor, feels fast and responsive. The 700w measures 4.4 by 2.3 by 0.9 inches and weighs 6.4 ounces.

It is sturdy, easy to hold in one hand and, perhaps most importantly, comfortable to hold up to an ear. The case is contoured to make it easy to position the built-in speaker over the ear. Sound quality is good.

The mini “Qwerty-style” keyboard has been redesigned with a new bank of one-touch function keys including red and green “phone” keys and a somewhat confusing “OK” key that steps you back to the previous screen.

The function keys make it easy to access the basic menu and well-designed home or “Today” screen. The Today screen includes speed-dial buttons for a user’s most frequently called contacts, which
can be displayed as names or photos.

If you start typing a contact’s name into the main search box, matching names and numbers jump on to the screen, ready to dial or e-mail.

Other useful features include VCR-like icons such as rewind, delete and fast-forward controls that make it easy to manage even multiple voicemail boxes.

The design team included a feature that should be standard on business phones – the ability to ignore a call and quickly compose a text message such as “Can’t talk now” or “In a meeting” by selecting the “Ignore with text” option.

The Today screen also lists upcoming appointments and the number of unread e-mail messages automatically pulled into the 700w from a corporate, personal “pop” e-mail or webmail service – setting up a pop e-mail service is simple and takes about 60 seconds, provided you know the mailbox details, username and password.

Information on the Today screen is synchronised with Microsoft Outlook running on a Windows PC, either using a USB (Universal Serial Bus) connection or wirelessly with a corporate Microsoft Exchange Server.

Interestingly, the Today screen also includes a web search box that connects to Google rather than Microsoft’s MSN search engine – a choice Microsoft says was left to the Palm developers.

The Windows Mobile- mandated square 240x240 pixel colour display, while sharp and bright, is perhaps the 700w’s weakest feature. It is about the same size as the screen on the Treo 650, but the resolution is significantly lower. Overall the display pales in comparison with the BlackBerry 8700.

On a more positive note, the Treo 700w comes with a built-in 1.3 megapixel digital camera that is much better than the rather basic one found on the earlier Treos.

Aside from a generous 62Mb (megabytes) of free storage for data, the Treo 700w features persistent storage, which means user data will survive a complete battery drain.

Overall, Palm and Microsoft have produced an interesting machine in the Treo 700w. The Palm team in particular have proven they can tweak Windows Mobile 5.0 enough to make it more telephone-friendly while retaining most of the features that made earlier Treo models popular.

While it is not without its flaws, the Treo 700w does provide a real alternative to the BlackBerry and other smartphone/communicators.

paul.taylor@ft.com

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