Mobile device review: Palm Treo 500v

A new Vodafone smartphone offering, the Palm Treo 500v, has a new slimmer design than previous Treos, though it still has a built-in keyboard and offers 3G capabilities.

Initial comments
After being a Palm OS user for quite some years, it was very interesting for me to get the opportunity to test a model running Windows Mobile 6 Standard.

It's worthwhile to be noted from the beginning that this device is primarily targeted at a group of people who would use it as their first smartphone, after upgrading from a "dumb" phone.

The device I received for the review was 'Glacier White' and somehow my first thought when I opened the box was "iPod" because of the white color and rounded shape. It's not an iPod, but the 500v's multimedia capabilities will surely make it a valid alternative for people not requiring dozens of gigabytes of media in their hands at all times.

Various people around me commented this was really a cool-looking device. Some of the ladies even asked me where they could get one for themselves.

Design and construction
The 500v looks to be similar to the recently released Palm Centro but they are very different devices. The two were actually designed by different companies, which might explain some of the physical differences.

Comparing it to the 'older' Treo devices, the 500v surely feels nice since it's a lot thinner but also a bit wider. I can't really put my finger on it except for saying: "it holds better in my hand". Obviously this is a personal opinion which surely will vary from person to person.

On the top the device is a single push button. This gets used to power on/power off the device completely. It also is used to display a 'Quick List' which holds some of the more frequently used functions: toggle Bluetooth and cell phone reception, lock the device, and various sound settings (off, normal, vibrate, silent).

On the left side are the 'standard' Treo buttons for volume control and a side key. On this model the side key is configured to launch Internet Explorer. As far as I could see there is no standard way to remap this key to another function.

On the bottom there is socket for the 2.5 mm headset, a microphone, and a mini-USB connector for charging the device.

A nifty feature I can really appreciate for its ingenuity is the cut-out for a lanyard. For those who don't know already, this is a little cord or ribbon you can hang around your neck so the phone can be attached to it. Picture a bungee-jumper hanging upside-down and you should get the idea. The way this has been designed on most other phones I have seen you need to carefully guide the cord itself through a curved loophole, something a flexible cord does not really cooperate with. Not so on Treo 500v: you remove the battery cover, you hook the loop of the lanyard over the plastic pin and you close the battery cover to secure the setup. Simple as that.

To me this once again proves this device was designed keeping young people in mind, since those are typically the people walking around with a lanyard.

Performance
This smartphone is loaded with Windows Mobile 6 Standard Edition. Those familiar with the various versions of WM6 will realize this means there is no support for touchscreens.

It runs on a 400 MHz PXA270 processor (Marvel Bulverde). Though this detail is not available in the official specifications, I noticed it on the web site of Vodafone Germany and when asking Palm about this, they confirmed this was correct.

Personally I was expecting the combination of this processor with WM6 Standard to be a lot more snappy. Sometimes the device was really slow, as if it needed to decide if it would do the action I asked for or not. A soft reset always cleared this behavior, which makes me think this is related to the fact programs are not really closed in WM6. They are simply send to background, which inherently means resources are kept allocated up to the point where the OS sometimes needs to do some (slow) housekeeping to make some room available to handle new requests.

That said, I was really impressed by the way 5-way navigation is implemented on this device. There is not a single button or checkbox that can not be reached using the navigator. On the other hand, the absence of a touchscreen also means you can't always take a 'shortcut' by touching or dragging the screen.

On the 'smart' part of being a smartphone, I focused quite a bit on the Personal Information Management parts: calendar, To-Dos, address book, and memos).

My first surprise here was that there is no viable alternative for the memos I'm accustomed to from Palm OS devices, something I personally use quite a lot. The only alternative presented as such was Mobile Word but it's not ideal.

Also, there is no copy-paste function in WM6 Smartphone. I searched all over the web and the only thing I could find was confirmations from other WM6 Smartphone users complaining about the same thing.

As a phone the device performed as expected with some minor comments (see later).

Reception was very satisfying; I would say on par with Treo 680 which is already better then a lot of devices my colleagues walk around with.

Sound quality is very clear; I received feedback from callers there was really no problems understanding me.

The one remark I have to make here is that the lowest volume level when using headset or speakerphone is in some circumstances still far too loud. It simply can not be turned lower. Take into account I already have a hearing problem, so coming from me this counts for something.

Display
As I indicated earlier, the 500v's display is a non-touchscreen LCD.

It has a resolution of 320 by 240 pixels, which at the beginning was a bit strange to me after having used a square screen for so long. Due to weather circumstances I had little to no opportunity to test the visibility of the display in direct sunlight, but other than that there was absolutely no problem under various light conditions.

A minor remark to be made here: I was in a movie theatre and I wanted to know how far I could turn down the brightness without the device acting like a flashlight. At the lowest setting it was still illuminating my face, an issue I do not have with my Treo 680.

Keyboard
This Treo's keyboard got some good use from my texting. While the keys are spaced more narrowly then on 680 and related devices, it was not too hard to get the right key pressed. The predicting process included with the device was smart enough to pick up most of the words I already used in the past, regardless of language used. This also helped increasing text entry speed.

The backlight of the keyboard is really bright making it suitable for most occasions.

However, in all fairness, it was also again too bright when being in very dark environments without any standard way of turning this off or reducing the level (remember the earlier movie theatre experiment ?).

One oddity I noticed, especially worthwhile to mention for Palm OS Treo users, is that the ALT key works just a bit differently. In Palm OS you type a key, then Alt for alternative suggestions based on your initial keypress. With WM6 Standard you only press ALT to always get the full list, any prior keypresses will be recorded as such.

It took me almost 2 days before I realized this was happening as a reason why my password for Gmail was not accepted (it contains an underscore and out of habit I first typed a dash, then ALT).

Camera
The 500v has a camera that's rated at 2 megapixel, but takes quite good pictures with a resolution up to 1600 by 1200 pixels which results in 1.875 megapixels to be correct. The only thing to get acquainted to is that it takes 2 secs after pushing the button before the actual photo is taken. No kidding, this requires some getting used to.

Video is shot with a maximum resolution of 320 by 240 and is saved as an MP4 file. Other possible output formats are WMV and 3GP but then you need to accept a downgrade in resolution towards 176 by 144.

While the camera works satisfactory in outside conditions, indoor usage of direct lighting (halogen directional spots) can cause the photo to become completely distorted when the light is aimed at the target.

Expansion
The Treo 500v has a microSD slot which is hidden under the battery. This has the advantage that you will never lose your card, but it has the drawback you will have to remove the battery every time you would want to take out that same card.

If you want to access info on the memory card directly from your PC, be aware there are various third party solutions available to make the device act as an external USB drive for your computer.

Unfortunately I was unable to get a microSD card in time of this review, so I could not test any of the functions that would be enabled from having such a card (storing media files, applications, transferring info back and forth from card, ...).

I received confirmation from Palm the microSD card slot will support up to 4 GB, but no official feedback on SDHC compatibility.

Synchronization
Once you install ActiveSync on your PC, synchronizing your smartphone with Outlook is very much a "set-and-forget" process. Every time you connect the device to your desktop via the mini-USB cable ActiveSync kicks in gear, completely in the background. No fuzz.

I was even able to participate in a conference call using the phone, check my agenda for a free timeslot for the next meeting, and run ActiveSync, all in parallel. This is really where multitasking comes in handy, I have to admit that.

One major remark I have to make here is that the 500v comes with Microsoft Outlook, the desktop app you sync your PIM data with. Many other WM6 models make you somehow get this yourself.

Connectivity
This Treo only has two standard ways of connecting with the outside world: Bluetooth and cell radio. The latter option I was unable to test to its full since my subscription plan does not allow data connectivity. I did use some dial-up and sure, it worked as expected.

I was able to test most Internet-enabled applications using the Bluetooth connection and was quite pleased.

Internet Explorer worked fine, though the small screen required sometimes extensive scrolling. Google maps allowed me to zoom down to my house and backyard with surprising detail (Sidenote: comment from my son when toying with this program: "Hey mom, come and see this! Dad took a photo from our house from the sky ! How did you do that, dad ?").

For the rest there are some Vodafone specific programs on the device which are part of the "Vodafone Live!" program which I have not tested. I suggest to check with Vodafone within your country since content and details of this program might be different depending from where you live.

Not a business tool
As I indicated at the beginning of this article, the Treo 500v is, as far as I can determine, targeted at young people and first-time smartphone users. The absence of a native copy-paste function already prevents this device from being seriously used as data-entry / data-capture tool. Focus is given to communication with your friends in whatever way needed: text messages, voice calls, chat via Internet connectivity, email.

Being a long time Palm OS/Datebk6 user, a thing which has troubled me on more then one occasion was the lack of ability to copy an existing appointment and move the copy to a new timeslot. I know the standard Palm OS Calendar can't do this either, but then again it is already over 5 years old. From a modern up-to-date OS like WM6 I expected this, to me, basic functionality to be present by default.

The SMS/Text Message application works pretty well, but lacks a feature seen on most of the recent released Treo's: threading. It is a surprise to me this was not added by Palm.

The email application had some issues accessing my Gmail accounts in POP mode; it simply would not remove the retrieved messages from the server. Resetting the account settings and fiddling with all possible settings brought no resolution. The only way I could get this to work was switching to IMAP, then it worked fine. Knowing Gmail and its oddities, I am more inclined to believe the problem is originating there.

Creating a new document in Mobile Word is not done using New. No, you first need to open the template document, remove all the default content and then you can save-as. Hardly something you do to make a note of that little tidbit of info you encounter.

Last but not least, using the PIMs as a real business user (read: sometimes up to 10 times an hour looking something up) requires simply too much keypresses to be acceptable. With my very limited experience on WM devices, I dare to say this is where Palm OS truly shines. Possibly this is a lot better on other WM based devices, but I seem to recall this is a common recurring comment on various forums.

Battery life
Boasting a faster processor compared to most of the other Treo's, yet running a state-of-the-art OS results in a battery performance which as far as I could determine is more or less on par with the Treo 680. This means for my usage pattern I can get 2 days out of a single charge, but the last part I should have some means of recharging available, just in case.

A big hit on the battery is when you keep Bluetooth active while being in the vicinity of a computer with ActiveSync enabled via Bluetooth. This is a sure way to drain your battery within 4 hours. This is clearly mentioned in the various manuals so it should not come as a surprise to anyone.

There are some easy ways battery life can be improved, however:

  • reduce the level of backlight on the keyboard or at least make it adjustable
  • reduce the level of brightness for the screen or make it adjustable (this is an important one)
  • allow the user to switch the screen off by using a key combination. The way it works now you need to wait for the time-out to become effective before the screen shuts off. Especially when doing frequent look-ups on your Calendar or Contacts, this can add up at the end of the day.

What's in the box?

Hardware

  • Treo 500v smartphone
  • Rechargeable battery (1200 mAh)
  • AC charger with international adapters
  • USB sync cable with a mini-USB plug
  • Stereo headset, 2.5 mm plug

Documentation and Software

  • Quick Start Guide
  • Introducing Your Palm Treo 500v Smartphone
  • Windows Mobile Getting Started CD, which includes links to desktop synchronization software: ActiveSync for Windows XP, Windows Mobile Device Center for Windows Vista
  • Microsoft Office Outlook® software download
  • User Guide
  • Palm warranty
  • End User License Agreement

2 observations here:
1) the installation CD did not run on my laptop. It kept complaining about a requirement to have FlashPlayer 8 installed as a minimum although FP9 was already there. It did install fine on another desktop I have around (also having FP9 loaded so go figure). The only thing which you would really need from the CD is the ActiveSync part, that can be installed directly from Windows Explorer (right-click, Install). I read various posts across this place and others that my problem was not an isolated case. This is something which definitely should be fixed.

2) The stereo headset has a microphone which means it can be used for both listening to music as well as for calling without the need to switch gear when you need to go from one to the other situation. Good thinking of Palm to include this.

Conclusion
Being an avid Palm OS user, I was very pleased to have had the opportunity to review this device. Despite some of the comments I made earlier, this is a very nice device for real novice users; however, I have my personal doubts if existing PDA/Smartphone users are going to appreciate it that much, but then again I do not think they are in the target market area.

Just like the Palm Zire 22 provided an entry step for novice PDA users, this device lowers the possible barrier for getting a first smartphone based on Windows Mobile 6 Standard without having to bust your wallet.

Pros

  • 100% keyboard/D-pad operation
  • very bright screen
  • nice design (got feedback from some ladies on that aspect)
  • pricing: 0 GBP in UK with 18 month contract, 50 EUR in Germany with 2 year contract BUT 400 EUR when no contract which is MORE then what I paid for an unlocked 680!
  • Windows Media Player Mobile provides good output for audio files, haven't tested movies
  • lanyard option is very ingenious
  • ActiveSync works nicely with Outlook, also appreciate the auto-start feature when connecting the device
  • IExplorer Mobile works pretty cool, even on such a small screen.
  • Google Maps is awesome: looking up a location, zooming in and out, providing directions to get from A to B, etc.
  • Phone: very good sound quality, very intuitive to use. The provided headset is also quite good (acting as both phone headset AND stereo audio headset)
  • Non-volatile main memory; battery drained does not mean your info is lost.

Cons

  • no copy-paste in any text enabled field.
  • getting to Calendar, Contacts, Tasks, etc. is a multi-keypress adventure depending on where you start (either from Home, either from somewhere else at which point you first need to press Home). Especially when consulting this info frequently, this can become annoying.
  • WM6 Standard seems to be generally SLOW on this device after a while
  • no Memo application
  • difficulty creating new Word documents. You need to start from a template, remove all text, and Save-As new file.
  • Messaging: no threaded SMS view
  • speakerphone can not really be turned down: it is loud, louder or loudest.

Availability

At the time I received this device it was available from Vodafone UK, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Germany, and Italy.

It has also since launched in MobileOne Vodafone in Singapore, Celcom Vodafone in Malaysia, Vodafone Indonesia, Vodafone Australia and Vodafone NZ.

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