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

iPhone Review Series: iPhone vs. Palm Treo 650


Video iPod

The iPhone's slick integration with iPod features has nothing to fear from the Palm Treo. While the Treo can play back MP3s, it uses clumsy software and its hardware is limited by the mobile-type audio jack that forces users to settle for the poor selection of audio headphones designed to work with phones.

There's no integration with iTunes nor any at all for Palm's own equivalent. Apple's strength in music and video really boosts the iPhone beyond anything Palm could hope to offer. It's clear Palm simply doesn't see any need to offer anything beyond the most minimal audio and video playback features.

Video playback is limited to the mostly unwatchable, postage stamp video that the Treo can capture. The iPhone can't yet record video at all, which is a black eye of its own. Outside of that, the iPhone does allow users to watch YouTube videos, standard video or audio delivered in podcast feeds directly from the web, embedded web videos delivered in H.264 format, and anything synced from iTunes. That includes the user's own home movies, free content previously downloaded from podcasts or the web, and paid TV or movie content purchased through iTunes. It can even play full length DVDs ripped using a product like the free Handbrake.

The Treo is not only hobbled with nearly worthless playback software and lacking any decent media file sync tool, but its hardware is simply not designed to handle media. It has to use SD cards to store any media files, which limits data to what can fit on 2 GB cards and forces users to manually manage files on all those cards themselves.

That's simply an unworkably bad solution. Since Palm doesn't recognize media playback as something its customers are interested in, things are unlikely to get better before Palm goes out of business trying to convert itself into a Windows Mobile vendor. Microsoft's mobile platform similarly lacks the strong media features of the iPhone.

Bluetooth

I never regularly used a wired or wireless headset with the Palm Treo. In part, this was because the Treo, like most mobile phones, uses that non-standard "standard" mobile audio jack that doesn't work with other audio equipment. Because the iPhone has an iPod heritage, it uses a standard mini-jack audio plug.

However, the plug is deeply recessed to put less strain on the cable. That means that many common headphones using a right angle jack won't fit in the iPhone's port without a clumsy adapter. Fortunately, the pair Apple provides are serviceable both for listening to music and making calls.

With a built-in mic, the earbud headphones transform from a standard set of iPod headphones into a wired headset. The mic also incorporates a button to allow the listener to pause music or jump ahead to the next song, or to accept or reject an incoming call.

Users who don't like either wired headsets or earbud headphones can use any standard Bluetooth headset. Apple's own is small and stylish, but has only fair audio quality in ideal conditions. The iPhone does not yet support the standard Bluetooth profile for stereo audio transmission.

Since I haven't regularly used wireless headsets with either the Palm or the iPhone, I can't compare the experience in useful detail. Currently, Bluetooth stereo headphones use lots of battery power and provide unremarkable audio quality. The next generation of Bluetooth codecs promises to solve this issue, and it appears Apple is waiting to implement this.

The iPhone isn't just waiting on Bluetooth for stereo audio playback; apart from simple headsets and certain auto hands-free kits, the iPhone won't pair with anything, not even the desktop. This too will be changing with the release of Mac OS X Leopard and new software support on the iPhone, but it's not here yet.

In contrast, one can set up the Treo to perform its sync over Bluetooth. On the Mac, this is problematic mainly because Palm Desktop software is so bad. The real advantage of wider Bluetooth support on the Treo is negated by the fact that Bluetooth is extremely slow for syncing and that Palm's desktop sync software is so problematic that I couldn't ever get it to reliably work.

Battery Life

I rarely gave much thought to the battery life of the Palm Treo, and simply plugged it in nearly every day. Unlike earlier Palm PDAs which could run for weeks between a charge, the Treo works like most modern smartphones and requires a regular charge.

The demands of Bluetooth and WiFi contribute toward the insistence that modern smartphones get their daily power feeding. The iPhone is no different, although it does feature impressive battery life.

Its battery life-span appears to take a week to fully develop. Once it has regularly charged several times, its ability to sustain a charge seems to climb. How long it lasts depends a great deal upon use patterns.

While I tend to get similar battery life use out of the iPhone and the Treo, I rarely used the Treo to do anything, while I regularly use the iPhone to check mail, look up things on the web, and do map searches. That means I get as good of power use from the iPhone while actually using it to do more than just place calls.

In addition to all the extra data functions, I also use the iPhone as an iPod and to watch videos, making its battery life even more impressive. There are several steps that can be taken to improve the iPhone's battery life, including turning off its WiFi network searching, so it won't constantly try to locate networks for you. Turning off Bluetooth can also help, as the iPhone's support for Bluetooth isn't necessary or really functional unless you use a headset.

Cases

I never used a case for my Treo, choosing instead to maintain a tradition of keeping it in an exclusively reserved pocket never shared with change, keys or other potential enemies of its large screen. That has kept my Treo in quite good shape over the last couple years.

For the iPhone, I've maintained the same pattern. The big difference is that the Treo consumed twice the volume of my pocket, while the iPhone is nearly invisible. I even use the iPhone in the gym, commonly in my pocket. i haven't yet found the need for strapping it to my arm with a specialized band.

I can't imagine trying to use the old Treo as an iPod, or buying it a special case that might put its embarrassing heft on public display. This is apparently a popular option for the iPhone, as I see plenty of gym members, Embarcadero waterfront joggers, and Muni transit riders with iPhones strapped to their bodies as fashion dongles.

Wi-Fi

Service providers were wary of allowing hardware makers to add WiFi to the mobiles they carried, resulting in many of the first mobile phones offering only a crippled version of wireless that didn't do much.

On the iPhone, WiFi can't do everything imaginable; it can't be used in place of SMS to do Jabber or AIM-style chat, it can't be used in place of the phone to make free Skype-style VoIP phone calls. WiFi is largely limited to data services: email, web, and online media. It augments EDGE service to provide data access much faster than any mobile data service — including the much praised 3G — can offer.

The iPhone's use of WiFi makes it odd to see that very few other mobiles provide similar WiFi features. Only the highest end phones offer anything, and those that do don't really provide any practical applications for it.

The Treo doesn't offer WiFi apart from a WiFi SD card that only works on some of the latest models. Even with the $100 extra card, WiFi doesn't do much because nothing on the Treo is designed to make good use of it.

On Page 5: Camera, Needs Attention, and Conclusion.