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Tuesday, August 28, 2007, 08:25 am PT (11:25 am ET)

iPhone Review Series: iPhone vs. Palm Treo 650

In this second installment of our iPhone Review Series, we compare the Apple iPhone to the Palm Treo 650 from the perspective of a former Treo 650 user, providing a look at how the two platforms compare, what the iPhone offers for current Treo users, and a few things it doesn't yet do.

Palm Treo vs. Apple iPhone

The Mac-friendly phone torch passes from Palm to Apple.

The Palm Treo has long been a popular smartphone for Mac users because of its bundled Palm Desktop for Mac sync support and its simple Mac-like interface. However, Palm has delivered very little in terms of hardware or software innovation for its Treo line over the last several years, and has recently moved to adopt Windows Mobile as a replacement to its own Palm OS for the Treo.

Palm's support for Mac users hasn't improved in years, and its new Windows Mobile Treos aren't supported at all. It should come as no surprise that Apple's own iPhone provides better support for Mac users than Palm's Treo. Here's a look at how the two platforms compare, what the iPhone offers for Treo users, and a few things it doesn't yet do.

A previous and more general review of the iPhone's features and limitations was presented in the article "Apple's iPhone: an initial (but in-depth) review."

Physical design and usability

The Palm Treo line is now five years old. It originated at Palm spinoff Handspring as the pairing of the original Visor PDA with a GSM phone module. Palm actually acquired Handspring specifically to move into the smartphone area with the Treo.

Palm's Treo remained attractive enough to maintain as much smartphone market share as all of Microsoft's Windows Mobile phone licensees combined, despite delivering very little progress in either hardware or software since 2004.

The Palm OS has remained stagnant, and its hardware features have only seen minimal bumps. Palm has also done nearly nothing to improve its HotSync software on the Mac. Apart from the Treo however, there are very few phones that make any effort at all to sync with the Mac. That left the Treo as the lessor of several evils for Mac users in search of a smartphone.

Frozen in time, the Treo seems to beg for a worthy competitor to simply bury it. Palm's decision to begin offering a Windows Mobile version of the Treo phone hardware seemed to concede defeat to Microsoft. However, Apple's new iPhone offers more of the features that attracted many users to the Palm Treo in the first place, making it a more likely heir to the Treo throne, particularly for Mac users.

The iPhone does lack the Palm's official software platform and certain other features that third parties can deliver even if Palm never ever releases another update; more on that later.

iPhone vs Palm Treo 650


Physically, the Treo hardware feels rugged enough to withstand a full lifetime of normal use. In two years, my Treo screen only has minor scratches that aren't even visible when the screen is on. The unit itself is worn but has survived several drops on concrete.

At the same time, the device itself feels creaky and cheap; it groans and flexes like a Dell laptop, as if built from plastic that was simply too thin. The unit itself is as thick as a full-sized laptop such as the Mac Book Pro. Its real size is disguised by rounded corners that make it fit comfortably in the hand but which don't make it any less bulky in the pocket.

The first day I saw the Treo 650, I was impressed with the quality of its camera and screen, satisfied with the familiar Palm OS, but somewhat disappointed with the rest of it. It's bulky, marginally integrated with desktop software, and generally felt stuck in the depressing post-dotcom rut that Palm never seemed to shake its way out of; the company has since layered into all of its products a burden of grief and despair that seems palpable. Palm simply exudes a desperation that reeks of death.

That morbid fog clouds the Palm experience for even the most optimistic of users. To get started, you push the red 'off' button. After more than a second of nothing happening, the screen lights up, but wait, it's not ready yet. The screen wakes and then locks, waiting for the user to push the center button to unlock it. If the two buttons aren't hit in sequence with enough of a pause before and after, the unit goes back to sleep.

That's the kind of poor experience that Windows users might tolerate, but which many Mac users would find infuriatingly inelegant and clumsy.

In contrast, the iPhone wakes with a press of either the top or front button, then invites the user to slide a lock across the screen with a finger swipe. This is quite impossible to do accidently, because the iPhone's screen only reacts to skin, and only reacts to a target that is finger sized.

The wake up sequence of each captures much of the overall difference between the Palm Treo and the iPhone: the former is a slow, quirky, and irritatingly frustrating, while the latter is elegantly thoughtful, responsive, and simply pleasant to use.

After replacing my Treo with the iPhone, I found myself double checking my pocket to make sure I had it with me. The iPhone has a similar weight, but consumes half the volume of the Treo. Its ultra thin design has an impressive and solid feel. The Treo is so bulky that it's an embarrassment to hold.

Both can be used with one hand, even to type out letters. The iPhone presents a much larger keyboard on the screen, and encourages the use of the pad of the thumb. The physical keys of the Treo are not only much smaller but also much closer together, forcing the user to type using the edge of a fingernail.

I assumed that the iPhone's touch screen would be harder to use, and simply be "better" only because it offered more screen real estate. I was wrong; its touch screen is far easier and more comfortable to type on than the tiny physical keys of the Treo. There is no numeric or special character mode invoked by typing modifier keys; the iPhone simply displays alternative keyboards with each of the characters you want to type.

With two hands, the typing experience on the Treo improves, but the iPhone's does as well. The Treo offers no corrections when typing, while the iPhone makes immediate error correction easy and natural.

While the Treo also has a touch screen, it reacts to everything, not just skin. That means it must be turned off before returning to a pocket, for fear that a brush might select and delete all the text on the screen. That can't happen on the iPhone.

At the same time, the Treo's screen does not react to finger touches as sensitively as the iPhone's. With the Treo, even trying to do basic number dialing via a finger on the touchscreen is unpleasant. It feels slow and inaccurate. The iPhone's screen also never requires the Palm's touch screen realignment; it just works.

Navigation through the Palm's main menu of applications also feels clumsy. I often subconsciously defaulted to using the physical buttons to launch apps rather than just tapping icons on the screen; it requires so much pressure to register a touch that it's simply clumsy to use the Palm's touchscreen for touch control. The iPhone rather dramatically gets rid of all physical buttons on the face of the device apart from the single home button, but the focus on the touchscreen is invisible because it actually works.

There is no little joystick to poke at and no menu buttons to press. Everything is controlled by touch. It isn't just buttons either; lists of contacts, CoverFlow albums, and photos react to a flick and stop with a touch. Scrolling, panning, and zooming respond intuitively and provide instant feedback that feels natural, not like an assembly of electronic hardware and computer software.

Neither the Palm nor the iPhone seems to favor the right or left hand, although the iPhone is ready to jump between a tall and horizontal aspect ratio whenever doing so makes more sense. The Treo can't really be held sideways at all, and makes no use of a landscape oriented display.

More information on the iPhone's input compared to the Palm and other smartphones was presented in the article "Using iPhone: Text and Data Entry vs T9, Graffiti, Thumb Keyboards."

On Page 2: Phone and Contact Management; and Internet, Maps, and Widgets.