We'd been hearing rumors about the Treo 800w for what seemed like ages. Between the clatter of "Zeppelin" talk, glimpses of a new model during Gates' last CES keynote, and the ever-persistent idea that a fresh new Palm phone is just around the corner, it wasn't exactly a mind-blowing surprise when the new model finally came to light (of course, Sprint selling it a day early didn't help either). Now we've had a chance to spend some quality time with the company's latest foray into the world of Windows Mobile, and we'd like to share our deepest thoughts and inner-most feelings on the device.
If you've been keeping a close on eye on Palm lately (and we know you have), the appearance of this phone should be less than shocking to you. Like its spiritual predecessors, the Centro and 500v, the 800w shares the same soft, rounded edges, basic key layout, and smallish, sunken screen. Like the aforementioned phones, a stripe of silver divides the device around the edges, while its hard keys are delineated by the similar, somewhat garish coloring on the front of the device. Unlike the Centro, the 800w is coated in a soft-touch finish, which feels comfortable and safe when it's in-hand.
Design-wise, everything is where it should be, but overall the look is clunky, dated and underwhelming in just about every way. With competitors like the Touch Diamond and the BlackJack III sniffing around this territory, Palm should be stepping up its game, not reverting back to safe harbors.
It's not all bad, however. One move in the right direction comes in the form of the screen, which has finally, mercifully been upped to a reasonable 320 x 320 resolution. The added pixels definitely help in the clarity department, and having a bit more real estate than previous models in this vein (the 750, for instance), is a welcome and necessary addition. Unfortunately, Palm has again buried the touchscreen deep in the face of the phone, making even casual finger use a pain, and forcing you to yank out the stylus any time you need to interact with the display. This is an annoying design flaw which the company is either unaware of, or simply doesn't care about.
Another plus for the 800w is the decision to utilize the traditional (and much loved) Palm keyboard, shying away from the mushy, diminutive version employed on the Centro. If there's one major selling point on the design front, it's the undeniable goodness of this keyboard -- it's a joy to use.
We'd wish we could say the same about the hard / soft keys, but that's not the case. The application buttons don't have the give or tactile response you really want when you're fishing around without looking, and the soft keys are a different kind of disaster altogether. Not only are they the identical color as the casing, but they're not illuminated or raised, which means finding them in even slightly low light (say, a bar) is a challenge. How this never came up in testing is beyond us -- two of the most used buttons also happen to be the two hardest to find.
Palm has decided to forgo its usual proprietary HotSync adapter for a MicroUSB port, which is a nice choice. There's a small slot on the side of the phone for a microSD / SDHC card (up to 8GB in capacity), and the always-welcome ringer switch still makes a showing.
This is the first Palm device with both WiFi and GPS, and they appear to do their job admirably. Admittedly, the delay when locating ourselves via GPS seemed slower than it should have, but that may be more of a software question. The company has thoughtfully included a WiFi "one touch" button, which allows you to connect to networks in a slightly less painful fashion than usual (we'll get to that in a minute).
The cell radio is EV-DO Rev. A, and we found the download speeds and site display times to be very favorable. You definitely can't knock the insides of this phone -- if you're a dedicated Windows Mobile user, you'll find most of what you're looking for in the guts here.
The camera is typical Palm fare, though they've bumped the resolution up to 2.0 megapixels, which should be sufficient for most casual needs. Both the earpiece and the speaker phone are loud, though the speaker isn't always clear, getting fairly distorted at high volumes.
We'd like to be able to say more about what the 800w does on the software side, but the company has done so little to tweak the all-too-familiar Windows Mobile interface that it barely stands apart from the myriad competition. Palm has included a dedicated WiFi button atop the phone to try and simplify WM's sometimes daunting network configuration options, though it really only gets you half way there. Besides a Today screen tweak which adds location-based search (for gas, food, etc.), the ability to map a contact's location from their entry in the phone, and the other minor Palm adjustments which accompany their WM devices (decline a call with a text message, for instance), this is business as usual.
The phone provides two options for GPS use: Maps and Sprint Navigation. Maps seems to take a more simplistic approach to the process, giving you direct access from the Today screen for listings, and providing a Google Maps-like view of the proceedings -- though we found its slow update times to be intolerable when trying to move around for a better view. On the other hand, Sprint Navigation provides a slicker interface as well as turn-by-turn, traditional GPS directions, though it had its fair share of problems. We found update times to be painful, and experienced a handful of crashes during loads or connecting to satellites. Once we got it working it was slick enough, although we don't see the tiny display taking the place of a dedicated satnav unit (as much as it would be a terrific convenience). It's clear they've gone to a lot of trouble to make this user-friendly and visually appealing, but it still felt sluggish and touchy to us.
Other software of note includes Sprint TV, which functions beautifully and seems well integrated with the device, Sprite Backup (a thoughtful addition), the OZ IM app (which strangely needs to be downloaded), and the rest of the Windows Mobile Professional standards like Mobile Office.
Besides the problems we had with Sprint Navigation and Maps, things on the software side should be more than sufficient for most users, and we found the general speed of opening, switching, and closing apps to be excellent.
We took the phone for a spin with average use in mind, and didn't run it through any serious battery tests, though we can safely say that you'll be reaching for your charger more often with the 800w than previous Palm Windows Mobile devices. We can only assume the slightly reduced battery capacity (1150 mAh versus the Treo 750's / 700wx's 1200 mAh battery) and the handful of new radios are the main cause of the problem. Business users and social butterflies will want to spring for an aftermarket battery with more juice, though most casual users should be okay with what Palm provides.
There's nothing essentially wrong with the Treo 800w -- it does all of its jobs reasonably well, and doesn't exhibit any red flags that would cause concern. On the other hand, it doesn't do a single thing really well, and that's a problem given the options which are available (or will be available soon) from competitors. At the end of the day, Palm has made a fiercely middle-of-the road device -- it's not attractive, its software isn't unique, and the phone does little to separate itself from the ever-growing pack. With the resources and user-base the company has, we keep expecting more -- hopefully someday soon Palm will meet those expectations.