Windows Phone Thoughts: Palm's Treo 700w Reviewed: Part 1 (Intro, Background, Hardware)

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Monday, April 10, 2006

Palm's Treo 700w Reviewed: Part 1 (Intro, Background, Hardware)

Posted by Janak Parekh in "HARDWARE" @ 12:30 PM


Who is this review for?
One can approach the 700w from a number of perspectives: as a "PDA/Smartphone newbie", as a Palm Treo user looking to switch to the Windows Mobile platform, as a Windows Mobile Pocket PC user looking to acquire their first Phone Edition device, or as a Phone Edition user looking for an upgrade. I'm going to primarily focus on the latter two categories, as the last Palm I owned was the Qualcomm pdQ, the very first PalmOS-based Pocket PC phone running Palm 3.x on a 16MHz Dragonball -- and that comparison wouldn't be very fair. ;) Still, I hope users in the first two categories find this review useful as well. I don't focus on the WM5 OS here, but I will talk about various architectural aspects of WM5 when appropriate.

I'm also a strong believer in a "thorough" review -- that's why I've used the 700w as my only phone and Pocket PC for several months instead of doing an immediate review. Before the 700w, I've owned a gaggle of Windows Mobile devices, starting with the iPAQ 3650 in 2000, followed by the 3870, the T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone (the original HTC Space Needle, the very first US-released Pocket PC Phone on the market), the Samsung i700, Toshiba's e805, the Samsung i600 WM Smartphone, and the i-mate JasJar (HTC Universal). In other words, my experience on Windows Mobile is pretty extensive, and I've used or supported every version of Windows Mobile since before Pocket PC 2000 (I'd sold the Philips Nino 300 PSPC to a customer back in the late '90s... if you think ActiveSync is bad now, you should have seen Windows CE Services back then). This gives me some perspective and an opportunity to describe the 700w as an everyday device not just as an end-user but as a power user, and hopefully you'll find my various tidbits, positive and negative, useful should you actually end up owning this device yourself. I personally dislike the mainstream cursory reviews that hit upon a point or two and then just summarize, and I hope you find my detail-oriented approach useful, if hopefully not too long. Believe it or not, it's longer than Darius's E-TEN M600 review and my i700 review. 8O

And yes, you read that right: I was an i600 owner for some time. In fact, for about 8 months, a Smartphone was my daily driver. Pocket PC Thoughts readers might call that heresy, but in my defense, I was still carrying an e805 or the JasJar almost all the time as well. ;) In addition, my background in using the i600 gives me some insight into the Smartphone platform, which is particularly interesting in the Treo 700w's context as it is one of the first Pocket PC Phones, in my opinion, to approach the Smartphone's ease-of-use as a "phone".

By the way, I want to thank my colleague, Phil Gross, for donating his time and use of his Nikon D70 DSLR for the pictures of the devices in this review. Most of the pictures in this review link to a bigger version of the picture in case you want to see details close up. (Man, that is one sweet camera...)

Verizon and Windows Mobile: A Primer
Before we start with details on the 700w itself, I wanted to briefly discuss the underlying technology: CDMA and 1xEV-DO (EVDO for short). CDMA, or Code Division Multiple Access, is both a technology and a platform for mobile phones. As a technology, it's the undisputed global future: every network is moving to some variant of CDMA. As a platform, it refers more specifically to the Qualcomm-based implementation, and that's what the first release of the 700w uses. CDMA has numerous advantages over previous TDMA-based technologies -- in particular, better spectral efficiency and better data support.

Spectral efficiency refers to the amount of bandwidth any single call takes. CDMA requires less bandwidth than competing GSM/TDMA technologies, as it does not allocate a full timeslice for any given call, rather using a packet-like technology that allows far more calls to be multiplexed per tower. This packet-like technology also lends itself well to packet-based IP technology. In the US, two carriers use the Qualcomm CDMA platform: Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS. Verizon happens to be popular due to its excellent coverage in the US (especially for me in the Northeast), and recently they have aggressively started rolling out EVDO data services.

EVDO, if you didn't know already, is short for EVolution Data Optimized, and has significant deployment in North America, South America, and East Asia. It's one of the first "true 3G" wireless standards, as it is capable of handling several Mbps of transfer (although, practically, current deployments are slower; I discuss the 700w's practical performance later in this review). Even better, EVDO devices, including the 700w, seamlessly fall back to 1xRTT (1x for short) operation when an EVDO-enabled tower isn't present, even in the middle of a data connection. UMTS/HSDPA is a promising competitor to EVDO, but has limited deployment in the US, so I do not discuss it further here.

Additionally, Palm and Verizon have an exclusivity deal for the first few months of the Treo 700w; this is standard practice for Palm, who released their 650 only on Sprint in the US for a few months before releasing it to other GSM and CDMA carriers. The practical upshot? If you want a 700w now, be prepared to sign up for Verizon service... which isn't cheap. It's gotten better -- you can now get "combined" data-voice plans that reduce the cost of the data plan by about $10 from a standalone price, and Verizon will give you a $100 rebate on the phone if you sign up for a combined plan along with a two-year contract, but it's still an investment: the 700w is $499, so if you buy directly from Verizon, you'll be paying at least $399 for the device plus $79.99+/month if you want voice and unlimited data. Moreover, that data plan has some "strings" attached -- it is unlimited, but for handheld-only use, and tethering is against the TOS (Terms of Service). Verizon is rumored to be releasing a $15 add-on that would allow tethering to a desktop, and they have indeed released such an add-on for some of their phones, but notably not the Smartphone/PDA Phones in their lineup yet. :?


Figure 1: 4 of the last 5 Verizon Windows Mobile devices released, including the XV6700 Pocket PC phone, the Treo 700w, the Samsung i700 Pocket PC Phone, and the Samsung i600 Smartphone. The latter two are discontinued; Verizon continues to sell the Samsung i730, albeit with Windows Mobile 2003 at this time. As you can see, the 700w is one of the smaller devices.

(Finally, if you're curious, you may want to take a look at the beginning of my i700 review from about a year ago; it explains some of the concepts discussed here in greater detail, including a history of the major US carriers, and most of the discussion, excepting EVDO, remains current).

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